Having won his battle of Cowpens, Daniel Morgan found himself, ironically, in considerable peril. Cornwallis’s army was still between him and Greene. After Pickens rejoined him the day after Cowpens, on 18 January, Morgan and his whole command marched together until they reached Gilbert Town. There Pickens was detached with the major share of the militia and Washington’s cavalry to march the prisoners captured at Cowpens to Island Ford on the upper Catawba, where they could be turned over to other escorts and moved to Virginia. Morgan then continued his march via Ramsour’s Mills to the main Catawba, which he crossed at Sherrill’s Ford on 23 January, and encamped on the north side—safely, for the time being.
Meanwhile, Cornwallis remained at Turkey Creek, readying his force to move out. He was now irrevocably committed to moving north because all his troops and material for campaigning were concentrated with him, and by his order the far-away fortifications of Charleston had been razed.
With 3,000 excellent troops at hand, Cornwallis did not leave Turkey Creek until 19 January, and then in the wrong direction. Underestimating Morgan’s marching capability as well as his anxiety to be reunited with Greene, the earl marched to the northwest toward the Little Broad River, intending to cut off Morgan. En route Cornwallis learned from Tarleton’s search of the area that he was in error, and he changed his direction toward Ramsour’s Mills, where he arrived early on 25 January, only to learn that Morgan had passed there two days before.
Cornwallis now had to reevaluate his estimate of Morgan’s capabilities and make a painful decision. In less than five marching days Morgan had covered over a hundred miles and had placed two rivers between the two armies. The British commander’s decision—no doubt arrived at only with difficulty—was to strip down his army and convert it into a mobile force able to march fast enough to catch the Americans. To do so he took two days to destroy all his superfluous impedimenta. Into the fires went the tents and all the provisions that could not be carried in knapsacks. Then the wagons and their loads were burned, saving out only the essential ones for hauling ammunitions, salt, and hospital stores, and four others for the transport of the sick and wounded. Cornwallis set the example for his officers by watching most of his personal belongings go up in smoke, and his officers followed his example (the latter must have been a tremendous lightening of encumbrance, considering the typical British officer’s “campaign comforts”). But Cornwallis didn’t stop there; what followed was—as any old soldier could attest—no less than a tragic end to a harrowing scene. All the rum casks were smashed, “and the precious liquor was poured out on the ground.”
After two days of holocaust, Cornwallis set out to catch up with Morgan. A rapid march from Ramsour’s Mills eastward toward Beattie’s Ford ended in pure frustration, however, because the Catawba was impassable due to heavy rains. Cornwallis halted four miles short of the ford and was held up there for two days, through 30 January.
Nathanael Greene, in his camp at Cheraw, didn’t get word of the victory at Cowpens until 23 January, but with it came the realization of Morgan’s danger if he were caught by Cornwallis’s main force. Greene was not without resources; with typical foresight, when he had made his decision to divide his army, he sent “Lieutenant Colonel Carrington, his quartermaster, to explore and map the Dan River, and Edward Stevens, Major General of Virginia militia, and General Kosciuszko to the Yadkin and the Catawba for the same purpose. They were also to collect or build flatboats to be carried on wheels or in wagons from one river to another” (Ward, The War of the Revolution). Consequently Greene was able, after 23 January, to give orders to set things in motion. He dispatched Carrington back to the Dan River to assemble enough boats on the south side to transport his whole force. He then directed General Huger to march his wing of the army to Salisbury, North Carolina, where he could anticipate joining Morgan’s force. Huger started his 125-mile march on 28 January, the same day that Greene, escorted only by a guide, one aide, and a sergeant’s guard of dragoons, left Cheraw to ride to Morgan’s camp east of the Catawba. That he made it through Tory country in only two days, across a rough stretch of some 120 miles, makes it seem that luck played an important part in getting him safely to Morgan’s camp on 30 January.
As soon as Greene and Morgan began comparing notes, it became apparent that the latter was more concerned with the safety of the army than its raison d’être. Morgan thought that only a fast, strategic withdrawal westward into the mountains could save the army. Greene, with his strategic objectives uppermost in mind, took an opposite—and prevailing—view. When Morgan told him of Cornwallis’s baggage burning and his obvious intent of driving north at all costs, Greene is said to have exclaimed, “Then, he is ours!”
