Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley
Lee's Legion joins the army under Greene—Surprises Georgetown—Battle of Cowpens—Cornwallis prepares to pursue Greene's army by destroying a part of his bagage and stores—Greene joins Morgan and brings forward his detachment to the main army—The pursuit commences—Defeat of Davidson—Greene passes the Yadkin—Lee with his legion joins Greene's main army—Placed between the retreating and advancing armies—Lee dissuades Morgan from leaving the army—But Morgan retires on account of ill-health.
WE have noticed the movements of Lee, detailed in the last chapter, with a view to the reader's better comprehension of the events now to follow, in which Lee was to take an active part. We resume our quotations from Lee's Memoirs.
Soon after General Greene had taken his position opposite to Cheraw hill, Lieutenant Colonel Lee, with his legion, making about two hundred and eighty in horse and foot, joined the army. This corps, being in excellent condition, was, on the next day, ordered to cross the Pedee, in order to support Brigadier Marion, who continued to interrupt and harass the enemy's posts between the Pedee and the Santee. In a few days after Lee's junction with Marion, they projected an enterprise against the garrison of Georgetown, a small village in South Carolina, situated on the bay into which the Pedee empties. Colonel Campbell commanded in this town, with a garrison of two hundred men. In his front he had prepared some slight defences, better calculated to repel a sudden, than resist a determined, assault. Between these defences and the town, and contiguous to each, was an inclosed work with a frize and palisade, which constituted his chief protection. A subaltern guard held it. The rest of the troops were dispersed in light parties in and near the town, looking towards the country. The plan of assault was founded on the facility with which the assailant might convey down the Pedee a part of his force undiscovered, and land in the water suburb of the town, which, being always deemed secure, was consequently unguarded. After this body should have reached the wharves, it was to move in two divisions. The first was to force the commander's quarters, known to be the place of parade, then to secure him, and all who might flock thither on the alarm. The second was to be charged with the interception of such of the garrison as might attempt to gain the fort, their chief point of safety on annoyance. The militia and cavalry of the legion, under Marion and Lee, were to approach near the town in the night; and when the entrance of the infantry, passed down by water, should be announced, they were to rush into it for co-operation and support.
The plan being approved by General Greene, preparations were immediately made for its execution. The infantry of the legion were embarked in boats under the command of Captain Carnes, with orders to fall down the Pedee to a designated island, during the first night; to land and lay concealed there the ensuing day; to reëmbark at an early hour of the night following, and reach Georgetown between one and two in the morning.
Marion and Lee proceeded to their destination, having taken all the requisite precautions to prevent any intimation to the enemy of their approach. At twelve o'clock in the second night, they occupied, unperceived, a position in the vicinity of the town, and waited anxiously for the annunciation of Carnes's arrival. This officer met with no difficulty in descending the river, and reached the appointed island before dawn of light. He remained there the ensuing day; and so unusual is inland navigation in South Carolina, so impervious are the deep swamps which line its rivers, that he might have sojourned for weeks on the island without discovery.
Gaining his place of destination with precision in point of time, he landed unperceived, and instantly advanced to the quarters of Lieutenant Colonel Campbell. The commandant was secured; and Carnes judiciously posted his division for seizing such parties of the garrison as might flock to the parade ground. Captain Rudulph, who led the second division, with equal good fortune gained the vicinity of the fort; and arranged his troops on the route of communication, in order to arrest the fugitives.
On the first fire, which took place at the commandant's quarters, the militia of Marion and the dragoons of Lee rushed into the town, prepared to bear down all resistance. To the astonishment of these officers, every thing was quiet; the legion infantry holding its assigned stations, and Lieutenant Colonel Campbell a prisoner. Not a British soldier appeared; not one attempted either to gain the fort, or repair to the commandant. Having discovered their enemy, the troops of the garrison kept close to their respective quarters, barricaded the doors, and determined there to defend themselves. The assailants were unprovided with the requisite implements for battering doors and scaling windows. The fort was in possession of the enemy, and daylight approaching.
Marion and Lee were therefore compelled to retire with a partial accomplishment of their object. Colonel Campbell was suffered to remain on parole; and the troops withdrew from Georgetown, unhurt and unannoyed. The plan of this enterprise, although conceived with ingenuity, and executed with precision, was too refined and complicated for success. Marion and Lee were singularly tender of the lives of their soldiers; and preferred moderate success, with little loss, to the most brilliant enterprise, with the destruction of many of their troops.
This principle is wise and commendable; but, when carried too far, it is sure to produce disappointment. If, instead of placing Rudulph's division to intercept the fugitives, it had been ordered to carry the fort by the bayonet, our success would have been complete. The fort taken, and the commandant a prisoner, we might have availed ourselves of the cannon, and have readily demolished every obstacle and shelter.
On the 17th of January, 1781, was fought the celebrated Battle of Cowpens, in which General Morgan defeated a detachment of the British army under Colonel Tarleton, which had been sent in pursuit of him. Lee gives a very vivid description of this battle; but his legion was not engaged in it.
Lord Cornwallis, says Lee,[note 1] 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. Everything 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 Lee 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 Camden, 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.
Now commenced that celebrated retreat of General Greene before the superior army of Cornwallis, which is considered the most able and important of all his splendid achievements in the Southern States.
On the first of February, Cornwallis encountered at McCowan's Ford, a detachment under General Davidson, sent by Greene to dispute the passage. An action ensued in which Davidson was killed and the detachment defeated, and a party of militia at Terrant's tavern in the neighborhood, were dispersed by Tarleton's troopers. Soon after ensued the remarkable passage of the Yadkin, thus related by Lee:
The inhabitants of this region of the state were well affected 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 oposition, 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 2]
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 Avere to take post between the retreating and the advancing armies 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 ocasionally 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.