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


COLONEL OTHO WILLIAMS, of Maryland, an accomplished gentleman and experienced soldier, being called to the station, so anxiously, but vainly, pressed on Morgan, accepted it with cheerfulness and diffidence. This last arrangement being finished, Greene put his army in motion, leaving Williams on the ground. The greater the distance between the main body and the light troops, the surer would be Greene’s retreat. Williams, therefore, soon after breaking up from Guilford court-house, on the 10th, inclined to the left, for the purpose of throwing himself in front of lord Cornwallis. This movement was judicious, and had an immediate effect. His lordship, finding a corps of horse and foot close in front, whose strength and object were not immediately ascertainable, checked the rapidity of his march to give time for his long extended line to condense.

Could Williams have withdrawn himself from be tween Greene and Cornwallis, he might, probably, by occultly reaching the British rear, have performed material service. Although his sagacity discovered the prospect, yet his sound judgment could not adopt a movement which might endanger the retreat of an army, whose safety was the object of his command, and indispensable to the common cause. He adhered, therefore, to the less dazzling, but more useful, system; and fastened his attention, first on the safety of the main body, next on that of the corps under his command; risking the latter only (and then without hesitation) when the security of Greene’s retreat demanded it. Pursuing his course obliquely to the left, he reached an intermediate road; the British army being on his left and in his rear, the American in front and on his right.[note 99] This was exactly the proper position for the light corps, and Williams judiciously retained it.[note 100]

The enemy persevering in his rapid advance, our rear guard, (composed of the legion of Lee) and the British van under brigadier O’Hara, were in sight during the day. Throughout the night, the corps of Williams held a respectful distance, to thwart, as far as was practicable, nocturnal assault.

The duty, severe in the day, became more so at night; for numerous patroles and strong piquets were
necessarily furnished by the light troops, not only for their own safety, but to prevent the enemy from placing himself, by a circuitous march, between Williams and Greene. Such a manœuvre would have been fatal to the American army; and to render it impossible, half of the troops were alternately appropriated every night to duty: so that each man, during the retreat, was entitled to but six hours repose in forty-eight. Notwithstanding this privation, the troops were in fine spirits and good health; delighted with their task, and determined to prove themselves worthy the distinction with which they had been honored. At the hour of three, their toils were renewed; for Williams always pressed forward with the utmost despatch in the morning, to gain such a distance in front as would secure breakfast to his soldiers, their only meal during this rapid and hazardous retreat. So fatigued was officer and soldier, and so much more operative is weariness than hunger, that each man, not placed on duty, surrendered himself to repose as soon as the night position was taken. Situated as was Williams, no arrangement could have been devised, better calculated to effect the great object of his trust, and to secure food once a day to his troops.

The moment lord Cornwallis found it necessary to change his course and to push for Dix’s ferry, he ordered his van to proceed slowly; and separating from it at the head of the main body, which had now arrived at a cross-way leading to the desired route, he quickly gained the great road to Dix’s ferry, the course of the American light corps.

