“Judiciously Designed and Vigorously Executed”: The March to the Dan River

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.

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The Dan River (courtesy of Rob Orrison)

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Symposium Update

In today’s fifth installment of the September 28, 2019 symposium Before They Were Americans interview series, Katherine “Kate” Egner Gruber takes the spotlight. Gruber is the special exhibition curator for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. She earned her B.A. in historic preservation and classical humanities from the University of Mary Washington, and her M.A. in early American history from the College of William and Mary.

Employed by the Foundation as a curator since 2013, Kate Gruber has contributed to the development of the permanent galleries at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, including the award-winning signature film, Liberty Fever. As special exhibition curator, Gruber develops exhibitions for galleries at Yorktown and Jamestown Settlement, including “Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia,” open now through January 5, 2020 at Jamestown Settlement, and “Forgotten Soldier: African Americans in the Revolution,” open now through March 22, 2020 at Yorktown.  

Kate Gruber will be presenting her talk “A Tailor-Made Revolution: Clothing William Carlin’s Alexandria” at the September symposium.  

Headshot of Kate Gruber smiling into the camera

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Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban

Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban, Seigneur de Vauban, and finally Marquis de Vauban, as one of his biographies begins, is probably not a household name to many enthusiasts of American history. Especially since he died on March 30, 1707 and never set foot in the Western Hemisphere. However, he did have a nephew, Jacques Anne Joseph Le Prestre de Vauban who served as General Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau’s aide-de-camp during the war. So, there is a family connection.

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Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Yet, he left his mark on places like Yorktown, Virginia, fought 74 years after his death and half-a-world away. French engineers, critical to eventual American victory in the American Revolutionary War, plied de Vauban’s craft and studied his text and learned from his exploits. Continue reading

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“De Kalb has died, as he has lived, the unconquered friend of liberty”

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Johann de Kalb (Charles Willson Peale)

On this date in 1780, Johann von Robias, Baron de Kalb, died of wounds received three days earlier during the Battle of Camden, South Carolina.

de Kalb, born on June 19, 1721 in the Principality of Bayreuth, was in charge of the American right wing during the engagement at Camden, leading the premier units, the Delawareans and Marylanders, of General Horatio Gates’ Southern Army.

When the left and center of the American line disintegrated, de Kalb’s force had to beat a hasty retreat before becoming completely surrounded. During this juncture of the fighting, the Baron’s horse was shot out from under him and the German was thrown to the ground. Before he could gain his feet, he was hit with three musket balls and bayoneted multiple times by approaching British soldiers. The wounds would prove mortal. Continue reading

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“Gentlemen, what is best to be done?” Gates Moves Towards Camden and Makes a Fateful Decision

Picking up the story of Camden from Thursday morning, we continue with Col. Otho

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Gen. Gates believed his night march on August 15th would put his army in a great defensive position above Saunder’s Creek.

Holland Williams comments on the events on the evening of August 15th. As Gates’ army moved southward at night, a dangerous undertaking even with a professional army, notwithstanding an army mostly comprised of militia that had never fought as a cohesive unit. Williams documents the meals that the Americans ate that night before their march. When reading American accounts of Camden, most mention the impact on the evening August 15th meal had on the men and the army as a whole. Williams also mentions there is much criticisms of Gates’ plan, but no official opposition was brought to Gates. Reading Williams’ account gives us insight today into the events leading up to the disaster at Camden. When reading Williams’ narrative, it is not hard to believe that the Americans were marching to a defeat.

“Although there had been no dissenting voice in the council, the orders were no sooner promulgated than they became the subject of animadversion. Even those who had been dumb in council, said that there had been no consultation –that the orders were read to them, and all opinion seemed suppressed by the very positive and decisive terms in which they were expressed. Others could not imagine how it could be conceived, that an army, consisting of more than two -thirds militia, and which had never been once exercised in arms together, could form columns, and perform other manoeuvres in the night, and in the face of an enemy. But, of all the officers, Colonel Armand took the greatest exception. He seemed to think the positive orders respecting himself, implied a doubt of his courage –declared that cavalry had never before been put in the front of a line of battle in the dark–and that the disposition, as it respected his corps, proceeded from resentment in the general, on account of a previous altercation between them about horses, which the general had ordered to be taken from the officers of the army, to expedite the movement of the artillery though the wilderness. A great deal was said upon the occasion; but, the time was short, and the officers and soldiers, generally, not knowing, or believing any more than the general, that any considerable body of the enemy were to be met with out of Camden, acquiesced with their usual cheerfulness, and were ready to march at the hour appointed. As there were no spirits yet arrived in camp; and as, until lately, it was unusual for the troops to make a forced march, or prepare to meet an enemy without some extraordinary allowance, it was unluckily conceived that molasses, would, for once, be an acceptable substitute; accordingly the hospital stores were broached, and one gill of molasses per man, and a full ration of corn meal and meat, were issued to the army previous to their march, which commenced, according to orders, at about ten o’clock at night of the 15th. …. The troops of general Gates’ army, had frequently felt the bad consequences of eating bad provisions; but, at this time, a hasty meal of quick baked bread and fresh beef, with a desert of molasses, mixed with mush, or dumplings, operated so cathartically, as to disorder very many of the men, who were breaking the ranks all night, and were certainly much debilitated before the action commenced in the morning. …. “ Continue reading

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Symposium Update

Continuing with our forth installment for the September 28, 2019 symposium Before They Were Americans build-up, today Dr. Peter R. Henriques will be highlighted. Dr. Henriques will be the keynote speaker for the symposium. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia in 1971 and is Professor of History, Emeritus, from George Mason University. He taught American and Virginia history with a special emphasis on the Virginia Founding Fathers, especially George Washington.

His books include Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington, The Death of George Washington: He Died as He Lived, and a brief biography of George Washington written for the National Park Service.  Realistic Visionary was recommended by Professor Joe Ellis as one of the five best books to understand our first President. He is a frequent contributor to American History Magazine and a regular presenter at Colonial Williamsburg, where he has given more than 25 talks. His current book project is entitled, “First and Always: A New Portrait of George Washington.”

He presented the Distinguished Lecture Series at Colonial Williamsburg, 2011-12, and was the 2012 winner of the George Washington Memorial Award given by the George Washington Masonic Memorial Association.

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“troops will observe the profoundest silence upon the march…” Gen. Gates’ Orders on August 15, 1780

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General Horatio Gates

Two hundred and thirty nine years ago today from his camp at Rugeley’s Mill, SC, American General Horatio Gates issued the following orders to his Southern Army to move on to the British post of Camden, SC.

“The sick, the extra artillery stores, the heavy baggage, and such quartermaster’s stores, as are not immediately wanted, to march this evening, under a guard, to Waxaws. To this order the general requests the brigadier generals, to see that those under their command, pay the most exact and scrupulous obedience. Lieutenant Colonel Edmonds, with the remaining guns of the park, will take post and march with the Virginia brigade, under General Stevens; he will direct, as any deficiency happens in the artillery affixed to the other brigades, to supply it immediately; his military staff, and a proportion of his officers, with forty of his men, are to attend him and await his orders. The troops will be ready to march precisely at ten o’clock, in the following order, Continue reading

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