Washington and Lee University

Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley

CHAPTER X.

Cornwall's proclamation—Its effect—Greene determines to harass him and prevent his gaining recruits in North Carolina—Pickens and Lee ordered to recross the Dan, on this service—Greene passes a night in their camp—They pursue Tarleton—His force—Come upon his deserted qnarters—Lee and Pickens assume the character of loyalist reinforcements—Success of the stratagem—They hear of Pyle's detachment of royalists—They entrap Pyle's detachment and are about to capture it, when an accident brings on an action and Pyle's men are sacrificed—Pickens and Lee pursue Tarleton's regiment—Are joined by Colonel Preston and his Virginia militia—Order of advance—Tarleton recalled by Cornwallis—His narrow escape from Lee and Pickens.

CORNWALLIS established his headquarters at Hillsborough, and forthwith issued a proclamation to the inhabitants of North Carolina inviting them to join the royal standard; and promising pardon, protection, and so forth, as usual with the British commanders. Many of the inhabitants availed themselves of his offers. The royalists every where were preparing to rise, while the well affected to the cause of America, seeing that Greene had been driven out of the state, despaired of protection, and began to look for safety in submission.

But Greene, although driven out of the state, had by no means abandoned it.[note 1] Determining to risk his army again in North Carolina,—to rouse the drooping spirits of his friends, and to check the audacity of his foes,—the legion of Lee, strengthened by two companies of the veterans of Maryland under Captain Oldham, with the corps of South Carolina militia under Brigadier Pickens, was ordered, in the morning of the 18th, to repass the Dan. This was readily performed; all the boats heretofore collected being still held together by Carrington for the use of the army.

Pickens and Lee were commanded to gain the front of Cornwallis, to place themselves as close to him as safety would permit, to interrupt his communication with the country, to repress the meditated rising of the loyalists, and, at all events, to intercept any party of them which might attempt to join the enemy.

These officers lost no time in advancing to the theatre of operations; and having in the course of the march provided capable guides, sat down that evening in a covert position, short of the great road leading from the Haw river to Hillsborough, and detached exploring parties of cavalry on the roads towards Hillsborough and towards the Haw. In the course of the evening, Greene, never avoiding toil or danger, with a small escort of Washington's cavalry left his army, and overtook the advanced corps in its secret position. He continued with it during the night, and renewed to the two commandants explanations of his plan and object. He communicated his intention of repassing the Dan with the army in a few days, directing his route towards the upper country; too remote, as he remarked, from the advanced corps to afford the smallest protection; urged cordial concert, pressed in fervid terms the necessity of unceasing vigilance, and the most cautious circumspection.

Before dawn the officer, who had been despatched towards the Haw, returned with intelligence, that on the preceding day Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton had passed up that route from Hillsborough with horse, foot, and artillery; their number unascertained; destined, as was presumed, to pass the Haw river, with the view of hastening the embodying of the loyalists, and of protecting them on their march to Hillsborough.

The wisdom of the measure, adopted by Greene, was now shown, as already an important object presented itself to the detached corps. Greene having set out on his return to camp, Pickens and Lee advanced; first sending reconnoitring parties in their front, with orders to conceal themselves in sight of the road, to watch passing occurrences, and to report from time to time the result of their observations. The main body moving obliquely to their right through an unsettled region, they encamped within three miles of the great road, with the Haw on their right, about seven miles distant. Here they were joined by the light parties sent out in the morning, and by the officer who had the day before been detached towards Hillsborough. The first reported that every thing was still on the road, and that they had not seen a single person, except a well grown boy, during the day, whom they had brought along with them agreeable to orders. From this lad we discovered that Tarleton had not passed the river yesterday, but would do it on the next morning.

The officer who had approached Hillsborough found all quiet in that quarter, and neither saw nor heard any thing indicating a movement on the part of the enemy. Resting for the night, the corps proceeded after breakfast the next day, waiting until then to give time for the exploring parties to renew their efforts in obtaining more precise intelligence.

