Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, Volume One
Henry Lee


LORD Cornwallis received the unexpected, doleful tidings of Tarleton’s defeat with serenity, but deep regret. He had been baffled in his first expedition into North Carolina by the fall of Ferguson; and this late disaster seemed to forbid perseverance in his second. With a view to retrieve, by the celerity of his movements, the severe loss he had sustained, he formed the wise resolution of converting his army into light troops by the destruction of his baggage. Commanding this sacrifice without respect to persons, he set the example himself, by committing to flames the baggage of headquarters. With zeal and alacrity his faithful army obeyed the mandate. Every thing was destroyed, save a small supply of clothing, and a sufficient number of wagons for the conveyance of hospital stores, of salt, of ammunition, and for the accommodation of the sick and wounded. We are at a loss whether to admire more the wisdom of the chief, or the self-denial of his followers. A memorable instance, among many others in this unnatural war, of the immutable disposition of the British soldiers to endure every privation in support of their king and country. This arrangement being finished, lord Cornwallis moved from Fisher’s creek, determined on unceasing efforts to destroy Morgan, and recover his lost troops; to keep separate the two divisions of Greene’s army; and, should he fail in these attempts, to bring Greene to action before he could reach Virginia.

Morgan, always attentive to his duty, took measures for retreat the moment victory had declared in his favor. In the evening of the same day he crossed the Broad river, and moved by forced marches to the Catawba, before lord Cornwallis could reach its banks.

General Greene was quickly advised of the advance of the British army from Winnsborough and Cambden, through the upper country; and accordingly issued his preparatory orders for movement. On the subsequent day he received the gratifying intelligence of the victory at the Cowpens. Foreseeing the enemy’s objects, he hastened his march in conformity with his previous disposition, and despatched a courier to Marion and Lee, apprising them of his decampment and ordering the latter to rejoin with all possible celerity. Escorted by a few dragoons, general Greene hastened to reach Morgan, which he happily accomplished on the last day of January, after that officer had passed the Catawba. Aware of the rapidity with which the British general would advance to strike him before he could gain that point, Morgan redoubled his exertions to reach it; but with all his activity, so keen and persevering had been Cornwallis’s pursuit, that he had just crossed the river on the evening of the 29th of January, when the British van appeared on the opposite banks. A heavy fall of rain, during the night, rendered the Catawba unfordable. Morgan availed himself of this fortunate occurrence; and continuing in his position during the swell of the river, sent off his prisoners, with the arms, stores, &c., taken at the Cowpens, under the protection of a part of his militia, on a route nearer to the mountain than that intended to be taken by himself. The waters continued high for two days, and gave the brigadier time to place his prisoners in safety. His light troops, joined by some of the neighboring militia, were disposed, by order of general Greene, to dispute the passage of the river. This was attempted with a hope of retarding the British general in his advance so long as to allow time for brigadier Huger, of South Carolina, who had succeeded Smallwood after the retirement of that officer from Charlotte, to reach Salisbury, the first point assigned for the junction of the two divisions of the American army.

As soon as the fall of the water admitted the passage of troops, lord Cornwallis resumed his march. Lieutenant colonel Webster, at the head of one division, was directed to follow the main road to Beattie’s Ford, indicating an intention to pass there; while the British general, with the remainder of his army, decamping about midnight, moved up the river to M’Cowan’s, a distant and private ford, which he presumed would be neglected by his adversary. On his approach at the dawn of day, on the first of February, the light of fires on the opposite banks announced his lordship’s miscalculation. Private as was this ford, it had not escaped the vigilance of Greene; who had detached, on the preceding evening, general Davidson with three hundred of the North Carolina militia to defend it. A disposition was immediately made to dislodge Davidson, which brigadier O’Hara with the guards effected. Lieutenant colonel Hall led with the light company, followed by the grenadiers. The current was rapid, the stream waist deep, and five hundred yards in width. The soldiers crossed in platoons, supporting each other’s steps. When lieutenant colonel Hall reached the middle of the river, he was descried by the American centinels, whose challenge and fire brought Davidson’s corps into array. Deserted by his guide, Hall passed directly across, not knowing the landing place which lay below him. This deviation from the common course rendered it necessary for Davidson to incline to the right;[note 96] but this manœuvre, although promptly performed, was not effected until the light infantry had gained the shore. A fierce conflict ensued, which was well supported by Davidson and his inferior force. The militia at length yielded, and Davidson, while mounting his horse to direct the retreat, was killed. The corps dispersed, and sought safety in the woods.[note 97] Our loss was small, excepting the brigadier, an active, zealous, and influential officer. Lieutenant colonel Hall was also killed, with three of the light infantry, and thirty-six were wounded. Lord Cornwallis followed the guards; and, as soon as his division had passed, detached lieutenant colonel Tarleton with the cavalry, supported by the twenty-third regiment, in pursuit of the militia. Terrant’s tavern, ten miles in front, had been assigned as the place of rendezvous for the diflferent corps of militia, assembled and assembling. Tarleton, approaching this place, discovered a body of troops in his front, and fell upon them with vigor. The militia made little or no resistance, and fled: a few of them were killed, but none taken.

