Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Daniel T. Davis.
Last month, I heard Emerging Revolutionary War co-founder Phill Greenwalt remark “when you think about retreats, victory is a word that doesn’t come to mind.” The period of January 18 to February 14, 1781 is the exception to the rule. During this time frame, the American army under Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene and the British under Charles, Lord Cornwallis, marched across the backcountry of the Carolinas. Known as the “Race to the Dan”, this episode between the engagements at Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse, is a largely forgotten but consequential even in the Southern Campaign of 1781.
On January 17, 1781, Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan’s “flying army” soundly defeated a British force led by Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton at the Cowpens. During the engagement, Morgan inflicted 75% casualties on the British, many of them taken prisoners. Much of the British Legion infantry, the 7th Regiment of Foot, the light companies from the 16th and 71st Regiments along with the 1st Battalion of the 71st Regiment were decimated by Morgan. Separated from the main force, Morgan set off to reunite with Greene, then camped on Hickston’s Creek, near the Pee Dee River.
When Cornwallis received Tarleton’s report, the British commander was mortified and immediately set out after Morgan. Cornwallis hoped to catch up with the “Old Wagoner”, liberate the Cowpens prisoners and reinvigorate a foundering campaign. Hoping to improve his mobility, Cornwallis ordered his supply train destroyed at Ramsour’s Mill on January 25.
Word of Morgan’s victory reached Greene six days after the battle. Even with the initiative on his side, Greene knew he could not risk an engagement against Cornwallis. Instead, Greene decided to engage in a campaign of attrition to wear down his opponent. He directed Gen. Isaac Huger to march to Salisbury, North Carolina while he set out overland with a dragoon escort to find Morgan. On January 31, Greene rendezvoused with Morgan at Beatty’s Ford on the Catawba River. The same day, the British appeared on the opposite bank.
With his army still divided, Greene decided to engage in a campaign of attrition to wear down Cornwallis until he was ready to give battle. He elected to march north and east, drawing the British after his smaller, faster force. Greene could rely not only on the countryside to feed his army, but the supply depots he had established throughout North Carolina. This would compel Cornwallis to subsist off land already picked over by the Americans. At the same time, Greene would be marching toward his main supply line Virginia while drawing Cornwallis farther and farther away from his at Wilmington.
The following day, Greene set Morgan in motion and left behind militia under William Lee Davidson to cover the fords. Davidson had his hands full as Cornwallis prepared to force his way over the Catawba. Cornwallis decided to send Lt. Col. James Webster with elements from the 23rd and 33rd Regiments of Foot to make a diversion at Beatty’s Ford while he pushed across at Cowan’s Ford. In the ensuing engagement, Davidson was mortally wounded but his men managed to hold up the British for an entire day.
On February 2, Cornwallis struck out from the Catawba after Greene. The same day, Greene evacuated his stores at Salisbury. At the same time, Greene directed Morgan and Huger to rendezvous at Guilford Courthouse while he remained behind to monitor the British. That evening, Cornwallis’s advance guard under Brig. Gen. Charles O’Hara reached the crossing.
Despite the near constant rain, the victors of Cowpens set an impressive pace. Marching 47 miles in 48 hours, the lead elements of Morgan’s flying army reached Guilford on February 6. Slowed by the rising river, Cornwallis had been forced to march north and cross the Yadkin at Shallow Ford. When the British moved way from Trading Ford, so too did Greene. Accompanied by Morgan, Greene reached Guilford Courthouse on February 7, and was joined by Huger the next day.
At Guilford Courthouse, Greene took stock of the situation. Hopes that his calls for militia to turn out were dashed as he surveyed the encampment. At the same time, Greene had an opportunity to inspect the terrain surrounding the courthouse. The heavy woods, ravines and swales could prove beneficial to a force on the defensive. Still, his men were no condition to take on Cornwallis in an open field battle. With Morgan, his most reliable subordinate, in poor health, Greene decided to continue his retreat across the Dan River into Virginia. There, his men could replenish their supplies and much needed rest.
As Morgan departed for his home in Winchester, Virginia, Greene decided to form a special unit to act as his regard. For this command he chose a seasoned officer from Maryland, Otho Holland Williams. Williams would have at his disposal the mounted militia, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s Partizan Legion, John E. Howard’s Marylanders who had distinguished themselves at Cowpens and riflemen from Virginia. His objective was to deceive Cornwallis by marching toward Dix’s Ferry on the Dan, while the main army headed toward Boyd’s and Irwin’s Ferry.
Greene and Williams left each other on February 10. It was not long before Cornwallis reached Greene’s old camp at Guilford. With his cavalry in poor shape due to Cowpens and the ensuing chase, Cornwallis failed to discern Greene’s trail. He headed after Williams’s lighter force. Meanwhile, Greene’s main army marched the final 40 miles to the Dan River in 21 hours. Greene crossed the Dan on February 13. After setting a pace an excruciating pace, Williams reached Irwin’s and Boyd’s Ferries on February 14. His tired but resilient men crossed throughout St. Valentine’s Day just hours ahead of O’Hara’s men.
Greene had won the race to the Dan and in turn had completely worn out Cornwallis’s army. His march even drew praise from Banastre Tarleton. “Every measure of the Americans, during the march from the Catawba to Virginia, was judiciously designed and vigorously executed.” Greene headed to Halifax Courthouse while Cornwallis moved to Hillsborough.
Eight days after crossing the Dan, Greene returned to North Carolina to hunt down the British in the hopes of fighting a decisive battle.