Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley
Greene's army reinforced—Lee harasses Cornwallis—Attempts to cut off an escort with baggage—Adventures of a night—Lost in the woods—Cornwallis's commentary—Cornwallis's approach towards Guilford Court-house—Lee's encounter with Tarleton's cavalry—General Greene prepares for battle with Cornwallis.
CORNWALLIS was convinced that he could not bring Greene to an engagement until he should have received his expected reinforcements. In a few days these reinforcements began to arrive at Greene's headquarters, the Iron Works on Troublesome Creek. New levies under Colonel Greene, militia from Virginia, under Brigadier Lawson, came in, and soon afterwards the North Carolina force under Brigadiers Butler and Eaton, bringing up the whole force to four thousand, of whom sixteen hundred were continentals.
Lee with his legion, and some Virginia militia, still hovered round the enemy.
The American dragoons, far superior in the ability of their horses, stuck so close to the British camp as to render their intercourse with the country very difficult, and subjected the British general to many inconveniences, besides interrupting his acquirement of intelligence.
No equal party of the enemy's horse would dare to encounter them; and if a superior force approached, the fleetness of their horses mocked pursuit. Feeling his privations daily, Lord Cornwallis, leaving his baggage to follow, made a sudden movement late in the evening from Bell's mill towards New Garden, a Quaker settlement, abounding with forage and provisions. Some of the small parties of the legion horse, traversing in every quarter, one of them approached Bell's mill and found it abandoned. When informed by the inhabitants that the baggage had but lately proceeded under a very small escort, the officer commanding the horse determined to trace secretly the progress of its march. It so happened, that early in the night the escort with the whole baggage mistook the road, proceeding directly on, instead of turning towards New Garden. Fortunately the vigilant officer discovered this error, and having ascertained the fact beyond doubt, he despatched a courier to Lieutenant Colonel Lee with the information, attended by two guides well acquainted with the route taken by the British army, that taken by the escort, and the intermediate cross-roads. The intelligence reached Lee about eleven o'clock, (later than was expected,) as he had, from the advance of the enemy, taken a more distant position. Instantly the legion horse, with two companies of infantry mounted behind two of the troops, were put in motion. Lieutenant Colonel Lee, taking the guides sent to him, advanced with the certain expectation of falling in with the lost escort. The night was extremely dark, and the country covered with woods; but the guides were faithful, intelligent, and intimately versed in all the roads, by-roads, and even paths. Estimating the distance to march by their computation, it did not exceed nine miles, which we reckoned, dark as was the night, to make in two hours. Pushing on with all practicable despatch, the first hour brought us to a large road: this the guides passed, leading the detachment again into a thick wood. Here we continued another hour, when, finding no road, doubts began to be entertained by the guides, which issued at last in attempting to return to the very road they had passed, it being concluded to be the one desired. Unhappily they became bewildered, after changing their course, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, ever believing every change would surely bring us to our desired route, and yet always disappointed.
At length, with great anxiety, they proposed a halt, while themselves, accompanied by a few dragoons, should take different directions on our flanks in search of a house. This was readily acceded to, and the detachment dismounted, having not before halted. In the space of an hour one of them returned, and shortly after the other, both without success. It was now three o'clock, as well as we could make out the time by feeling the hour and minute hands of our watches. Again mounted, and again moved as our guides directed, more and more bewildered, and more and more distressed; persevering and yet in vain. Lieutenant Colonel Lee, apprehensive that the detachment might be carried too remote from the place assigned for junction in the morning with the militia under Clarke, again halted and dismounted, determining to wait for the light of day. It at last to our great joy appeared, and even then our guides were so completely out of their reckoning, as to detain us a long time in the woods before they were satisfied of the course to be taken.
