It had been a tense three weeks in the Carolinas for General Nathanael Greene, the commander of the American southern army. In the wake of General Daniel Morgan’s decisive victory at Cowpens on January 17th, 1781, General Greene moved to reunite his divided army. While Morgan’s 550 man light corps slowly withdrew northeastward into North Carolina, Greene’s main body (1,500 strong) left the Pee Dee River in South Carolina and marched north to join them. With General Charles Cornwallis and 2,500 British troops in pursuit of Morgan, it was essential that General Greene’s two detached forces reunite as soon as possible. Then, if the North Carolina militia turned out in force to strengthen Greene’s army, Greene might be able to halt his retreat and confront Cornwallis.
The first part of Greene’s plan, the reunification of his army, occurred on February 9th at Guilford Courthouse. Greene summoned his officers for a rare war council to determine their next course of action. The troop returns totaled only 1,426 ill-clad and exhausted continentals along with approximately 600 poorly armed militia.1 This was too few to challenge General Cornwallis, who was only 25 miles to the west. General Greene and his officers reluctantly agreed that it was best to avoid an engagement until they were reinforced by more militia, and the most likely place to find more militia was in Virginia, so Greene ordered a retreat northward to the Dan River. Before they departed, General Greene wrote to General Washington and explained his decision.
We have no provisions but what we receive from our daily collections. Under these circumstances I called a council who unanimously advised to avoid an action and to retire beyond the [Dan River] immediately…. I have formed a light army composed of the cavalry…and the Legion [Lee’s] amounting to 240, a detachment of 280 Infantry under Lt. Col. Howard, the Infantry of Lt. Col. Lee’s legion and 60 Virginia Rifle Men making in their whole 700 Men which will be ordered with the Militia to harass the enemy in their advance, check their progress and if possible give us an opportunity to retire without a general action.2
To save the bulk of his army, General Greene had to risk his light infantry corps. General Morgan was too ill to continue in the field so command of the light corps fell to Colonel Otho Williams of Maryland. He was instructed by General Greene to screen the main army’s retreat northward. Williams began his mission with deception, leading his light corps northwest from Guilford to give the appearance that he was heading for the upper fords of the Dan River. This fed into General Cornwallis’s assumption that the American army had no choice but to cross the Dan River at the upper fords (where the water was shallow) rather than further down river where ferry boats were required to cross.
Unbeknownst to Cornwallis, who took the bait and moved to intercept Williams, General Greene had made arrangements to gather boats in the vicinity of Irwin’s and Boyd’s ferries on the Dan River in Virginia. Greene just needed time to reach the river and transport his army and its baggage across, and time was what Colonel Williams was trying to provide Greene. Thus, while Williams lured Cornwallis to the northwest, General Greene marched the rest of the American army northeast, towards Irwin’s and Boyd’s ferries and away from Williams and Cornwallis.
Cornwallis picked up the trail of the American light corps on February 11th. They appeared to be headed to Dix’s Ferry, (modern day Danville, Virginia) some twenty miles west of General Greene’s true destination. With Cornwallis now on his trail, Colonel Williams hastened his march north. Every mile of road that Colonel Williams drew Cornwallis down provided General Greene with more time to reach the Dan River. The danger for the American light troops, however, was that every step also took them further away from the support of General Greene’s army.
By February 13th, Colonel Williams decided it was time to re-direct his march towards Irwin’s Ferry. At almost the same moment General Cornwallis discovered the American ruse and re-directed his march eastward as well.3 Both forces raced towards the road that General Greene was on. Colonel Williams, who was further north than Cornwallis, managed to position his light corps between Cornwallis and Greene.
The race to the Dan now became a sprint.
