The occupation of coastal Wilmington, North Carolina in January 1781 by the 82nd Infantry Regiment provides the historical background for Deadly Occupation, my mystery released 12 October 2015. Commanding the regiment was Major James Henry Craig, a 33-year-old combat veteran. The 82nd had been sent to Wilmington to establish a supply depot in Cross Creek, now Fayetteville, North Carolina. The supplies were to support General Cornwallis’s strategy to subdue the rebel insurrection in the North Carolina backcountry.
As it turned out, the supply depot was too dangerous to build, so the idea was abandoned. In April, Cornwallis ordered Craig to evacuate Wilmington. Then he and his army marched from North Carolina to Virginia and didn’t return. However the regiment remained in Wilmington through the summer and into the fall of 1781. All during that time, Craig danced around Cornwallis’s order while obtaining support to continue occupying Wilmington from another superior officer, Lt. Colonel Balfour, in South Carolina.
Craig’s actions bordered on insubordination. No supply depot to build, no army to support. Why did he linger in Wilmington with the 82nd Regiment?
Crown forces had often disappointed loyalists in North America by not remaining in one area for very long. The pattern was generally the same. The commander of a newly arrived regiment would invite locals to declare their loyalty to King George. Not long after civilians had revealed their support, the regiment would march away, leaving the civilians vulnerable for having declared their allegiance to the King. Many were then persecuted by neighbors who had no love for Britain’s monarch.
In February 1781, Cornwallis had marched his army into Hillsborough, North Carolina and invited loyalists to out themselves. He had few takers. (Loyalists had learned by then to stay quiet.) Disgruntled by an apparent lack of support, Cornwallis declared that there weren’t many supporters of the King in North Carolina. In a few days, he marched his army from Hillsborough, justifying the loyalists’ desire to stay quiet.
In contrast, Craig knew that there were plenty of loyalists in North Carolina, and they were eager to put an end to the “patriot” insurrection. After his original mission with the supply depot was cancelled, Craig redesigned the mission for the 82nd. He kept the regiment in Wilmington, and he called the loyalists to him. They came by the hundreds, and the garrison became a rallying point for them. Craig, who hadn’t been able to get more soldiers transferred into his regiment, found himself with an abundance of civilian manpower to shore up his few hundred regulars.
The fact that the regiment stayed in one place and earned the trust of loyalists made a huge difference in the way the war played out in North Carolina in 1781. For most of the year, the combined force of British regulars and their civilian allies was strong enough to halt movement of the Continental Army’s troops and supplies through North Carolina. Cornwallis didn’t get it; he kept ordering Craig to evacuate. However Balfour appreciated Craig’s fluid and creative thinking.
In October 1781, in Yorktown, Virginia, Cornwallis surrendered his army to the Continentals and the French. That made continued occupation of Wilmington a pointless endeavor for the 82nd, in addition to being excessively dangerous. The regiment evacuated in November, taking with it those loyalists who wanted to go. And on the final day of the year, in South Carolina, James Henry Craig was awarded the rank of Lt. Colonel.
Suzanne Adair, November 16, 2015