Exhibit Overview

American War of Independence

Southern Campaign

The Retreat Begins

Crossing the Catawba River

Crossing the Yadkin River

Council of War

The Race to the Dan

Crossing of the Dan

After the Crossing

Last Months of the War

Surrender of Cornwallis

The Crossing's Significance

Reference Links

The British were beaten before the Battle of Yorktown.
The contest was not a battle, but a race!

Lord Cornwallis had to catch General Nathanael Greene before he could cross the Dan River in Virginia to re-enforce his troops. The Dan River was the finish line.

The action was a brilliant strategic maneuver ending at Irvine's and Boyd's ferries in Halifax, Virginia on February 13-14, 1781. The British lost the race as well as any hope to control the southern theater. Cornwallis had been outgeneraled in being attracted too far in an unsuccessful pursuit.

Luring the British troops far from their supply base in Charleston, South Carolina, the Colonials raced with Cornwallis in hot pursuit, to the Dan River. Greene's troops crossed in pre-positioned ferries and boats only hours ahead of the British light cavalry. Without boats, the stranded and frustrated British retreated to Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Greene used the next few days in Halifax County, Virginia, to gather new troops, needed supplies and horses in preparation for a planned, direct encounter with the Redcoats.

"This American retreat, which extended across the breadth of North Carolina, is considered one of the masterful military achievements of all time." Dennis M. Conrad, Project Director and Editor, The Papers of General Nathanael Greene

The American War of Independence


Map courtesy of ushistory.com

To pay for the costs incurred during the French and Indian War that began in 1756, England increased the taxes on the British colonies. That war, which was undertaken in defense of the colonies, cost Great Britain . . . upwards of ninety millions. Before that was The Spanish war of 1739 where Great Britain had spent upwards of forty millions. In those two wars the defense of the colonies had cost Great Britain much more than double the sum of their national debt.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 closed off the frontier to colonial expansion. The King and his council presented the proclamation as a measure to calm the fears of the Indians, who felt that the colonists would drive them from their lands as they expanded westward. Many in the colonies felt that the object was to pen them in along the Atlantic seaboard where they would be easier to regulate.

William Pitt, Britain’s Secretary of State, was put in charge of the North American area of the war. One of his actions was a system of impressment, which forced men to enlist in the war, much like the modern day draft. Also, he called for the colonists to house and feed the soldiers, also known as quartering. This idea was reinforced more by the Quartering Act of 1765. This caused massive resentment by the colonists to the English, to the point of rioting.

The restrictive new laws and mounting taxes, without their consent, only added to the American colonists desire for self rule and drove them into rebellion. Those that sought complete independence from the British Empire were in the minority as most Americans were satisfied living under the protective rule of Great Britain. To that issue Benjamin Franklin said "Those who give up essential liberty, to preserve a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Vigilante groups formed in the Carolinas, called the Regulators, opposed government corruption, demanded greater western representation, and fairer taxes.

Vigilante groups called the Regulators opposed government corruption in the Carolinas and demanded greater western representation. This drawing shows the British colonial governor of North Carolina, William Tryon, suppressing a Regulator insurrection in 1771.

The breakdown of social authority was so severe that in March 1769 a battle with the Regulators was narrowly avoided at the Saluda River in South Carolina. On May 16, 1771 the militia of the English governor of North Carolina, William Tryon, completely routed about 2000 of Regulators in the battle of Alamance Creek. Seven of the leaders were executed, and the movement collapsed.

Rebel colonists were able to use the Boston Massacre in 1770, and the attacks on Lexington and on Concord in 1775, to further their needed support for their fight for independence. Those engagements led to the first blood of the war for American independence.

Realizing that the colonists' arms collecting must be stopped, the British ordered an expeditionary force to march secretly from Boston to Concord on the night of April 18, 1775, and to make surprise searches of suspected illegal arms caches at dawn the next day.

When the British troops, after a night of marching, reached the village of Lexington, they saw


through the early morning mist a grim band of 50 minutemen - armed colonists - lined up across the common. There was a moment of hesitation, cries and orders from both sides and, in the midst of the noise, a shot. Firing broke out along both lines, and the Americans dispersed, leaving eight of their dead upon the green. The first blood of the war for American independence had been shed. The first shot fired there has ever since been described as 'the shot heard round the world.'

