As Daniel Morgan collected his prisoners on the morning of January 17, 1781, he knew Charles, Lord Cornwallis, could not be far behind. “The Troops I have had the Honor to command have been so fortunate as to obtain a compleat Victory,” Morgan would later report proudly to Nathanael Greene. At the Battle of Cowpens earlier that morning, he had killed 110 British soldiers, including ten officers, and taken over eight hundred prisoners, destroying Cornwallis’s light infantry. In comparison, he reported only twelve American dead and sixty wounded.
But Cornwallis was lurking somewhere less than thirty miles away, and with him the main body of his army, 1,150 crack British troops, soon to be reinforced by 1,400 more under the command of Alexander Leslie. And Morgan knew Cornwallis would be eager to recapture his British prisoners. Now was not the time for celebration—now was time to run.
To South Carolina commander Andrew Pickens and his militia, Morgan charged the morbid task of burying the dead and caring for the wounded who could not be moved. His cavalry under Lt. Col. William Washington was still pursuing the remnants of Tarleton’s dragoons through the Carolina countryside. But around noon Morgan and the bulk of his army marched their prisoners due north, where they crossed at Island Ford “before the close of day . . . and encamped for the night on its northern bank.”
At Island Ford, Morgan sent scouts to look for signs of any pursuing British while he waited for his detachments to join him. First Pickens arrived, coming up that evening, then Washington, perhaps the next morning, after Tarleton eluded him. “Long before daylight the next morning [January 18], Morgan had resumed his march. Anticipating difficulty, if not disaster, he took every precaution, and prepared for the worst.” But later that morning, Morgan’s scouts reported to him, “not only that the enemy had not moved up to a late hour of the day, but that they did not intend to move until a junction had been effected with [British General Alexander] Leslie. Cheered by this encouraging news, Morgan pushed forward with renewed vigor.”
Morgan had his prisoners on his mind. He headed north toward Gilbertown, where the Overmountain Men had notoriously executed some of their prisoners after the victory at Kings Mountain. From Gilbertown, roads led west into the mountains, or northwest skirting the North Carolina foothills toward the Moravian settlements near modern-day Winston-Salem, a stop on the Great Wagon Road leading northeast toward Virginia.
Morgan’s great-grandson-in-law and first biographer, James Graham, wrote that Morgan, “kept his ulterior designs a secret to all but his principal officers, and gave currency to the impression that it was his intention to hold the country north of the Broad River.” Nineteenth-century historian David Schenck adds that Morgan “intended, if Cornwallis got between him and Greene, to retreat into or across the mountains, if necessary, and either fight at some strong pass or make his way by a circuitous route into Virginia.”
Morgan was assessing and reassessing his options, the strategic conditions fluid, and much unknown. But the information about Cornwallis’s delay affirmed his original instinct, marching the prisoners east toward the Great Wagon Road, where they could then be transported safely into Virginia. As British regulars, they could be exchanged for Continentals imprisoned in Charleston after the surrender there in May 1780 and the disaster at Camden later that fall. To guard duty Morgan assigned Francis Triplett’s Virginia militia, who had fought well at Cowpens, but with their enlistment ended, now wanted to return home. With Triplett’s militia he sent some cavalry under Col. William Washington and Carolina militia under Andrew Pickens, ordering them to “move higher up the country.”
Following along the foothills of western North Carolina, the prisoners and their guards traveled on a northerly course, crossing the Catawba River at Island Ford and the Yadkin at Shallow Ford. Meanwhile, Morgan also turned east toward the Catawba River, though marching on a more southerly course to shield the prisoner train with the remainder of his Flying Army,” now mostly the Maryland and Delaware Continentals who had fought with distinction at Cowpens.
That same morning, January 19, Cornwallis finally started his pursuit of Morgan. He had waited two days for Leslie’s reinforcements to join him. His force now numbered 2,550 men, mostly British regulars, though including 450 trained and experienced Hessians along with 256 North Carolina volunteers.
