To the End of the World: Nathanael Greene, Charles Cornwallis, and the Race to the Dan by Andrew Waters (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2020)
“In a place like Salisbury,” writes Andrew Waters of the North Carolina town that witnessed the 1781 Race to the Dan, “you can live among its ghosts and still not know it’s there.” Enthusiasts know that this is true of many Revolutionary War sites, including some of real importance. Mr. Waters complains in his book To the End of the World: Nathanael Greene, Charles Cornwallis, and the Race to the Dan of the simplified understanding most Americans have of the Revolutionary War. “For most of us, the story of the American Revolution is of George Washington and the minutemen, Valley Forge and Yorktown.” In our Cliffs Notes version of history, many places, heroes, and even whole campaigns are left out.
Like most of the war in the south, the Race to the Dan is overshadowed by Yorktown. The mere fact that George Washington was not a participant relegates the story to a second-tier status. The Race, however, holds unique challenges for the historian and the storyteller. It occurred over more than two hundred miles, depending on how you count it, rather than at one identifiable spot. Nathanael Greene’s genius is to be found in his mastery of logistics and strategy, which are subjects that make many people’s eyes glaze over. Though heroic and difficult, it was still a retreat and retreats don’t lend themselves to celebration. Its significance is not so much in what it achieved but rather in what it made possible, which requires detailed explanation.
Consequently, the Race to the Dan has been given short shrift for more than two centuries. It is mentioned in the war’s histories, but almost never in detail. In writing this book, Mr. Waters was determined to correct that and he has succeeded. One can’t resist noting the appropriateness of his name: the waterways of the Carolinas play a central role in the story. He makes plain from the beginning that the story is personal to him. He is a conservationist and doctoral candidate in South Carolina who has made a career of conserving the Palmetto State’s watersheds. “Rivers are my business,” he says at the very beginning of the book. He also plainly declares, “We all need heroes, and . . . Greene has become one of mine.”
Mr. Waters holds out John Buchanan as the lone historian who has previously given the story proper attention and he credits the publication of The Papers of Nathanael Greene, completed in 2005, with making his own work possible. He is a gifted storyteller with a unique style. French military terminology appears frequently. He often addresses his readers directly, reminding us sometimes to recall important bits of context. He uses contractions where other writers are more formal. The result is a book that is intelligent but unaffected, written by an author who is more interested in drawing us in to his passion than in demonstrating how much he knows. It is a pleasure to read.
When Major General Greene took command of the Continental Army’s Southern Department, he inherited a string of failures. Horatio Gates had been humiliated at Camden. Abraham Buford had been clobbered at the Waxhaws. Benjamin Lincoln had surrendered at Charleston. The Department’s first commander, Charles Lee, oversaw a tremendous victory at Sullivan’s Island in 1776 but deserved little credit for it. The Carolinas’ real successes had been achieved by state and militia forces. William Moultrie had won on Sullivan’s Island by defying Lee’s instructions. The Overmountain Men had won at King’s Mountain without a Continental officer in sight. Locals like the Swamp Fox (Francis Marion) and the Carolina Gamecock (Thomas Sumter) had kept the cause alive while most of the Continental lines from Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina sat imprisoned at Charleston.
The war in the south could not be won without the Continental Army, however, which meant something had to change. Major General Greene was appointed to the task. Mr. Waters illustrates how unlikely Greene was for the task. He had been raised a pacifist and, like his friend Henry Knox, learned everything he knew of warfare from books or from hard experience. He came by his leadership skills “honestly, learning them through rough and violent experience, although one must allot at least some credit to his innate intelligence and religious upbringing.” Greene’s father believed the Bible to be the only book worthy of serious study, yet Quaker society was lively with thoughtful discussion. “In this curious intellectual tradition Greene was raised with formal education repudiated, but human nature relentlessly analyzed and discussed,” Waters explains. “To the world he may have appeared the uneducated son of a Yankee merchant; inside his mind was on fire.”
