Review: To The End of the World, Nathaniel Greene, Charles Cornwallis, and the Race to the Dan by Andrew Waters

Writing over thirty years after the fact, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee summed up the events of February 14, 1780 with the line, “Thus ended, on the night of the 14th of February, this long, arduous, and eventful retreat” (190). Upon hearing of General Nathanael Greene’s exploits in this movement, General George Washington wrote, “You may be assured that your Retreat before Lord Cornwallis is highly applauded by all Ranks and reflects much honor on your military Abilities.” (198).

What Lee would remember as “eventful” and Washington and fellow military ranks “highly applauded” is remembered today as the “Race to the Dan.” This retrograde movement, undertaken by Greene’s forces from South Carolina to the Dan River in southern Virginia, is sandwiched between the engagements at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781 and the British pyrrhic victory at Guilford Court House in March 1781. Yet, this retreat may be on the turning points in the southern theater that led the British, under Lord Charles Cornwallis to his eventual demise at Yorktown in October 1781.

Great historians, such as John Buchanan is his monumental work The Road to Guilford Court House have covered with broad strokes this period of time but a dedicated study was much needed in the historiography of the American Revolution. Insert Andrew Waters, writer, editor, and conservationist, whose name may be familiar from previous works such as The Quaker and the Gamecock: Nathanael Greene, Thomas Sumter, and the War for the Soul of the South. His latest book, To The End of the World, Nathanael Greene, Charles Cornwallis, and the Race to the Dan, captures this important military movement while providing an expose on the leadership of Greene woven in. The title of the book is pulled from a quote by Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, Cornwallis’s second-in-command during this campaign. With a background in land conservation with a focus on river corridors and watersheds, Waters found a connection with Greene, who studied the various waterways—or ordered subordinates—to study the various rivers, to better understand the topography for military campaigns.

After a stint in Salisbury, North Carolina, Waters became fascinated with the Race to the Dan story and decided to plunge in to understanding this period of the American Revolution. He found that “the Race to the Dan is a remarkable tale, fit for cinema or an epic novel, and not only for its accounts of four narrow escapes across its four rivers” (xv). He was drawn “to its story” (xx) and any reader of the book is the beneficiary of that discovery.

Along with weaving in the innate leadership qualities of Greene, Waters brings to light the importance of military leaders not as well-known such as William Lee Davidson, William R. Davie, and Edward Carrington with more household names of Lee, Daniel Morgan, and Otho Holland Williams. Throw in the names of Cornwallis, O’Hara, and Banastre Tarleton, and the pantheon of American Revolutionary personas is complete.

In this approximate month-long retreat, Greene saved the American Revolution in the southern theater and set in motion the events that led to the climactic victory at Yorktown. Waters, with his 2020 publication, has now helped save the story of the Race to the Dan from its unintended lapse into obscurity.

Information:

Published: 2020 (Westholme Publishing)

264 pages, including index, footnotes, images, and maps

“Rev War Round Table with ERW” Talks Turning Points

On Sunday, May 17th sy 7 p.m. EST, join Emerging Revolutionary War on our Facebook page for the next “Rev War Revelry” happy hour round-robin historian discussion.

This week’s theme is “Turning Points” a broad term that will most certainly conjure up an interesting conversation.

Word around the ol’ pub about potential topics that will be discussed include Valley Forge, Ten Crucial Days, Guilford Court House. Maybe a mention even of one of the more obvious, Saratoga?

But, you know how gossip goes! So, tune in on Sunday and bring your favorite drink, give the ERW historians a toast and a “Huzzah.”

We look forward to your comments, counterpoints, and conversation.

“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)

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

Rise and Fight Again for Southern Revolutionary History

From our friends at American Battlefield Trust (ABT). To learn more about the ABT, click here.

ABT

At stake are 31 acres associated with two Southern Campaign Revolutionary War battlefields, Hanging Rock in South Carolina and Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina.

At Hanging Rock, generous battlefield preservationists like you have already secured 141 acres. These 30 acres in the part of the battlefield where the initial Patriot attack began will add significantly to the land we have saved there already.

At Guilford Courthouse, the half-acre tract at stake may be small, but it’s part of a larger strategy to deal with the modern development crowding in on this battlefield from all points of the compass. Our plan is to buy up plots of battlefield land – including small ones and those with non-historic structures on them like this one – remove all non-historic structures and restore the battlefield. The Guilford Courthouse National Military Park has generously agreed to take responsibility for demolishing and removing the house on this plot, a considerable cost that we would typically need to cover. Continue reading “Rise and Fight Again for Southern Revolutionary History”

1st Maryland’s 2nd Last Stand

I was recently reading the superb book by Patrick O’Donnell on Washington’s Immortals, which brought me back to a talk I did about the same Marylanders in the American Revolution a few years back. Below is an excerpt of that talk and highlights the second last stand for a regiment with a tradition of being steadfast when deadly duty called.