Long before New York City became a center of military conflict in the Revolution, both sides recognized its strategic importance. To the Americans New York was vital to maintaining control of the whole Hudson River valley and thereby preventing the severing of New England from the middle states . The British, on the other hand, not only understood this point but also dreamed of gaining the active support of New York's Loyalist population . In 1775 events in Massachusetts required the antagonists to concentrate their efforts around Boston. As it was then thought that the Revolution would soon extinguish itself (the British view) or triumph (the American view) in Massachusetts, concern about New York was minimal .

In 1775 The Whigs in South Carolina had declared Charles Town to be self-governing. It was this action that began the revolution in South Carolina. The Revolution in the Carolina interior was more than just a war against the British; it was also a civil war. Neighbor took up arms against neighbor and families were torn apart fighting for either the rebellious whigs or loyalist tories, or by not fighting at all.

The Southern Campaign

The war had become stalemated in North. The British were unable to halt the progress of the revolution, and were frustrated by their efforts to quell the resistance.

British military officials decided on a move to the South as a last-ditch effort at victory, expecting that the greater presence of loyalists in the region would make it easier to conquer and hold their military targets.

Lord Cornwallis

In a year that saw few successes for either the British or Americans the British attack on Charleston, South Carolina was the major sole success of the year. The British had captured Savannah, and it was decided to capitalize on this by sending a huge expeditionary force from New York harbor to Charleston. The British fleet included ninety troopships and fourteen warships with more than 8,500 soldiers and 5,000 sailors. The British General Clinton was at its head and Lord Cornwallis was second-in-command. (Also see A Gallant Defense: The Siege of Charleston, 1780, by Carl P. Borick)

This worried Congress, who were concerned that the British could establish another strong base, similar to Savannah, in a city that had not demonstrated revolutionary zeal when briefly threatened in 1779. Congress thus put the local commander, Major-General Benjamin Lincoln, under severe pressure to retain the city. After a three month siege, on May 12, 1780, the American defenders of Charleston surrendered. Clinton took 5,500 prisoners, including a sizable number of Continentals. A bonus was the capture of four warships of the tiny Continental Navy, trapped in the city. It was a great blow to the Americans - their greatest loss of the entire war in terms of men, equipment, horses, and ammunition.

Sir Henry Clinton

On May 18, 1780, Lt. General Charles Cornwallis commanding 2,500 men marched out of Charleston with orders from General Clinton to subdue the back country and establish outposts. On the 29th, The British Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton caught up with Colonel Buford and his Third Virginia Continentals near the Waxhaws district on the border of North and South Carolina. They slashed at anyone and everyone, including men who were kneeling with their hands up in surrender. The slaughter lasted fifteen minutes. The result was 113 Continentals killed and 203 captured with 150 of those wounded. Lt. Colonel Tarleton became known as 'Bloody Ban' or 'Ban the Butcher.' For the remainder of the war in the South, 'Tarleton's Quarter' meant no quarter and Buford's Massacre became a rallying cry for Patriots. It was on the lips of the Over Mountain Men at the Battle of King's Mountain in October 1780 during their defeat of the British Major Patrick Ferguson, when they defeated his unit and Ferguson himself was killed.

General Clinton had returned to New York in June leaving Cornwallis in control of the entire southern operation. It was the opportunity Cornwallis had been waiting for. Neither Cornwallis nor Clinton believed that the southern colonies would put up any serious resistance to British regulars; the job would be a mopping-up operation. Cornwallis moved quickly to set up outposts in Georgetown, Camden, and Ninety-six, forming a rough arch through South Carolina. He determined to march from Charleston in the fall, invade and subdue North Carolina, and eventually meet Clinton's forces in Virginia where they would finish Washington's Continental army, conclude the war and sail home as heroes.

Before leaving Charleston Clinton writes to Cornwallis "When your Lordship has finished your campaign, you will be better able to judge what is necessary to be done to secure South and recover North Carolina" and "Our first object will probably be the taking post at Norfolk or Suffolk, or near the Hampton Road, and then proceeding up the Chesapeak to Baltimore." -- Sir Henry Clinton to Earl Cornwallis, dated Charles-Town, June 1, 1780

The Congress had been unfortunate in the selection of commanders in the South. It had chosen Robert Howe, and he had lost Savannah. It had chosen Benjamin Lincoln, and he had lost Charleston. In the spring of 1780, near Camden, S.C., on August 16, the British attacked Horatio Gates' army, which broke and ran in wild confusion.

