100 Days That Shook the World

The all-but-forgotten story of the unlikely hero who ensured victory in the American Revolution

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The final leg of the chase began on February 10, as the redcoats, chilled to the bone, doggedly moved out. The next day, Greene, who was 25 miles ahead at Guilford Courthouse, set out for Boyd's Ferry, on the Dan River. Greene knew he must stay ahead. "Our force is so unequal to the enemy, as well in numbers as condition," he wrote, that fighting Cornwallis would mean "inevitable ruin to the Army."

Again, Greene divided his army. He replaced the incapacitated Morgan with Col. Otho Williams, a 32-year-old former civil servant from Frederick, Maryland, who had fought in Canada and New York. Williams was to take 700 men and head northwest, as if he planned to cross the Dan at its upper fords. Greene, commanding a larger division of some 1,300 men, would stay to the east, marching directly for a downstream crossing. Williams made every minute count. He woke his men each morning at 3:00, marching them four hours before pausing for a hurried breakfast. He did not give them another break until after nightfall, when they were allotted six hours for supper and sleep.

But if the rebels moved quickly, Cornwallis moved even faster. By February 13, he had cut the gap with Williams to a mere four miles. Though Cornwallis knew he could not catch Greene's forces before they reached the Dan, he believed he could pinion Williams at the river and deliver a fatal blow. Spies had reported that Williams had no boats.

But Cornwallis had been hoodwinked. With the redcoats running hard on his heels, Williams suddenly veered, as planned, toward Greene and Boyd's Ferry. Greene, who had ordered vessels readied at that site, reached the river the next day, February 14, and crossed. He immediately wrote Williams: "All our troops are over....I am ready to receive you and give you a hearty welcome." Williams reached the Dan just after nightfall the next day. Ten hours later, in the tilting red light of sunrise on February 16, Cornwallis arrived just in time to witness the last rebel soldier step ashore on the far side of the Dan.

The chase had ended. Greene's men had marched 200 miles and crossed four rivers in less than 30 days, waging a campaign that even Tarleton later praised as "judiciously designed and vigorously executed." Cornwallis had lost one-tenth of his men; the remainder had been exhausted by their punishing, and fruitless, exertions. Ordering an end to the pursuit, he issued a proclamation claiming victory, on the grounds that he had driven Greene's army from North Carolina. Cornwallis then retreated to Hillsborough, 65 miles south.

But Greene had not given up the fight. Only eight days after crossing the Dan and longing to achieve a resounding victory, he returned to North Carolina with 1,600 men. As Greene headed toward Hillsborough, members of his cavalry, commanded by Col. Henry Lee, surprised an inexperienced band of Tory militiamen under Col. John Pyle, a Loyalist physician. In an action disturbingly similar to Tarleton's Waxhaws massacre, Lee's men slaughtered many of the Loyalists who had laid down their arms. American dragoons killed 90 and wounded most of the remaining Tories. Lee lost not a single man. When he heard the news, Greene, grown hardened by the war, was unrepentant. The victory, he said, "has knocked up Toryism altogether in this part" of North Carolina.

Cornwallis was now more eager than ever to engage Greene, who had halted to wait for reinforcements. Initially, Cornwallis had held a numerical advantage, but he could not replace his losses; after Pyles' Massacre, the recruitment of Loyalists virtually ceased. The rebel force, meanwhile, grew steadily as militia and Virginia Continentals arrived. By the second week in March, Greene possessed nearly 5,000 men, approximately twice Cornwallis' force.

Greene chose to meet Cornwallis near Guilford Courthouse, at a site he described as "a Wilderness" interspersed with "a few cleared fields." The thickly forested terrain, he thought, would make it difficult for the British to maintain formation and mount bayonet charges. He positioned his men much as Morgan had done at Cowpens: North Carolina militiamen were posted in the front line and ordered to fire three rounds before they fell back; a second line, of Virginia militiamen, would do the same, to be followed by a third line of Continentals. Around noon on March 15, a mild spring day, the rebels glimpsed the first column of red-clad soldiers emerging through a stand of leafless trees.

The battle was bloody and chaotic, with fierce encounters among small units waged in wooded areas. Ninety minutes into it, the British right wing was continuing to advance, but its left was fraying. An American counterattack might have turned the battle into a rout. But Greene had no cavalry in reserve, nor could he be sure that his militiamen had any fight left in them. He halted what he would later call the "long, bloody, and severe" Battle of Guilford Courthouse, convinced that his troops had inflicted sufficient losses. Cornwallis had held the field, but he had lost nearly 550 men, almost twice the American casualties. The "Enemy got the ground," Greene would write to Gen. Frederick Steuben, "but we the victory."

A decisive triumph had eluded Greene, but the heavy attrition suffered by the British—some 2,000 men lost between January and March—led Cornwallis to a fateful decision. Convinced it would be futile to stay in the Carolinas, where he would have to either remain on the defensive or resume an offense that promised only further "desultory expeditions" in "quest of adventures," Cornwallis decided to march his army into Virginia. His best hope of turning the tide, he concluded, was to win a "war of conquest" there. Greene allowed him to depart unimpeded, leading his own forces south to liberate South Carolina and Georgia.


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