Greene read the great books of military theory written by Frederick the Great, Maurice de Saxe, and Louis Michele de Jeney. He also learned from the successes and failures he had been a part of in the north. Waters asserts:
It would be a mistake to claim Greene was a devotee of Saxe or Frederick the Great, that he consciously and systematically applied their principles to his military tactics. Nothing in his letters indicates such a methodical approach. But his study of these texts suggests a military leader unbound by the conventions governing Cornwallis and the British army. In combat and strategy, Greene used his own reason and assessment, filtered through his considerable experience and coupled with an intellectual understanding of tactics both conventional and not, to adapt to situational contingencies.
Greene had reluctantly taken the job of quartermaster general at Valley Forge and benefitted greatly from the experience. He learned 150 years before Black Jack Pershing that “Infantry wins battles, logistics wins wars.” He also learned that handling logistics was a hard job that required a hard man. He told his soldiers, “You must forage the country naked.” He told Washington, “The inhabitants cry out and beset me from all quarters . . . but like Pharoh I harden my heart.” When he arrived at his new command in Charlotte, Greene used his hardened heart to restore discipline by hanging a deserter in front of the men.
Mr. Waters makes a number of evidently well-founded assertions about Greene’s thinking and psychology. An example: “Born with a facile and astute mind, yet sensitive to his lack of formal education, Greene’s habit of advertising his intelligence to others hints at the influence of an inferiority complex.” Another: “Greene clearly craved solitude, taking it when available, no matter the circumstances”—a trait that could extend into “an unusual passivity on Greene’s part, almost a sense of stasis.”
The other title character is Lt. Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis. Mr. Waters examines him carefully and draws a sharp contrast between him and his opponent in the field. Greene, like a chess player, thought several steps ahead, predicting contingencies and planning for them months beforehand. Cornwallis, on the other hand, was a “gambler” and “Chess is not a gambler’s game.” Greene knew that Cornwallis had a single-minded focus and would push and push until a victory was achieved or he could push no farther. Greene wrote to South Carolina Gen. Isaac Huger on one occasion, “It is not improbable from Lord Cornwallises pushing disposition and the contempt he has for our Army, we may precipitate him into some capital misfortune.”
Some readers will be jarred by Mr. Waters’ defense of Banastre Tarleton, remembered as the “Butcher of the Waxhaws.” He does not pretend that Tarleton is falsely accused, but rather offers context. “In Tarlton’s defense,” he writes, “terror was part of the Legion’s job, inevitably requiring some measure of collateral damage.” Tarleton himself is quoted as saying, “Cavalry acts chiefly upon the nerves, and if it loses its terror, it loses its greatest force.” Just as jarring is the revelation that Americans William Washington and Light Horse Harry (Henry Lee) were just as brutal at Hammond’s Store, Blackstock’s Farm, and Pyle’s Massacre.
On trial throughout the book is the British Empire’s so-called “Southern Strategy.” Mr. Waters notes that Gen. Henry Clinton, Lord Cornwallis’s superior, “sipped” the strategy skeptically but Cornwallis “drank deeply from its well.” Clinton and Cornwallis did not like each other, and the strategy had come from Lord George Germain, to whom Cornwallis was closely allied. Cornwallis was determined to win at any cost and would chase Greene “to the end of the world” to defeat him. But the Southern Strategy was never “an attempt at regional conquest but [was rather] an effort to ignite Loyalist support in the South.” The defeat at King’s Mountain had already cowed the region’s Loyalists and put the strategy in doubt before Greene even arrived on the scene. 
To the End of the World is also an analysis of partisan warfare or petite guerre. It involved “light,” highly mobile troops, on horse and on foot, who could act independently to harass and ambush an enemy and protect one’s own advance, rear, or flanks as needed. To be effective, light troops had to be trusted to adapt, to take the initiative, and to be appropriately cautious. Strong leadership was essential, therefore, and not just at the top. To function well, light forces had to be “looked upon as human beings rather than mindless instruments of war.”
