The American Revolution     -     The Southern Campaign

American War of Independence

Southern Campaign

The Retreat Begins

Crossing the Catawba River

Crossing the Yadkin River

Council of War

The Race to the Dan

Crossing of the Dan

After the Crossing

Last Months of the War

Surrender of Cornwallis

The Crossing's Significance

"The Retreat Begins"

From his camp at Island Ford on the Broad River, Morgan continued his retreat east past Ramsour’s Mill and towards Sherrill’s Ford on the Catawba, arriving on the 23rd.

On January 25, Cornwallis arrived at Ramsour's Mill. There he destroyed most of his baggage in an effort to transform his whole army into a light corps. He spent two days collecting flour, destroying superfluous baggage (included rum and much food), and "all my wagons, except those loaded with hospital stores, salt, ammunition, and four reserved empty in readiness for sick or wounded.” Cornwallis would likely have caught Morgan, if he had not halted.

It is recorded of Greene, that, when he heard of the pause of the British army to destroy its baggage - an act which indicated the determination to traverse the whole country, if need be, in pursuit - he rose exultingly, with the prophetic exclamation, "Then he is ours!" The prediction was verified; not literally, perhaps, for Greene was not permitted to be "in at the death" of the game - but verified in the capture of Yorktown, as a strict result of this insane expedition.

The Retreat Begins at Cowpens Battlefield
A portion of William Harrison's - A Map of North Carolina from the Best Authorities
London: J. Stockdale, 1794, Rucker Agee Map Collection

The news that Cornwallis had burned his stores and was setting off in hot pursuit intrigued Greene, and he saw how to take advantage of the situation. He would begin a retreat, drawing the British farther into enemy territory and stretching their resources to the limit. He knew the routes, the fords, already had the boats lined up -- when the time was right, Greene might even be able to turn and fight Cornwallis on favorable ground.

Isaac Huger, Brigadier General
of the Southern Army
1742 - 1797
South Carolina
On January 29, Huger left with the main army from Camp on the Pee Dee to join Greene and Morgan, with Salisbury being the intend point of juncture. Yet as events developed, the union took place at Guilford Court House instead.

Crossing the Catawba River

Having completed a 100 mile journey in four days Greene, alone with some staff, reached Sherrill's Ford on the Catawba River, where he found Morgan on January 30. The next day, Greene and staff moved to Beattie's Ford to examine and oversee the defenses there.

When Greene took command on the Catawba the army of Cornwallis was only eighteen miles below, unable to cross the river by reason of high water. Greene summoned the neighboring militia to turn out and guard the fords as the water fell. Beatie's Ford, where the army encamped, is about six miles above McCowan's Ford and nearer to Salisbury. On the evening of January thirty-first, Morgan, at Sherrill’s Ford, was sent forward toward the Yadkin and Salisbury while General Greene remained to bring off the militia. The river fell rapidly and Colonels Webster and Tarleton crossed at Beatie's Ford shortly after it was abandoned.

Cornwallis moved to cross the Catawba River with his main army at Cowan’s ford at dawn on February 1. Webster’s detachment with the baggage was to cross the river a few miles upriver at Beattie’s Ford. To oppose Cornwallis’ force at Cowan’s Ford, Brig. Gen. Davidson had 600 to 800 North Carolina militia. Included in this body of troops was a mounted corps of observation, 300 to 500 strong, collected for the purpose of tracking British movements. These were placed on a small hill a few hundred yards behind the river. Meanwhile, 200 of the militia on foot were deployed in detachments at the different fords for 30 miles along the river, to prevent surprise.

As the Light Infantry of the Guards, led by Brig. Gen. Charles O’Hara and Lieut. Col. Francis Hall, moved to make their way over the river, their guide (presumably to spare himself from being shot) deserted them in midstream. As a result they took the wagon ford exit rather than the horse ford exit, and hence were at advantageous angle to the fire from Davidson’s men, most of whom were posted behind the horse ford. Thus Davidson in attempting to halt Cornwallis’ passing the river failed, and was himself mortally wounded in the process, which greatly alarmed his men.

Greene with two or three aides had stayed behind to arrange for Davidson's militia to rendezvous at a certain point and to join Morgan's forces, after their duty at the fords was done. His aides were sent here and there on this business. Greene went on alone and narrowly escaped capture. He was but a few miles beyond Tarrant's Tavern, where many of Davidson's militia had assembled, when Tarleton's cavalry came clattering up in pursuit of them. The militiamen delivered a hasty fire, ran to their horses, and made off with some loss.

"Female Patriotism - Mrs. Steele and General Greene"
Image from the Robert W. Martin collection (c.1874)
After being told of Davidson's death, Greene rode on alone to Salisbury. At Steele's Tavern in that village he dismounted, stiff and sore, to be greeted by a friend. "What? Alone, Greene?" "Yes," he answered, "alone, tired, hungry and penniless." Mrs. Steele heard him. After getting him some breakfast she brought two little bags of hard money and gave them to him. "You need them more than I do," she said. The contents of those two little bags constituted the entire military chest of the Grand Army of the Southern Department of the United States of America.

