Cowans Ford, North Carolina

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Cowans Ford, North Carolina

COWANS FORD, NORTH CAROLINA. 1 February 1781. Cowans was a private ford a few miles downstream from Beattie's on the Catawba River, which was almost five hundred yards wide at this point with a swift current. About midstream the ford split. The wagon ford continued straight ahead while the shallower horse ford turned south at a forty-five-degree angle, passed over the corner of a small island, and hit the shore several hundred yards below the exit from the wagon ford. General Nathanael Greene sent General William L. Davidson and more than six hundred North Carolina militia to prevent Cornwallis from crossing the Catawba at this point from the west to the east. (Greene was as yet unaware that General James Webster and Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton had already crossed the river at Beattie's Ford.) Davidson posted the largest portion of his force to cover the exit of the horse ford, with just a small outpost at the wagon ford, and stationed his mounted troops on a small hill a few hundred yards behind the river.

Cornwallis's advance unit, the Light Infantry of the Guards, commanded by General Charles O'Hara,attempted to force the crossing on 1 February. Their guide, a supposed Loyalist named Dick Beal, led the British into midstream and then deserted without telling them about the two exits. The Guards pushed straight ahead on the wagon ford, although they were under fire and men were being swept away by the current. O'Hara himself was thrown into the water when his horses fell. But the error turned out to be fortunate, for the bulk of Davidson's men could not fire on the British from their position at the horse ford. The Guards established a firm bridgehead on the eastern shore before Davidson could bring reinforcements from the position downstream. Davidson was attempting to rally his men to a new defensive position when he was killed. The militia scattered, and the action ended in American defeat. Tarleton pushed on later that day to rout other militia forces that were assembling at Tarrants Tavern.

SEE ALSO Southern Campaigns of Nathanael Greene; Tarrant's Tavern, North Carolina.

                        revised by Michael Bellesiles