Thoughts on the Race to the Dan River
Washington's retreat across New Jersey in 1776 after a devastating defeat in New York, is one of the most important feats of the early war. His re-crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night in a howling storm to surprise the Hessians at Trenton nine miles south, is equally remarkable. I marvel at it when I think of the condition of the men, the time of the year, and the relentless push of the British behind them. Washington was certainly the "indispensable man." So, was Nathanael Greene. Down in the hinterlands of the Carolinas, where more readers of history should find themselves, Greene pulled off probably the most important retreat of the war at an equally horrible time of year. After the American victory at Cowpens on January 17, 1781, Cornwallis was reinforcing his numbers after Tarleton lost approximately 900 men in that battle. Daniel Morgan, the victor at Cowpens, needed to move quickly and join with Greene and the rest of the army to avoid capture. Greene, of course, needed to be sure that if he had to retreat, he had to make it over the Dan River on the Virginia border, to preserve his army. And that is exactly what he did.
The road system in the Carolinas was brutal in the eighteenth century. Both sides struggled with impassable roads and swollen streams. Cornwallis actually burned many of his supply wagons to make his troops lighter so they could move with more speed. Skirmishes ensued along the way. Not only were weather and road conditions poor, the British alienated the population, the very population they needed the support of to survive. They stole food, destroyed civilian property, and burned homes. Refugees and wagonloads of people's possessions flooded the roads. Greene's troops lacked food, clothes and shoes as they marched for sometimes thirty miles at a time. One of Greene's soldiers noted in his journal that he had made "a march of two hundred and fifty miles from the time we left our encampment at Pacolet River." He also noted that he "marched for the most part both day and night . . . so that we had not scarce time to cook our victuals. . . . " Often, they were without meat and flour and crossed a barren landscape with little hope of food. They did this even while trying to stay ahead of the British column coming up from behind.
Cornwallis had been outgeneraled. After burning his wagons, he had little hope for reinforcement. He could not acquire reliable intelligence about Greene's movements. His thin loyalist support vanished. Many miles from his base of support, he was left in a barren landscape with little to eat, the countryside being stripped of food. Not only did his lack of judgement affect the outcome of the struggle, Cornwallis failed to communicate with his boss, Henry Clinton. Greene, with little advantage, saved his army, and left Cornwallis is such a precarious position, he was not able to pursue Greene over the Dan, but instead retreated back to Hillsboro, North Carolina, sixty miles to the south. Greene had done the impossible. He kept his army on the field and would not relinquish it. After reinforcing his army on the north side of the Dan, Greene reentered South Carolina after Cornwallis made the fateful move of heading to Wilmington to refit. The rest is history. For more detail and further analysis, please see chapter 5, The Long Retreat.