No one was better at partisan tactics than Gen. Daniel Morgan. After some detailed stage-setting, Mr. Waters’ narrative begins with Greene dividing his army in somewhat glaring defiance of conventional wisdom. Morgan was sent to the “West side” of the Catawba River “to give protection to that part of the country and spirit up the people, to annoy the enemy in that quarter; collect the provisions and forage out of the way of the enemy.” Greene didn’t just divide his army, he sent off his very best troops: the Maryland and Delaware Continentals under John Eager Howard and Robert Kirkwood, William Washington’s dragoons, and his Virginia riflemen. Greene, meanwhile, took the rest of the army in the nearly the opposite direct to Cheraw, South Carolina.
Morgan’s victory at Cowpens on January 17, 1781 demonstrated all of the elements of competent petite guerre. Mr. Waters asserts that “Morgan understood instinctively” that he could use the battlefield’s topography to his advantage “For he knew his foe … Tarleton’s impulsive, hard-charging style.” He knew that Tarleton would attack quickly and not stop, and he used that to his advantage. No commander in the war had a better camaraderie with his men than Morgan had. He spent the eve of battle encouraging, cajoling, and teasing his men until he had total buy-in to his complex and unusual plan for victory. By authorizing a timed retreat, he ensured the militia would stand their ground long enough to fire a couple of effective volleys—an innovation Greene would use in the battles to come.
Morgan had already proven himself to be the Continental Army’s best partisan commander, but Cowpens was his finest hour. “Morgan used critical thought and empirical analysis to peer inside the mind of both his opponent and his own men,” Mr. Waters concludes. “As in New Jersey and Saratoga in 1777, he adapted his tactics based on his own strategic assets and employed the available terrain to his advantage, eschewing conventional tactics . . . Tarleton’s British were superior in training, equipment, and troops. Morgan was superior in minds.”
Tarleton deserved the thrashing, but now a furious Cornwallis was on the way to punish Morgan and rescue the five or six hundred prisoners he had taken. Morgan had to go, and he had to go quickly. He took his men across the Broad River, the waterway Tarleton had hoped to pin them against. Three more river crossings lay ahead of them. When he heard of the victory at Cowpens, Greene recklessly or bravely rode a hundred miles with a small escort from Cheraw to join Morgan at Beattie’s Ford on the Catawba River. General Huger remained behind and led his division north from Cheraw to an eventual rendezvous with Morgan’s “flying army” at Guilford Courthouse.
Morgan crossed the Catawba in the rain, knowing or hoping that the rising waters would prevent Cornwallis from following for a couple of days. The British were indeed forced to halt, providing the Americans time to move stores of food and ammunition out of Salisbury and send them north. Cornwallis realized that his army—already light by British standards—was too slow. Like a gambler, he pushed all of his chips to the center of the table. He was all in. He burned his wagons and his supplies and converted his entire command into a light force. His men would have to survive by foraging and he gave them suggestions on how to subsist on Indian corn.
Cornwallis had already determined that “If the Southern Strategy was to work, it would not be due to Loyalist support, which had proven capricious and ineffectual, but rather the skill, daring, and loyalty of his beloved British soldiers.” But the strategy had always depended on Loyalist support. There may not have been enough Redcoats in the world to occupy all three colonies and force them into submission. The Southern Strategy had failed. “My situation is most critical,” he wrote from Ramsour’s Mill. “I see infinite danger in proceeding, but certain ruin in retreating. I am therefore determined to go on.”
Greene’s safe crossing over the Yadkin River a few days later might have given another pursuer pause. British Brig. Gen. Charles O’Hara reached Trading Ford only to find the Americans and every available boat on the other side. General Clinton later said that Cornwallis should have turned around at this point. “Every step [Greene’s army] took drew them nearer to their magazines and friends . . . On the contrary, the King’s troops were now advanced into an exhausted, hostile country above 200 miles from theirs, without means of collecting supplies.” Mr. Waters, however, citing Cornwallis biographers Franklin and Mary Wickwire, suggests there were only two ways for the general to reestablish royal government in America: “by decisively defeating the Continental army or rallying the Loyalists to His Majesty’s cause. But months of partisan conflict in South Carolina had convinced him the latter strategy was practically futile. That left one option: destroy Greene.” Giving up, then, was not an option.
