In the spring of 1778, General George Washington chose Major General Nathanael Greene to be the quartermaster general of the Continental army, replacing General Thomas Mifflin who had resigned the previous November. Greene was hesitant and wrote the quote that graces the title of this post. He was leery of giving up a field command to take a thankless job that faced a mountain of difficulties and was more administrative. From the start of his tenure in this important post, Greene brought about effective change. His never ending responsibilities included allocating resources, installing the right people into positions, and untangling contracts, transportation woes, and developing a concept, such as supply depots on potential campaign routes were vast improvements over what his predecessor accomplished.
Greene though yearned to return to an active field command and through his close connection to Washington along with his due diligence as quartermaster, he was assigned command in the southern theater. His assignment was to replace Major General Horatio Gates as the head of Continental forces after the latter’s defeat at Camden, South Carolina in August 1780. Greene’s role in this position is well-documented and outside the scope of this post. One of the decisions he made, early on in his tenure as commander, paid huge dividends and is usually relegated to a passing few lines in most histories of the southern campaigns. What Greene wrote years earlier about “quartermaster in history” the quote that gives this piece its title, holds true in this instance as well.
On December 4, 1780, Greene wrote to Edward Carrington, then on assignment scouting the rivers and topography through North Carolina and southern Virginia, offering him a new assignment; that of quartermaster general for the southern army. After finishing his surveying of the rivers and water transportation, Carrington was ordered to head toward Greene’s forces, bringing supplies that had been gathered with him as well.
This decision, to place an officer of the caliber of Edward Carrington, in that position was a wise move. One that passes largely unheralded. A decision, though, that ultimately leads to success and eventual victory. In this case the momentous “Race to the Dan” that saved Continental forces, fatigued Lord Charles Cornwallis’ British forces, and played an early role in the latter’s move toward Virginia.
Carrington, a Virginian, was born on February 11, 1748 in Goochland County, Virginia, the eighth of eleven children. He studied law, ran a law practice, while also owning a large plantation in the southern Virginia. He was an early member of the patriot movement, joining Goochland County’s Revolutionary Committee in 1775. His first service for the cause of American independence was in the artillery branch and was a lieutenant colonel when an artillery regiment was formed on November 26, 1776.
The campaigning season of 1777 saw Carrington’s artillerymen stationed in Virginia but the following year the Virginian was noted for distinction at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778 after a grueling two-hour duel with British counterparts. He later served on a prisoner exchange committee but when his artillery regiment was assigned to the southern theater in April 1780, the unexpected return of a higher ranking officer placed Carrington in a superfluous position. Gates quickly tabbed him for another role, including looking for the best supply routes across southern Virginia and over and through the various rivers that bisected that state and also parts of North Carolina. Carrington was in that position when Greene superseded Gates as commander.
Besides locating and transporting supplies to the Continental and militia forces that accompanied Greene’s movements in the Carolinas, Carrington also continued to oversee cartography and tracking of waterways in the rear of the patriot forces. This included becoming intimately aware of the Dan River that coursed through southern Virginia.
The Virginian located the necessary water transportation, flat-bottomed boats, and hid them from prying eyes. When Greene’s forces were harried toward Guilford Courthouse, Carrington rendezvoused with his commander. He informed the major general from Rhode Island that everything was ready for a quick passage over the Dan River, which at that junction of time was running high over the lower fords. This news, in a council of war, helped decide the retrograde movement of Greene’s forces, concluding the final leg of the “Race to the Dan.” He also informed Greene that supplies at Hillsboro, North Carolina, could be moved in time to supply the army in its present location, allowing for them to start the rearward movement with as full bellies and loaded cartridge boxes as possible.
Carrington, though, is largely overshadowed for his many contributions during this pivotal moment in the American Revolution. His assiduous duty in locating supplies, either scouting or delegating subordinates to trace rivers, fords, and passages, along with providing a sound military mind in the council of war with Greene on February 9, 1780 at Guilford Courthouse were much needed.
When safely across the Dan River, Greene quickly fired off a missive to George Washington informing him of the current movement. Virginia. In that same letter he mentioned Carrington as well. “Our Army are in good Spirits notwithstanding their suffering and excessive fatigue.” The “their” was Carrington and Otho Holland Williams who had led the rearguard in screening Greene’s army during the final stages of the movement to the Dan.
A Greene biographer, his great-grandson, George Washington Greene, wrote, “earnest the commendations of Carrington, who had done staff duty and field duty through those anxious days, and done both so well.” A historian in the 20th century wrote about Carrington’s forward strategic thinking, “this advance planning enabled Carrington to propose a course of action that probably saved the Southern army.”
As that same historian wrote and the most recent author, the first to capture the “Race to the Dan” as the primary focus of a book-length study agreed, the best way to remember Carrington’s service can be summed up as follows.
“…perhaps his [Carrington] epitaph should be the words of Greene: ‘No body ever heard of a quarter Master, in History.”