General Nathaniel Greene's Southern Brigade
The chief theatre of war continued to be in the South, where it was prosecuted with energy during a greater portion of 1781. On the 30th of October, 1780, General Nathaniel Greene was appointed to succeed Gates in command of the troops in the Southern States. Congress, perceiving their folly in making the Southern Department independent, gave Greene all the power which they had conferred upon their favorite, but "subject to the control of the commander-in-chief." This unity of the military forces had a most salutary effect. Greene hastened southward; and leaving Steuben in Virginia, to collect and forward troops, he reached Charlotte on the 2nd of December, where he received a complaint from Cornwallis concerning the ten Tory prisoners who were hung on the tulip tree at King's Mountain. That complaint Greene quickly silenced, by sending to the earl a list of full fifty patriots who had been hanged by his orders, in South Carolina, because they were patriots; at the same time he avowed his determination to be governed by the principles of humanity, whatever the British commander might do to the contrary. Greene and his subordinates adhered to this principle, while the British leaders ridiculed the idea of extending mercy to the "rebels," whom they held to be traitors to the king and deserving of death. One of the most noted of the executors of the British will, in this regard, was Colonel William Cunningham, who was ordered by Colonel Balfour at Charleston to carry terror into the interior of South Carolina. At the head of a hundred and fifty white men and negroes, he carried out these orders during the winter of 1781. He killed every person suspected of being favorable to the American cause, and burned their houses. Full a hundred persons were murdered by this British agent, with the approval of his masters.
General Greene, with his usual energy, at once prepared to fight or pursue the enemy, as circumstances might require. He arranged his army in two divisions. With the main force he took post at Cheraw, east of the Pedee River, and sent General Daniel Morgan, the heroic leader at Saratoga, with about a thousand men, to occupy the country near the junction of the Broad and Pacolet rivers in Western South Carolina. Cornwallis, who was just preparing to march into North Carolina again, now found himself in a position of danger, for he was between two hostile forces. Unwilling to leave Morgan in his rear, he sent Tarleton to capture or disperse his troops. Before this superior force Morgan retreated over rivers and small streams, and through tangled marshes, to the Thicketty Mountains, in Spartanberg District, not far from the North Carolina line. There, near a place called The Cowpens, where great herds of cattle were salted and marked by their owners, Morgan encamped on a plain covered by an open pine forest; and there he was overtaken by Tarleton, and compelled to fly again or fight. The brave soldier chose the latter, and with deliberation prepared for battle. About four hundred of his best men he arranged in battle order on a little rising ground-Maryland light infantry under Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard composing the centre, and Virginia riflemen forming the wings. Eighty dragoons, led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington, were placed out of sight as a reserve, and about four hundred Carolinians and Georgians under Pickens were in the advance to defend the approaches to the camp. North Carolina and Georgia sharp-shooters acted as skirmishers on each flank.
Such was the disposition of Morgan's little army when, at eight o'clock on the morning of the 17th of January, 1781, Tarleton, with eleven hundred troops, horse and foot, with two pieces of cannon, rushed upon the republicans with loud shouts. A furious battle ensued. In a skillful movement in the form of a feigned retreat, Morgan turned so suddenly upon his pursuers, who believed the victory was secured for them, that they wavered. Seeing this, Howard charged the British line with bayonets, broke their ranks, and sent them flying in confusion. At that moment Washington's cavalry suddenly broke from their concealment, and made a successful charge upon Tarleton's horsemen. The enemy was completely routed, and were pursed almost twenty miles in their eager flight. In this Battle of the Cowpens the Americans lost only seventy-two killed and wounded; the British lost over three hundred killed and wounded, and more than five hundred prisoners. The spoils were cannon, horses, wagons, eight hundred muskets, and two standards. The two cannon had been taken from the British at Saratoga, and were retaken by them at Camden. Tarleton's immense baggage, which he had left in the rear, was destroyed by his own men to prevent its being taken by the Americans. The Congress gave Morgan their thanks and a gold medal for his brilliant victory, and to Lieutenant-Colonels Howard and Washington each a silver medal.
At the close of the battle, Morgan pushed forward with his prisoners across the Broad River intending to pass the Catawba River and make his way toward Virginia. When Cornwallis heard of Tarleton's defeat, he started in pursuit of Morgan, with his whole army, as little encumbered with baggage as possible. He hoped to intercept the Americans at the fords of the Catawba, but he was too late. Morgan had crossed two hours before the arrival of the earl. Feeling sure of his prey, Cornwallis deferred crossing the river until morning. A heavy rain during the night swelled the stream to its brim, and he was kept back many hours. Meanwhile Morgan had reached the banks of the Yadkin, where he was joined by Greene. The latter, on hearing of the fight at the Cowpens, had left the camp at Cheraw in command of General Huger, and hastened to confer with Morgan. On the way he heard of the pursuit by Cornwallis, and sent back an order to Huger to break up the camp and join Morgan at Salisbury or Charlotte, in North Carolina. Cornwallis had been joined by troops from Camden under General Leslie; and at Ramsour's Mills (where, in June, 1780, North Carolina militia and a body of Loyalists had a sharp fight), he ordered all superfluous baggage and wagons to be destroyed. It was the 31st of January when Greene reached Morgan's camp on the Yadkin.
