Sunday, August 20, 2023

ARP279 Race to the Dan

In our last episode, we took a detour to cover Arnold’s invasion of Virginia.  Before that, we covered the showdown between General Daniel Morgan’s army and the British army under Colonel Banastre Tarleton at Cowpens.

Even before General Cornwallis received word of the British defeat at Cowpens, he was preparing to renew his offensive into North Carolina.  With the arrival of General Alexander Leslie’s reinforcements, his army was upwards of 3300 men, about two-thirds of whom were regulars.

On January 18, 1781, Leslie’s men made their final march from Camden to link up with Cornwallis at Winnsboro.  That same day, Colonel Tarleton had returned to camp with less than 200 men, from a force of over 1200 that had led a couple of weeks earlier.  Cornwallis’ new army was now closer to 2500 men.

Into North Carolina

Undeterred, Cornwallis was ready to move  The following day, his army began its march northward.  At first, Cornwallis hoped to confront Morgan and finally defeat that division of the Continental Army.  Cornwallis not only wanted to defeat Morgan’s army, he also wanted to reclaim the 600 prisoners that Morgan had taken at Cowpens.

Greene Crosses the Dan River

But Morgan was not looking for a fight.  He had moved his men out of South Carolina and back into North Carolina, taking his prisoners with him.  His goal was to get the prisoners to a safe location, then reconnect with General Greene’s army somewhere in central North Carolina.

The British Army under Cornwallis found the march slow going.  His army moved only about twelve miles per day, taking nearly a week to make the march to Ramsour’s Mill, the site of a battle months earlier.  When Cornwallis arrived on January 25, he learned that Morgan’s army had passed through the area two days earlier.  Despite sticking to back roads, Morgan was averaging close to twenty miles per day.

Cornwallis spent a few days  at Ramsour’s Mill.  He was frustrated by his army’s slow movement and by his lack of good intelligence following the loss of Tarleton’s legion.  The general made the decision to burn his own supply wagons.  They were slowing down his army. He needed to move much more quickly if he was going to catch Morgan and Greene. It was not just the officers’ china and other luxuries that got tossed.  Tents, clothing, even the rum supply, went into the bonfire.  The men only carried what they could take on their backs.

One of the things each man was required to carry was an extra set of soles for his shoes.  Cornwallis expected to do a lot of walking in this campaign and wanted every soldier ready for that.

With the British on the march, so were Greene and his Continentals.  Greene hoped to reunite with Morgan’s army.  He also sent messages to Francis Marion and Light Horse Harry Lee in South Carolina, calling on them to bring their 300 horsemen to join the main army.

Greene and Morgan met up at Beattie’s Ford on the Catawba River on January 30.  Greene personally had raced ahead of his own army to catch up with Morgan.  He ordered General Isaac Huger to lead the army to Salisbury, further to the north.  When Greene met with Morgan at Beattie’s Ford, the men were aware that the enemy was already in sight.

On the other side of the river, Cornwallis’ British Regulars had encamped.  Only heavy rains and a swollen river kept them from attacking in force.

Greene had hoped that the American victory at Cowpens and the British invasion of North Carolina would turn out the local militia.  About 800 militia had turned out under General William Lee Davidson.  But these were not enough, even if the men could be trusted to fight.  Further, hundreds of Virginia militia who had been marching with Greene’s army, insisted on going home after their enlistments ended.  Morgan’s force was exhausted and much smaller than the enemy army facing them across the river. 

Greene held a council of war with Morgan, Colonel William Washington and militia General Davidson to decide what to do next.  The enemy would be able to ford the river within a few days, and Greene did not have the army assembled that he needed to defeat them.

The council agreed that retreat was the best option.  Davidson would keep the local militia at fords along the river, hoping to delay Cornwallis’ advance as long as possible.  Meanwhile the rest of the army would retreat north.

Cowan’s Ford

Cornwallis camped at Beattie’s Ford, wait for the river to fall enough for his men to cross.  Knowing that the Americans would contest the crossing, Cornwallis sent the bulk of his army four miles down river to Cowan’s Ford, which was not as good a crossing, but where Cornwallis hoped it would be less guarded.  