With this army he would commence the invasion of North Carolina he had long planned, part of a strategy that he believed would carry him into Virginia, leaving the Southern colonies subjugated in his wake. But first he would pause to write his commander, Henry Clinton, an account of the disaster at Cowpens. “It is impossible to foresee all the consequences that this unexpected and extraordinary event may produce, but your Excellency may be assured that nothing but the most absolute necessity shall induce me to give up the important object of the winter’s campaign,” he wrote. At some psychological level, he understood the movement he was now initiating would displease his commander; he would not write to Clinton again for three months.
As Cornwallis started after Morgan, his plan was to “march by the upper in preference to the lower roads leading into North Carolina, because, fords being frequent above the forks of the rivers, my passage there could not easily be obstructed and . . . I was the more induced to prefer this route as I hoped in my way to be able to destroy or drive out of South Carolina the corps of the enemy commanded by General Morgan.” Likewise, he “hoped by rapid marches to get between General Greene and Virginia and by that means force him to fight without receiving any reinforcement from that province, or failing that, to oblige him to quit North Carolina.”
It was not an unrealistic plan, given the circumstances, and parts of it almost worked, although like most plans, its efficacy lay in its preparation and details, which Cornwallis had neglected. Though his winter campaign relied on North Carolina’s Loyalist populace for provisions and intelligence, Cornwallis had done little to scout the territory he would soon travel, despite a three-month respite not far away at Winnsboro, South Carolina, during the fall and early winter of 1780. In contrast, Continental Gen. Nathanael Greene had conducted a comprehensive survey of the rivers and roads of central North Carolina as soon he assumed command of the Southern Army in December 1780.
This weakness revealed itself immediately. Setting out toward Cowpens in pursuit of Morgan, Cornwallis took the wrong road. For intelligence he was now relying almost entirely on dragoons from Tarleton’s Legion, the local population either too scared or too Patriot to provide assistance. “In this critical situation, Lt. Col. Tarleton’s misfortune at the Cowpens on 17th January at once determined our numerous Friends [italics original] what part they should take, and all that could, deserted from Us, and our hopeless cause,” wrote British Brig. Gen. Charles O’Hara, who had arrived with Leslie’s reinforcements and was now traveling with Cornwallis.
On January 20, the Army paused while Tarleton “was directed to pass the Broad river with the dragoons and yaegers [German riflemen], to obtain intelligence of General Morgan. . . . He recrossed the river in the evening, having received information, that Morgan, had quitted the field of battle, to pass his corps and prisoners at the high fords of the Broad.” This news, now two days old, “induced Earl Cornwallis to cross Buffaloe creek and Little Broad river.”
By now, Cornwallis had lost two full days blundering through the Carolina countryside, in addition to the two days he had spent waiting for Leslie. During this period, his thinking appears indecisive. On the next day, January 21, Cornwallis sent the following letter to Francis, Lord Rawdon:
The late affair has almost broke my heart. Morgan is at Gilbertown. I shall march tomorrow with 1,200 infantry and the cavalry to attack or follow him to the banks of Catawba. General Howard remains at Cherokee Ford with all the baggage, knapsacks included, ready to meet us at Ramsoure’s. I was never more surrounded with difficulty and distress, but practice in the school of adversity has strengthened me.
That the letter began with an admission of emotional distress (“The late affair has almost broke my heart”) followed by one of psychological isolation (“I was never more surrounded with difficulty and distress”) suggests his mental state. Cornwallis’s biographers Franklin and Mary Wickwire acknowledge their subject was capable of the occasional mental fugue. “In a prolonged endeavor, it almost seemed sometimes as though he lacked some mental staying power, a form of patience. . . . Certainly he seemed sometimes to take too long to arrive at decisions.” In that light, his admission to Rawdon could be an acknowledgement of such mental detachments; while his closing — “practice in the school of diversity has strengthened me”— suggests he had finally gathered some inner resolve to push past the malaise of the previous few days.
Second, the letter acknowledged that, whether by design or happenstance, by Morgan’s stratagem or the deceptions of his local guides, Cornwallis was fooled. If the previous two days had been wasted marching aimlessly in the environs of Cowpens, the Earl had finally achieved clarity: “Morgan is at Gilbertown.” And even if this information was now two days old, at least it was reliable, giving Cornwallis definitive direction: toward Ramsour’s Mill.