Approaching the road, it was met by a dragoon bringing information that the British detachment had passed the Haw. This being ascertained, Pickens and Lee gained the great road, and followed on the enemy's route. Guides became unnecessary now; for the British detachment had plundered all the houses on the road, known, as they were, to be the property of patriots, and symbols of devastation marked their steps. The men having all fled, none but women could be seen.

From them the American commandants learned, that the loyalists between the Haw and Deep rivers were certainly embodying, and that the British detachment would not advance far on the other side of the river, it being commonly said among the soldiers, that they should return in a few days. By what could be gathered from report, and judging by the time of passing any one house, it appeared that most of the cavalry, two light brass pieces, and four hundred infantry, composed the detachment. Sending again a small party of dragoons down the road, to discover whether any second body of troops were moving from Hillsborough, Pickens and Lee continued on to the Haw, which they passed without delay, hearing that Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton was encamped four miles in front. At this moment the officer sent down the road, rejoined, communicating that there was no prospect of interruption from that quarter.

Soon after we had crossed the river, which was fordable, a countryman was discovered by the cavalry in front; and being overtaken, was sent to the commandants. From him it was ascertained, that Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton, as had been reported, commanded the party, and that he was encamped within three miles of us about noon; that his horses were unsaddled, and that appearances indicated his confidence of security. With respect to his strength, the countryman's information rated it the same as it was before understood to be. This being correct, Tarleton had the advantage in number of cavalry, but was inferior in quality: he had two light pieces, the Americans none: he was numerically inferior in infantry; but his troops were all tried regulars, while half of our infantry were militia, though of the best sort.

A disposition for attack was immediately made. The infantry of the legion led by Lieutenant Colonel Lee, forming the centre, moved directly towards the enemy, with the cavalry in column under Major Rudulph, upon its right; and the militia riflemen, conducted by Brigadier Pickens, on its left. Oldham, with the two Maryland companies, composed the reserve. Presuming a surprise probable, the march was concealed by keeping through woods, having faithful guides with each division. In this event Major Rudulph had orders to charge in full gallop, supported by Oldham with the reserve; while the legion infantry, covered on its left by the riflemen, in whatever state the enemy might be found, was destined to carry the field pieces with fixed bayonets. Should he be apprised of our advance, and consequently prepared for our reception, Oldham, with his Marylanders, was ordered to take the place of the cavalry on the right of the legion infantry, and Rudulph, with the dragoons, to stand in reserve.

Thus arrayed, the divisions proceeded to their designated points, every precaution having been adopted to prevent discovery. The movement was conducted with the utmost precision and correspondency. When arriving within a few hundred yards of the expected theatre of glory, the farm and house was seen, but no enemy. The van of the horse galloping to the house, found and brought off two of the enemy's staff, who had been delayed in settling for the subsistence of the detachment; and hearing from the family that Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton would not advance above six miles further, Pickens and Lee instantly proceeded towards him, hoping that fortune would be more propitious upon the next occasion.

Thus did the bright prospect of the morning vanish, exciting of itself deep chagrin; rendered more galling, finding that Tarleton, believing himself perfectly secure, had been unusually remiss, and would have been caught in a condition out of which neither skill nor courage could have extricated him.

To give success, if possible, to this second attempt, it was determined to pass as a reinforcement sent from Hillsborough to Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton; and the two prisoners being placed in the centre of the cavalry, were charged to conduct themselves so as to give currency to the deception, in default of which, the sergeant having the care of them, was directed to put them to death instantly. The legion taking the lead, with the horse in front, Lieutenant Colonel Lee put himself at its head, to direct operations both delicate and important. This stratagem could not fail in imposing on the country people, however well acquainted they might be with the appearance of British troops, so far as respected the legion, inasmuch as both cavalry and infantry were dressed in short green coats, with other distinctions exactly resembling some of the enemy's light corps.

