The Papers of General Nathanael Greene

To George Washington


Since I wrote your Excellency by Major Giles, Lord Cornwallis has been constantly in pursuit of the Light Infantry and the prisoners, and is now between the Shallow Ford upon the Yadkin and Salem, one of the Moravian towns; and still pushing into the country with great rapidity.[1]
The moment I was informed of the movements of Lord Cornwallis I put the army in motion on Pedee and left it under the command of Brigr Genl [Isaac] Huger and set out to join the Light Infantry in order to collect the Militia and embarrass the enemy 'till we could effect a junction of our forces.
General [Daniel] Morgan after the defeat of Tarlton [Banastre Tarleton] had very judiciously made forced marches up into the Country and happily crossed the Catawba the evening before a great rain, which prevented the enemy from following him for several days, during which time the prisoners were got over the Yadkin and on their march for Dan River, which I hope they have passed and are in Virga.
On my arrival at the Lt. Infantry Camp I found them at Sherards [Sherrald's] Ford on the Catawba. The enemy were a little lower down the river at McCowan's [Cowan's] Ford, and the river still so high that they could not cross. We made the best disposition we could to stop them when the river should fall. But the fords were so numerous, and our force so small that we could not effect it. Genl Davidson who had great influence among the Mecklenberg & Roan [Rowan County] Militia had made use of all the arguments in his power to get the Militia into the field, but without effect. They had been so much in service and their families so distressed that they were loth to leave home even on the most pressing occasion.
The enemy crossed at McCowen's Ford where Genl Davidson was posted with the greatest part of the Militia who fell by the first discharge. The enemy made good their landing, and the Militia retreated. A place of rendezvous was appointed for the Militia to collect at, who were posted at the different fords up and down the river above 30 miles. Part of them halted at MrsTarrences [Torrence's] about seven miles short of the place of rendezvous, and were over taken by Tarlton & dispersed. I waited that night at the place appointed for the Militia to collect at, untill morning, but not a man appeared.[2] The light Infantry continued their march to Salisbury and crossed the Yadkin. But before we got over all the baggage and stores the enemy were at our heels. A pretty smart skirmish happened between a party of our riflemen and the advance of the enemy near the ford. We had secured all the boats, and the river was so high that the enemy could not follow us.[3]
Heavy rains, deep creeks, bad roads, poor horses and broken harness as well as delays for want of provisions prevented our forming a junction as early as I expected, and fearing that the river might fall so as to be fordable, I ordered the army to file off to this place where part of them arrived last evening, the rest I hope will be in this night.[4]
The enemy finding they could not cross the Trading Ford, marched up to the Shallow Ford where they passed the night before last, and are within 25 or thirty miles of this place.[5]
As soon as I arrived at the Lt Infantry camp I wrote letters to all the Militia Officers over the mountains and in the upper Country to embody their men and join the Army as early as possible.[6] But very few have joined us, and those principally without arms or amunition. We have no provisions but what we recieve from our daily collections.[7] Under these circumstances I called a council who unanimously advised to avoid an action and to retire beyond the Roanoke [i.e., the Dan] immediately. A copy of the proceedings I have the honor to enclose.[8]
I had previously ordered all the stores and heavy baggage to be removed to Prince Edward Court House; and informed Govr Nash of our situation.[9] I have formed a light army composed of the cavalry of the 1 & 3d Regts and the Legion amounting to 240, a detachment of 280 Infantry under Lt Col. [John Eager] Howard, the Infantry of Lt Col Lee's Legion and 60 Virga Rifle Men making in their whole 700 Men which will be ordered with the Militia to harrass the enemy in their advance, check their progress and if possible give us an opportunity to retire without a general action.[10]
The force under Lord Cornwallis consists of between 2500 and 3000 troops including near 300 Dragoons and their mounted Infantry. They have destroyed their waggons, and are compleatly equiped as Light Infantry.[11]
I have the honor to enclose a copy of a letter from Lt Col. Lee, extracts of two letters from Genl Marion and a copy of a letter from a well informed Gentleman respecting the operations at Wilmington.[12]
General Morgan is so unwell that he has left the Army.[13] The enemy since the action of the 17th Ulto have pursued him upwards of 200 Miles. He was obliged to leave the wounded, the arms, waggons and carriages of the artillery taken in the action, but I hope they have not fallen into the hands of the enemy.
I have ordered Genl Marion to cross the Santee River and Genl Sumter to collect the Militia in the upper part of S. Carolina. Genl Pickens has orders to take command of the men in arms in the rear of the enemy.[14]
I have wrote Mr Henery the late Govr of Virginia to collect, if possible, fourteen or 1500 Volunteers to aid us, should the enemy attempt to pursue us beyond the Dan River.[15]
I had the satisfaction to recieve your Excellencys dispatches of the 27th of Decr, 2d and 9th Inst. a few days since.[16] I have the honor to be With sentiments of the highest esteem and respect

Your Excellency's Most Obedient Humble Servant.