The nineteenth-century historian William Johnson castigates Cornwallis for this delay: “Had Cornwallis immediately in receiving intelligence of the disaster [at Cowpens] . . . put in motion one thousand infantry and a few pieces of light artillery . . . it is unquestionable that he must have overtaken General Morgan.”
The truth was Morgan had, yet again, outfoxed the British Army. But also true is that, even if Cornwallis had started in the right direction, his army’s movement was too slow, their baggage too cumbrous, for him to have caught the nimble Morgan, especially after his delayed start. Why didn’t Cornwallis begin his pursuit of Morgan immediately? “For his baggage he had nothing to apprehend, since he could still have left a sufficient guard for its protection, and the army of General Leslie was encamped the night before at so short a distance as to have joined him early on the 18th,” ponders Johnson.
Historian Charles Heaton suggests Cornwallis was constrained by the military conventions of the British Army: “A British military officer often linked honor for himself and his comrades closely to adherence to doctrine and tradition. Officers who deviated from doctrinal norms were often ostracized, while those who conformed to expectations regarding doctrine and honor frequently received effusive praise for their actions, regardless of strategic, or tactical success.”
We hear echoes of Heaton’s argument in the post-war criticisms of Henry Clinton. Writing of Cowpens, he says: “We have here, unfortunately, the fatal instance of the ruinous effect of risking detachment without being in a situation to sustain them or [of] promising and not affording support.”
Cornwallis was surely sensitive to such considerations at this time. After all, he had just been burned by Tarleton’s recklessness at Cowpens, and was rewarded with the decimation of his light troops. O’Hara suggested Cornwallis was torn by strategic considerations at this time: “With all these Storms gathering round Us some desperate Vigerous measure however desperate was to be adopted . . . but where and how to direct our opperations were the great points to be consider’d, as it was evident every material, possibly fatal consequences might attend any steps that could be taken — circumstanc’d as we were all was to be risked, and as the only event that could possibly tho’ in a small degree for the moment, retrieve our affairs in this Quarter, was the beating or driving Greene’s Army out of the Carolinas.”
To achieve this, he needed Leslie’s reinforcements, and so he waited for Leslie before moving. Burned once by sending a detachment after Morgan, he had no appetite for doing it again, and probably somewhere in the back of his mind, Clinton’s conventionalities influenced his decisions. But three days into the pursuit, he was adjusting again. The problem was the baggage. The British Army was designed for war in Europe, where the urbanized landscape provided good roads and established magazines. “By the mid-eighteenth century, warfare in Europe had become almost ritualistic in its formality. Armies maneuvered like huge chess pieces,” writes historian John Morgan. “It was warfare that required vast logistics.”
Cornwallis and many of his officers and soldiers had a great deal of experience campaigning in America. Having served in the campaigns of 1776, 1777, and 1778, they were well-adapted to living without tents and foraging for some portion of their provisions. Cornwallis had brought his army into the field with what was, by previous American campaign standards, minimal baggage—each regiment was allowed only one four-horse wagon for a medicine chest, sick men, forage, “any other necessary purpose that the regiment absolutely requires.” Most officers were allowed only what baggage could be carried on a pack horse, with only Cornwallis himself, his subordinate general officers, and regimental commanders allowed wagons. There were also ammunition wagons, hospital wagons and, most important of all, the provision train, hauling the food and rum that kept the army alive. Even though it seemed like only the bare essentials, it was too much for the terrible roads and frequent fords. The Army’s baggage and its transport were a problem in the North Carolina wilderness, seriously limiting Cornwallis’s mobility.
At Cherokee Ford, not far from Kings Mountain, Cornwallis left some of his baggage behind with Brig. Gen. John Howard, with instructions for Howard to follow the main army to the Catawba. To Germain he wrote, “great exertions were made by part of the army, without baggage, to retake our prisoners and to intercept General Morgan’s corps on its retreat to the Catawba,” but in fact the only portion of the army completely without baggage was Tarleton’s Legion dragoons and other cavalry, who spent the days scouting Morgan’s position but returned to the British camp each night, eliminating any advantage they may have gained during the day.
