Rockfish Creek: Witness to History

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Rockfish Creek today. General Hoke's troops were behind breastworks to the right, facing enemy skirmishers on the left bank. 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 anApril 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 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---to be repeated in 1865 as a Northern enemy devastated North Carolina again. 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, the general who led American forces against an enemy that occupied Wilmington 85 years earlier. A further irony was the Northern army in 1865 was marching in the footsteps of Cornwallis's invaders of 1781, both battling North Carolina patriots who were defending their homes and seeking political independence. The Raleigh Weekly Conservative praised Hoke's actions stating that: "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 Haynes 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 Hector M. McKethan of Fayetteville, as Clingman was recovering from wounds), under Colonel William Stewart Devane of Sampson County, which fought stubbornly as Hoke's division to make its way northward, finally stopping to camp after sending patrols to monitor any dangerous enemy movments. It is noteworthy that the 61st North Carolina mustered many Cape Fear patriots on its roster, 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 another 12 miles for the safety of Rockfish Creek's opposite shore. Here they rested in camp for the next ten days near Duplin Crossroads (present day Wallace) while daily patrols kept watch on the enemy forces to their rear, and 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 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 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

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