On March 15, 1781, approximately 20 men stood in the 1st Maryland Continental Regiment staring at the an eerie and familiar scene. It must have seemed that history was cruelly repeating itself once again. These men had survived the forlorn assault in New York in 1776, the ugly repulse at Camden in 1780, and now stood on third line of General Nathanael Greene’s defense at Guilford Court House.

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Famous painting of the 1st Maryland at the Battle of Guilford Court House by H. CHarles McBarron, Jr. 

Besides the 20 men who could be traced back to that fateful day in New York, the men that shouldered muskets in line with them were all veterans of indefinite periods of service as well.

The 1st Maryland and the men they confronted, 2nd Guards Battalion of Guards, were very similar, according to historian Lawrence Babits, who states that “the 1st Maryland was arguably one of the finest regiments produced by the Continental Army.

What ensued next was the defining moment of the battle and in essence the campaign. As the Guards officers gathered their men into a new line, the Marylanders came on at a rush. The Guards responded largely without specific commands…facing the oncoming Continentals, who fired several platoon volleys as they came. At a range of less than 12 yards, both lines fired again, so close that muzzle flashes overlapped into a wide sheet of flame and the heat from the volley could be felt.

Casualties mounted and at close range the musket balls shattered bone and even passed through the bodies of their targets.

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Modern view from the location of Greene’s Third Line which the 1st Maryland held. Coming up the slight rise toward the photo was how the British approached. 

The two sides then resorted to the bayonet and Williams recounted “the first Regiment embraced the opportunity…bayoneted and cut to pieces a great number of the British.”

Although the melee only lasted a few minutes, the Marylanders had checked the advance and with the dragoons of William Washington, allowed for Greene to begin to pull back and start the retreat. In another important position, Williams helped lead the rear-guard away from Guilford C.H. The Marylanders lost 15 killed, 42 wounded and 97 missing. Most of the missing could have came from the 2nd Maryland which broke in disorder on the left flank of the 1st Maryland.

Not only did the Marylanders suffer on that fateful March day in 1781, they did so with a lack of, well, everything. According to one inventory report, the entire regiment, numbering little over 300 men had not a single jacket, two-thirds were without proper footwear, and every man was destitute of a full complement of clothing. In addition, the men had served, fought courageously, and bled tremendously, without receiving one cent as pay.

A remarkable “band of brothers” that “held the line for independence.”

Which, in case you were wondering, was the name of the talk.

 

*Guilford Court House National Military Park is now preserved by the National Park Service, to plan your visit, click here.

*For information on Mr. O’Donnell’s book, click here.

Defense in Depth as a Revolutionary War Battlefield Tactic

Part 4
(click here for first three parts)

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General Daniel Morgan,

As we have seen, two untrained, amateur, but very effective soldiers perfected the concept of the defense in depth during the campaigns of 1781. Morgan was the first to experiment with the concept, and he did so with great effect at Cowpens, thoroughly defeating Tarleton’s Legion and sending “Bloody Ban” flying in a wild panic. Greene then adopted the tactic and applied it on a much larger scale at Guilford Courthouse. Even though he lost the battle, he scored a major strategic victory by punishing Cornwallis’ army and inflicting enormous losses on it for little gain—Greene’s army escaped to fight another day. His stand at Guilford Courthouse set the stage f Continue reading “Defense in Depth as a Revolutionary War Battlefield Tactic”

Defense in Depth as a Revolutionary War Battlefield Tactic

Part Three (click here for first two installments)

Determined to avenge his embarrassing defeat at Cowpens, Lt. Gen. Charles Lord Cornwallis set his army out in a determined pursuit of the American army. Knowing that he was too weak to face Cornwallis in a pitched battle, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, the Southern Department commander, retreated northeastward from Salisbury, North Carolina toward the Virginia state line, where he hoped that additional militia troops would reinforce his army and he would receive supplies. The British chased Greene to the Dan River, near the Virginia border, but Greene wisely put the river between his army and the enemy. Cornwallis and his weary soldiers arrived at the rain-swollen river on February 15, too late to catch Greene’s army, which had finished crossing earlier that day. Frustrated, Cornwallis withdrew to Hillsborough, North Carolina.