This left the way clear for Cornwallis to pursue his goals of gathering southern Loyalists and taking the war to Virginia. He planned then to use his southern ports to move men and material into the interior of North and South Carolina.

George Washington

When Gate's successor was to be chosen the Congress decided to entrust the choice to Washington. On October 5 it resolved "that the Commander-in-Chief be and is hereby directed to appoint an officer to command the southern army, in the room of Major General Gates."

Washington delayed not at all in making his selection. On the day after he received a copy of the resolution, he wrote to Nathanael Greene at West Point, "It is my wish to appoint You." The Congress approved the appointment, gave Greene command over all troops from Delaware to Georgia with extraordinarily full powers, "subject to the control of the Commander-in-Chief". From the very beginning of the war, Greene had been Washington's right arm and had displayed indefatigable industry and strength and breadth of intelligence. Indeed, in the opinion of some well qualified judges he was Washington's superior, both as strategist and as tactician.

General Greene started for the south. There was breadth of territory sufficient to satisfy any reasonable ambition; but he needed an army. He resolved to develop an army, in accordance with the peculiar kind of service which would be required, and his suggestion was approved by Washington when he first submitted his plan on the eighth of November, 1780. He would have that army a "flying army," lightly equipped, mobile, and as familiar as possible with the country in which operations were to be prosecuted. The southern army, as Greene wrote to General Knox, "is shadow rather than substance, having only an imaginary existence."

The Fortunate Surveying of the Dan River

As Greene had been quartermaster for Washington, Greene had chosen Lt. Col. Edward Carrington of the 1st Continental Artillery Regiment to became his. Carrington was stationed at Taylor's Ferry which was located near present-day Clarksville, Virginia. The ferry site was only a few miles down river from where the Dan joins the Roanoke River.

Nathaniel Greene

Greene rode by horseback through Virginia on his way to take command of the Southern Army. He stopped at Taylor's Ferry and asked Carrington to ride with him for a while, at least on to Hillsborough. Among the many logistics topics disscussed Greene envisioned conveying supplies up the Dan River and down the Yadkin and Peedee. At that point he directed Colonel Carrington to examine the navigation of the Dan River. Carrington later wrote, "one of the Captain Smiths, of the Maryland line (there were two of that name) who happened to be at Hillsborough was sent to Taylor's ferry, to ascend the Dan with a canoe and party, of hands, as far as he might judge useful for the purposeof ascertaining these points. He ascended as far as the lower Sauratown, and had made his report."

Not knowing it at the time, Greene's fortunate order to survey river would later save the entire Southern Army.  On the second of December, General Greene reached Charlotte, and immediately relieved General Gates of the command, under circumstances which redounded to the credit of both officers. Mutual courtesies were exchanged, and General Gates went to his farm. Brig. Gen. Isaac Huger of the South Carolina Continentals was appointed his second in command.

Horatio Gates

The condition of his army was General Greene's first care. He found that everything was needed, and in a letter to Governor Jefferson, states quite clearly the facts. "I find the troops in a most wretched condition, destitute of everything necessary either for comfort or convenience, and may literally be said to be naked." From a letter written by General Greene to General Sumter, two days before the battle of Cowpens, he says: "Early in January, several hundreds of the troops actually could not appear at drill, or perform guard duty, for want of clothing." - " More than half our numbers are, in a manner, naked; so much so that we can not put them on the least kind of duty. Indeed, there is a great number that have not a rag of clothes on them, except a little piece of blanket, in the Indian form, around their waists."

Against military custom and just two weeks into his command, Greene had split his army, sending General Daniel Morgan southwest of the Catawba River in western North Carolina to cut supply lines and hamper British operations in the back country, and, in doing so "take command in that quarter, to act offensively or defensively, to protect the country, spirit up the people, annoy the enemy, collect provisions and forage, form magazines, prevent plundering, etc." . General Greene understood that if he kept his force intact the British could throw a ring around him and prevent any action. Cornwallis countered, and dispatched Banastre Tarleton and his dragoons to destroy Morgan's army. Tarleton was only twenty-six, but he was an able commander, both feared and hated – hated especially for his victory at the Waxhaws.

Greene's decision was opposed to the classic rules of warfare: to divide an inferior force in the face of a superior enemy was to invite that enemy to destroy first one and then the other of the parts.