Now began one of the most remarkable military movements on record. It was the retreat of the Americans under Greene from the Catawba into Virginia, closely pursued by Cornwallis for about two hundred miles. When the waters of the Catawba had subsided, the earl had renewed the chase after Morgan; and he reached the western shore of the Yadkin (February 3) just as the Americans had formed for marching, on the eastern bank. Swelling floods again arrested the pursuers. Onward the retreating army pressed, but Cornwallis could not cross and give chase until the next day. At Guilford Court-House Greene was joined by his forces from the Pedee, but being still to weak to fight the stronger pursuers, he continued his flight, with the whole army, to the Dan, which he reached on the 13th of February.
The wearied troops crossed the rising flood and found repose in the bosom of Halifax county, in Virginia. The earl, unable to cross the ford because of the high water, discomfited a third time by the elements, gave up the chase, turned his face southward, and moving sullenly back through North Carolina, established his headquarters at Hillsborough.
Greene remained in Virginia only long enough to rest and recruit his army, when he recrossed the Dan (February 23) with the intention of frustrating the efforts of Cornwallis to embody the Loyalists of North Carolina into military corps. The gallant Colonel Henry Lee, with his legion, was with Greene. At the head of his cavalry he scoured the country around the headwaters of the Haw and Deep rivers, where, by force and stratagem, he foiled Tarleton, who was recruiting among the Tories there. On the 2nd of March he deceived Colonel Pyle, who was at the head of three hundred Loyalists, and near the Allamance Creek attacked, defeated, and dispersed his men. Tarleton, who was near, fled in alarm to Hillsborough, and the disheartened Tories returned to their homes. "I am among timid friends and adjoining inveterate rebels," Cornwallis wrote.
General Greene, in the meantime, had moved cautiously forward, and on the first of March found himself in command of almost five thousand effective troops. Feeling strong enough to cope with the earl, he sought an opportunity to fight him. The earl, too, was anxious to attack Greene, and on the 15th of March they met and contended fiercely near Guilford Court-House, not far from the present Greensborough, in Guilford county, North Carolina. Greene had encamped within eight miles of the earl on the evening of the 14th. The latter had been trying to bring on an engagement with the Americans, and on the morning of the 15th, he moved against Greene. The latter was prepared to receive his enemy. His main camp was upon a large hill surrounded by smaller ones, and all were covered with a forest of magnificent old trees, and thick underwood. Greene had sixteen hundred and fifty of the best veteran Continental troops, and two thousand militia; Cornwallis had nineteen hundred of the finest British veterans.
Greene disposed his army in three positions-the first at the edge of the woods on the greater hill; the second in the forest three hundred yards in the rear, and the third a little more than a fourth of a mile in the rear of the second. The first was composed of North Carolina militia, not quite eleven hundred in number and mostly raw recruits, commanded by Generals Butler and Eaton. They had two 6-pounders, with Washington's cavalry on the right wing and Lee's legion, with Campbell's militia, on the left wing. Their position was a very advantageous one. At a little past noon the British appeared on their front in full force, and under cover of cannon-firing, they delivered a volley of musketry as they approached the Americans, and then, with a shout, rushed forward with their bayonets. The American militia fled after firing one or two volleys, when the victors, without halting, pressed on and attacked the second line composed of Virginia militia under Generals Stevens and Lawson. These were used to forest warfare and made a stout resistance for awhile, when they, too, fell back upon the regulars of the third line. Thus far the fight had been carried on by the British with their right, which was commanded by General Leslie; now Colonel Webster, who commanded the left, pressed forward with his division, in the face of a terrible fire of musketry and grape-shot. Greene commanded the Americans in person; and nearly the whole of the two armies were now in conflict. The battle lasted about two hours, when Greene, ignorant of the heavy losses of his enemy, ordered a retreat, leaving his cannon and the field to the British.
This was one of the sharpest battles of the war, and was disastrous to both armies. The Americans lost about four hundred killed and wounded, and a thousand who deserted to their homes; the loss of the British was about six hundred. Among their mortally wounded was Colonel Webster. "Another such victory," said Charles James Fox in the House of Commons, "will ruin the British army." Fox moved (June 12) to recommend the ministers to conclude a peace, at once, with the Americans. On the same day, William Pitt, son of the great Chatham, and then only twenty-two years of age, spoke of the war against the Americans as a "most accursed" one, "wicked, barbarous, cruel, and unnatural; conceived in injustice, it was brought forth and nurtured in folly," he said; "its footsteps are marked with slaughter and devastation, while it meditates destruction to the miserable people who are the devoted objects of the resentments which produced it." Fox said: "America is lost, irrevocably lost to the country. We can lose nothing by a vote declaring America independent."
The battle at Guilford put an end to British domination in North Carolina. The forces of Cornwallis were too much shattered for him to maintain the advantage he had gained; so after issuing a proclamation, in which he boasted of his victory, called the Tories to rally to his standard and offered pardon to the "rebels," he moved, with his whole army, toward Wilmington, near the sea-board, while Greene retreated to the Reedy Fork. To these commanders might have been appropriately applied the line of a Scotch ballad:
"They baith did fight; they baith did beat; they baith did run awa."
When Greene heard of the earl's retreat, he pursued him as far as the Deep River, whence he turned back and moved toward Camden with a determination to strike a blow for the recovery of South Carolina.