The American Revolution in North Carolina

Cowan's Ford

February 1, 1781

Patriot Cdr:

Brigadier General (Pro Tempore)
William Lee Davidson
British Cdr:

Lt. General Charles,
Lord Cornwallis






Original County: 

Lincoln County/
Mecklenburg County
Present County:

Lincoln County/
Mecklenburg County

After the Patriot victory at the Cowpens (January 17th, in South Carolina), Major General Nathanael Greene ordered Brigadier General Daniel Morgan northward to keep the prisoners out of the hands of Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis. Greene left the Cheraw Hills of South Carolina to rendezvous with Morgan at Beattie's Ford on January 30th - just north of Cowan's Ford.

Major General Greene described the lack of clothing within his army:

"More than one-half of our number are in a manner naked, so much so, that we can not put them on the least kind of duty. Indeed there is a great number that have not even a rag of clothes except a little piece of blanket (in the Indian form) around their waist."

Many of Morgan's men were dressed in captured British uniforms from the battle of the Cowpens, making some of Greene's officers to comment that his army was made up of red and green coated infantry.

In the meantime, Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis's army had been reinforced. General Sir Henry Clinton had sent Brigadier General Charles O'Hara and the Brigade of Guards, who had arrived in Charlestown in December, along with the Hessian Regiment von Bose. These joined up with Lord Cornwallis on January 18th near the Catawba River in South Carolina.

With these reinforcements, Lord Cornwallis felt strong enough to pursue Brigadier General Daniel Morgan. He knew that Morgan's army was able to move more quickly, so he ordered his baggage train burned so they could travel faster. A huge bonfire was built and into it went the wagons, tents, clothing, and the soldiers' rum ration. He retained only enough wagons for medical supplies, salt, ammunition, and four empty wagons for the sick and wounded.

A large supply of leather found at Ramseur's Mill was used to repair the British army's shoes, and every man carried an extra pair of soles. Lord Cornwallis kept his artillery, but this slowed him down as much as the baggage train would have.

When Major General Nathanael Greene learned of Lord Cornwallis's reinforcements and that the British intended to pursue him, he noted, "Then he is ours!" All he wanted to do was to get Lord Cornwallis far enough away from his supply bases at Charlestown and Camden so the Patriot army could surround him and cut him off. This is one reason why Burgoyne had lost his army at Saratoga, NY in 1777.

Lord Cornwallis's delay in burning his baggage train cost him the chance to rescue the prisoners from the Cowpens - because the Catawba River became swollen due to rain in the meantime. His army would have to cross the Catawba to go after the Patriots, but now they would have to wait for the river to subside.

Also in the meantime, Major General Greene sent Brigadier General (Pro Tempore) William Lee Davidson and 800 North Carolina militiamen to watch four fords on the Catawba River at the most likely locations that Lord Cornwallis would have to cross. With Brigadier General Davidson was Capt. Joseph Graham, who had recovered from his wounds received at Charlotte in September of 1780. Capt. Graham formed a company of cavalry, promising that those who furnished their own horses and equipment and served two months should be considered as having served a tour of three months. This was the term required by NC state law at that time.

Capt. Graham assembled fifty-six men, but had great difficulty in finding enough arms. Local blacksmiths made forty-five swords. Only fifteen men had pistols, but they all had rifles. They carried the rifle "muzzle in a small boot, fastened beside the right stirrup leather, and the butt ran through the shot-bag belt, so that the lock came directly under the right arm." Graham later wrote:

"Those who had a pistol carried it swung by a strap, about the size of a bridle rein, on the left side over the sword, which was belted higher than the modern mode of wearing it, so as not to entangle the legs when acting on foot. They had at all times all their arms with them, whether on foot or on horseback, and could act as infantry or cavalry, and move individually or collectively as circumstanced might require, without depending on commissary, quarter master, or other staff."

Brigadier General Davidson posted five hundred of his men at the most obvious danger point, Beattie's Ford; he then placed 200 Surry County men, under Lt. Col. Joseph Winston, at the Tuckaseegee Ford. Davidson himself reached Cowan's Ford after sunset and was, therefore, not able to deploy his men properly. Seventy (70) Mecklenburg County militiamen under Capt. John Potts were placed at Tool's Ford, and twenty-five (25) men were sent to Cowan's Ford - a horse ford that had an island in the middle of it. Major General Greene inspected the defense and suggested that Brigadier General Davidson put 200 of his men on horseback as a mobile reserve.

