Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley
Lee again interrupted at his breakfast—Narrow escape of Lee and his Legion—near approach of the enemy—Night march—Great alarm of Lee for Greene's safety—He comes on Greene's deserted camp—Greene passes the Dan—Williams and Lee pass the Dan—End of the retreat—lts immense importance—The salvation of the Southern States—General remarks on the retreat.
HAVING continued on the route to Dix's ferry as far as he deemed advisable, and presuming that General Greene would, on the next day, reach the vicinity of the Dan, Colonel Williams determined to pass to the road on his right, leading to Irwin's ferry, the route of the main body. He communicated this intention to the rear officer, and moved forward with increased celerity, for the purpose of gaining a distant night position, that he might be able to diminish the guards necessary for the security of his corps when close to the enterprising enemy.
Lieutenant Colonel Lee having discovered, from conversation with his guides, that a bye-way in front would lead him into Williams's rear before the close of evening, and save a considerable distance, determined to avail himself of the accommodation. A subaltern's command of dragoons was left to proceed on the route taken by Colonel Williams, with orders to communicate any extraordinary occurrence to the commandant and to Lieutenant Colonel Lee. The cavalry who met Miller in the morning had lost their breakfast, and Lee's chief object in taking the short course was to avail himself of an abundant farm for the refreshment of his party. As soon as he reached the proposed route, the infantry were hastened forward, with directions to halt at the farm, and prepare for the accommodation of the corps, while the cavalry continued close to the enemy. In due time afterwards, they were drawn off and passed through the woods, leaving in front of the British van the detachment which had been selected to follow the route of the light troops. The obscurity of the narrow road taken by Lee, lulled every suspicion with respect to the enemy, and a few videts only were placed at intermediate points, rather to give notice when the British should pass along, than to guard the legion from surprise. This precaution was most fortunate; for so it happened that Cornwallis having ascertained that Greene had directed his course to Irwin's ferry, determined to avail himself of the nearest route to gain the road of his enemy, and took the path which Lee had selected.
Our horses were unbridled, with abundance of provender before them; the hospitable farmer had liberally bestowed his meal and bacon, and had given the aid of his domestics in hastening the much wished repast. To the surprise and grief of all, the pleasant prospect was instantly marred by the fire of the advanced videts—certain signal of the enemy's approach. Before the farm was a creek, which, in consequence of the late incessant rains, could be passed only by a bridge, not more distant from the enemy than from our party. The cavalry being speedily arrayed, moved to support the videts, while the infantry were ordered, in full run, to seize and hold the bridge.
The enemy was equally surprised with ourselves at this unexpected meeting; and the light party in front halted, to report and be directed. This pause was sufficient. The bridge was gained, and soon passed by the corps of Lee. The British followed. The road over the bridge leading through cultivated fields for a mile, the British army was in full view of the troops of Lee as the latter ascended the eminence on whose summit they entered the great road to Irwin's ferry.
Thus escaped a corps, which had been hitherto guarded with unvarying vigilance; whose loss would have been severely felt by the American general, and which had been just exposed to imminent peril from the presumption of certain security. Criminal improvidence! A soldier is always in danger, when his conviction of security leads him to dispense with the most vigilant precaution.
Cornwallis, at length in Greene's rear, urged his march with redoubled zeal, confident of overtaking his adversary before he could reach the Dan. Adverse efforts to accelerate and to retard, were unceasingly exhibited during the evening; the enemy's van being sometimes so close as to indicate a determination to force the light troops to prepare for defence. Avoiding a measure replete with peril, Williams persevered in his desultory retreat. More than once were the legion of Lee, and the van of O'Hara within musket shot, which presented so acceptable an invitation to the marksmen flanking the legion, that they were restrained with difficulty from delivering their fire. This disposition being effectually checked, the demeanor of the hostile troops became so pacific in appearance, that a spectator would have been led to consider them members of the same army. Only when a defile or a water course crossed our route did the enemy exhibit any indication to cut off our rear; in which essays, being always disappointed, their useless efforts were gradually discontinued.
The fall of night excited pleasure, as it promised respite from toil. But illusory was the expectation! for the British general was so eager to fall on Greene, whom he believed within his grasp, that the pursuit was not intermitted. The night was dark, the roads deep, the weather cold, and the air humid. Williams, throwing his horse in front, and the infantry of the legion in the rear, continued his retreat.
About eight in the evening, numerous fires discovered an encampment before us. No pen can describe the heart-rending feelings of our brave and wearied troops. Not a doubt was entertained that the descried camp was Greene's, and our dauntless corps was convinced that the crisis had now arrived when its self-sacrifice could alone give a chance of escape to the main body. With one voice was announced the noble resolution to turn on the foe, and, by dint of desperate courage, so cripple him as to force a discontinuance of pursuit. This heroic spirit, first breathed in whispers, soon gained the ear of Williams, who, alike daring and alike willing to offer up his life for the safety of an army on which the hopes of the South rested, would have heen foremost in the bold conflict. But his first impressions soon yielded to conclusions drawn from a reference to the date of General Greene's last letter, which demonstrated the mistaken apprehension of the troops. Enjoying the delight inspired by their manly ardor, and commending their devotion to their country, he calmed their disquietude. They shortly reached the camp of fires, and discovered that it was the ground where Greene had halted on the evening of the 11th. Relieved from the dire foreboding, the light corps continued its march until the rear officer made known to the commandant that the enemy had halted. The first convenient spot was occupied for the night; the fires were instantly kindled, the cold and wet, the cares and toils of the day, were soon forgotten in the enjoyment of repose.