Greene saw that, by separating his army into two parts, he made it easier for both to subsist on the country, living on the very regions from which the British drew their supplies; and that if Cornwallis later should take the natural route back into South Carolina he would find a fighting force on each of his flanks. If he turned against the left-hand American force, that on the right might attack Charleston; if against the right-hand force, Ninety-six and Augusta would be exposed to that on the left. If he made no movement, the intended harassment of his army could be better effected.

As to the danger of either division being attacked and defeated, Greene relied upon the mobility of the Americans to escape from the more encumbered, slower British. So, with all those reasons to justify him, he carried out his plan, "the most audacious and ingenious piece of military strategy of the war." The proof of its validity was that it worked.

Orders were issued to Colonel Carrington "to explore the Dan, Yadkin and Catawba, and make himself thoroughly acquainted with the streams into which they discharged themselves." This order was executed with great exactness, and the casual reader of general history who has regarded the subsequent movements of General Greene as accidental, will see that a previous knowledge of the country in which he was to operate was one element of his military success. Colonel Carrington had accompanied General Greene to Richmond after the organization of his department. General Stevens executed the survey of the Yadkin. Kosciusko, Greene's engineer-in-chief, examined the Catawba, and other officers visited the Dan. The result of this forethought materially affected the subsequent campaign.

(Note: When Gates arrived to take charge of the army, he sent Carrington to Virginia to inquire into the availability of crossings on the Roanoke River, which Greene extended to the Dan River. Lieut. Col. Edward Carrington, 1st Continental artillery of Virginia, Quartermaster General for the Southern Army, met up with de Kalb in Virginia on the latter’s march into North Carolina. However, due to a dispute with his superior Col. Charles Harrison, Carrington withdrew from his command. Greene appointed Carrington his Quartermaster General in which capacity he served admirably. He joined Greene's army till February 7, 1781, about which time he was soon employed in collecting the boats for Greene’s subsequent passage at Irwin’s and Boyd’s ferries on the Dan River.)

The Battle of Cowpens & The Retreat Begins
Daniel Morgan (1736-1802), was a general in the American Revolution, who defeated the British at the Battle of Cowpens.

On January 17, 1781 at Cowpens, Daniel Morgan led his army of tough Continentals, militia, and cavalry to a brilliant victory over Banastre Tarleton's force of British regulars. In an action that lasted about an hour, what then followed was one of the great (possibly greatest) upsets and reverses of the war in which the Continentals and militia soundly defeated the British and loyalists.

I was desirous to have a stroke at Tarlton . . . & I have Given him a devil of a whiping [sic].--Daniel Morgan to William Snickers, 26 January 1781

After the battle had ended, Tarleton’s forces were reportedly pursued upwards of twenty miles by Morgan’s cavalry and other mounted troops. By nightfall, Morgan’s forces had retreated to Island Ford on the Broad River. It was a complete victory for the Patriot force. British losses were staggering. The British lost 100 killed, among them 39 officers. Prisoners were taken to the number of 229 wounded and 600 unhurt. In all, nearly nine-tenths of the entire British force were killed or captured.

Morgan, in his letter of 19 January to Greene wrote: “Such was the inferiority of our numbers that our success must be attributed, under God, to the justice of our cause and the bravery of our Troops.”

It was an extraordinary state of affairs, when a victory seemed but the first step toward disaster, and when even the Commander-in-chief was constrained to write, "I wish I had it in my power to congratulate you on the brilliant and important victory of General Morgan, without the alloy which the distresses of the department you command, and apprehensions of posterior events, intermix. I lament that you will find it so difficult to avoid a general action; for our misfortunes can only be completed by the dispersion of your little army, which will be the most probable consequence of such an event."

An American prisoner later claimed that he had witnessed Lord Cornwallis receiving the news. He remembered that Cornwallis was leaning forward on a sword as he listened to the report of the defeat. "Angered by what he heard, he pressed so hard that the sword snapped in two, and he swore loudly that he would recapture Morgan's prisoners no matter what the cost."

A messenger from General Morgan reached General Greene, at his camp on Hick's Creek, a fork of the Great Republic, January 25th, 1781, and informed him of the battle of Cowpens, that a large number of prisoners were to be provided for, and that the army of Cornwallis was in pursuit.

Page Two: "The Retreat Begins"