The inhabitants of this region of the state were well aflTected to the American cause; and general Greene had flattered himself with an expectation of here drawing around him reinforcements, which, with the light troops under Morgan, would enable him to hold lord Cornwallis back for some days. But the fall of Davidson, and the rencontre at Terrant’s tavern, disappointed, in their effect, this fond calculation. He despatched orders to brigadier Huger to relinquish the route to Salisbury, and to take the direct course to Guilford court-house, to which point he pressed forward with the light corps under Morgan. Passing through Salisbury, he proceeded to the trading ford on the Yadkin, where he arrived on the night of the second of February.

General Greene having withdrawn his troops from Beattie’s ford, on his lordship’s passage above, lieutenant colonel Webster and his division crossed the Catawba without opposition, and in the course of the day joined the British general. Cornwallis had now gained the great road, leading to Salisbury; and the pursuit of our light troops was renewed with activity.

General Greene passed the Yadkin during the night of, and day following, his arrival at that river. The horse forded the stream, the infantry and most of the baggage were transported in flats. A few wagons fell into the hands of the enemy; for, notwithstanding the unfavorable condition of the roads and weather, brigadier O’Hara pressed forward with the British van, and overtook our rear guard. The retreating corps was again placed in a critical situation, and Heaven was again propitious. The rain continued during the night; the Yadkin became unfordable; and Greene had secured all the flats on its northern banks.[note 98]

The British general was a second time delayed by an unforeseen event. Relinquishing his anxious wish to bring the light troops to action before their junction with the main body, he recurred to his last expedient, that of cutting Greene off from the upper fords of the Dan, and compelling his united force to battle, before he could either reach Virginia, or derive any aid from that state. With this view, he moved up the Yadkin to fords, which were still passable. There his lordship crossed; and, directing his course to the Dan, held Greene on his right, with a determination to throw the American general on the lower Dan, which the great fall of rain had rendered impassable without the assistance of boats, which he supposed unattainable. This object, his last hope, the British general pursued with his accustomed rapidity.

Greene was neither less active, nor less diligent. Continuing on the direct road to Guilford court-house, he reached that place on the 7th of February. Brigadier Huger, who had been overtaken by the legion of Lee, arrived on the same day. The united force of Greene, including five hundred militia, exceeded two thousand three hundred; of which, two hundred and seventy were cavalry of the best quality. The army of Cornwallis was estimated at two thousand five hundred; but his cavalry, although more numerous than that of his adversary, was far inferior in regard to the size, condition and activity of the horses. Taking into view his comparative weakness, general Greene determined to continue his retreat to Virginia. The British general was twenty-five miles from Guilford court-house; equally near with Greene to Dix’s ferry on the Dan, and nearer to the upper shallows or points of that river, which were supposed to be fordable, notwithstanding the late swell of water. Lieutenant colonel Carrington, quartermaster general, suggested the propriety of passing at Irwin’s ferry, seventy miles from Guilford court-house, and twenty 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 near and lower ferries. The plan of lieutenant colonel Carrington was adopted, and that officer was charged with the requisite preparations. The route of retreat being determined, the place of crossing designated, and measures taken for the collection of boats, general Greene formed a light corps, consisting of some of his best infantry under lieutenant colonel Howard, of Washington’s cavalry, the legion of Lee, and a few militia riflemen, making in all seven hundred. These troops were to take post between the retreating and the advancing army, to hover round the skirts of the latter, to seize every opportunity of striking in detail, and to retard the enemy by vigilance and judicious positions: while Greene, with the main body, hastened towards the Dan, the boundary of his present toils and dangers.

The command of the light corps was offered to brigadier Morgan, whose fitness for such a service was universally acknowledged, and whose splendid success had commanded the high confidence of the general and army. Morgan declined the arduous task; and being at that time afflicted, as he occasionally was, with rheumatism, intimated a resolution of retiring from the army. Greene listened with reluctance to the excuse, and endeavored to prevail on him to recede from his determination. Lieutenant colonel Lee, being in habits of intimacy with Morgan, was individually deputed to persuade him to obey the universal wish. Many common place arguments were urged in conversation without success. Lee then represented, that the brigadier’s retirement at that crisis might induce an opinion unfavorable to his patriotism, and prejudicial to his future fame; that the resignation of a successful soldier at a critical moment was often attributed, and sometimes justly, to an apprehension, that the contest would ultimately be unfortunate to his country, or to a conviction that his reputation had been accidentally acquired, and could not survive the vicissitudes of war. These observations appeared to touch the feelings of Morgan: for a moment he paused; then discovered a faint inclination to go through the impending conflict; but finally returned to his original decision. His refusal of the proffered command was followed by a request to retire; which was granted.

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