On campaigns in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, soldiers often carried only a musket and ammunition, a blanket, a haversack filled with a few days’ provisions, and a canteen of water, leaving their knapsacks with spare shoes and clothing on baggage wagons that caught up with them every few days. Doing without those wagons, the soldiers under Cornwallis carried their knapsacks on their backs, adding several pounds. One man in five also carried a tin camp kettle, and at least two in five carried hatchets that were essential for making brush shelters in lieu of tents. The individual burden could reach fifty pounds.
Baggage or not, depending on Cornwallis’s definition, the effort was too little too late. Cornwallis was at Kings Mountain when he “learned that he had been deceived, and that Morgan had eluded him.” Still he pressed on. From January 19 to January 22, Cornwallis had marched thirty-one miles. “The King’s Troops, after their ineffectual pursuit, pointed their course toward the Catawba,” noted Tarleton. Despite his efforts to accelerate his march, “the train of waggons that now attended them met with great obstacles on the march, which considerably hindered the progress of the army.”
Morgan crossed the Little Catawba River and reached Ramsour’s Mill on January 21, the same day Cornwallis was writing to Rawdon that “Morgan is at Gilbertown.” Two days later, on January 23, Morgan successfully crossed his army over the Catawba River at Sherrald’s Ford.
Even with a head start, the march was harrowing. “A very rainy season had rendered the numerous streams difficult to ford, and the roads heavy and fatiguing to travel,” wrote James Graham. “His troops were harassed by the hard duty of the preceding fortnight and were unequal to their usual exertions when rested and refreshed.” Of the march from Cowpens to Sherrald’s Ford, “we had very difficult marching, being very mountainous, the inhabitants . . . being very poor,” recalled William Seymour, a sergeant-major in the Delaware Regiment who had been campaigning with Morgan. To facilitate his progress, Morgan destroyed the British baggage he had captured at Cowpens, “but the muskets and ammunition were clung to . . . to these causes of delay, was added that growing out of the necessity of collecting provision and forage for the daily wants of the army.”
Yet Morgan pressed on, driving his men relentlessly. “It was in such circumstances that Morgan was at his best,” wrote biographer Don Higginbotham. “Morgan seemed indefatigable, helping his men here and there, and cheering them on with praise for their industry and spirit,” all the while the pain in his joints — probably sciatica, a painful nerve condition in the spine — that had been bothering him throughout the winter was becoming more and more relentless due to the cold, wet weather and strenuous activity.
“I arrived here this morning,” Morgan wrote to Greene from Sherrald’s Ford later on January 23. “The prisoners crossed at the Island Ford, seventeen miles up the river. . . . Lord Cornwallis, whether from bad intelligence, or to make a show, moved up towards Gilbertown, to intercept me, the day after I had passed him.” Morgan’s plan was “to stay at this place till I hear from you, in order to recruit men and to get in a good train. . . . I have got men that are watching the enemy’s movements, and will give you the earliest accounts. But I think they will be this way, if the stroke we gave Tarleton don’t check them.”
As Morgan had raced across western North Carolina, many of his militia had left him, either detached to the prisoner guard or simply melting away to return to their homes and family. Such was the nature of militia service in the southern campaign. Now across the Catawba, Morgan set out to raise the local militia on the east side of the river, to guard the fords and reconnoiter Cornwallis’s position while he waited for Greene’s instructions.
These efforts, however, aggravated his painful physical condition. “After my late success and my sanguine expectations to some thing clever this campaign must inform you that I shall be oblig’d to give over the persuite, by reason of an old pain returning upon me. . . . It is a ciatick [sciatic] pain in my hip, that renders me entirely [in]capable of active service,” he wrote Greene on January 24.
