Peacock Bridge, North Carolina
6 May 1781
Lord Cornwallis marched to Wilmington to recover from the bloody battle at Guilford Courthouse. While there Major General Leslie’s health took a turn for the worse and he departed for New York. Brigadier General O’Hara recovered from his wounds and was restored to his command. Captains Dunglass and Maynard of the Guards contracted fevers and died. Cornwallis had to decide what to do and asked for the opinions of his officers. His options were to return to Charlestown and build up his forces or stay in Wilmington and possibly be surrounded by partisan forces.
Cornwallis did not agree with how Sir Henry Clinton was fighting the war. The British strategy had been to take as many cities and as much ground as possible to deny the Patriots any place to operate, while at the same time they never brought the Patriot army to a major battle to defeat them. The British did take cities and terrain, only to relinquish it back to the Americans after a few months. Cornwallis wrote to Clinton that it would have been better to give up New York City and move the entire British army into the field where they could then find Washington’s army and destroy it.
Cornwallis tried to do this “search and destroy” strategy in North Carolina against Greene, but in the end he did not have enough troops to succeed. After Guilford he knew that there were not enough troops in the entire Carolinas and Georgia to subdue Greene’s army. However he would have enough troops if he combined his army with that of Major General William Phillips on the banks of the James River in Virginia. Cornwallis decided to go directly against Clinton’s orders and combine the two armies, splitting the northern and Southern colonies.
To make the plan look even more desirable Virginia was a huge logistical base that had not really been touched by the war. The Chesapeake Bay was a huge harbor, and the whole of the State was virtually undefended except for some militia. There were some regulars under LaFayette and Wayne, but their combined Patriot armies would be less than Phillips’ forces. The details of the plans were sent to Phillips in a ciphered letter.
When Cornwallis decided to head north into Virginia he sent Tarleton to seize all the boats on the Cape Fear River. After achieving that objective Tarleton met him at a place fifteen miles above Wilmington. Captain Ingles of the Royal Navy also sent boats from his ships. The northeast Cape Fear River was crossed without incident. Two boats were mounted on carriages so that they could be used again for the numerous other rivers that would be crossed.
Initially Cornwallis was worried that his march to Virginia may not have been the best choice, but when he received word that Greene had been defeated at Hobkirk’s Hill, he no longer worried.
As Cornwallis marched north from Wilmington Tarleton advanced in front of the army with 180 dragoons and the light companies of the 82nd Regiment and the Royal North Carolina Regiment, all of which were mounted. Tarleton’s mission was to gather intelligence and force the mills along the way to grind grain for Cornwallis’s use.
Colonel James Gorham with four hundred Pitt County men attempted in vain to stop them. On the shores of Contentnea Creek (near Snow Hill, North Carolina) the militia tried to stand their ground, but scattered into the woods as Tarleton’s dragoons galloped across the bridge.