After the Yadkin, there were still many more miles to go to the Dan River and to safety. Greene would prove again that his intelligence network, his reconnaissance, and his powers of deception were superior to those of his opponent. General Morgan, however, was done. His sciatica had flared up leaving him a virtual invalid. Maryland’s Col. Otto Holland Williams was chosen to replace him in command of a light detachment that would screen the army’s approach to the Dan River and create the illusion that Green planned to cross at the river’s upper fords where the water was shallower. In reality, Greene had directed that boats be collected at a lower ford—an act of advanced planning and deception that saved his army. Williams performed well and the army made it safely to Virginia. On the far side of the Dan, Waters joyfully relates that the troops celebrated “as if they had just won the World Series.”
Waters provides a cogent assessment of the various commanders’ abilities. More than once he points out that Greene thought several steps ahead throughout the campaign. “Cornwallis had shown himself incapable of such foresight during the North Carolina campaign; Gates, as well, before the Battle of Camden. And though Morgan may have well been Greene’s superior in the realm of battlefield tactics, he could not touch Greene’s superiority at logistics and planning.” For Morgan’s part, “His strategy for using the militia in the battle at Cowpens would influence Greene heavily at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in a few short weeks. Certainly, he is today regarded as Greene’s master in terms of battlefield orchestration, along with the camaraderie he enjoyed with his troops, a comportment Greene could never manage with his rank and file.”
Greene’s army had lived to fight another day, and the day came soon. Reinforced by Virginia militia under Gen. Edward Stevens and by Virginia Continentals under Lt. Col. Richard Campbell, he stood toe-to-toe against Cornwallis at Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781 and “lost” the first of four battles that helped win the war. When he learned of Washington’s arrival at Yorktown, Greene wrote to Knox, “We have been beating the bush and the General has come to catch the bird. The General is a most fortunate Man, and may success and laurels attend him. We have fought frequently and bled freely, and little glory comes to our share.”
Mr. Waters observes that
The narrative thread that it was Greene, Morgan, and the Southern Army that “beat” Cornwallis into Virginia, allowing Washington to “catch the bird,” is a complicated one, far beyond the attention span of modern America. For most of us, the story of the American Revolution is of George Washington and the minutemen, Valley Forge and Yorktown. That a retreat through a wilderness of swamps and rivers, marched through thick, frozen mud with bleeding feet, with narrow, last-minute escapes made possible by plans months in the making, played an important, even critical role, in this narrative is just too much plotline for our selfie-sodden brains.
Indeed, Greene had carefully studied the region’s rivers and roads, sending off senior officers to make in-person surveys. He knew how long after a rain a river’s waters would rise. One North Carolina officer famously remembered that “though General Greene had never seen the Catawba before, he appeared to know more about it than those who were raised on it.” Greene had planned far ahead for contingencies. He had taken enormous risks, but each had been carefully calculated. He had trusted his inferior officers. He had looked into the minds of Cornwallis and Tarleton and known what they would do perhaps before they knew themselves. “In this dark moment,” Mr. Waters writes, “Greene turned partisan tactics into a game of chess, positioning his pieces across the Carolinas not as a coherent offensive strategy but in an effort to disrupt the strategies of Cornwallis. And Cornwallis would come to understand it was a game in which he was overmatched and destined to lose.”
Andrew Waters has written a good book. Parts of his tale are quite familiar, particularly the Battle of Cowpens. Other parts are surprising and new, perhaps especially the author’s close attention to Greene’s personality. Like silence in music and empty space in art, Mr. Waters perceptively finds significance in the moments when Greene did nothing at all.
Waters, End of the World, 63, citing Nathanael Greene to Daniel Morgan, December 16, 1780, Richard K. Showman, et al., eds., The Papers of Nathanael Greene (Chapel Hill, N.C: University of North Carolina Press, 1979-2005), 6:589-590.