Cowan's Ford Crossing
On the American side, Davidson suspected that Cornwallis might attempt a crossing at Cowan’s Ford, so he deployed about 250 of his infantry militia there to contest any attempted crossing.  The main ford was two to four feet deep, and crossed an island in the river part way.  But another passage that was a little deeper, used primarily by wagons allowed for a crossing a little farther upstream.  Davidson only posted a small picket guard at the wagon crossing and put the bulk of his forces at the main crossing. 

The British began their night march at about 1:00 AM on February 1, moving about half the army down to Cowan’s Ford.  They began crossing the ford at around dawn.  The men tied their ammunition belts around their necks in order to avoid them being soaked in the deep water.  They used their muskets with bayonets to dig into the rocky soil as they crossed the river in order to keep the currents from sweeping them downstream.

Even so, the current was pretty brutal, especially in the wagon crossing.  Several soldiers and horses were carried away by the river, and many drowned. 

The militia quickly alerted to the crossing and began firing on the British.  Cornwallis returned fire from cannons he had set up on the British side of the river.  As General Williamson attempted to rally his militia at the riverside, a British rifleman knocked him off his horse, killing him instantly.  

The militia continued to fire, but the British kept up their crossing.  When enough had gotten across, they formed a bayonet charge to disperse the remaining militia.  Soon, the militia were marching on the road to Salisbury, trying to catch up with the main army.

By mid-morning, the British had established a force on the other side of the river and were forming to begin their chase.  Cornwallis reported only four killed and thirty-six wounded in the crossing, but that appears to be woefully inaccurate.  Locals reported dozens of bodies found over the next few days or weeks.  Many of the bodies did not appear to be shot.  The soldiers had simply drowned while trying to cross the river.

Torrence’s Tavern

Many of the militiamen who had escaped from Cowan’s Ford after the British had crossed, moved about ten miles north to Torrence’s Tavern.  There, the whiskey flowed freely and the soldiers attempted to calm their nerves from the battle they had just fought. The tavern was a local rallying point. The militia who gathered there expected to meet up with more militia from the area before they would move again.

Torrence's Tavern
Early that afternoon, a rider galloped up to the tavern with the news that Tarleton was on his way.  Captain Nathaniel Martin attempted to set up a defense, but many of the men were too drunk and exhausted to do much.  Soon about 200 green-coated horsemen rode into view.

Tarleton saw he was facing a much larger force, but they were disorganized. The heavy rain made it unlikely that the militia’s rifles would fire. Tarleton shouted “remember the Cowpens” and ordered a saber charge directly into the enemy lines.  He later claimed that his legion killed 50 men on the spot, wounded many others as they fled, and dispersed about 500 of the enemy.  This was probably an exaggeration.  Another British officer who arrived on the scene of the battle a few hours later reported seeing less than ten enemy bodies.

Nathanael Greene was at a farmhouse only six miles away from the tavern that morning.  From captured prisoners, Tarleton learned of Greene’s presence and rode off in pursuit.  But Greene had received warning of the British crossing and had already moved on.

Trading Ford

The next goal for both armies was Trading Ford on the Yadkin River.  This was just above the rendezvous point at Salisbury.  Greene arrived there on February 3, finding Morgan and his Continental Army already at the site.  Isaac Huger, with the rest of the Continental Army, still had not arrived.

Trading Ford
Torrential rains had made the river impassable.  Greene feared he might have to face Cornwallis there, with no avenue for escape.  Fortunately, Greene had planned ahead and did have some boats available. Given the swift currents, even passage across in a boat was slow going and dangerous.  The army spent the day and night ferrying men and equipment across the river.  

The following morning the vanguard of the British Army under General Charles O’Hara arrived on the scene.  Only about 150 militia were still on the near side of the river.  They fired a few shots at the approaching British column and then fled.  Greene had prepared for this contingency, leaving canoes a few miles downstream for the militia to cross.  

Once again, the British found a swollen river between them and the enemy.  Greene had removed all the boats. Cornwallis could only fire a few cannonballs across the river as he saw his target, once again, retreat further north.

Guilford Courthouse

The next rendezvous point for the army was Guilford Courthouse.  Morgan continued to push his men through knee deep mud roads.  They managed to make the fifty mile march in two days.  Once there, Morgan gave his men a well deserved rest, while sending some scouts to search the area for food and supplies.  