It was then that Greene added another bold concept to his strategy: If Cornwallis were to carry out his “mad scheme of pushing through the country,” Greene would do no less than accommodate him. In so doing, the American commander would retreat to the north, where Cornwallis would be sure to take the bait and follow. Then Greene would entice his opponent farther and farther north, stretching the British supply lines to the breaking point while the Americans were drawing closer to supplies in Virginia. And during the retreat Greene would keep his forces just out of reach of his enemy’s advance elements, keeping alive in Cornwallis the hope that he would bring the Americans to battle. Finally, when Greene had gathered enough strength and the right opportunity was presented, he would turn and strike his enemy. Morgan apparently was shocked at the dangers inherent in such a bold plan, and declared he could not be held responsible if it met with disaster. Greene, never shying away from responsibility, replied that Morgan should have no such worries, “for I shall take the measure upon myself.”
Accordingly Greene sent a letter to Huger informing him of his plan and urging him to make haste in his march to join Morgan’s main body at Salisbury. He also dispatched orders for Light-Horse Harry Lee’s legion to break off operations with Marion, then somewhere along the lower Pee Dee River, and rejoin Greene at once. By then the floodwaters of the Catawba had begun to recede, so Greene was able to direct Morgan to continue his main body’s march to Salisbury. With those matters taken care of, Greene, accompanied by Morgan, met William Washington and General William Davidson near Beattie’s Ford to plan the defense of the fords of the Catawba in the area. Afterward Morgan and Washington rode off to rejoin their commands, and Davidson was left to deploy his militia to defend the fords.
Cornwallis meanwhile had kept a close eye on the Catawba’s waters while formulating his crossing plan. Believing that Morgan’s main force was still near Beattie’s Ford, the earl planned to entrap him by executing two crossings of the river. The first was to be a feint at Beattie’s Ford by a division under Lieutenant Colonel Webster, who would keep Morgan occupied, starting with an artillery preparation. Cornwallis would take the main body across at Cowan’s Ford, about five miles downstream from Beattie’s, then swing north to encircle Morgan.
Morgan, however, had marched away from his camp on the evening of 31 January, headed toward Salisbury and Trading Ford, while Cornwallis’s forces had begun moving only by early morning of 1 February. At Cowan’s Ford the British ran into real difficulties. The ford was 500 yards wide, and the water three to four feet deep and still running fast. Halfway across the river, the ford split into two parts. The wagon ford ran straight ahead through deeper water, while the so-called horse ford split off at a forty-five-degree angle to the south and ran through shallower water. Led by Dick Beal, their Tory guide, the British troops plunged ahead in waist-deep water. About a hundred yards into the river they were taken under fire by the small party at the wagon ford. About halfway across, Beal lost his nerve and disappeared, without telling the officer leading the advance that he should break off to the right and take the horse ford to its landing below. As a result, the column pushed on, straight ahead through the deeper wagon ford, where it suffered considerable losses. Even the three generals’ horses became casualties: Cornwallis’s horse was wounded but didn’t collapse until it reached the far bank; Generals Leslie and O’Hara were thrown when their horses were swept down by the current.
Discipline and plain raw courage carried the British through, and the leading ranks stormed the bank, loaded their muskets, and drove off the defenders. General Davidson heard the firing and led a detachment from the horse ford up to reinforce the wagon ford. When he got there he took a bullet from a Tory rifleman and fell dead from his horse. With that his men broke and fled before the British volleys.
Cornwallis was across at Cowan’s Ford, and later that day Webster crossed unopposed at Beattie’s. The British commander rapidly reorganized to resume the chase after Morgan, who was already well on his way to the Yadkin River. Tarleton meanwhile was screening the British front and simultaneously reconnoitering for rebels in the direction of advance. About ten miles from the river he found and attacked, in his usual hell-for-leather style, a group of Davidson’s militia at Tarrant’s Tavern. Two or three hundred rebels were dispersed for good, Tarleton reporting that he had routed 500 and killed 50, with a loss of only 7 of his own men. His concluding statement summarized the real results of Tarrant’s Tavern: “This exertion of the cavalry succeeding the gallant action of the guards in the morning, diffused such a terror among the inhabitants, that the King’s troops passed through the most hostile part of North Carolina without a shot from the militia.”
Tarleton’s cavalry also came close to capturing Greene, who had gone alone to a prearranged place to meet the militia withdrawing from the fords. At midnight a messenger came with the news of Davidson’s death, the dispersal of the militia, and the crossing of Cornwallis’s force. Greene then rode on to Salisbury. In Christopher Ward’s description, “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 a 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.”