Crossing the Yadkin River

An incessant rain fell all through the day and night of February 1. From the meticulous care he had taken to familiarize himself with every aspect of the southern country, Greene knew that a rise of the rivers could be expected about two days after such a downpour. He was therefore most anxious that Morgan should cross the Yadkin before February 3.

As the general hastened on from Salisbury to the river, it became obvious that not only were the militia afraid to embody, but that the inhabitants of the district were so terrified at the approach of the British that they were prepared to abandon their homes and trust their possessions to the protection of the American army. Many inhabitants followed the army, retiring in dread of Tarleton, and the vanguard of the British force only captured the rearmost wagons. The road became increasingly obstructed by the wagons of the fugitives. Nevertheless, Morgan and Greene and the army succeeded in crossing the river. They were encamped on the opposite shore by the evening of February 3, thanks to the foresight with which Greene had ordered Kosciusko’s boats up to the Trading Ford.”

Greene knew that within two days the water from the mountains would fill the Yadkin. As yet it was not so deep but that his cavalry crossed safely, and his forethought in having boats provided, enabled him to secure all his command.

Cornwallis reached Trading Ford February 4, and positioning some artillery on a hill shelled Greene’s forces on the opposite side of the River, though without doing much damage. Later in the evening, Greene marched toward Guilford.

To prevent unnecessary losses in attempting to cross at Trading Ford, Cornwallis moved up river on the western side of the Yadkin to cross at Shallow Ford west of Salem. At the same time he sent Tarleton in advance to reconnoiter. Crossing during the night of the 6th, he was on the opposite bank by the 7th.

"Crossing the Yadkin and resuming the pursuit of Greene, in the hope of cutting him off from the upper fords of the Dan, Cornwallis gave Greene opportunities and a start which it was not easy to recover. Not that Greene's object was simply to elude and escape his formidable adversary. His purpose was a more profound one.

Nathanael Greene
General Nathanael Greene
1881 Young Persons' Cyclopedia
of Persons and Places

We find Greene, for example, halting Morgan at the Catawba, and resting his jaded troops; availing himself of all the respite afforded by the rising of the river, yet without preparing, in this delay to offer battle when the enemy should cross. Starting off, when the passage is about to be effected, we find him keeping just far enough ahead to beguile the British in pursuit.

Crossing the Yadkin as he had done the Catawba, he again halts, and cooly surveys his pursuer. Thus he rests quietly, until again warned by the falling of the waters; and pushing forward for the Dan, again to practice the same game; beguile his enemy yet deeper into the heart of the country, where, in the event of a battle, his resources must be cut off, and where a defeat, or disaster of any kind, would leave him hopeless of help, and at the mercy of the Americans. Cornwallis might well have hesitated to follow this lure. But he probably did not suspect Greene of a scheme so profound.

It was one cause of the failure of the British, that they never learned the lesson, till too late, which teaches them to respect an enemy. The pursuit of Cornwallis, and the retreat of Greene before him, has been entitled "a military race," and the credit awarded to the two parties has been limited to the speed with which one of them fled, and with which the other pursued.

The subtle policy which governed Greene's movements has but too frequently escaped the notice of historians. It is true, that, assuming it as the cue of the American general to run only, it somewhat worried them to account for his frequent halts. But it was easier to suppose that, in doing so, he only blundered in carrying out his own policy, than to admit that there was a something occult in his progress which they could not altogether fathom.

The game of Greene, a sufficiently delicate one, was to amuse his enemy — delay his progress — beguile him with hope, onward and onward, still farther from the base of his operations, from all resources, while the country closed in upon him on all hands, and the militia, springing up from the soil, hung upon his footsteps, cutting off his supplies, and embodying for the final struggle which should give the coup de grace to his career."

Councilof War Letter - See full image.
Council of War at Guilford Courthouse

Arriving on February 7th at Guilford, Greene rested his army and on the 9th summoned his field officers to a council of war of his chief officers and put forward the question of whether the army should give battle. It was voted that for the time being, the army should continue retreating to gather more forces, and defer engagement with Cornwallis.

On the tenth he writes to Patrick Henry requesting troops, "If it is possible for you to call forth fifteen hundred Volunteers & march them immediately to my assistance, the British Army will be exposed to a very critical & dangerous situation."

"In all probability you will find me on the North side of Dan River. I must repeat it, the present moment is big with the most important consequences, & requires the greatest & most spirited exertions."

