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The Southern Campaign

by Douglas Powell, February 10, 1999



    A visit to the site of George Washington’s 1776 crossing of the Delaware River provides an opportunity to compare the location near Trenton, New Jersey, with the historical significance of Nathanael Greene’s retreat across the Dan River on February 14, 1781. Washington led his troops across the Delaware on a cold Christmas Day before surprising and defeating the Hessian mercenaries in the Battle of Trenton the following day. Greene led his weary troops in a race to the cold and rain swollen Dan River in mid February to enable him to strengthen his forces prior to recrossing the Dan. Then followed the Battle of Guilford Courthouse at present day Greensboro, North Carolina and soon after that the British surrendered at Yorktown. No battle took place at the crossings of either river and today there is really not much to see at either place.

    Nevertheless, in sharp contrast to the local Dan River sites, visitors by the thousands visit the Delaware River crossing just to experience the view of the river. Communities bearing the name of Washington Crossing have grown up on both the New Jersey and the Pennsylvania riverbanks. A 500-acre Washington Crossing Historical Park with a visitor’s center and historic buildings stands on the Pennsylvania side along with a monument to the event. Tours are available and a re-enactment of the crossing takes place each December 25. On the New Jersey side, Washington Crossing State Park greets travelers and residents with interpretive displays and exhibits of Revolutionary artifacts at its visitor’s center and museums.

     Until now the only local reminder of the retreat across the Dan River has been a highway marker a little downriver from Boyd’s Ferry and another in front of the courthouse in Halifax. One had to travel to Greensboro to see anything more about the Race to the Dan. Thanks to Carroll Headspeth and the late Spurgeon Compton the community’s contribution to the history of the war has not been lost to time as their little book The Retreat to the Dan has continued to sell for twenty-five years. Now the local Berryman Green Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution has taken a major step and provided the community with a long overdue memorial of which the community can be proud. It presents the story for visitors to read and provides a nice public view of the Boyd’s Ferry crossing site. Last year the area’s Dan River Chapter of the Virginia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution funded a highway marker and had it placed just east of Danville near the site of Dix’s Ferry, another ferry site important in the story of the retreat across the Dan River.

     Most of us when asked to name significant Revolutionary War events will recall learning in school about Bunker Hill, Paul Revere’s ride, and Valley Forge. The Southern Campaign was not emphasized except for the surrender at Yorktown. Battles such as those at Camden, King’s Mountain, Cowpens, and Guilford Courthouse were mentioned briefly if at all. Only recently has the interest grown in Nathanael Greene and events in the South during the latter half of the war. Most believe that Greene was picked to replace Washington as commander of all of the colonial military forces should relief had been needed.

    Books entitled The Papers of General Nathanael Greene are now being published as a continuing series by University of North Carolina Press in collaboration with the Rhode Island Historical Society, with Dr. Dennis M. Conrad as editor. Volume 7 of 13 planned volumes spans the 26 December 1780-29 March 1781 period and was published in 1994. Volume 10 was published last year. Along with the interest in Greene’s papers, new books are appearing on the southern action. Recent publications include The Road to Guilford Courthouse, by John Buchanan, and Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, by Dr. Dan L. Morrill. Larry Aaron, a Danville author and charter member of the local area’s Dan River Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution recently wrote a feature article entitled "The Race to the Dan" for the national SAR Magazine and is now writing a full length book on the campaign. Re-enactments and anniversary ceremonies are staged at the Carolina battlefield sites and the States of North and South Carolina have combined their resources to create a driving tour along with a nice map entitled "Revolutionary War: Discover the Carolinas’ Backcountry Trails…The Road to Victory in the War for American Independence."

    During the first years of the war a series of battles in the northern colonies led to a stalemate. In 1778 the British invaded the South and in August 1780 after sweeping through South Carolina Cornwallis soundly defeated the Continental army at Camden. In addition to battles with the British, the war in the South was a civil war with loyalist neighbors fighting patriot neighbors. One example was the Battle of King’s Mountain where colonists loyal to the British were defeated in October of 1780. In December General Horatio Gates turned over command of the Southern Army to General Greene at Charlotte. At that time Greene found he had only 800 men fit for duty and Cornwallis had many more than that. Greene began to collect some reinforcements but remained a very small force. He divided this force and sent Daniel Morgan with a portion of the command west and Cornwallis sent Banastre Tarleton to intercept them. In January 1781 these forces fought the Battle of Cowpens with Morgan the victor. Morgan then rejoined Greene and Cornwallis began to advance. Greene intended to engage Cornwallis but he had not been able to muster enough militia reinforcements and the Race to the Dan was on.

    After crossing the Dan River near South Boston in boats that were not made available to Cornwallis, Greene established a camp at Halifax and gathered supplies and reinforcements. Cornwallis had outrun his supply chain and had to start back south. Virginia militiamen joined Greene here and soon Greene was on his way south to catch Cornwallis at Guilford Courthouse. The Dan River had saved the American search for freedom. It is a story every bit as exciting as Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware and now it is finally being told.

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