In the next nine days, beginning on 2 February, Greene and Morgan carried out the series of marches that have become famous as the Retreat to the Dan. The Dan River was the final objective of Greene’s strategic moves. He was keenly aware that only after he had gotten his army across that river could he rest his troops, replenish stores, and, most important, gather in reinforcements from Virginia. Both of the opposing armies were now across the Catawba, but there remained three major rivers to cross: the Yadkin, the Haw, and the Dan. And if the rains of midwinter should set in and render fords impassable, only boats could ensure timely river crossings. We have seen that Greene’s foresight, plus the efforts of Carrington and Kosciuszko, had made the boats available, but they had to be at the right place at the right time. Greene could leave the execution of that part of his plan to those two capable officers, but the Dan River crossings posed another problem, for Cornwallis would probably close on his trail at crossing time. The upper river had usable fords; the lower river could be crossed only by boats at three ferry sites: in order from upper to lower, Dix’s Ferry, Irwin’s Ferry, and Boyd’s Ferry. Greene’s plan was to deceive his enemy into thinking that the American main body was headed for the fords of the upper Dan, when in reality it would make a last-minute switch of direction to cross at a ferry site on the lower Dan.
While he was still at Steele’s tavern, Greene sent a message to Huger to change his direction of march to the northeast and meet up with Morgan at Guilford Courthouse. He then rode to join Morgan’s column.
Cornwallis, following Tarleton’s action at Tarrant’s Tavern, had reunited the two divisions of his army at a point on the road to Salisbury. There he formed a mobile advance force to move ahead and catch Greene and Morgan before they could cross the Yadkin. The force, under General O’Hara, was made up of the cavalry and O’Hara’s mounted infantry. It set out at once, while Cornwallis remained with his main body to supervise a second baggage burning. This time he reduced the number of wagons, gaining more teams to pull the others through the soft red clay.
O’Hara, pushing on, was well aware that the rain-swollen Yadkin was above fording depth. Here, if ever, was the time and place to catch Morgan. When his advance party came in sight of the Yadkin’s west bank, it came upon some wagons guarded by militia. The vanguard quickly dispersed the militia, only to discover that the American army and all its boats were on the other side of the river. Greene’s careful planning and Kosciuszko’s execution had made possible the first major boat crossing on 2 and 3 February.
Marching through rain and over miserable roads, Cornwallis made it into Salisbury by mid-afternoon of 3 February. The Americans had all the available boats, and the Yadkin River was too high even for fording by horses. Cornwallis sent forward a few artillery pieces, with which O’Hara attempted to bombard Greene’s camp across the river. Because the American position was protected by a high ridge, no damage was done “except to knock the roof off a cabin in which he [Greene] was busy with correspondence.”
While at Salisbury, Cornwallis received reports that there were insufficient boats on the lower Dan to enable Greene to use the ferries. This false—or misconstrued—information was to prove costly indeed in Cornwallis’s future moves, since it added to the earl’s deception that Greene would have to use the fords of the upper Dan. Cornwallis saw that he could operate on interior lines by interposing his army between what he thought were the still-divided forces of Greene and Huger and defeat them in detail. His plan was to head northwest from Salisbury, cross the Yadkin at Shallow Ford, which was still passable in spite of the rain, get to Salem, and from there strike out at the separated American forces. Accordingly he sent Tarleton up the Yadkin, which he crossed at Shallow Ford on 6 February. Cornwallis followed, leaving Salisbury on the seventh and reaching Salem on the ninth.
What were Greene’s forces doing after Morgan had crossed the Yadkin on 3 February? On the evening of the following day Greene and Morgan marched north out of their camp at Trading Ford. Their initial direction must have added to Cornwallis’s misconceived idea of the objective of the march. On the way, the Americans halted at Abbott’s Creek, not far from Salem, long enough to confirm reports of Cornwallis’s whereabouts. They then switched direction to the east to make an incredible march to Guilford Courthouse, covering forty-seven miles in forty-eight hours despite unceasing rain, terrible roads, and hungry men who marched on short rations for two days. Reaching Guilford on 6 February, they encamped and waited for Huger to join them. The next day Huger’s scarecrow force arrived “in a most dismal condition for the want of clothing, especially shoes” but without the loss of a man!
While at Guilford Courthouse, Greene seems to have wavered momentarily in his purpose. His forces were concentrated, Lee’s legion had arrived with Huger, and he hoped his still-scanty force of 2,000 would be joined by local militia as well as reinforcements from Virginia. Moreover, he could hope to build up provisions and receive ammunition along with the hoped-for Virginia troops. Greene studied the terrain and considered it suitable for a good position to confront Cornwallis. He laid his considerations before a council of war, which decided against such a stand. The American commander then wasted no time in reorganizing his units for continuing the march to the lower Dan. He sent Pickens back to recruit militia, arouse the countryside, and raise havoc in general with British supply lines and foraging parties.
Next Greene organized a light, mobile force designed to act both as rear guard and decoy force for Cornwallis’s advance elements. The force totaled 700 men and was composed of William Washington’s cavalry, with Lee’s legion cavalry attached as well as John Eager Howard’s infantry, which included his 280 Continentals, the 120 infantrymen of Lee’s legion, and 60 Virginia riflemen. Specifically, the mission of the light force was to keep between Greene’s main body and the British, delaying the enemy wherever possible while keeping him deceived in regard to the army’s true objective: the ferries on the lower Dan.
