Mission Statement:

"To advance through research, education and symposia, an increased public awareness of the Cape Fear region's unique history."

Rockfish Creek:

Witness to History

Cape Fear Historical Institute Papers

 

Rockfish Creek today. General Hoke's troops were behind breastworks to the right, and Col. Thomas Lipcomb's cavalry

on the left and acting as a sreeen between the

North Carolinians and enemy skirmishers.

A mile to the rear of Hoke's defenses was Duplin Roads,

now the town of Wallace.

 

Rockfish Creek: Witness to History

The Lower Cape Fear, as its name implies, is that region which lies

near or adjacent to the lower reaches of the Cape Fear River and

its tributaries. One of the important Northwest Cape Fear branch tributaries is Rockfish Creek, which became the boundary between

New Hanover precinct and Duplin precinct, the latter established

on March 17, 1750 and named for George Henry Hay,

Lord Duplin. This boundary ran from the mouth of

Rockfish Creek eastward to the Oslow line and westward

to the upper forks of the Black River.

 

Abandoned railroad trestle support on north bank of

Rockfish Creek where General Hoke's defensive position

was located in February-March 1865.

 

Colonial Uprising:

By January 1776 armed colonial conflicts with British forces were finally

set in motion locally with Royal Governor Martin plans to subdue

"the impious and unnatural rebellion, and to restore the

just rights of His Majesty's Crown and Government, and the

liberties of his people."

On February 5, British Brigadier General Donald MacDonald isued

a call for a rendezvous of Loyalist forces near Rockfish Creek,

then a march in force to Brunswick County on the coast.

The response in the Lower Cape Fear was immediate, and the

First North Carolina Regiment under James Moore (part of the

Bladen Militia) took possession on February 15 of the bridge

over Rockfish Creek, seven miles below Cross Creek. 

Moore's entrenched troops were soon joined by Colonel

Alexander Lillington and his 150 Wilmington District Militia;

Colonel James Kenan's 200 Duplin County Militia, and

Colonel Ashe's 100 volunteers from New Hanover County.

In addition, Colonel Richard Caswell was on his way with

800 men from New Bern.

By February 21, MacDonald crossed to the east side of the

Cape Fear to avoid open battle, sink their boats to discourage

pursuit and march southward to Wilminton to effect a junction

with Governor Martin's forces.

The pursuit of MacDonald would last a few days, culminating in his

defeat at Moore's Creek Bridge on February 27.

Wilmington was under British occupation in March 1781 as

Charles Cornwallis led his weakened army from Guilford Court

House and headed for Cross Creek (now Fayetteville) where

he expected supplies to be awaiting him from Colonel Nesbit

Balfour, British commander at Wilmington. With Cornwallis

was North Carolina Royal governor Josiah Martin, who

assured him of the loyalty of his subjects in the colony and

that "he would only have to appear...with his red coat and

epaulets to cause the loyalists to rise in such masses that the

rebels would be swept from the scene..."  Few of his loyal

subjects were to be found, and Martin

soon returned to England.

Cornwallis rested his army at Wilmington, his headquartered

in the still-standing house at the corner of Third and Market

Streets. In an April 10th letter to Sir Henry Clinton, supreme

commander of British forces in North America, he "declared

that Virginia was far more suitable for offensive operations

than was North Carolina, where "numberless rivers and creeks"

made "interior navigation" virtually impossible."

In a letter to Major General William Phillips, he stated that

"By a war of conquest...to possess the country sufficiently

to overturn the Rebel government, and to establish a militia

and some kind of mixed authority of our own" would be

a ssuccessful strategy at this point.

Cornwallis and his army left Wilmington in mid-April for Virginia,

following the Old Duplin Road which roughly paralleled the

Northeast Cape Fear River, crossing Burgaw and Rockfish

Creeks to the Neuse River. The infamous Colonel Tarleton's

dragoons and mounted infantry accompanied Cornwallis on

the march, cutting a wide swath of destruction and

terrorizing the inhabitants -- something repeated in 1865.

.

The War Between the States:

After the fall of Forts Fisher and Anderson, only General

Robert F. Hoke's stubborn defensive line at Fork's Road

and defiant river batteries below Wilmington prevented

Northern gunboats from laying waste to the city. After the

fight at Town Creek which saw General Johnson Hagood

overwhelmed by a far more numerous enemy, Hoke fell

back into Wilmington at daylight on February 22, marching

throught the city amid burning military stores, then

commencing a fighting retreat as Northern troops

poured into Wilmington.

Ironically, Wilmington fell to the enemy on Washington's

Birthday, a general who led North Carolinians against an

enemy 85 years earlier; the enemy in 1865 was virtually

marching in the footsteps of Cornwallis's invaders of 1781.

The Raleigh Weekly Conservative praised Hoke's actions stating:

"The place was defended to the last and only evacuated when

the pressure of an overwhelming force of the

enemy rendered it necessary."

 

General Robert F. Hoke

of Lincolnton, North Carolina

 

Hoke's rearguard kept the enemy at bay while burning bridges

north of the city after his army had crossed, the last mile to

the river being "hotly contested" according to Drummer

Ludwig of the 8th North Carolina.

