Evacuation of Wilmington, North Carolina
18 November 1781
When Colonel "Light Horse" Harry Lee told Rutherford’s army of the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown the camp erupted into celebration, firing their rifles in the air. At the moment that the Patriot militia was celebrating in their camp Rutherford learned that the British in Wilmington were evacuating the town.
Major Craig had held Wilmington until he was ordered by General Alexander Leslie to evacuate by sea to Charlestown. Rutherford stopped the celebrations and ordered his men to move across the Cape Fear River and march towards the town.
That night Rutherford’s army camped within four miles of town. There was no resistance, since the British were preparing to leave. Within Rutherford’s ranks were men who still wanted revenge for the destruction of their homes, and for the murders of their friends at the Rouse House.
After sunrise the British formed columns and marched down to the transport ships, leaving their horses behind. Suddenly there was "a cloud of dust arising on the hill" and the thunder of hooves could be heard approaching the town. "It was the Whig light horse, who came thundering down the street, and at full speed." One of the local Tories stood in the road, holding out his hand "as if to salute the troop." One of the cavalrymen, Thomas Tyer, "left the ranks, drew his hanger, rushed upon him, and with one blow by a vertical cut laid his head open, the divided parts falling on each other." Tyer’s father had been hanged by that Tory with a grapevine.
One column of the British had not made it to the boats when the cavalry "dashed thro this like lightning, hacking and hewing to the right and left, receiving in turn a scattering of fire from the broken column, which did but little mischief: slightly wounding two or three of the horsemen." The departing British ships fired upon the town, but the cavalry had already ridden away.
As the troopships were just leaving the Cape Fear Rutherford marched into the town with his men. One of Rutherford’s officers was shocked at the violence being directed at the Loyalists and he placed a dragoon at the door of each of the Tory families. This slowed down the anger, but did not stop it.
Rutherford’s men rounded up all of the men they could and put them in a pen made of rails "near the Episcopal church, where they were exhibited to the public gaze, and received the scoffing taunts of boys."
Rutherford had been captured at the Battle of Camden and had spent much of his time as a prisoner of war in Florida. Now he was on hand to witness the last British Regular leave North Carolina.