It was the next day, January 25, when Morgan learned Cornwallis finally reached Ramsour’s Mill, four days behind him, having marched only thirty-six miles in the three days since he had left some of his baggage behind at Cherokee Ford. Stedman writes with Loyalist hyperbole that “so closely had he [Morgan] been pursued, that the advance of the British troops arrived at the banks of that river [the Catawba] . . . only two hours after the last of Morgan’s troops had crossed.”
Pure balderdash, although historian M.F. Treacy argues that, if “Cornwallis with a corps of light troops had advanced on January 26, he could in all probability have destroyed Morgan, for on that day the Catawba was still passable.” Morgan clearly feared this possibility, suggesting Treacy is right about the fords. “I receive intelligence every half hour of the enemies rapid approach,” he wrote to Greene on January 25. “In consequence of which I am sending off my waggons. My numbers at this time are too weak to fight them.”
Morgan was waiting on the arrival of North Carolina Gen. William L. Davidson, who was raising the local militia in Mecklenburg and Rowan counties. Davidson would eventually find eight hundred men, although it would take him several days. Again, lack of good intelligence probably prevented Cornwallis from taking advantage of Morgan’s weakness. After arriving at Ramsour’s Mill, he did send out an advance party toward Morgan’s position on the Catawba, alarming Morgan, but this party soon returned to the British camp. Having lumbered through the North Carolina wilderness for the last six days, only to be continually frustrated by the burdens of his baggage and wagons, and the slow progress of his conventional troops, Cornwallis decided to stop and regroup, not press forward across the Catawba River into the unknown.
Located about twenty miles north of the South Carolina line and thirty-four miles northwest of Charlotte, Ramsour’s Mill was a small settlement near an important crossroads leading from the North Carolina foothills east toward Salisbury, then the largest town in western North Carolina. Mills were popular gathering places in the Carolina backcountry, and on June 20, 1780, one thousand Loyalists gathered near Ramsour’s Mill were attacked by a smaller party of four hundred Patriot militia at “Battle of Ramsour’s Mill.” Often described as more brawl than battle, for many of the men there did not have weapons and fought only with their hands, the fight was still deadly, leaving about 140 killed and two hundred wounded.
Ramsour’s Mill was located about twenty miles west of Beatties Ford, one of the main Catawba River crossings. The site provided Cornwallis a convenient location to camp and take advantage of the mill while his army refitted for their push across the Catawba. Miraculously, a supply of leather was discovered nearby, giving Cornwallis the opportunity re-sole his soldiers’ shoes, “as the like opportunity may not happen for some time.”
On January 25, Cornwallis wrote to Rawdon, again revealing his psychological state: “My situation is most critical. I see infinite danger in proceeding but certain ruin in retreating. I am therefore determined to go on.”
But he could not go forward as he had before. Not if he intended victory. For victory required speed and decisiveness, and in spite of minimizing baggage, his army still could not achieve either. “Lord Cornwallis, considering that the loss of his light troops could only be remedied by the activity of the whole army, resolved to destroy all the superfluous baggage.”
Or perhaps it was Cornwallis himself who needed some symbolic act to gather his inner resolve, the heartbreak he had expressed to Rawdon just days before still lingering. Although we are not certain of the exact date, probably either January 26 or 27, Cornwallis ordered a fire. If the dangers he saw ahead were “infinite,” then the baggage had become a symbol for the ruin he otherwise feared—for his army, for his own resolve, and for his military career. And if we accept this theory, it is not surprising that, according to both Stedman and Tarleton, it was Cornwallis himself who first reduced the “size and quantity of his own [baggage]” by throwing it into the fire, setting “an example which was cheerfully followed by all the officers under his command, although by doing so they sustained a considerable loss.”
Up in flames went the senior officers’ wagons, the regimental baggage wagons, the hospital wagons, even most of the provision wagons. The number of pack horses was further reduced. An extra ration of rum was issued out before the remaining stores of that precious beverage were destroyed. “The supply of rum for a time will be absolutely impossible,” Cornwallis told the men in general orders, “and that of meal very uncertain. To remedy the latter it is recommended either to bruise the Indian corn or rasp it after it is soaked.” But the general had “not the smallest doubt that the officers and soldiers will most cheerfully submit to the ill conveniences which must naturally attend a war so remote from water carriage and the magazines of the army.”
