The Papers of General Nathanael Greene


To Baron Steuben

Dear Sir

Since I wrote you by Major Giles[,] Lord Cornwallis has been constantly in pursuit of Genl Morgan and has burnt his waggons and equip'd his Army in such a manner, as to move with the greatest facility.[1] His force is about 2500 men.[2] General Morgan by forced marches, kept out of the reach of his Lordship and has got off his prisoners in safety; but it was partly owing to a happy intervention of a great storm, which raised the Catabow so high that the Enemy cou'd not Cross. During which time the prisoners were pushed on over the Yadkin and are on their march for Virginia.[3]
The moment I got intelligence that the enemy were penetrating the Country, I put the Army in motion upon the Pedee and left it under the command of GenI Huger and crossed the Country with a small escort in order to collect the Militia and make head against the Enemy untill we could make a junction of our forces.[4] We made the necessary dispositions to prevent the enemy from crossing the Catabaw; but so few Militia come in, and the fords were so numerous, it was impossible to effect it.[5] They crossed at McCowens Ford where General Davidson was posted with the greatest part of the Militia. The opposition was inconsiderable, owing to the Generals being killed, as it is said in the first of the Action.[6] The greater part of the Militia were dispersed soon after the Enemy crossed: nor can I hear of their collecting in any considerable numbers Since. I waited at one of the places of rendezvous that night after the Enemy crossed untill past 12 OClock and not a man came to our assistance.[7]
We are now endeavouring to form a junction of our continental troops at this place.[8] The Enemy were within about twenty five miles of us last night. We have hitherto removed all the Stores out of the Enemies way. But if they pursue us and we are not able to make an effectual stand, which there is little prospect of, unless the Militia will come to our aid, we shall lose our Stores and What serves to render our situation still more distressing, I have just got intelligence, that the Fleet that left Virginia, is arrived at Wilmington and that the forces have landed there.[9]
These Southern States are in such a defenceless condition, that they must fall under the dominion of the enemy, unless reinforcements are immediately sent from the Northward. You know I have always considered the incursions in Virginia as of no consequence if we could prevent their penetrating this way. Pray send on all the men you can equip: and if Colo Carrington has not left Virginia desire him to join the Army as soon as he can; and Major Forsyth also, if he has the appointment of Commissary General for the Southern Department.[10] In moving the Stores from Salisbury I found upwards of 1700 stand of Continental Arms in one Store, kept for the use of the Militia, in the most miserable order you [can] imagine. Such distribution of publick stores is enough to ruin a nation. These are some of the happy effects of defending the country with Militia; from which good lord deliver us.
Since my last Lt Colonel Lee has surprised George Town. He writes me that many were killed; but few taken: one field Officer was killed, and several made prisoners.[11] You shall have the particulars when I have more time to relate them.
If the Enemy distress us in this State, I am not without hopes of giving them trouble in their rear; and Shall take measures to this purpose, with Generals Sumter, Marion and Pickens.[12] O that we had in the field as Henry the Fifth said, some few of the many thousands that are Idle at Home.[13] I am dear Baron

