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Race To The Dan


Initially the Revolutionary War in the southern states did not go well for the Americans. Four years into the war, a British army invaded Charleston, South Carolina in late March of 1780 and lay siege around the city. Six weeks later the Americans surrendered. This was the worse defeat of the American Revolution. After capturing the American garrison, it marched inland to Camden, South Carolina where it was victorious again against the Americans on August 16, 1780. From Camden, the British marched deeper into the Carolinas stopping at Charlotte, North Carolina.

In a surprising turn, militia called over-the-mountain or over mountain men surrounded and whipped the British on October 7, 1780 atop Kings Mountain, South Carolina, west of Charlotte. With the British defeat, the Americans vowed to rid the tyrants from their farms, villages and countryside.

A few months later the Brits were routed at the Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina. American resistance for British occupation and authority in the backcountry was intense. The Americans were adopting a new tactic against a professional army. In the British southern campaign it was the beginning of a “fight—run—fight” war.

Most stories written about the Revolutionary War focus upon its battles. In “Race to the Dan,” the focus is on the run aspect of an emerging American tactic.


Tactically, the Battle of Cowpens is one of the world’s most studied ground engagements in all of military history. Military tacticians study the various components of it; historians continue to write about its significance in winning the American Revolution; visual artists paint it and monuments memorialize it. No doubt, Cowpens, South Carolina was another stunning American victory. It provided much needed hope for future battles in the British southern campaign.

If depicted on a chessboard, the battle was another strategic move. The American commander, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, knew that with the capture of hundreds of British troops at Cowpens, his rival would seek retribution. Enraged by the defeat at Hannah’s Cow-pens, Lieutenant General Charles Lord Cornwallis, without careful thought or detailed analysis, embarked on a chase to recover his captured troops and destroy the American southern army that had just embarrassed and disgraced the most professional military force in the world.

Military science of the day was impressively sophisticated, however, the Americans had the advantage of several key elements. They knew the terrain. They understood the effects of weather. They had resupply points, and most importantly, they knew the capabilities of their troops. Lord Cornwallis was not deterred. Obsessed with catching the Americans, Lord Cornwallis ordered most of his supply wagons burned in order to travel faster. Hubris caused him to maneuver a superior force in the middle of winter through the North Carolina piedmont to track down General Morgan.

General Morgan commanded only a portion of the overall southern army. Major General Nathanael Greene, commander of General George Washington’s southern army, upon learning of General Morgan’s victory, rode quickly through the South Carolina backcountry to rendezvous with his venerable commander. They met above Charlotte, North Carolina at a Catawba River crossing site, Beattie’s Ford.

General Greene instructed Brigadier General Isaac Huger, who commanded the other half of the southern army, to march his continentals to Salisbury, North Carolina while he rode to intercept General Morgan. Meanwhile, Generals Greene and Morgan and several other subordinate commanders conducted their own estimate of the enemy situation.

Understanding that if encountered by Lord Cornwallis, an ensuing fight would squash the tattered American southern army. Instead, they selected to withdraw to stretch the British line of supplies and to avoid direct contact until reinforcements arrived from North Carolina and Virginia. They agreed that the Dan River just inside Virginia would be the fallback line. Thus the race to the Dan River began at Beattie’s Ford on January 30, 1781.

Realizing that they had the upper hand against a superior force, the Americans skillfully began to use rainy weather and sloppy road conditions to their advantage. Road conditions were horrible. Freezing by night and thawing by day created misery for foot soldiers as well as for supply wagons and horse-drawn artillery. It rained off and on throughout the chase causing the rivers to rise and move swifter. General Morgan’s delay tactics at fording sites impeded the enemy’s advance. Choke points for the British line of march almost always encountered resistance at crossing points. The British moved as fast as possible, but the Americans were always a step ahead.

A few days into the chase, Generals Greene and Morgan met again in Salisbury, North Carolina to reassess the enemy’s situation. General Huger’s command had not arrived yet from South Carolina, and Lord Cornwallis

quickly continued the chase after crossing the Catawba River. The Americans had to keep moving north.

General Greene’s next stop was the Guilford Court House at Guilford, North Carolina. He and General Morgan reached the town despite a steady rain in only two days. A dispatch was sent by courier to General Huger revising the rendezvous location from Salisbury to Guilford Court House. In anticipation of the Dan River crossing, a military engineer was sent ahead to organize and construct defensive positions at several fording sites.

Lord Cornwallis continued marching his army to a Yadkin River crossing site at Shallow Ford, North Carolina. It was slow, tough marching in miserable, cold, and wet conditions. The river was swift, the water high. Man and beast suffered every step of the way.

General Greene divided his army, deploying a small force to act as decoys at shallow places a long the Dan River. The main body of his command continued to the crossing sites where earthworks had been constructed, and bateau boats were waiting for wagons, artillery and troops. The crossing began on February 14, 1781. As the river crossing operation was completed, the first British regulars arrived to find entrenched Americans defending the river’s opposite side.

Our southern army enjoyed a week of rest on the north side of the Dan River. Reinforcements and supplies arrived with fresh provisions. General Greene briefly contemplated an attack on the British now massed on the other side.

Lord Cornwallis, humbled by the American’s race to the Dan River, considered his options. Beyond supply lines with exhausted troops and many in need of medical attention, Lord Cornwallis wisely chose to withdraw. In frustration to capture and annihilate General Greene’s southern army, the British ultimately pulled back and regrouped in Hillsborough, North Carolina to fight another day.


The next month both field forces finally met at the Battle of Guilford Court House. It was a slugfest between armies. Eventually General Greene withdrew from the battlefield. Lord Cornwallis claimed a Pyrrhic victory.

The American victories at the Battle of Kings Mountain and the Cowpens and the near-victory at Guilford Court House attritted British strength to the point that it caused Lord Cornwallis to limp southeast to British occupied Wilmington, North Carolina for resupply and much needed medical attention. He had had enough of the Carolina’s “hornets nest” as he put it.

From Wilmington the Brits marched north to Yorktown, Virginia in hopes of meeting their navy. That was a failure too. Hopelessly surrounded by American continentals and with their backs to the wide York River, Lord Cornwallis capitulated to General Washington on October 19, 1781.


  1. US Army Infantry. National Infantry Association

  2. The American Revolution in North Carolina

  3. The Prizery. Significance of the Crossing of the Dan

  4. Mouzon’s 1775 Map

  5. Major General Nathanael Greene crossing the Dan River


Story written by Joe Harris

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