Nath Greene

Letter signed (Washington Papers: DLC).
    [1.] Maj. Edward Giles had carried NG's two letters to Washington of 24 January (PGNG, 7: 182-185).
    [2.] On the crossing of the Catawba by the British, the death of Gen. William L. Davidson, and the failure of the militia to rendezvous with NG, see NG to Steuben, 3 February (PGNG, 7: 242-245).
    [3.] Gen. Edward Stevens provided more details of the crossing and skirmish in a letter of 8 February to Gov. Thomas Jefferson:
The Great Quantity of Rain that fell the night before raised the River in such a manner as made it difficult to Cross even in Boats. General Greene with a small Party of Horse was still at Salisbury, Pushing out the remainder of the Stores from that place to the Tradeing Ford which was effected that night, except some few old musketts which were unfit for service.... On the evening of the 3rd Inst. the enemy appeared at the River tho by this time we had Compleated Crossing all to a Waggon or Two and those they paid Pretty dear for, as there was a Party of Virginia Rifflemen of about a Hundred under the Command of Major [David] Campbell, and a small party of North Carolinia Militia Horse was formed in ambush to receive them with Orders to give them a fire or Two and then Disperse down the River and Cross in Canoes which they executed very well and with but a very Triffleing loss on their part. (Boyd, Jefferson Papers, 4: 561-62)
Joseph Graham, who served with the mounted militia that carried out the ambush, wrote in his memoirs that the militia lost two men killed; British losses were unknown, but "from the appearances of blood in different places, [were] believed to be ten or twelve." (Graham, Graham, pp. 300-301) According to Graham, the wagons that the British captured had been used by militiamen to haul their baggage from Cowan's Ford. Banastre Tarleton concurred, calling the captured items "waggons and stores belonging to country people." (Ibid., p. 301; Tarleton, Campaigns, p. 227)
    [4.] On the arrival of the detachment commanded by Gen. Isaac Huger at Guilford Court House, see Huger to NG, 8 February (PGNG, 7: 259-260). It seems clear from that letter that Huger and most of his troops (one regiment was following behind) reached Guilford on 7 February, a day earlier than NG's letter to Washington suggests.
    [5.] As seen at NG to Nash, this date (PGNG, 7: 263-265), Cornwallis had moved to Shallow Ford to be in a position to intercept NG's army if it marched toward the upper fords of the Dan River.
    [6.] See NG's letters to William Campbell (PGNG, 7: 218-219) and Isaac Shelby (PGNG, 7: 221), 30 January, and to Francis Lock et al., this date (PGNG, 7: 262).
    [7.] Col. Benjamin Ford of NG's army wrote to Gen. Mordecai Gist on 17 February that the army had "subsisted on the retreat from what we collected from the Inhabitants which was but a very bad supply[;] many Days elapsed without our getting any thing." (MdHi)
    [8.] See Proceedings of a Council of War, this date (PGNG, 7: 261-262).
    [9.] See NG to Marbury, 8 February (PGNG, 7: 257); as seen at NG's letters to Gunby of 11 February (PGNG, 7: 280), NG had not yet ordered all the army's stores to Virginia. His letter to Abner Nash of this date is at PGNG, 7: 263-265.
    [10.] The "light army," commanded by Col. Otho Williams, carried out its role successfully. (See Williams to NG, first letter of 11 February, PGNG, 7: 282, and other correspondence between NG and Williams from that date through 14 February.)
    [11.] On Cornwallis's decision to destroy his wagons, see Morgan to NG, 29 January (PGNG, 7: 215-216).
    [12.] NG enclosed copies of Henry Lee to NG, second letter of 25 January (PGNG, 7: 197-199), and extracts of Francis Marion's letters of 31 January and 2 February (PGNG, 7: 229-230, PGNG, 7: 239). The "well informed Gentleman" was Col. Stephen Drayton, whose letter to NG of 2 February (PGNG, 7: 236-237) described the British capture of Wilmington.
    [13.] On Morgan's health problems, see his first letter to NG of 24 January (PGNG, 7: 190-191). NG authorized a leave of absence for Morgan on 10 February (PGNG, 7: 271).
    [14.] See Huger to Marion, 28 January (PGNG, 7: 208); NG to Thomas Sumter, 9 February (PGNG, 7: 266); and NG to Andrew Pickens, 3 February (PGNG, 7: 241-242).
    [15.] NG's letter to Patrick Henry, dated 10 February, is at PGNG, 7: 270).
    [16.] Washington's letters of 27 December 1780 and 2 and 9/11 January—not "Inst.," as NG mistakenly wrote—are at PGNG, 7: 7, 41, 99-101.