The American Revolution in North Carolina

The Race to the Dan - January 18th to February 15th, 1781

Immediately after the embarrassing defeat at Cowpens (SC) on January 17th, British Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis decided that he wanted his captured men back, and he wanted to teach the upstart Patriots a lesson about "messing with the British Army." Confident that Brigadier General Daniel Morgan could not be supported in time by his leader, Major General Nathanael Greene, who was patiently awaiting news at Cheraw Hills (SC), Lord Cornwallis hastily decided on a quick march northward to intercept Brigadier General Daniel Morgan.

Instinctively, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, knew that Lord Cornwallis would come after him, therefore he quickly left the site of the battle of Cowpens with his 600 or so British prisoners and avoided the few roads to keep his enemy guessing as to his whereabouts and his ultimate objective. He first went to Gilbert Town, very near today's city of Rutherfordton, NC - quickly sending express messages to his commander, Major General Nathanael Greene. Morgan set a furious pace despite his deteriorating health - his men were marching before dawn on Thursday morning, January 18th.

Late in the evening of that same Thursday, British Major General Alexander Leslie arrived in Lord Cornwallis's camp with 1,200 fresh reinforcements from Charlestown. With these additions, Lord Cornwallis now fielded an army of almost 2,500 soldiers, including more than 1,200 "Regulars." Early the next morning, the British army broke camp in search of the Patriots under Morgan. Although the weather and the conditions of the many rivers and streams - at this time of year unpredictable at best and impossible at worst - as well as the lack of decent roadways, Lord Cornwallis and his men eventually averaged "about a mile an hour" in their quest to overtake Brigadier General Daniel Morgan's rag-tag band. Amazingly, Morgan barely managed to remain one step ahead of Lord Cornwallis.

Lord Cornwallis made a hasty camp at Ramseur's Mill on Thursday, January 25th. Far from moving speedily (as they would hereafter), the British had taken three days to cover thirty miles. It was here that he made the fateful decision to burn his wagon train, "I employed a halt of two days in collecting some flour, and in destroying superfluous baggage and all my wagons, except those loaded with hospital stores, salt, and ammunition and four reserved empty in readiness for sick or wounded." On Sunday, January 28th, his army finally marched again, this day stopping suddenly near Beattie's Ford on the west bank of the Catawba River, which had risen so much it was completely impassable.

In the meantime, Major General Nathanael Greene ordered his Continentals on the Pee Dee River under Brigadier General Isaac Huger to march north to Salisbury, while he and three dragoons and a guide stealthily headed to meet Morgan. Exactly how he got to Morgan's position remains something of a mystery. Most likely, he rode north into Anson County, North Carolina then zigged and zagged to avoid detection. Regardless of his actual route, the fact that he found the "Old Wagoner" without being spotted by Loyalists or intercepted by a British foraging party is truly a miracle. He caught up with Morgan on January 30th at Beattie's Ford, along the border between today's Lincoln and Mecklenburg counties.

The next day Major General Nathanael Greene held a Council of War with Brigadier General Daniel Morgan (VA Continentals), Brigadier General William Lee Davidson (Pro Tempore) (Salisbury District Brigade of NC Militia), Lt. Col. William Washington (VA Cavalry), and Capt. Joseph Graham (Mecklenburg County Regiment of Militia). The men sat on a log a few hundred yards from camp and decided the next moves. Greene acknowledged that he had only Morgan's Flying Army and Davidson's 800 Militiamen to defend the scores of fords between them and the British army. His plan was simple - Morgan would hold the upper ford (Sherrill's Ford) while Davidson would hold the lower fords (Beattie's Ford, Cowan's Ford, and Toole's Ford) as long as possible and then fall back to Salisbury. Salisbury would provide much needed food and ammunition for the Patriot army - but, the town would have to be quickly evacuated to avoid being taken by the British.

Lord Cornwallis determined that both Sherrill's Ford and Beattie's Ford were too heavily guarded, so he sent a feint led by Lt. Col. James Webster (33rd Regiment of Foot) towards Beattie's Ford and then marched at 1 a.m. with the remainder of his army to a smaller crossing four miles south - Cowan's Ford. As soon as word was received that his superior was in place, Lt. Col. Webster ordered his men to "make demonstrations of attacking" Beattie's Ford - one company actually entered the water and fired on the Patriots along the opposite bank.