With General Cornwallis pressing the American light corps, it was crucial that Colonel Williams and his men remain vigilant. They halted only when the British did, and even then, they got little rest. Lieutenant Colonel Lee, who commanded the rear guard of the light corps, recalled in his memoirs that,
The duty, severe in the day, became more so at night; for numerous patrols and strong pickets 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 maneuver would have been fatal to the American army; and, to render it impossible, half of the troops were alternately appointed every night to duty: so that each man, during the retreat, was entitled to but six hours repose in forty-eight.4
Such hard duty took a toll on the men and horses, yet, the American light troops marched on. At one point it appeared that their efforts to screen Greene’s main body had failed when the van of the light corps spotted numerous campfires off in the distance. With Cornwallis still pressing their rear, the light corps feared that they had caught up to General Greene. If this were true, then all of their effort to provide General Greene with time to escape had been wasted. As they approached the campfires the exhausted light troops resigned themselves to one last doomed engagement against a vastly superior enemy.5 Lieutenant Colonel Lee recalled that
No pen can describe the heart-rendering feelings of our brave and wearied troops…. Our dauntless corps were convinced that the crisis had now arrived when its self sacrifice could alone give a chance of escape of the main body. With one voice was announced the noble resolution to turn on the foe, and by dint of desperate courage, so to cripple him as to force a discontinuance of pursuit.6
However, to the great relief of the light troops, it was discovered that Greene’s troops had left the campsite hours earlier and that local militia had maintained the fires for the benefit of the light corps.7 Unfortunately for Colonel Williams and his tired men, the close proximity of General Cornwallis prevented the American light troops from enjoying the warmth of the campfires. Colonel Williams did find the time to write to General Greene, however, and express his anxiety about the slow progress of Greene’s main body of troops.
I was exceedingly concern’d to hear…that you were yet 25 miles from the ferry. My Dear General at Sun Down the Enemy were only 22 miles from you and may be in motion now or will most probably [ be ] by 3 oClock in the morning…. Rely on it, my Dear Sir, it is possible for you to be overtaken before you can cross the Dan even if you had 20 boats…. I conclude you march’d as far today as you could and if your Army can make but Eleven miles in a Day you will not be able to pass the ferry in less than two Days more. In less time than that we will be driven in to your Camp or I must risqué the Troops I’ve the Honor to command and in doing so I risqué every thing…. The Gentlemen of Cavalry assure me their Horses want refreshment exceedingly and our Infantry are so excessively fatigu’d that I’m confident I lose men every Day. We have been all this Day almost in presence of the Enemy but have sustain’d no loss but of Sick and Strollers.8
Despite Colonel Williams’s pessimism, the Americans marched on. Lieutenant Colonel Lee recalled that
About midnight our troops were put in motion, in consequence of the enemy’s advance on our pickets, which the British general had been induced to order, from knowing that he was within forty miles of the Dan, and that all his hopes 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.9
General Cornwallis described his pursuit in similar terms.
Nothing could exceed the patience and alacrity of the officers and soldiers under every species of hardship and fatigue, in endeavouring to overtake [the Americans]: But our intelligence upon this occasion was exceedingly defective; which, with heavy rains, bad roads, and the passage of many deep creeks, and bridges destroyed by the enemy’s light troops, rendered all our exertions vain.10
Good news finally reached the American light corps late on February 14th in the form of a series of messages from General Greene informing Colonel Williams of the army’s arrival at the Dan River. Greene wrote at 2:00 p.m. that, “The greater part of our wagons are over and the troops are crossing,” and at 5:30 p.m. Greene announced, “The stage is clear.”11
The good news inspired the light troops to march with renewed vigor and they reached the ferry crossings hours ahead of the British. General Greene greeted Colonel Williams at the riverbank and crossed to the north side with him. Lieutenant Colonel Lee arrived with his Legion soon after and proudly recalled in his memoirs that he was the last to cross the Dan River.12 The American army had achieved its goal, it had crossed the Dan River intact. It remained to be seen whether they had escaped General Cornwallis’s wrath or only postponed it.
1781,” The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, Vol. 7, 267-269.