In pursuance of this system, Williams made a rapid morning’s march; and leaving small patroles of cavalry near the enemy, sent forward the staff to select ground and prepare fires. The officers and dragoons, who had been necessarily kept in sight of the British, upon joining, were hastened in front to a farmhouse near the road, where they enjoyed, although a few hours later, a more comfortable meal. Lieutenant colonel Carrington, who commanded the dragoons near the enemy’s van, reported from time to time, in conformity to custom, by which it appeared, that Cornwallis was moving as usual. The morning was cold and drizzly; our fires, which had been slow in kindling, were now lively; the meat was on the coals, and the corn cake in the ashes. At this moment, a friendly countryman appeared, riding in haste to our camp, whither he had been directed by the serjeant of one of the horse patroles, with which he fell in on his way. The hurry of his approach, and the tired condition of his meager poney, evinced sincerity of heart; while the joy of his countenance declared his participation of interest. Asking for “the general,” he was conducted to colonel Williams, whom he bluntly informed, that lord Cornwallis, leaving his former route, had got into our road; that one half hour past he left the British army advancing, then only four miles behind; that accidentally discovering it from his field, where he was burning brushwood, he ran home, took the first horse he could find, and hastened to give his friends intelligence, which he deemed important. To attach doubt to the information of an honest looking farmer would have violated all the rules of physiognomy. Williams always delighted to indulge and comfort his brave troops; and, although he credited the countryman, was unwilling to interrupt their hasty repast. He therefore ordered lieutenant colonel Lee to detach from his cavalry, in order to ascertain the correctness of the intelligence. Captain Armstrong, with one section of the horse, was despatched accordingly, with the countryman for his guide. Soon after their departure, Carrington, still near the enemy, communicated the unusually slow progress of the van guard. Combining this intelligence with that just received, Williams ordered lieutenant colonel Lee to strengthen Armstrong, and to take upon himself the command entrusted to that officer. Lieutenant Lewis, with the required addition, attended Lee, who despatched one of the dragoons to overtake Armstrong, with orders directing him to move slowly until he should join. Quickly reaching Armstrong, who had not advanced more than a mile, Lee proceeded, in conformity with the advice of the countryman, two miles further; but seeing no enemy, he began to believe that his guide, however well affected, was certainly in a mistake. He determined, therefore, to return to breakfast, and leave Armstrong with three dragoons and the guide to continue on to the spot, where the countryman’s information had placed the enemy one hour before. Armstrong selected the dragoons mounted on the swiftest horses, and was in the act of moving, when the amicable countryman protested against accompanying him, unless furnished with a better horse. While with the whole detachment, he had thought himself safe, and never manifested any unwillingness to proceed; but now, being associated with the most alert of alert dragoons, whose only duty was to look and fly, he considered his danger extreme. This remonstrance, the justice of which could not be resisted, added another reason for crediting the information. Lee dismounted his bugler, whose horse was given to the countryman; and the bugler was sent back to camp to inform Williams how far the lieutenant colonel had proceeded without seeing any portion of the enemy, and of his intention to return after advancing Armstrong still further in front. Not doubting that the countryman had seen the British army, but supposing him to be mistaken in the distance, Lee led his detachment into the woods, and retired slowly, in sight of the road. He presumed, that should Armstrong be followed, the enemy would discover the trail of advancing horse in the road, and be deterred from a keen pursuit, which he did not wish to encourage, as it might deprive the light troops of their meal; although he was disposed in that event to seize any advantage which might offer. Not many minutes elapsed before a discharge of musketry announced that Armstrong had met the enemy; and shortly after, the clangor of horses in swift speed, declared the fast approach of cavalry. Armstrong soon appeared, closely followed by a troop of Tarleton’s dragoons. Lee saw his captain and small party well in front, and hand in hand. For them he felt no apprehensions; but for the safety of his bugler, on the countryman’s poney, every feeling of his heart became interested. Being passed unperceived by the pursued and pursuers, Lee continued to proceed in the woods, determined to interpose in time to rescue his bugler, yet wishing to let the enemy take the utmost allowable distance, that they might be deprived of support. Directing one of his lieutenants to halt with the rear file and ascertain whether additional cavalry was following, Lee hastened his progress, and soon saw the enemy’s near approach to his defenceless bugler, who was immediately unhorsed, and sabred several times while prostrate on the ground. Lee was pressing forward to the road in the enemy’s rear, when the officer, who had been left behind, rejoined with the acceptable information, that no reinforcement was approaching. Gaining the road, the lieutenant colonel rushed forward in quick charge, and fell upon the troop of Tarleton soon after it had reached his bugler. Captain Miller instantly formed, and fronted his approaching adversary; but his worn-down ponies were as ill calculated to withstand the stout, high conditioned, active horse, opposed to them, as were the intoxicated, inexpert riders unfit to contend with dragoons always sober, and excelling in horsemanship. The enemy was crushed on the first charge: most of them were killed or prostrated; and the residue, with their captain, attempted to escape. They were pursued by lieutenant Lewis, who was commanded by Lee to give no quarters. This sanguinary mandate, so contrary to the American character, proceeded from a view of the bugler,—a beardless, unarmed youth, who had vainly implored quarter, and in the agonies of death presented a spectacle resistless in its appeal for vengeance.[note 101] Having placed the much wounded hapless boy in the arms of the stoutest of his dragoons, and directed another soldier to attend them to camp, the lieutenant colonel proceeded in support of Lewis. Soon this officer was met, returning with captain Miller, and all, save two, of the fugitives. The British captain was unhurt; but his dragoons were severely cut in the face, neck, and shoulders. Lewis was reprimanded on the spot for disobedience of orders; and Miller, being peremptorily charged with the atrocity perpetrated in his view, was told to prepare for death. The captain, with some show of reason, asserted, that intelligence being his object, it was his wish and interest to save the soldier; that he had tried to do so; but his dragoons being intoxicated, all his efforts were ineffectual. He added, that in the terrible slaughter under lieutenant colonel Buford, his humanity was experienced, and had been acknowledged by some of the Americans who escaped death on that bloody day. Lee was somewhat mollified by this rational apology, and was disposed to substitute one of the prisoners; but soon overtaking the speechless dying youth, whose relation to his supporting comrade of the tragical particulars of his fate, when able to speak, confirmed the former impressions of Lee, he returned with unrelenting sternness to his first decision. Descending a long hill, he repeated his determination to sacrifice Miller in the vale through which they were about to pass; and handing him a pencil, desired him to note on paper whatever he might wish to make known to his friends, with an assurance that it should be transmitted to the British general. At this moment, the rear guard communicated, by pistol discharge, the approach of the British van. Miller and his fellow prisoners were hurried on to colonel Williams, who was at the same time informed of the enemy’s advance. Williams put his corps in motion, and forwarded the captured officers and soldiers to headquarters; ignorant of the murder of the bugler, and the determination of lieutenant colonel Lee. Thus Miller escaped the fate to which he had been doomed, in order to convince the British cavalry under lieutenant colonel Tarleton, that American blood should no longer be wantonly shed with impunity. Believing himself indebted for his life to the accident just recited, captain Miller took care to represent, by letter, to his friends in the British army what had happened, and his conviction of what would have followed; and never afterwards were such cruelties repeated by the British cavalry acting against the army of Greene.

The dead, eighteen in number, being left on the road where they fell, were buried by order of lord Cornwallis as he passed. On the part of the American officer no life was lost, except that of the beardless bugler, who died soon after the advance of the enemy was announced. His corpse was necessarily deposited in the woods adjoining the road, with the hope that some humane citizen might find it.

The pursuit was continued with unceasing activity. Williams, retiring in compact order, with the legion of Lee in his rear, held himself ready to strike, whenever an opportunity presented. The skilful enemy never permitted any risk in detail, but preserved his whole force for one decisive struggle.

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