Your Most Obedt humble Sr

Nath Greene

Letter signed (NHi). The place and date were omitted from the LS; the date was taken from the Greene Letter Book, DLC, and the place from other letters of this date.
    [1.] Maj. Edward Giles had carried NG's letter of 24 January (PGNG, 7:193) to Steuben. On Lord Cornwallis's decision to burn his wagons, see note at Daniel Morgan to NG, 29 January (PGNG, 7: 215-216).
    [2.] A short time later, NG raised his estimate of the size of Cornwallis's army to about 3,200 men. (See NG to Washington, 15 February, PGNG, 7: 293-295.)
    [3.] Cornwallis's army had approached the Catawba on 29 January, but recent rains had left the river too high to cross. (See note at Morgan to NG, 29 January, PGNG, 7: 215-216.) Morgan, who had crossed on 23 January and encamped on the eastern bank, was still there when the British approached the river. (Higginbotham, Morgan, pp. 148-50) When the Catawba began to drop on 31 January, Morgan's light infantry hurried away toward Salisbury and the Yadkin River, leaving a militia force to defend the Catawba fords. The march to the Yadkin was difficult: according to one officer, "every step" was "up to our Knees in Mud it raining On us all the Way"; but Morgan's troops reached the swollen river on 2 February and were all across by the next day. ("Journal of Lieutenant Thomas Anderson," Historical Magazine 1 1867: 209; William Seymour, "A Journal of the Southern Expedition, 1780-1783," PMHB 7 1883: 296) The pursuing vanguard of the British army reached the Yadkin just as the last Americans crossed. With the river unfordable and the only available boats on the other side, Cornwallis was forced to delay his pursuit. (Cornwallis to Germain, 17 March, PRO 30/11/76)
    [4.] See Morris to Nash, 28 January (PGNG, 7: 208-209).
    [5.] On efforts to hinder the British crossing of the Catawba, see Morgan to NG, 28 January (PGNG, 7: 211-214). As seen there, Gen. William L. Davidson had 500 militiamen to defend the fords.
    [6.] Joseph Graham, one of Davidson's subordinates, recalled that Davidson, after consulting with NG, said: "though General Greene had never seen the Catawba before, he appeared to know more about it than those who were raised on it, and it was the General's [NG's] opinion that the enemy were determined to cross the river; and he thought it probable their cavalry would pass over some private ford in the night; and in the morning when the infantry attempted to force a passage, would attack those who resisted it in the rear." (Graham, Graham, p. 290) After talking with NG, Davidson shifted 250 infantrymen from Beattie's to Cowan's (or McCowen's) Ford, some four miles downstream. (Ibid., pp. 289-90) According to a contemporary historian, William Gordon, though, Davidson did not heed NG's advice to post his men close to the river. Instead, he stationed most of them about three-fourths of a mile away, leaving only twenty-five or thirty on guard at the river. (Gordon, History, 4: 39; see also Davidson, Davidson, pp. 113-14, 116.) As NG had anticipated, Cornwallis sent part of his army to make a "demonstration" at Beattie's Ford—where Cornwallis believed most of Davidson's force was camped—while he led the rest of his troops to Cowan's Ford. (Cornwallis to Germain, 17 March, PRO 30/11/76) Robert Henry, who was at the latter place, recalled that most of the men were asleep when the British began crossing. One of them eventually heard "the noise of horses in deep water"—i.e., in the middle of the river. (George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Rankin, Rebels and Redcoats Cleveland and New York: World Publishing Co., 1957, p. 437; Stedman, History of the American War, 2: 328) The pickets, once aroused, fired on the British troops, who were struggling across the swollen, fast-flowing river, and inflicted some casualties. (Estimates of British casualties vary widely, from Cornwallis's account of four killed and thirty-six wounded to Robert Henry's, in his memoirs, of 100 British dead. Chalmers Davidson, who studied the engagement closely, estimated that no fewer than forty British were killed, including some who later died from their wounds. Davidson, Davidson, pp. 121, 167-68n) For most of Davidson's troops, the pickets' fire was the first warning of the crossing. They immediately rushed toward the ford, arriving just as the first enemy troops were emerging from the water. At that moment, a single shot from the British lines killed Davidson, who had ridden near the water's edge to survey the situation. (Ibid., pp. 118, 162n) His death demoralized the militia, who broke and ran.
    [7.] As seen in NG's orders of 1 February (PGNG, 7: 231), he had wanted the militia to rendezvous at David Carr's, some sixteen miles from the Catawba on the road to Salisbury. NG himself had gone there to meet them, "exposing himself" to danger. Most of the militiamen, however, halted at Torrence's Tavern, about six miles closer to the Catawba than Carr's. (Burnet to Lee, 2 February, PGNG, 7: 234-235; Graham, Graham, pp. 297-98) Col. Banastre Tarleton's dragoons attacked them there, killing fifty, according to Tarleton's claim, although another British officer remembered counting only ten bodies a short time later. (Tarleton, Campaigns, p. 226; Stedman, History of the American War, 2: 329 and n) The militiamen were thoroughly scattered.
    [8.] NG later changed the rendezvous point from Salisbury to Guilford Court House. (See NG to Huger, 5 February, PGNG, 7: 251-252.)
    [9.] As seen at Drayton to NG, 2 February (PGNG, 7: 236-237), the British force that captured Wilmington, N.C., had sailed from Charleston, S.C. It was not Gen. Benedict Arnold's detachment.
    [10.] As noted at his letter of 28 January (PGNG, 7: 209-210), Col. Edward Carrington, the deputy quartermaster general, was on his way to join NG; Maj. Robert Forsyth, the commissary for the Southern Department, remained in Virginia for some time. (Forsyth to NG, 20 April, PGNG, 8: 123)
    [11.] See Lee to NG, second letter of 25 January (PGNG, 7: 197-199).
    [12.] For NG's orders concerning Francis Marion, see his letter to Isaac Huger of 30 January (PGNG, 7: 219-221); see also NG's letters of this date to Andrew Pickens (PGNG, 7: 241-242) and Thomas Sumter (PGNG, 7: 245-247).
    [13.] The lines from Shakespeare's King Henry V that NG paraphrased were:
"O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!" (IV, iii)
Steuben sent Washington a copy of this letter on 12 February. (Washington Papers, DLC)