About midnight our troops were put in motion, in consequence of the enemy's advance on our piquets, which the British general had been induced to order from knowing that he was within forty miles of the Dan, and that all his hope depended on the exertions of the following day. Animated with the prospect of soon terminating their present labors, the light troops resumed their march with alacrity. The roads continued deep and broken, and were rendered worse by being incrusted with frost: nevertheless, the march was pushed with great expedition. In the forenoon one hour was applied by both commanders to the refreshment of their troops.
About noon Colonel Williams received a letter from General Greene, communicating the delightful tidings of his passage over the Dan on the preceding day. The whole corps became renovated in strength and agility; so powerful is the influence of the mind over the body. The great object of their long and faithful labors being so nearly accomplished, a general emulation pervaded all ranks to hasten to the boundary of their cares and perils. The hopes of the enemy were still high, and he rivalled our increased celerity; the van of O'Hara following close on the rear of Lee. About three in the evening we arrrived within fourteen miles of the river; and Colonel Williams, leaving the legion of Lee to wait on the enemy, took the nearest course to Boyd's ferry. Before sunset he gained the river, and was soon transported to the opposite shore.
Lee, at the assigned period, directed his infantry to follow on the route of Williams; and about dark withdrew with his cavalry, the enemy being still in motion. Between the hours of eight and nine, the cavalry reached the river, just as the boats had returned from landing the legion infantry. In obedience to the disposition of Lieutenant Colonel Carrington, quarter master general, who superintended, in person, his arrangements for the transportation of the army, the horses were turned into the stream, while the dragoons, with their arms and equipments, embarked in the boats. Unluckily, some of the horses turned back, and gaining the shore, fled into the woods; and for a time some apprehensions were entertained that they might be lost. They were, however, recovered; and being forced into the river, followed those preceding them. In the last boat, the quarter master general attended by Lieutenant Colonel Lee and the rear troop, reached the friendly shore.
In the evening Lord Cornwallis had received the unwelcome news of Greene's safe passage over the Dan; and now relinquishing his expectation of annihilating a second army, and despairing of striking the light corps, so long in his view and always safe, he gave repose to his vainly wearied troops.
Thus ended, on the night of the 14th of February, this long, arduous, and eventful retreat.
No operation during the war more attracted the public attention than did this: not only the toils and dangers encountered by a brave general and his brave army interested the sympathy of the nation, but the safety of the South, hanging on its issue, excited universal concern. The danger of this contingency alarmed the hearts of all, especially the more reflecting, who deemed the integrity of the Uuion essential to American liberty and happiness, and indispensable to our future safety and strength.
Destroy the army of Greene, and the Carolinas with Georgia inevitably became members of the British empire. Virginia, the bulwark of the South, would be converted first into a frontier, then into the theatre of war. Already drained nearly to the bottom, she would be committed into a contest for life with reduced means and broken spirits. All the country south of James river, so convenient to predatory incursions from the southern states, would soon be ground to dust and ashes. Such misery without hope could not be long endured; and reannexation to the mother country, presenting the only cure within reach, it would he solicited and obtained. That part of the state north of James river, and west of the Blue ridge, must continue united; and so far as its ability permitted, would be found a daring and destructive foe. But in this desperate condition of affairs, with the enemy's uncontrolled maritime superiority, and the facile admission into the bosom of the country, presented by its fine rivers, its resistance could not be of long duration. The stoutest heart trembled lest the Potomac should become the boundary of British dominions on the east of the Blue ridge.
Happily for these states, a soldier of consummate talents guided the destiny of the South.
Cordially supported and truly beloved by the august personage at the head of the American armies, the bosom of Greene, gratefully reciprocating feelings so honorable to his character, never was assailed by those degrading passions, envy and malevolence, which too often disturb the harmony of associate leaders, and generate deep disasters to the common cause.
The glory of Washington, next to the safety of his country, was the prime object of his wishes. Pure and tranquil from the consciousness of just intentions, the undisturbed energy of his mind was wholly devoted to the effectual accomplishment of the high trust reposed in him.
The difficulty of retreat from South Carolina with an inferior army, and that army acting necessarily in two divisions at a great distance from each other,—the state of North Carolina, stored with faithful abettors of the royal cause, who waited with solicitude for a fit opportunity to demonstrate their unshaken loyalty,—presented in themselves impediments great and difficult. When we add the comfortless condition of our troops in point of clothing,[note 1] the rigor of the season, the inclemency of the weather, our short stock of ammunition, and shorter stock of provisions,—and contrast it with the comfortable raiment and ample equipment of the enemy, inured to service, habituated to daring enterprises, the very troops which had taken Lincoln and destroyed Gates, rendered capable of the most rapid movements by their voluntary sacrifice of baggage, provisions, and liquor, and conducted by a general always to be dreaded,—we have abundant cause to honor the soldier whose mental resources smoothed every difficulty, and ultimately made good a retreat of two hundred and thirty miles, (unaided, except occasionally by small corps of friendly militia) without the loss of either troops or stores. Nor can we hesitate in acknowledging, that the scene just closed, presented satisfactory displays of that masterly genius, which, in the sequel, unfolded itself with such utility and splendor.
The British army have also a clear title to praise. More comfortably clad, the soldier was better able to bear the extremes of the season: in every other respect he equalled his enemy—bearing incessant toil, courting danger, and submitting to privation of necessary food with alacrity; exhibiting, upon all occasions, unquestionable evidence of fidelity, zeal, and courage, in seconding the hardy enterprise of his admired leader.
General Greene, reviewing his army, at length safely enjoying wholesome and abundant supplies of food in the rich and friendly county of Halifax, bestowed upon all his commendations; distinguishing by his marked approbation, Colonel Williams, and Lieutenant Colonel Carrington quarter master general.