Stedman and O’Hara wrote approvingly of Cornwallis’s resolution in this critical moment of the campaign, and Cornwallis would later report to Germain, “I must in justice to this army say that there was a most cheerful and general acquiescence” to the burning of the baggage. And no more do we hear from Cornwallis about his broken heart, nor his fear of ruin, at least in the letters that have survived.
His entire Army converted into a “light” force, legitimately this time, Cornwallis was now ready to resume his pursuit, both logistically and mentally. “In this situation without Baggage, necessaries, or Provisions of any sort for Officer or Soldier . . . with zeal and Bayonets only, it was resolv’d to follow Green’s Army to the end of the World,” O’Hara would dramatically conclude.
And then, once more, it started to rain. Cornwallis would eventually push across the Catawba River. But the rains that had plagued both armies throughout the early winter would now resume, delaying him another five days while the Catawba flooded. By then, Davidson had raised his militia. And by then, Nathanael Greene was at the Catawba, arriving there on January 30 after a three-day ride from his camp at the Cheraws on the Pee Dee River with only a small entourage. And when Greene, the master of strategic logistics, heard of Cornwallis’s baggage fire, he is said to have uttered, “Then he is ours.” Something in the news sprouted in Greene the seed of a plan that would grow and thrive, watered by Cornwallis’s own apprehension, until its tendrils reached all the way to Yorktown.
On the morning of February 1, 1781, the flood had finally resided enough for Cornwallis to attempt a cross at Cowan’s Ford, a smaller, private ford downstream of Beatties. There he would meet a small but determined Patriot resistance in a desperate crossing that would test both his own courage and that of his baggage-less British army. But never again would he have the same opportunity to catch Morgan as he had squandered on the way to the Catawba. And though his historians may credit his baggage for the delay, sharing the blame may be his state of mind.
Daniel Morgan to Nathanael Greene, January 19, 1781, in The Papers of Nathanael Greene, Dennis M. Conrad and Richard K. Showman, ed. (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 7: 152 (NG).
James Graham, The Life of General Daniel Morgan of the Virginia Line of the Army of the United States(New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859), 325. Also Lawrence Babits, A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1998), 143. It is Babits who reports Morgan crossed at Island Ford.
Cornwallis to Clinton, January 18, 1781, in The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theater of the American Revolutionary War, Ian Saberton, ed. (East Sussex, England: The Naval and Military Press Ltd, 2010), 3: 36 (CP).
Charles Heaton, “The Failure of Enlightenment Military Doctrine in Revolutionary America: The Piedmont Campaign and the Fate of the British Army in the Lower South,” The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 87, No. 2 (April 2010), 128.
Marching orders for British campaigns in 1776 and 1777 can be found in “Order Book of Lieut. Col. Stephen Kemble, Adjutant General and Deputy Adjutant General to the British forces in America, 1775-1778,” Collections of the New-York Historical Society(New York: NYHS, 1883), 251-585. Many authors exaggerate the load carried by British soldiers; the data given here is based on weights of original and reproduction items, and orders for the items that soldiers were carry on various campaigns in America.
Information about the mileage of Cornwallis’s marches came from Treacy, Prelude to Yorktown, 122. In Long, Obstinate, and Bloody, Babits and Howard report Cornwallis marched thirty miles from January 22 to 25.
Treacy, Prelude to Yorktown, 125. David Schenck writes, “At Ramsour’s Mill some fatuity overshadowed his [Cornwallis’s] reason and caused him to stop two more days.” Schenck, North Carolina, 1780-1781, 231.
For this portrait of Ramsour’s Mill I referenced the map titled “A map of North Carolina: from the best authorities,” by William Harrison, et. al, originally published in 1794, Library of Congress website, www.loc.gov/resource/g3900.ct006849/?r=0.08,0.15,0.282,0.154,0, accessed February 22, 2019. Also referenced is Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse, 106-109.