By examining the bark of the trees they ascertained the north, and thus recovered their knowledge of our locality. We were within a mile of the road we had crossed, and which turned out to be the very road desired. When we passed it, the enemy were, as was afterwards ascertained, two miles only on our right, as much bewildered as ourselves. For, finding that they had not reached camp within the period expected, calculating time from distance; and knowing that New Garden must be upon their left: they took a cross road which offered, and soon found themselves encompassed with new difficulties,—fallen trees, and cross-ways, as large as the road they had pursued:—when the officer determined to halt and wait for day.[note 1] Lord Cornwallis became extremely alarmed for the safety of his baggage; despatching parties of horse and foot in various directions to full in with it, and detaching in the rear of these parties a strong corps to reinforce the escort. Not one of the various detachments either met with the escort or with Lee. As soon as it was light, the officer having charge of the baggage retraced his steps; and shortly after gaining the road he had left in the night, fell in with the last detachment sent by Lord Cornwallis, and with it safely reached the British camp; while Lieutenant Colonel Lee and his harassed legion, with his afflicted guides, much mortified, joined Clarke. Here he found orders from General Greene, now nearly prepared for forward movement, to return to camp. The British General remained in his new position; enjoying, without interruption, the wholesome supplies with which this fertile settlement abounded. Lee having proceeded towards the Iron Works, found the American army on the 14th at Guilford court-house, distant about twelve miles from the enemy; and was immediately advanced on the road towards the Quaker meeting-house, with orders to post himself within two or three miles of the court-house, and to resume his accustomed duties. Lieutenant Heard, of the legion cavalry, was detached in the evening with a party of dragoons to place himself near the British camp, and to report from time to time such occurrences as might happen. About two in the morning this officer communicated, that a large body of horse were approaching the meeting-house, which was not more than six miles from our headquarters, and near the point where the road from Deep river intersects the great road leading from Salisbury to Virginia. The intelligence received was instantly forwarded to the general, and Heard was directed to proceed with a few of his dragoons down the flank of the enemy to discover whether the British army was in motion, leaving his second to hold their front. Hearing from Heard, agreeably to rule, every half hour, it was known that the enemy continued, though slowly, to approach; and at length he communicated, that his various attempts to pass down the flank as directed, had proved abortive, having been uniformly interrupted by patrols ranging far from the line of march; yet that he was persuaded that he heard the rumbling of wheels, which indicated a general movement. This being made known to General Greene, Lee was directed to advance with his cavalry, bear down these interruptions, and to ascertain the truth. Expecting battle as soon as Heard's last information was received, the van was called to arms at four in the morning, and to take breakfast with all practicable haste. This had just been finished, when the last mentioned order from the general was communicated. Lieutenant Colonel Lee instantly mounted, and took the road to the enemy, at the head of the horse, having directed the infantry and the rifle militia to follow, the first on his right, and the second on his left. The cavalry had not proceeded above two miles when Lee was met by Lieutenant Heard and his party, who were retiring, followed leisurely by the enemy's horse. Wishing to approach nearer to Greene, and at all events to gain the proximity of the rifle militia and legion infantry, lest the British army might be up, as was suspected, Lee ordered the column to retire by troops, taking the proper distance for open evolution. The rear troop under Rudulph going off in full gallop, and followed in like manner by the centre troop under Eggleston, the British commandant flattered himself with converting this retrogade movement into route, and pressed upon the front under Armstrong, still in a walk, it being necessary to gain the open order required, that this officer should not change his pace. With him marched Lieutenant Colonel Lee, attentively watching the British progress. Finding that the charge made at us did not affect Armstrong's troop, now the rear, the enemy emptied their pistols, and then raising a shout, pushed a second time upon Armstrong; who, remaining firm and sullen as before, the leading section having nearly closed with us, drew up.
At this moment, Lee ordering charge, the dragoons came instantly to the right about, and, in close column, rushed upon the foe. This meeting happened in a long lane, with very high curved fences on each side of the road, which admitted but one section in front. The charge was ordered by Lee, from conviction that he should trample his enemy under feet, if he dared to meet the shock, and thus gain an easy and complete victory. But only the front section of each corps closed, Tarleton sounding a retreat, the moment he discovered the column in charge. The whole of the enemy's section was dismounted, and many of the horses prostrated,[note 2] some of the dragoons killed, the rest made prisoners; not a single American soldier or horse injured. Tarleton retired with celerity, and getting out of the lane, took an obscure way leading directly across the Salisbury road towards the British camp; while Lee, well acquainted with the country, followed the common route by the Quaker meeting-house, with a view to sever the British lieutenant colonel from his army by holding him well upon his left, and with the determination to gain his front, and then to press directly upon him with his condensed force, and thus place his horse between Tarleton and Cornwallis, presumed to be some distance behind. By endeavoring to take the whole detachment, he permitted the whole to escape; whereas, had he continued to press on the rear, he must have taken many. As Lee, with his column in full speed, got up to the meeting-house, the British guards had just reached it, and displaying in a moment, gave the American cavalry a close and general fire. The sun had just risen above the trees, and shining bright, the refulgence from the British muskets, as the soldiers presented, frightened Lee's horse so as to compel him to throw himself off. Instantly remounting another, he ordered a retreat. This manœuvre was speedily executed; and while the cavalry were retiring, the legion infantry came running up with trailed arms, and opened a well aimed fire upon the guards, which was followed in a few minutes by a volley from the riflemen under Colonel Campbell, who had taken post on the left of the infantry. The action became very sharp, and was bravely maintained on both sides.[note 3] The cavalry having formed again in column, and Lee being convinced from the appearance of the guards, that Cornwallis was not far in the rear, drew off his infantry, and covering them from any attempt of the British horse, retired towards the American army. General Greene being immediately advised of what had passed, prepared for battle, not doubting that the long avoided, now wished for hour was at hand.