Lee's van officer, preceding him a few hundred yards only, was met by two well-mounted young countrymen, who being accosted in the assumed character, promptly answered, that they were rejoiced in meeting us, having been sent forward by Colonel Pyle for the purpose of ascertaining Tarleton's camp, to whom the colonel was repairing with four hundred loyalists. These youths were immediately sent to Lieutenant Colonel Lee, but were preceded by a dragoon, with the information imparted. Immediately upon the arrival of the dragoon, Lee despatched his adjutant with the intelligence to Brigadier Pickens, requesting him to place his riflemen (easily to be distinguished by the green twigs in their hats, the customary emblem of our militia in the South) on the left flank, out of sight, which was readily to be done, as we were then in a thick wood; at the same time to assure him that Lee was determined, in conformity with the concerted plan, to make an attempt with the legion of turning the occurrence to advantage. The prisoners were also reminded, as was the sergeant having them in care, of the past order. This communication was scarcely finished, before the two dragoons rode up with the two countrymen, who were received with much apparent cordiality; Lee attentively listening with seeming satisfaction to their annunciation of the laudable spirit which had actuated Colonel Pyle and his associates, and which they asserted was rapidly spreading through the country.

Finding them completely deceived, (for they not only believed the troops they saw to be British, but overlooking what had been told them, took them to be Tarleton's, addressing the commandant as that officer,) Lee sent one of them back with the two dragoons to his van, thence to proceed to Colonel Pyle with Lieutenant Col. Tarleton's gratulations, and his request that he would be so good as to draw out on the margin of the road, so as to give convenient room for his much fatigued troops to pass without delay to their night position, while the other was detained to accompany the supposed Tarleton. Orders were at the same time despatched to the van officer to halt as soon as he got in sight of the loyalists.

As Lee approached his officer, who had halted, highly gratified with the propitious prospect, and listening to the overflowings of respect and devotion, falling incessantly from the lips of his young attendant, his comrade, who had been sent to Colonel Pyle, returned with his expected compliance, announced in most respectful terms.

The column of horse now became complete by union with the van, and Colonel Pyle was in sight on the right of the road, drawn up as suggested, with his left to the advancing column.[note 2] This last circumstance was fortunate, as Lieutenant Colonel Lee had concluded to make known to the colonel his real character as soon as he should confront him, with a solemn assurance of his and his associates' perfect exemption from injury, with the choice of returning to their homes, or of taking a more generous part, by uniting with the defenders of their common country against the common foe. By Pyle's lucky occupation of the right side of the road, it became necessary for Lee to pass along the whole line of the loyalists before he could reach their colonel, and thus to place his column of horse in the most eligible situation for any vicissitude.

They were mounted like our militia, fitted like them to move on horseback, and to fight dismounted. Their guns (rifles and fowling pieces) were on their shoulders, the muzzles consequently in an opposite direction to the cavalry. In the event of discovery, they must have changed the direction before they could fire, a motion not to be performed with a body of dragoons close in with their horses' heads, and their swords drawn.

The danger of this rare expedient was by no means so great as it appears to be on first view.

Lee passed along the line at the head of the column with a smiling countenance, dropping, occasionally, expressions complimentary to the good looks and commendable conduct of his loyal friends. At length he reached Colonel Pyle, when the customary civilities were promptly interchanged. Grasping Pyle by the hand, Lee was in the act of consummating his plan, when the enemy's left, discovering Pickens' militia, not sufficiently concealed, began to fire upon the rear of the cavalry commanded by Captain Eggleston. This officer instantly turned upon the foe, as did immediately after the whole column. The conflict was quickly decided, and bloody on one side only. Ninety of the royalists were killed, and most of the survivors wounded. Dispersing in every direction, not being pursued, they escaped. During this sudden rencontre, in some parts of the line the cry of mercy was heard, coupled with assurance of being our best friends; but no expostulation could be admitted in a conjuncture so critical. Humanity even forbade it, as its first injunction is to take care of your own: and our safety was not compatible with that of the supplicants, until disabled to offend. Pyle, falling under many wounds, was left on the field as dying, and yet he survived. We lost not a man, and only one horse. The object so sedulously pressed was thus a second time baffled. Tarleton, within a mile, more fatally secure, if possible, than before, escaped the impending blow; when to get at him a measure had been hazarded, not warranted on ordinary occasions, but now enforced by the double motive of sparing the lives of deluded fellow citizens, and humbling effectually the British partisan and his active corps, whose destruction in the relative condition of the two armies would have probably led to the termination of the war in the South. Lord Cornwallis was at the head of a brave enterprising force, but small in number; too small, when reduced by the loss of Tarleton's corps, to have made head against Greene, when assisted, as the American general must have been, by the surrounding country, animated to their best exertions by such signal success.