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Lord Charles Cornwallis

After receiving both the expected supplies and reinforcements, and after an opportunity to rest his command, Greene soon marched back into North Carolina to face Cornwallis’ tired and poorly supplied army, which now numbered less than 2000 men. After several weeks of skirmishing with Loyalist militiamen and a great deal of maneuvering Greene assumed a defensive position around Guildford Courthouse (near modern Greensboro, North Carolina) on March 14, 1781. Greene had more than 4000 Continentals, militiamen and cavalry, meaning that his army outnumbered Cornwallis’ by more than twice their strength. Continue reading “Defense in Depth as a Revolutionary War Battlefield Tactic”

The Defense in Depth as a Revolutionary Battlefield Tactic

Part One of Four 

As a general statement, most people don’t think of the Revolutionary War as a testing ground for battlefield tactics. That assumption would not be correct. In fact, the Revolutionary War proved beyond doubt that traditional European set-piece battlefield tactics were largely ineffective against a determined enemy that was not bound by the traditional rules of war.  As just one example, the extremely effective hit and run tactics used by the Minutemen to harass and deplete the British forces that marched to Lexington and Concord that were based on the tactics used by Native American fighters prove this beyond doubt. The British Regulars had no experience or training in dealing with these tactics, and they suffered as a result.

Also, in the European model, wherein gentlemen fought wars and assiduously avoided civilian casualties, it was considered impolite and improper to target the other side’s officers during the course of battle. American forces refused to comply with these rules, causing serious losses among the ranks of British officers, and the British had to adapt to these tactics also.

Another tactic adopted by American officers proved to be incredibly effective during the campaigns in the South in 1781. Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan and Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, in particular, made extremely effective use of the defense in depth in carrying out their Fabian strategy during the Southern Campaigns of the Revolutionary War.

A Fabian strategy—named for its most famous practitioner, the Roman dictator, Quintus Fabius Maximus Verruscosus—avoids pitched battles and frontal assaults in favor of wearing down an opponent through a war of attrition and indirection. While avoided decisive battles, the side employing a Fabian strategy harassed the enemy through skirmishes to inflict losses, disrupt supply, and affect enemy morale. Typically, the employment of this strategy suggests that the side adopting it believes that time is on its side. George Washington was absolutely convinced that a Fabian strategy would ultimately wear down the British, and he was right.

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General Nathanael Greene, who mastered the Fabian strategy in the Southern Campaign of 1781

His protégé, Greene, also believed that a Fabian strategy was the way to defeat the British. Faced with the task of defending a large swath of the South with a small army, he had little choice. His subordinate, Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan, a rough but extremely effective amateur soldier, pioneered the use of a defense in depth at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781, and Greene then used it on a larger scale at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse about sixty days later. That two untrained amateur soldiers could develop and use such a tactic so effective demonstrates their genius.

A defense in depth, also known as a deep or elastic defense, seeks to delay, rather than prevent, the advance of an attacker, buying time and inflicting additional casualties by trading time for space. Instead of facing an attacker with a single, strong defensive position, a defense in depth relies upon the tendency of an attack to lose momentum and cohesion over time as it covers a larger area. Thus, a defender can yield lightly defended territory in an effort to outstrip an attacker’s logistics or spread out a numerically superior attacking force. Once that attacker has lost momentum, or has become spread out to hold territory, well-planned and well-placed counterattacks can be directed at the attacker’s weak points, with the objective of causing attrition warfare or driving the attacker back to its original starting position.

A conventional defensive strategy concentrates all of a defender’s military resources in a well-defended front line, which, if breached by an attacker, would expose the remaining troops in danger of being flanked, cut off, and surrounded, and leaving lines of supply, communications, and command vulnerable to being cut.

By contrast, a defense in depth requires that defenders deploy their resources, such as prepared fortifications, earthworks, and additional forces at and well behind the front line. Once an attacker breaches the weaker initial position, it continues to meet resistance as it presses on. As the attacker penetrates further, its flanks become vulnerable, and if the advance stalls, the attacking force can find itself completely surrounded and subject to being destroyed or forced to surrender. Thus, a defense in depth is particularly effective against an attacker that can concentrate its force to attack a small number of places along an extended defensive position.

In a well-designed and properly implemented defense in depth, the defending forces fall back to a succession of prepared positions designed to inflict a heavy price on the advancing enemy while minimizing the risk of being overrun or outflanked. By delaying the enemy’s advance, a defense in depth neutralizes manpower advantages and the element of surprise, and buys time for additional forces to be readied for well-timed counterattacks. A well-designed defense in depth will use its forces in mutually supporting positions and in appropriate roles. In this scenario, poorly trained soldiers—such as militiamen—can be used in static positions at the front line, while more experienced and better-trained soldiers can form a mobile reserve, or man the ultimate defensive position to be defended.  Further, a well-designed defense in depth will make good use of the natural advantages offered by terrain features and other natural obstacles such as streams, ponds, etc.

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General Nathanael Greene, who mastered the Fabian strategy in the Southern Campaign of 1781

There are disadvantages associated with the defense in depth. For one thing, constantly retreating can take a toll on the morale of defending forces. Further, these forces also require a high degree of mobility to accommodate those retreats, and also the space to do so.

Morgan designed and implemented a very effective defense in depth at Cowpens that proved so effective that Greene adopted that tactic and, while he lost the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, the heavy losses his army imposed on Lord Cornwallis’ army prompted Greene to note that the British, “have met with a defeat in a victory.”