Otho Williams

Over the next few days, the army grew.  Isaac Huger finally arrived at Guilford Courthouse with the hundreds of Continentals that he had marched up on an eastern route.  Light Horse Harry Lee also made it with his legion.

It was at this point that Morgan had had enough.  His sciatica had put his body through unbearable pain.  He could barely sit in a saddle.  Greene begged him to stay, but saw that his condition made that impossible.  On Morgan’s recommendation, Greene gave command of the division to Colonel Otho Holland Williams.  Morgan managed to get a carriage and rode home to Virginia to recuperate.

Meanwhile, with Trading Ford still impassable, Cornwallis sent Tarleton upriver in search of another place to cross the Yadkin.  Tarleton found an unguarded ford known as Shallow Ford.  As the Americans rested and assembled at Guilford Courthouse, the British had to march forty miles upriver to cross, then forty miles back all through torrential rains and deepening mud soaked paths.

With the Continental Army finally combined, Greene considered a fight at Guilford Courthouse.  But the men were still in no condition for a fight.  His army consisted of less than 1500 men, with perhaps another 500 local militia, some of whom were not even armed.  The large numbers of militia he hoped for had never appeared.  Greene knew Cornwallis had an army of close to 2500 men, most of whom were regulars or Hessians, with the remainder being mostly battle-hardened provincials.

Even so, the failure to stand and fight would mean the army would have to retreat into Virginia.  They would effectively cede North Carolina to the British without a major battle.

Greene held another council of war with Huger and Williams.  Morgan, who had not left yet, also attended.  The unanimous verdict was that the army had to retreat to Virginia.

Race to the Dan

At the time, the British were about twenty-five miles to the west, at Salem, North Carolina (Modern day Winston-Salem).  Cornwallis received intelligence that Greene and his Continentals would move north to the Dan River and cross into Virginia.  The fords on the Dan were due north of both armies, meaning that Cornwallis could head off Greene’s march and get to the fords at least as fast as Greene.

British and Continental Routes to the Dan
Once again though, Greene had other plans.  Greene split his army, sending Morgan’s old division under Otho Williams north toward the Dan River fords.  At the same time, Greene moved the rest of his army northeast, away from the British and toward a target that would reach an unfordable part of the Dan River.

Williams’ force of about 700 men kept the enemy occupied, without entering into a full battle. Williams had to keep a respectable distance between his army and the British in order to avoid a massacre.  He used scouts to locate the enemy.  When there was enough distance at night, Williams would camp, only to rise at about 3:00 and march away, in order to avoid a dawn attack.  His men would then stop for breakfast a few hours later, for their only meal of the day, then continue their march.

Bruce’s Crossroads

Riding with Williams was Colonel Lee, whose horsemen remained closest to the enemy.  On February 11, Lee stopped at a local farmhouse for breakfast.  He soon got word that British dragoons were only a few miles away.  Lee immediately mounted and rode out with a local man and his bugler to investigate.  A few miles down the road, they encountered a few of Tarleton’s dragoons on horseback.  The Americans fled as the dragoons charged them.  Unfortunately the young bugler was on a slow moving pony.  The dragoons quickly overtook him and hacked the boy to death with their sabers.

By this time part of Lee’s squadron had caught up with the men and charged the dragoons.  The squadron killed or chased off the dragoons.  Hearing the sounds of battle from a distance, Tarleton brought up more of his legion to attack.  As they charged down the road, they ran into an ambush quickly set up by Lee’s men.  The British dragoons suffered 13 dead and several captured.  The only American death was the unfortunate bugler.

Crossing the Dan

As Williams led Cornwallis closer to the fords on the Dan, it became clear that this was not where the main Continental army was headed.  Greene, with his ever-methodical planning, had arranged for boats to carry his army across the Dan further downstream.  Williams had been a distraction to allow Greene time to get his men across in the boats. 

Dan River Monument
As Williams got closer to the river, he had orders to march quickly downstream to the boats and cross before the British could arrive.  As Williams rode downriver toward the crossing point, he saw campfires still on the near side of the river.  If Greene had not yet crossed, the British would be upon them before they could do so. 