The discomfiture of Pyle being soon effected, Lee ordered the cavalry to resume its march, and to take post so as to arrest any sudden interference on the part of Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton, who must have heard the enemy's fire, and might probably interpose with the expectation of controlling the event of the conflict.

Brigadier Pickens, following quickly, soon reached the van of the legion, whose cavalry had approached in view of Tarleton's camp. Then were seen incontestable evidences of the embarrassing confusion which an unexpected enemy never fails to produce, even amongst the best disciplined troops,—demonstrating, without shadow of doubt, our certain success, had Pyle and his party been, as they ought to have been, at their own firesides. The sun was setting; and for some moments Pickens and Lee hesitated whether immediate action was not, even at that hour, the eligible course. The troops were fatigued by their long march, increased by preparation for two combats and the rencontre with Pyle. This consideration, combined with the close approach of night, determined them to postpone battle until the morning. Moving to their left, they placed themselves between the British and the upper country, on the great road leading through Tarleton's camp to Hillsborough. The advanced sentinels and the patrols were stationed every where in sight of each other.

Here they heard from some countrymen, who, abandoning their houses on the enemy's advance, had fallen in with Pickens, that a small party of militia had collected for mutual safety a few miles in the rear. A dragoon, attended by one of the informants, was immediately despatched with a letter to the officer, requesting him to hasten to camp; more for the purpose of procuring accurate information of the ground expected soon to be the theatre of action, and of furnishing faithful intelligent guides, than from any expectation of aid in battle. It so happened, that with the militia company was found Colonel Preston, of Montgomery county in Virginia, just arrived at the head of three hundred hardy mountaineers, who, hearing of Greene's retreat, had voluntarily hastened to his assistance,—alike ignorant until that hour of the general's having recrossed the Dan, and of Tarleton's corps being but a few miles in front.

The wisdom of the measure so speedily adopted by the commander in the South, after securing his retreat, was again now happily illustrated. It not only produced the annihilation of the first body of loyalists which had embodied and armed, but probably saved from destruction a detachment of brave men, induced by love of country, to seek and to succor their hard pressed friends. Colonel Preston accompanied the dragoons to camp, followed by his battalion of riflemen. Although Pickens and Lee were before determined to engage, such an opportune, unlocked for auxiliary force, could not but excite new spirits in their troops, always proudly conscious of self-ability. Preston, his officers and soldiers, spent their first hour in gazing at the corps. They were much gratified with the orderly appearance it universally exhibited, and particularly delighted with the cheering looks of the dragoons and the high condition of their stout horses.

Our upper militia were never alarmed in meeting with equal numbers of British infantry. Selecting their own ground (which being mounted they could readily do) before they would engage, they considered themselves their equal; but they entertained dreadful apprehensions of the sabre of the cavalry, particularly when associated with the name of Tarleton, who had, on many occasions, used it with destructive effect. From this source was derived the satisfaction expressed on reviewing the legion horse. They became convinced that no equal number of dragoons ought to excite the smallest apprehensions on our part, and they were assured that the British cavalry was not only inferior in their horses, but very much so in horsemanship. Thoroughly satisfied, these welcome auxiliaries retired to their post, responding with ardor the general wish to be led to battle with the dawn of day. Every arrangement being made to meet the approaching conflict, the troops assumed the disposition in which they were to fight, and lay down to rest.