Command of the force was offered to Morgan, but he declined, because, as he told Greene in writing on 5 February, “I can scarcely sit upon my horse.” The curse of hemorrhoids had been added to his rheumatism and sciatica, making him unfit to campaign further. A reluctant Greene accepted the loss of Morgan: “Camp at Guilford C.H. Feb. 10th, 1781. Gen. Morgan, of the Virginia line, has leave of absence until he recovers his health, so as to be able to take the field again.” It was to be Morgan’s last campaign with regular forces.
The command then went to Colonel Otho Williams of Maryland, a happy selection indeed; he was an officer with a record of distinguished service and destined to add brilliant accomplishments to his record in the near future. While Williams was organizing his light force, Greene, according to Lee’s Memoirs, was listening to Lieutenant Colonel Carrington’s suggestions for crossing the lower Dan “at Irwin’s Ferry, 17 [should read 70] miles from Guilford Courthouse, and 20 miles below Dix’s. Boyd’s Ferry was four miles below Irwin’s; and the boats might be easily brought down from Dix’s to assist in transporting the army at these and lower ferries. The plan of Lt. Col. Carrington was adopted, and that officer charged with the requisite preparations.”
Williams left Guilford Courthouse on 10 February, turning west toward Salem to take a road which would put him between Cornwallis and Greene’s main body. On the same day, Greene left, taking the main body on the most direct route to Carrington’s ferry sites.
Cornwallis had at first thought to threaten Greene by feinting eastward, but when he learned of the march of Williams’s force coming swiftly across his front, the earl took the bait and headed for the fords of the upper Dan, thus, as he thought, keeping Greene from his objective.
The subsequent pursuit of Greene by Cornwallis has been referred to as the “race to the Dan.” The conditions under which the two armies marched, however, were anything but conducive to a race. It was still midwinter, and when it wasn’t raining in northern North Carolina, it was snowing. The oft-mentioned red-clay roads would freeze at night and soften into sticky mud in the “warmth” of the day. To top it off, the Americans had to exist on short rations, and the clothing of most soldiers was in tatters. The British soldiers were not a great deal better off, for their uniforms were wearing out and usually wet through. There were no tents on either side: the Americans didn’t have time to erect or strike them, and the British soldiers’ tents had been the first things thrown on the fires of Cornwallis’s baggage burnings.
Soon after heading out in pursuit of Williams, Cornwallis found that they were marching on parallel roads. His own column had become strung out over a distance of four miles, so he halted long enough to close it up, then drove his troops on, pushing them to the limit. They made up to thirty miles a day, a nearly unbelievable march rate under the conditions. Williams, if he were to keep ahead of his enemy’s van, had to move even faster. His other and constant anxiety was maintaining a continuous surveillance of the roads to his right and rear to ensure that the British did not get between him and Greene. This meant patrolling and picketing on a twenty-four-hour basis, with half of his troops screening his own force at night to avoid being surprised. Hence his men got only six hours rest out of forty-eight, and started each day’s march at 3:00 A.M. A hasty halt for breakfast provided the only meal of the day. The British may have marched on better rations, but they too were driven constantly in their dogged pursuit.
A picture of the opposing forces at this time would show three parallel columns heading generally northward. They were echeloned, with Greene’s main body on the left and leading. Williams was in the center, and to his right and rear were the pursuing British. On 13 February the picture began to change between the forces of Williams and Cornwallis. Before dawn Tarleton reported to Cornwallis that the enemy’s main body was actually moving toward the lower Dan. The earl decided to create a deception of his own by directing his vanguard to continue following the same route parallel to Williams while he and the main body made a forced march over a causeway that would bring him onto Williams’s rear. He came very close to catching up to the American rear, and might have caught the light troops at breakfast had it not been for a farmer who warned the Americans that the British were coming on fast and were only four miles away. Williams sent Harry Lee back to check on the farmer’s information, and the result was a sharp little action with Tarleton’s cavalry, which lost eighteen men in the fight. Just before Lee and his cavalry detachment engaged the enemy, some of Tarleton’s dragoons cut down Lee’s bugler, a fourteen-year-old, and killed him as he lay defenseless on the ground. After the engagement Lee was going to hang in reprisal the captured leader of the dragoon detachment, Captain Miller, who argued that he had tried to save the bugler’s life but had not succeeded. Miller’s life was spared, not only due to his defense but also because of the approach of Cornwallis’s advance guard. Lee had no choice but to gallop away and rejoin the rear guard.