When Cornwallis learned of the rout at Cowpens the following day, January 18, he took the news badly. One witness, an anonymous American prisoner of war, reported that the general leaned "forward on his sword....Furious at what he heard, Cornwallis pressed so hard that the sword snapped in two, and he swore loudly." Now Cornwallis decided to go after Morgan, then hunt down Greene. After a five-day march, Cornwallis and nearly 3,000 men reached Ramsour's Mill in North Carolina. There he learned that Morgan was a mere 20 miles ahead of him. Cornwallis stripped his army of anything that might slow it down, burning nearly his entire baggage train—tents, wagons, luxury goods—in a giant bonfire.
Morgan's scouts reported this development. "I know thay [sic] intend to bring me to an action, which I carefully [plan] to avoid," Morgan wrote to Greene, informing him also that Cornwallis enjoyed a two-to-one numerical superiority. Though Morgan had gotten a considerable head start, he now paused to await orders from Greene after crossing the Catawba River on January 23. He was still there five days later when he learned that the enemy had closed to within ten miles. "I am a little apprehensive," Morgan confessed in a dispatch to Greene, as "my numbers...are too weak to fight them....It would be advisable to join our forces." Cornwallis' army reached the opposite shore of the Catawba later that day. But the gods of war were with Morgan. It began to rain. Hour after hour it poured, transforming the river into a raging, impassable barrier. Cornwallis was stopped in his tracks for nearly 60 hours.
Greene had not learned of Cowpens until January 24, and while the news set off a great celebration at his headquarters, two more days passed before he discovered that Morgan had lingered at the Catawba awaiting orders. Greene sent most of his men toward the relative safety of Salisbury, 30 miles east of the Catawba, then, accompanied only by a handful of guards and his small staff, set off to join Morgan, riding 80 mud-splattered miles through Tory-infested territory. As he rode, Greene considered his options: make a stand against Cornwallis at the Catawba or order Morgan's men to retreat east and link up with their comrades near Salisbury. His decision, Greene concluded, would depend on whether sufficient reinforcements from local militias had marched to Morgan's aid.
But when he reached Morgan on January 30, Greene learned that a mere 200 militiamen had turned up. Incensed, he immediately wrote Congress that despite his appeal for reinforcements, "little or nothing is done....Nothing can save this country but a well appointed army." Greene ordered a retreat to the village of Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, 75 miles east. He also requisitioned "vessels and watermen" to transport his army across the rivers that lay ahead and appealed to civil authorities for reinforcements. "Great god what is the reason we cant Have more men," he wrote in frustration to Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia.
If enough soldiers arrived by the time his combined armies reached Guilford Courthouse, Greene could engage Cornwallis. If not, he would continue north toward the Dan River, cross into Virginia and await additional troops there. Greene preferred to fight, but he saw too that his retreat was drawing Cornwallis ever deeper into the interior, farther and farther from reinforcements, compelling the British to forage for every scrap of food. And, since the bonfire at Ramsour's Mill, the redcoats had been without tents and sufficient winter clothing. Greene hoped that the cold weather and arduous marches over roads that rain had turned into quagmires would further weaken them.
Greene set out on January 31, but without Morgan. Since the previous fall the subordinate had suffered back problems; now, Morgan said, "a ciatick pain in my hip...renders me entirely [in]capable of active services." Greene sent him ahead, to join the contingent of British prisoners from Cowpens being marched to Winchester, Virginia. Greene took command of Morgan's men, pointed that force toward the Yadkin River, seven miles beyond Salisbury, and hoped that transport vessels awaited them.
Only 12 hours after Greene had crossed the Catawba, Cornwallis, too, began to move his army across it. Lacking boats and facing a raging current, the British had to wade across the numbingly cold, four-foot-deep river, while Greene's rear guard—North Carolina militiamen—poured a steady fire into their ranks. Cornwallis himself had his horse shot from under him. "I saw 'em a snortin, a hollerin and a drownin," wrote a Tory. By the time the last of Cornwallis' men made it across the 500-yard-wide river, Greene had increased his lead to 30 miles.
Cornwallis pressed on, hoping the rain—his enemy at the Catawba—would prove his ally at the Yadkin; if it persisted, the rebels might be trapped. Having kept the hundreds of horses he had used to pull supply wagons, he ordered two redcoats astride each mount; the entire force pressed forward through the mud, closing in on their quarry. Greene reached the Yadkin first, where he indeed found boats awaiting him. But just as Cornwallis had hoped, Greene faced a river roiling with floodwaters. To attempt a crossing would be hazardous; yet to stand and fight, backed against the river, would be madness. Greene ordered his army into the vessels. It was a harrowing crossing; the boats nearly capsized and Greene himself barely made it across. His rear guard exchanged shots with Cornwallis' vanguard. But for the British, crossing without vessels was unthinkable. For the second time in a week, Cornwallis had been stopped by a rampaging river.
Marching under threatening skies, the Americans now hurried to Guilford Courthouse. There, at last, the two divisions of Greene's army, separated since before Christmas, were reunited. Greene convened a council of war to decide whether to fight or retreat into Virginia. His officers, knowing their force to be outnumbered by at least 1,000, voted unanimously "to avoid a general Action at all Events" and to fall back.
Cornwallis, meanwhile, cooled his heels waiting—for five long days—to cross the Yadkin. His men were bone-tired, but the general was a man possessed. If he could destroy Greene, not a single Continental soldier would remain south of Virginia. Cornwallis envisioned then taking his army into Virginia, where he would cut supply lines to guerrillas in the Carolinas and Georgia. He was convinced that once partisans there were denied the stores that were their lifeblood, they could not hold out. The consummation of Britain's Southern Strategy, Cornwallis believed, lay within his grasp. Once again, he pressed on. But Greene was no less determined. He told North Carolina's governor that although "evils are now fast approaching," he was "not without hopes of ruining Lord Cornwallis."