From the intelligence procured, it was ascertained that the field in which the British were encamped, had three or four wood dwelling houses on the road near its centre, and was sufficiently capacious to have admitted conveniently the major part of the respective combatants to close action. The legion infantry, led by Lieutenant Colonel Lee, marched along the road, for the purpose as before, of attending specially to the enemy's artillery, of which it has been mentioned we were destitute. Oldham, with his Marylanders, advanced on its right, parallel with Lee; and on his right, in a wood skirting the field, Brigadier Pickens moved, having under him some of the same soldiers who had so nobly supported Howard's right at the Cowpens. Colonel Preston covered Lee's left, having also the advantage of a copse of wood bordering the field in that direction, and being completely secured on his flank by a very extensive mill pond. The cavalry were formed in reserve, the head of the column pointing to the interval between Oldham and Pickens, where the field could be entered out of the fire from the houses, should Tarleton, as was apprehended, occupy them with musketry. Rudulph, who commanded the horse, was directed to fly to the aid of any portion of the troops hard pressed, as well as to be ready to improve our, and to limit their, victory. Between the hours of two and three in the morning, concurring intelligence was received from the piquets and patrols, announcing that the enemy was in motion, and soon afterwards that he was retiring.

The pickets being assembled by the officer of the day, were ordered to advance, while the main body, hastening to arms, followed with celerity. Anxious to know the cause of this sudden and unexpected movement, an officer was directed to call at the house lately occupied by the enemy, for the purpose of inquiry. He reported that Lord Cornwallis, having been apprised of the advance of Pickens and Lee, hastened his orders to Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton, communicating the information he had received, and requiring him to repass the Haw instantly, which order the lieutenant colonel very reluctantly obeyed. He further learned that Tarleton and his officers were in high spirits, had enjoyed an abundant supper together, and were anxiously wishing for the return of light, determined to take complete revenge for the loss of Pyle; and, assured of victory, delighted themselves with the prospect of mounting, in the course of the day, the chosen horses of the legion. So solicitous Lord Cornwallis appears to have been, that he despatched three successive couriers, all of whom arrived; the last two just as the British corps was ready to move. There were three contiguous passages of the Haw. The nearest within four miles, to be passed in a boat, which, from the size of the flat kept at the ferry and the narrowness of the river would not have been very inconvenient; the infantry and artillery might have been thrown over before daylight, and the cavalry would have readily swam across. One mile below was another ferry, alike commodious; and seven miles lower down was a ford, the same which both corps had used the day before. The legion, accustomed to night expeditions, had been in the habit of using pine torches for flambeaux. Supplied with this, though the morning was dark, the enemy's trail was distinctly discovered whenever a divergency took place in his route. He first took the road leading to the upper ferry, the direct route to Hillsborough; but it being always presumed that he would avail himself of the ford, though out of his way, the van officer took care occasionally to examine, by the help of his pine knots, and soon ascertained that after passing some small distance on that road, he crossed to the second route. Here repeating his feint, he at length turned to the road leading to the ford.

The diligence of the leading officer saved to the main body loss of ground; as the enemy's stratagem was detected before we reached the points of their separation from each road. As the day broke, the American troops, pursuing with zeal, had reached within two miles of the ford. The cavalry now taking the front, supported by the riflemen, (all mounted) were ordered to press upon the enemy, and hold him back until the infantry could get up. Before sunrise they gained the enemy's rear, descending the hill to the river, over which the main body, having just passed, was placed on a height commanding the ford, for the protection of the rear guard. Too near to be struck at without rashly exposing the troops, it was omitted; much as it was desired to gain some evidence of our triumphant pursuit. At first Pickens and Lee determined, by a quick retrograde, to pass at the ferry above, and to throw themselves in Tarleton's rear.

This was effectible, in case he loitered only one hour on the banks of the Haw, a very probable event. But there was cause to apprehend, from the solicitude displayed by the British general to bring him safely back, that he would send a reinforcement to meet him. In this incertitude desire to give rest to the much fatigued troops prevailed; and, keeping up the western margin of the Haw, the corps halted in the first settlement capable of supplying the necessary subsistence. Thus closed twenty-four hours of very active service; its chief object uneffected, and a secondary one completely executed, which produced a very favorable result, by repressing thoroughly the loyal spirit just beginning to burst forth. Fortune, which sways so imperiously the affairs of war, demonstrated throughout the operation its supreme control. Nothing was omitted on the part of the Americans to give to the expedition the desired termination; but the very bright prospects which for a time presented themselves, were suddenly overcast,—the capricious goddess gave us Pyle and saved Tarleton.