Greene at this same time formed a special light corps to be commanded by Col. Otho Williams to cover the main army’s retreat. In a letter to Gen. Washington of February 9th, he described the "light army" he had formed under Williams as composed of: "cavalry of the 1st and 3rd Regiments and the Legion amounting to 240, a detachment of 280 Infantry under Lieut. Col. Howard, the Infantry of Lieut. Col. Lee's Legion and 60 Virginia Riflemen making in their whole 700 men which will be ordered with the Militia to harass the enemy in their advance, check their progress and if possible give us opportunity to retire without general action." Also saying "I called a Council, who unanimously advised to avoid an action, and to retire beyond the Roanoke immediately. A copy of the proceedings I have the honor to inclose."

Polish General and patriot
Thaddeus Kosciusko
Kosciusko's Boats

From his camp on the Pee Dee, Greene directed Kosciusko to pick up tools at Cross Creek and to arrange to have built some boats to be used by the army. These boats were to be constructed such that they could be mounted on wheels, and thus be moved overland. "On 1 January 1781 Greene gave Kosciusko an important new assignment: overseeing the construction of flat-bottomed boats to be transported overland in wagons and used by the army in amphibious operations".

Exactly what was done with these boats after they were built is not clear. Historian Ann Brownlee suspects that they may have been used to help Greene’s army get across Trading Ford on the Yadkin River in February, since there were not enough craft at that location to have allowed the crossing of Morgan’s detachment. However, in a letter to Greene of 1 February, when Huger was on the march from the Pee Dee to join Greene (who was in the Trading Ford area), Huger states that "...Col. Kosciusko's boats are not with us." (seeming to imply they had been left behind at the Pee Dee River camp). "I have wrote him to join you immediately and directed him to forward such boats as were finished and to put the rest in charge of Colonel Wade and to order the artificers to join the army."

Intending to avoid capture by crossing into Virginia if necessary, Greene dispatched Kosciusko ahead to erect earthworks at Boyd's Ferry on the north shore of the Dan. Cornwallis persisted and on February 14 finally forced Greene to cross into Virginia. Greene used some of Kosciusko's boats and immediately took cover behind the engineer's hastily erected defenses. Without boats of his own Cornwallis reluctantly gave up the pursuit.

"Kosciusko who had recently joined up with Greene at Guilford, preceded him to Irwin’s (also Irvine’s) and Boyd’s Ferries on the Dan River where he oversaw the constructing of breastworks for protecting the boats and the crossing of the army. Morgan, who was present at the council, at the time was suffering from “sciatica” and rheumatism, and was so unwell as to not be able later serve further.

Tadeusz Kosciuszko
The re-united army only numbered two thousand and thirty-six men, including fourteen hundred and twenty-six regulars. Colonel Carrington joined the command, with the report that boats had been secured, and secreted along the Dan, so as to be collected on a few hours' warning. The British army was at Salem, only twenty-five miles from Guilford. This was on the tenth of February.

Lossing: “Greene, also aware of the inferiority of his forces, called a council of war [Feb. 9.], when it was resolved to avoid a battle, and retreat as rapidly as possible across the Dan into the friendly districts of Virginia. A light army, designed to maneuver in the rear of the Americans and in front of the pursuers, was formed out of Lee’s legion, the regular battalion of infantry under Colonel Howard, the cavalry under Colonel Washington, and a small corps of Virginia riflemen under Major Campbell, in all about seven hundred men, the flower of the Southern army.”

Johnson: "(B)y pushing forward the [light] detachment under Williams, in the direct route for the upper Dan, he [Greene] induced his adversary to make a movement to his left [i.e. to the west], for the purpose of cutting this party off from the upper fords, still fondly believing that he had the main army in a cul de sac, from which it could not escape, for want of ferry boats. Williams was so lightly equipped, that he had nothing to fear from a near approach to the enemy, and coolly placing himself in front of his advance, marched as steadily before him for four days, as if he had been the enemy's advanced the rout of his enemy, every bridge was broken up, the provision consumed or removed, and every facility to his [Cornwallis'] progress, swept away by his tantalizing precursor."

It was said of General Greene that he had never seen the Catawba River but he knew more about it than the men who were born on its banks.

Colonel Edward Carrington 1748-1810
This was also true of the Dan River. As soon as Greene received his unwelcome assignment, he began to study the rivers. He ordered “100 batteaux” from Col. Carrington in Richmond, then sent him down to map the Dan. Before he moved out of the Camp of Repose, a camp opposite Cheraw on the upper Pedee, he ordered Carrington to hide the boats along the banks near Boyd's and Irwin's Ferries.

Greene needed additional transportation, so he called on the ferries. The court of Claims of Pittsylvania County, Virginia's Revolutionary records lists four Pittsylvania ferrymen making claims for ferrying men, horses, and wagons in large numbers across the river. They are John Dix, Sherwood Toney, John Wynne, and John Owen. John Lewis asked recompense for the use of three canoes, indicating a need for anything that would float.

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        This story of "The Crossing of the Dan" has been assembled from many sources. This author takes no credit whatsoever for any of the content. I am in the process of seeking permission from the many sources used. Please email your questions and comments. Last update: May 23, 2005