Williams began to dread the notion that he would have to fight a hopeless delaying action against the entire British army in order to buy time for the crossing.  As Williams entered the camp, he was relieved to find it empty.  Greene had already moved his army to the crossing and had left a few men to stoke the campfires as a distraction.

By the evening of February 14, Greene sent a courier to Williams letting him know that the main army had crossed.  Now Williams had to get to the crossing and get over before the British overtook them.  Williams drove his already exhausted men in an all-night march to the crossing point, and began to get his men and horses into the boats for the crossing.  Greene was there waiting for him, and the men crossed the Dan together.  

The last men to cross that night were Light Horse Harry Lee and Colonel Edward Carrington, the man who had arranged for the boats that carried the army to safety.

Frustrated Again

When the lead British forces under General O'Hara, got to the crossing point on the Dan, they found the Americans already on the other side and, once again, no way for them to cross the river.

Cornwallis had marched his army with amazing speed through horrible conditions, but the Americans were still faster.  By this time, Cornwallis had been marching hundreds of miles without tents and supplies, trying to engage an enemy who kept slipping away.  He was now more than 240 miles from his nearest supply base back at Camden, South Carolina.

Tarleton, who had been in the lead against the Americans described the retreat as “judiciously designed and vigorously executed."  Cornwallis wrote to Lord Rawdon that “the fatigue of our troops and the hardships which they suffered were excessive.” He found himself cut off from his own supply lines and communications, deep in enemy territory.

Although Cornwallis had crossed over North Carolina, he did not really occupy it.  Rather than chase the Americans into Virginia, Cornwallis gave up on his northward march.  Instead, he moved his army at a relaxed pace about 50 miles south to Hillsborough.

There, he raised the King’s standard, claimed that the British had successfully reclaimed North Carolina, and called for the loyalists of the state to turn out and join his army.  Less than a hundred men joined.  Even worse, the area offered next to nothing in terms of food or supplies for his army.  Cornwallis further created ill-will by the need for his soldiers to go house to house and confiscate food for the army.  The men also had to butcher oxen and even some of their own draft horses in order to feed the hungry and exhausted regulars.

Meanwhile, Greene’s army was celebrated in Virginia.  Lee, a Virginian himself, described the army as being received as brethren and enjoying the abundant supplies of food available in the area.

Even so, Greene could not cede North Carolina to British control  Within days, he was planning to return to North Carolina and finally confront the British Army.  But we’ll have to leave that for next time, when we cover the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.

- - -

Next Episode 280 Guilford Courthouse 

Previous Episode 278 Arnold Raids Richmond

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Further Reading


Peterson, Bruce L. “The Importance of a Small Skirmish During the Race to the Dan” Journal of the American Revolution, Sept. 1, 2021.

Cecere, Michael “Race to the Dan” Journal of the American Revolution, Feb. 18, 2014.

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Connor, R. D. W. Revolutionary leaders of North Carolina, Greensboro, N.C. State College, 1916. 

Crow, Jeffrey (ed) The Southern Experience in the American Revolution, Univ. of NC Press, 1978.

Greene, George Washington The Life of Nathanael GreeneVol. 1Vol. 2, & Vol. 3, New York: Cambridge Univ. Press 1867-1871. 

Weigley, Russell Frank The Partisan War: the South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782, Univ. of SC Press, 1970 (borrow only). 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Aaron, Larry G. The Race to the Dan: The Retreat That Rescued the American Revolution, Halifax Co. Historical Society, 2007. 

Carbone, Gerald Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010 (borrow on 

Edgar, Walter B. Partisans and Redcoats: The Southern Conflict That Turned the Tide of the American Revolution, New York: Morrow, 2001 (borrow on

Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021. 

Golway, Terry Washington's General : Nathanael Greene and the triumph of the American Revolution, H. Holt, 2006. (borrow on

Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on 

Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000 (borrow on

Swisher, James K., The Revolutionary War in the Southern Back Bountry, Pelican Publishing, 2008 (borrow on 

Tonsetic, Robert L. 1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War, Casemate, 2011 (borrow on 

Waters, Andrew To the End of the World: Nathanael Greene, Charles Cornwallis, and the Race to the Dan, Westholme Publishing, 2020. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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