Brigadier General (Pro Tempore) William Lee Davidson correctly guessed that this was a ruse. He deployed 250 militia, including Capt. Joseph Graham and his dragoons, at Cowan's Ford. For more information on the first engagement in the "Race to the Dan" please Click Here. Although the British lost more men - primarily due to the fast moving river - the Patriots lost one of their finest generals - William Lee Davidson. Many of the disheartened Patriots found their way to a local watering hole - Tarrant's Tavern - to mourn their loss and to quiet their nerves with a bucket of ale.

The second engagement in the "Race to the Dan" occurred later that same rainy Thursday afternoon. Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton somehow learned of this local watering hole and realized that, although likely outnumbered, he had two advantages - the element of surprise and the weather - the Patriots' powder would be soaked and therefore unusable. He arrived shortly after 2:00 p.m and his men quickly cut down many of the stunned Patriots. Tarleton claimed little loss and determined that his men had killed forty to fifty Patriots while capturing some of them as well. Capt. Joseph Graham later recounted that the Patriot casualties were closer to ten. For more information - Click Here.

As soon as he learned of the debacle at Cowan's Ford, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan decided to avoid the British once again and he took a more northerly route into Salisbury, arriving there on Friday morning, February 2nd. Major General Nathanael Greene was a step ahead of the British once again - he passed by Tarrant's Tavern several hours before Lt. Col. Tarleton's arrival, and Greene spent that night at the home of David Carr. The next day, he again met up with Morgan in Salisbury. Wagons were loaded with all the available food, ammunition, and weapons. These were dispatched northward to Trading Ford while he fired off another flurry of letters. He urged Brigadier General Isaac Huger to hurry his men along and he ordered Lt. Col. Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee to join him as soon as possible. In the early morning of Saturday, February 3rd, Greene and Morgan rode to Trading Ford and watched their men cross the Yadkin River in a constant rain - the river was rapidly rising. A small band of Virginia Militia under Brigadier General Edward Stevens was waiting on the other side.

The British quickly regrouped after crossing the Catawba River. Lt. Col. James Webster rejoined the main column and the re-united army made a wet camp six miles from Cowan's Ford. The British rested on February 2nd, but on the 3rd they marched for Salisbury. They arrived that afternoon and stopped to pillage. They also freed a number of prisoners held in the Salisbury jail. At midnight on February 3rd, the British army led by Brigadier General Charles O'Hara reached Trading Ford. There they found all of the boats on the opposite shore. Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis's artillery fired a few rounds across the fast moving river, but they did no damage to the Patriots on the other side. For more detailes Click Here. The exhausted British army camped and spent the next day resting. The Patriots did not.

Brigadier General Daniel Morgan marched for Guilford Court House, reaching the hamlet on February 6th. Despite a steady downpour of rain, Morgan's men covered the forty-seven miles in just forty-eight hours. Major General Nathanael Greene lingered behind at the Yadkin River with a small detachment watching Lord Cornwallis. Again, he wrote to Brigadier General Isaac Huger, revising his rendezvous point now to Guilford Court House. Greene also dispatched letters to the nearby Militia commanders, first with an express to Col. James Martin urging him to gather up his Guilford County Regiment of Militia and to send "the most intelligible man... well acquainted" with the local roads, distances, etc. Greene then fired off letters to the militias behind the British requesting that they unite and attempt to get around the British and to join him as soon as possible. One letter made it to Col. Francis Locke of the Rowan County Regiment of Militia, whose men made a brief, but determined stand against Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton's dragoons at Grant's Creek on February 4th (one source says February 5th) - for more details Click Here.

On February 6th, Lord Cornwallis headed north for Shallow Ford, twenty-five miles north of Trading Ford. It was slow, tough marching in miserable, cold, and wet conditions. On February 7th, the British arrived at Shallow Ford - Patriot Capt. Joseph Graham found some British stragglers and took them prisoner. For very little more, Click Here. On February 8th, the British were patrolling the general area looking for the Patriot army - Lord Cornwallis really didn't know precisely where his enemy had headed after leaving Salisbury. In the meantime, Major General Nathanael Greene created a new "special ops group" to keep an eye on the whereabouts of the British. These two patrols ran into each other on the road from Trading Ford to the Moravian settlements - along Reedy Creek. For more information Click Here.

Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis arrived in the Moravian community of Bethania on Friday, February 9th around noon time. The British requisitioned cattle, and more than sixty were slaughtered during that afternoon. Seventeen horses were impressed by Quartermaster General - Maj. Richard England. Part of Tarleton's Legion was sent to nearby Bethabara, where "100 gallons of brandy, more than 300 lbs. of bread, and all the meal that was ready" were requisitioned. The British left Bethania at 7:00 a.m., passed through Bethabara, then on to Salem, a town of 167 inhabitants and the center of Moravian culture. A large party of refugees followed. All camped outside the town on the plantation of Friedrich Muller, a noted Moravian.

Major General Nathanael Greene arrived at Guilford Court House on February 7th, one day after Morgan. Brigadier General Isaac Huger and the remainder of the Continentals arrived on February 8th, one reported that he had left South Carolina on February 5th. The Southern Army was finally reunited, but amounted to only a few more than 2,000 exhausted souls, 600 of whom were poorly armed militia. The Continentals were immediately issued orders to clean and mend their gear. On the afternoon of February 9th, Greene called a meeting of his principal commanders - they all agreed that they had to "avoid a General Action at all Events, and that the Army ought to retreat immediately over the Roanoke River." Greene then said good-bye to Daniel Morgan, who was put into a carriage and taken home to his farm in the Shenandoah Valley. Greene allegedly voiced, "Great generals are scarce - there are few Morgans to be found."

Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis was not aware that Brigadier General Isaac Huger had slipped by his scouts and sneaked into the little town of Guilford Court House to joine Greene's army. Upon leaving Friedrick Muller's plantation, he decided to attempt to intercept Brigadier General Huger and marched his men to the southeast. Upon reaching Abbott's Creek Meeting House and Idol's Ordinary on February 11th, Lord Cornwallis learned that Huger had already slipped past him. He then turned his army northeast to catch the fast moving Patriots.

Major General Nathanael Greene's key commander, Col. Otho H. Williams of the Maryland Continentals, had been previously ordered as the leader of the new "special ops group" to stall the British by any means possible, and to draw them away from Greene's main force. Col. Williams dispatched Lt. Col. Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee to fulfill these orders. On Sunday, February 11th, Lt. Col. Lee detached a company of cavalry to intercept a potential vanguard of the British army that seemed to be getting too close for comfort. The two small contingents met at Summerfield, also known as Bruce's Cross Roads. For more details - Click Here.

The Patriots began crossing the Dan River on Tuesday, February 13th - it took them all night and much of the next day, with Col. Otho H. Williams and his men arriving in the early evening of the 14th, barely ahead of the van of the British army. His exhausted men crossed under torchlight. Lee's Legion crossed at Boyd's Ferry, the men in boats and the horses swimming.

The British arrived twelve hours later, around 8:00 a.m. on Thursday, February 15th.

With all boats on the opposite shore, Major General Nathanael Greene could get a few hours of rest. There are no known contemporary accounts of what Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis felt about being too late. Later, in a letter to the British Secretary of State, Lord George Germain, Lord Cornwallis blamed his failure on "defective intelligence, bad roads, and the passage of many deep creeks and bridges destroyed by the enemy's light troops." He had pursued the Patriots for three weeks, covered almost 250 miles over muddy, frost-covered roads, in torrents of rain and sleet, crossed many major waterways, and fought in a handful of skirmishes.

The Race to the Dan was over. Major General Nathanael Greene and the Patriots won.

He now had but a few days to regroup, request more troops, and turn them southward again towards Guilford Court House. While there on February 7th, Greene astutely recognized that the site of Guilford Court House would make an excellent place to later face his nemesis - Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis. When he left the safety of Virginia to inevitably face Lord Cornwallis, Greene pointed his army directly for Guilford Court House, even though it took him over a month of marching them back and forth to force his enemy into his desired position.

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