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A Brief Description of the Battle of Halifax


Frank McMahon

Following the battle of Guilford Courthouse, British forces under the command of Lieutenant General Cornwallis, including a small detachment of 12 soldiers from the HM 7th of Foot, would march to Wilmington, North Carolina to resupply. Reaching Wilmington on April 7th 1781, the army would receive new shoes and have about two weeks to rest and repair. It was at this time that Cornwallis made the decision to abandon operations in North Carolina and join with General Phillips and Arnold’s forces in Virginia. Cornwallis knew that his army would meet resistance from patriot militia and dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and his British Legion to secure river crossings and serve as scouts on the expedition. By 1781, the British Legion served primarily in a light cavalry capacity known as “dragoons”. Also, under Tarleton’s command was a light infantry company from the HM 82nd Regiment of Foot and a Loyalist militia regiment known as the Royal North Carolinians these regiments were provided with horses but were not trained or equipped to fight from horseback and likely dismounted and fought on foot during battles. The Royal North Carolinians were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Hamilton a Loyalist and former resident of Halifax.

On May 7th of 1781, Tarleton and his men left the Tar River and set out on a rapid march north. Their mission was to take the rebel-controlled town of Halifax and secure the Roanoke River crossing. Tarleton’s force would exchange fire with Halifax District Militia at several creek crossings along the way. Tarleton would later describe the events of the day in his Memoir, “A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America”.

“In the beginning of May, Lieutenant colonel Tarleton, with one hundred and eighty dragoons, and the light companies of the 82d and of Hamilton's North-Carolina regiment, both mounted on horses, advanced in front of the army, crossed the Nahunta and Cockney creeks, and Soon reached the Tarr river. On his route he ordered the inhabitants to collect great quantities of provisions for the King's troops, whose numbers he magnified in order to awe the militia, and secure a retreat for his detachment, in case the Roanoke could not be passed. When Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton had proceeded over the Tarr, he received instructions, if the country beyond that river could afford a tolerable supply of flour and meal for the army, to make every possible effort to procure information of General Phillips: Upon finding the districts more fruitful as he advanced, he determined, by a rapid march, to make an attempt upon Halifax, where the militia were assembling, and by that measure open a passage across the Roanoke, for some of the emissaries, who had been dispatched into Virginia, to return to the King's troops in North Carolina. On this move the Americans at Swift creek, and afterwards at Fishing creek, attempted to stop the progress of the advanced guard; but their efforts were baffled, and they were dispersed with some loss.

The British took the shortest road to Halifax, to prevent the militia receiving reinforcements, and recovering from the consternation probably diffused throughout that place by the fugitives from the creeks. The event answered the expectation: The Americans were charged and defeated in detached parties, in the environs and in the town, before they had settled any regular plan of operation: The ground about half a mile in front of Halifax afforded a strong position, of which they did not avail themselves; but they were surprised whilst assembling on the wrong side of the bridge over a deep ravine, and were routed with confusion and loss: The only useful expedient which they had adopted was the securing a number of the boats belonging to the inhabitants of the place on the other side of the river, where a party began to entrench themselves, and from whence they fired upon the British when they approached the bank: This circumstance, however, could only be a temporary inconvenience to the King's troops, because the Americans would be obliged to abandon that post on the arrival of the cannon, the eminence on the fide of Halifax so perfectly commanded the opposite shore.

The damage sustained by the light troops in taking possession of Halifax amounted only to three men wounded, and a few horses killed and wounded. Some stores of continental clothing and other supplies were found in the place. Without loss of time, guards were placed on all the avenues to the post, and spies were dispatched over the river above and below the town, to gain intelligence of General Phillips. These precautions and precautions and necessary proceedings were speedily completed, owing to the assistance of Lieutenant-colonel Hamilton, who had formerly been connected with that quarter of North Carolina, and was a volunteer on this expedition.”

Tarleton described “confusion and loss” amongst the members of the Halifax District Militia. Yet, it is unclear how many members of the militia were killed and wounded that day. Of Tarleton’s own men, three were wounded. Several horses were killed and wounded as well. The Halifax District Militia would escape across the Roanoke River. To slow the British advance, the militia moved many of the boats in town across the river or destroyed them. The Halifax District Militia would take a defensive position in earth works on the north side of the Roanoke River. The site of the Halifax earth work had had previously been surveyed by Polish born Continental Army engineer, Tadeusz Kosciuszko. The Halifax District Militia dug in on the north shore of the Roanoke were able to prevent a river crossing by firing upon the British when they approached the bank. Eventually, the British were able to position artillery on the Halifax side of the river and bombard the earthworks and forcing the Halifax District Militia to retreat. Cornwallis and the remainder of his army would join Tarleton in Halifax and remain there almost a week before continuing north to join with General Benedict Arnold’s forces in Virginia.

Learn more about Historic Halifax State Historic Site at


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