As soon as the Catawba River was seen to be dropping on January 31st, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan raced for the Yadkin River with his army. He left Brigadier General Davidson's militia in place to defend the Catawba River fords. One officer said the march was difficult, "every step... was up to our Knees in Mud it raining On us all the Way."

Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis instinctively knew that Patriots were posted along the river to harass his crossing. Therefore, he sent out Lt. Col. James Webster with the 33rd Regiment, the 71st Highlanders, the Royal North Carolina Regiment, the Jäegers, and some small artillery field pieces, to deceive the Patriots into thinking that a significant British crossing would happen at Beattie's Ford. A detachment from the Patriot Orange County Regiment of Militia had been sent to guard that ford.

Lord Cornwallis led the main army towards Cowan's Ford, which he thought would be lightly guarded. Along the way one of the 3-pounders overturned in a swamp and some artillerymen stayed behind to recover the gun.

The Catawba River was still rising when Lord Cornwallis's men went into the water with orders not to fire until they reached the other side. If they had had the 3-pounder they could have covered their movement with a preliminary bombardment. The North Carolina militiamen were sleeping when the British first started across the river. The British could see the flickering lights of their campfires through the trees.

The morning was cloudy and a dense fog hung over the water, so the Patriot sentinel could not see the enemy until they were within one hundred yards. He instantly fired on them, which roused the guard, who kept up the fire, but the British continued to advance.

Awake now, the Patriots rallied to the ford. Capt. Joseph Graham's cavalry was ordered to move up briskly, and they soon arrived within fifty yards of the eastern shore. They took steady aim and fired - the effect was clearly visible. The first three ranks of the British thinned, and they halted. Lt. Col. Francis Hall was the first to appear on horseback, and he was heard giving orders. The enemy column soon got into motion again. A Patriot cavalryman reloaded and aimed at Lt. Col. Hall, and knocked him off his horse into the water. Two or three men caught him and pulled him to the other side. The British marched steadily onward.

The distance across the strong river was about five hundred (500) yards. Men and officers were forced to lash themselves together to prevent being carried downstream. By the time they reached mid-stream their splashing could be heard on the other side - who immediately opened fire into the darkness. Capt. Graham wrote:

"By the time the front ranks got twenty or thirty steps up the river they had loaded their pieces and began to fire up the bank. The Americans receded a few steps when loading, and when ready to fire would advance to the summit of the hill, twenty-five or thirty steps from the enemy, as they deployed up the river bank. They had gained the ford and just commended firing when General Davidson arrived from the horse ford with the infantry, and finding his cavalry on the ground he chose to occupy, and impressed with the opinion given by Gen. Greene, that the enemy's cavalry would attack them in the rear, he ordered my command to mount and go up the ridge and form two hundred yards behind. As we moved off, the infantry took their places, and the firing became brisk on both sides. The enemy moved steadily forward, their fire increasing, until their left reached the mouth of the branch upwards of thirty poles from the ford. The ravine was too steep to pass. The rear of their infantry and front of their cavalry was about middle of the river, when the bugle sounded on the left, on which their fire slacked and nearly ceased. (They were loading their pieces.) In about a minute it sounded again, when their whole line from the ford to the branch advanced up the bank, with their arms at a trail. The hill was in many places so steep they had to pull up by the bushes."

Lord Cornwallis attempted to drive off the militia with an artillery bombardment, but the artillery sergeant who had the slow match was with the overturned cannon in the swamp. The British force came across before Brigadier General (Pro Tempore) William Lee Davidson could bring in all of his troops from the other fords. When Lt. Col. Francis Hall had been shot from his horse, Capt. Dundas assumed command and deployed the light infantry into battle line as they emerged from the river. They began covering fire for the rest of the British crossing the river.

While this was going on, four artillery pieces were being fired by the British troops feinting their crossing at Beattie's Ford. As the battle heated up at Cowan's Ford, the booming of field pieces could be heard from Beattie's Ford.

Capt. Graham continued to write:

"General Davidson, finding them advancing with loaded guns, ordered a retreat for one hundred yards. On gaining the point of the ridge their fire was so heavy the he had to recede fifty steps beyond the ground assigned for formation; he then ordered his men to take to the trees, and had them arranged to renew the battle. The enemy was advancing slowing in line, and only firing scatteringly, when General Davidson was pierced by a ball and fell dead from his horse. The stricken Patriots immediately fled.

Lt. Col. William Polk quickly assumed command and led them to safety, while Capt. Graham covered their retreat with his cavalry. "Major David Wilson and two others found the General's body in the evening, carried him off in the night, and buried him at Hopewell Churth, higher up on the Catawba River."