After the crossing, the North Carolinians deployed on

the north bank, erecting brestworks, while Hoke followed

the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad tracks for a crossing

of the Northeast Cape Fear River.

 

 

Ably covering the retreat was Battery A of the Third Battalion,

North Carolina Light Artillery under Lt. Alfred M. Darden.

This unit, known as the Northampton (county) Artillery, kept

a constant barrage upon the pursuing enemy as the North

Carolinians crossed the Northeast Cape Fear River at

Burgwyn's Hermitage Plantation, north of Wrightsboro on

Castle Hayne Road (Highway 117).  Battery B (Edenton

Bell Battery) covered the retreat of General Hebert in the

same manner. These batteries were now under the overall

command of Wilmingtonian (Colonel) John J. Hedrick, and

absorbed into his 40th Regiment NC Troops.

 

Colonel John J. Hedrick of Wilmington

 

Supporting the artillery was the 61st North Carolina Regiment

of General Thomas Clingman's Brigade (commanded by Colonel

William Stewart Devane of Sampson County, which fought

stubbornly as the division made its way northward. General Hoke's

went into camp after nightfall north of the Northeast Cape

Fear River, just above present-day Castle Hayne, and 

kept cavalry patrols out monitor any dangerous enemy

movments. Having no cavalry with them, the enemy was reluctant

to pursue Hoke and generally held its position at Northeast

Station on the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. This is the

approximate location of the later prisoner exchange.

On the 61st North Carolina's rolls were many Cape Fear men,

including its first commander James D. Radcliffe, Quartermaster

Oliver Pendleton Meares, and Captain John F. Moore,

all Wilmingtonians, and Lt. Colonel Edward Mallett

of Fayetteville. The roster listed various companies

from the surrounding region: Sampson Confederates,

Beaufort Plow Boys, and men from Greene, Craven,

Chatham, Lenoir, Pitt, Wilson, Martin,

Onslow and Jones counties.

Truly a "War Between the States," these North Carolinians

were fighting invading troops from New York, Pennsylvania,

Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Connecticut, New Hampshire,

Illinois, and Ohio.

 

General Thomas Clingman

of Huntsville, North Carolina

 

Early the following morning (February 23), Hoke's men fired

several deadly volleys into the nearby trees to their rear to

discourage pursuit as they marched to the safety of Rockfish

Creek's opposite shore. Here they erected breastworks

and rested in camp for the next ten days and received

needed supplies at nearby Duplin Crossroads (present day

Wallace). The enemy was kept at bay by Col. Thmas

Lipcomb's Second South Carolina Cavalry which ranged

from Rockfish to the enemy's lines at the Northeast

Cape Fear River crossing.

Here General Hoke made arrangements for the exchange

of the many Northern prisoners he had with him. Short of

rations and unable to feed these burdens on his command,

Hoke had communicated with the enemy on February 22

to take these men:

"in the name of humanity [and] to consent to their delivery...

[that] they have been subjected to great suffering and

considerable mortality by the delay."

Northern commanders were reluctant to receive their own

captured soldiers as Northern General Grant had broken

off prisoner exchanges, despite the humanitarian reasons

Southern commanders were motivated

by to reduce the suffering of their many Northern

captives. They could truly barely feed themselves.

 

Encampment (reenactors) of North Carolina Troops

 

Lt. Zacheus Ellis of Battery B, 1st Battalion NC Heavy Artillery

wrote his mother from the Rockfish encampment, stating that

"I turned my back on our town, to see it no more, 'till after the

war." He wrote that "For the last three of four days, our

authority and the Yanks have ben engaged changing prisoners,

I understand we are to deliver 10,000 here and the

Yanks, the same number in Richmond. I received the

eatables, & I can tell you, enjoyed them, as our

eating is rather poor."

Ellis was killed in action at Bentonville March 19th.

General Hoke's troops braced themselves under heavy rains

on the 25, 26 and 27 of February, and departed their

Rockfish Creek encampment on March 4th to march toward

Kinston to oppose the enemy's advance from New Bern.

Arriving at Kinston on March 5th, they won a decisive victory

at the battle of Jackson's Mill and drove the enemy from the

field, but on March 8th, Hoke's assault on the enemy

at Wyse's Fork (Southwest Creek) was without success.

General Hoke was ordered to Goldsboro on March 12th,

then to Smithfield, then to Bentonville on March 19th to

reinforce General Joe Johnston's command.

Hoke's Troops Depart Duplin Roads for Kinston By Rail

(Complied by Bernhard Thuersam)

Sources:

The Lower Cape Fear in Colonial Days, L. Lee, UNC Press, 1965

General Robert F. Hoke, D. Broadfoot, J. Blair, 1996

War of the Rebellion Official Records, SII Vol. VII, GPO, 1899

Civil War in NC, Barrett, UNC Press, 1963

North Carolina in the Revolutionary War, Phillips Russell, 1965

Harnett, Hooper & Howe, Watson, Lawson, Lennon, 1979

North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865, W. Jordan, Jr., 1998

Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, Morrill, 1993