The number of British losses has since been disputed, with the highest number of killed being around 100, and the lowest, being Lord Cornwallis's account, at four killed and thirty-six wounded.

Brigadier General Daniel Morgan's army reached Salisbury unopposed on February 2nd. Thus began the "Race to the Dan."

Known Patriot Participants

Known British/Loyalist Participants

Brigadier General (Pro Tempore) William Lee Davidson - Commanding Officer (killed)

Salisbury District Brigade of Militia detachment led by Brigadier General (Pro Tempore) William Lee Davidson, with the following known units:

Mecklenburg County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Lt. Col. William Polk, with ten (10) known companies, led by:
- Capt. William Alexander
- Capt. William Cole (from Randolph County)
- Capt. Joseph Graham
- Capt. Conrad Hise
- Capt. James Huggins
- Capt. James Ligert
- Capt. Samuel Martin
- Capt. James Maxwell
- Capt. Charles Polk
- Capt. Thomas Ray

Rowan County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Maj. James Hall (killed), with thirteen (13) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Abel Armstrong
- Capt. Daniel Bryson
- Capt. David Caldwell
- Capt. Thomas Cowan
- Capt. James Crawford (mortally wounded)
- Capt. Thomas Davidson
- Capt. John Dickey
- Capt. Richard Graham
- Capt. Thomas Morrison
- Capt. Jacob Nichols
- Capt. Samuel Reid
- Capt. Richard Simmons
- Capt. William Wilson

Lincoln County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Maj. David Wilson, with six (6) known companies, led by:
- Capt. John Baldridge
- Capt. Peter Forney
- Capt. Thomas Lofton
- Capt. James Lytle
- Capt. John Weir
- Capt. John Work

Surry County Regiment of Militia detachment of two (2) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Arthur Scott
- Capt. John Morgan

Burke County Regiment of Militia detachment of one (1) known company, led by:
- Capt. Alexander Irvin

Johnston County Regiment of Militia detachment of one (1) known company, led by:
- Capt. Thomas Culler

Montgomery County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Col. William Lofton, with three (3) known companies, led by:
- Capt. John Hill (Randolph County)
- Capt. Jonathan Potts (Mecklenburg County)
- Capt. William Twitty (Rutherford County)

Orange County Regiment of Militia detachment led by Lt. Col. Thomas Farmer and Maj. Archibald Murphy, with five (5) known companies, led by:
- Capt. William Greenwood
- Capt. William Jamieson
- Capt. Stephen Merritt (Granville County)
- Capt. Shadrack Parish (Granville County)
- Capt. William Nichols

Caswell County Regiment of Militia detachment of three (3) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Spillsby Coleman
- Capt. F. Lawson
- Capt. Robert Park

Wake County Regiment of Militia detachment of one (1) known company, led by:
- Capt. Etheldred Jones

Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis - Commanding Officer

Brigade of Guards, led by Brig. Gen. Charles O'Hara, with 690 men in the following known units:

1st Guards Battalion, led by Col. Chapel Norton, with three (3) companies, led by:
- Lt. Col. Augustus Maitland - 1st Company
- Lt. Col. Charles Horneck - 2nd Company
- Lt. Col. Lowther Pennington - Grenadier Company

2nd Guards Battalion, led by Col. James Stewart, with two (2) known companies, led by:
- Lt. Col. Robert Lovelace - 3rd Company
- Lt. Col. Thomas Swanton - 4th Company

Light Infantry, led by Col. Francis Hall, with three (3) known companies, led by:
- Lt. Col. Francis Hall - 3rd Scots Guards
- Capt. William Maynard - Coldstream Guards
- Lt. Col. Francis Dundas - 1st Guards

23rd Regiment of Foot (Royal Welsh Fusiliers), with 279 men in two (2) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Forbes Champagne
- Capt. Thomas Peter

Hesse-Kassel Musketeer Regiment von Bose, led by Maj. Chris du Buy, with 345 men in four (4) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Alexander Wilmonsky
- Capt. Moritz von Stein
- Capt. Johann Eichenbrodt
- Capt. Herman Christian Rall

British Legion, led by Unknown, with 180 men in two (2) known companies, led by:
- Capt. David Ogilvie
- Capt. David Kinlock

Prince of Wales American Volunteers detachment of 10 men led by Ensign Patrick Garrett

Capt. Richard Hovenden
Capt. Thomas Sanford
Capt. Francis Gildart





















© 2012 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved