Southern Campaigns of Nathanael Greene

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Southern Campaigns of Nathanael Greene

SOUTHERN CAMPAIGNS OF NATHANAEL GREENE. December 1780–December 1781. Following Horatio Gates's defeat at Camden, South Carolina, Washington's supporters in the Continental Congress allowed the commander in chief to select a new commanding general for the Southern Department, a break from its earlier insistence on reserving the choice of such important positions to civilian authority. Washington did not hesitate in picking Nathanael Greene, knowing that his experiences as both a combat commander and the quartermaster general made Greene the best choice to rebuild a shattered department. But he also ordered Inspector General Friedrich von Steuben to proceed south as well, informing him that he was to take over the department's base area in Virginia and begin passing supplies and reinforcements on to Greene. Greene moved rapidly southward, meeting with civilian leaders along the way, and reached Charlotte, North Carolina, on 2 December. He took command from Gates the next day.


On paper, and in the eyes of the British, Greene's army was weak, demoralized, and poorly clothed and equipped. The theater of operations had few roads and limited agricultural resources, most of which lay in enemy hands. And civilian confidence in the Congress and the army lay at an all-time low. But he had several hidden advantages: the heart of his force consisted of veteran Continental infantry, artillery, and cavalry from Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia; his lines of communications northward were intact; and the majority of the population supported his cause. Greene felt confident that in time he could rebuild the department's field army into an effective fighting force but knew that he also had to restore the will to resist by avoiding the appearance of being on the defensive.

Greene's first decisions revealed pure military genius. One of Gates's final acts as department commander had been to detach a small mobile force under Daniel Morgan to probe along the inland routes toward the British outposts at Ninety Six and Augusta. Instead of following the conventional wisdom of recalling those troops, Greene did the exact opposite. Although the textbook solution called for an outnumbered general never to split his force in the face of a superior enemy, Greene actually reinforced Morgan. He fell back with his main body (about eleven hundred Continentals) to a camp selected by Thaddeus Kosciuszko near Cheraw, where he could regroup in some security and in a healthy environment. Morgan took six hundred of the best men to circle around the inland flank of Cornwallis (leading a four-thousand-man field army) and encourage the uprising of the militia of the Catawba district.

In a move that was to prove decisive in subsequent operations, Greene ordered his quartermaster general, Edward Carrington, to continue the mission Gates had previously given him to reconnoiter routes back to Virginia. Greene understood that in the Deep South, where roads were few and far apart, the rivers played a critical role. The waterways basically flowed from west to east, at right angles to the roads. While settlers had used them to push inland, from a military standpoint they actually became critically important obstacles. Close to the coast in the lowlands, they were numerous and frequently flooded, making the movement of large bodies of troops impossible. And in the Piedmont, where the climate was better for military operations, they could be crossed only at a relatively small number of ferries or fords. Furthermore, British seapower could not come far enough inland because of the fall line to land either troops or large quantities of supplies. Greene therefore instructed Kosciuszko and Edward Stevens not only to map the Yadkin and Catawba Rivers, identifying all the critical crossing points, but also to collect or construct boats that could be moved by wagon from one river line to another as a bridging train.

When this strategy revealed itself to Cornwallis, the British general was smart enough to see dangers in Greene's unorthodoxy that were not apparent to such subordinates as Banastre Tarleton—or to many later historians. The Napoleonic solution might seem to be for Cornwallis to use his interior lines for a defeat in detail of Greene's forces, which were eventually separated by about 120 miles (from Cheraw to Cowpens). But the realities of terrain and communications made such an approach risky. If Cornwallis moved in force against Cheraw, Morgan could attack Ninety Six and Augusta; if Cornwallis moved in force against Morgan, Greene could attack Charleston. If Cornwallis ignored Greene and Morgan to resume his invasion north, they would be a threat to his flanks and rear. If Cornwallis sat in Winnsboro and did nothing—which was highly unlikely—Greene's dual tasks of rehabilitation and harassment would be simplified. (This analysis of the situation is Greene's own.) Although Greene, who died in 1786, would never hear of Napoleon, who was born in 1769, he was taking advantage of his superior mobility to observe Napoleon's principle that an army must separate to live (off the country) but unite to fight.

Greene left Charlotte on 20 December and reached Cheraw on the 26th. His troops included 650 veteran Continentals plus almost as many Virginia and Maryland replacements, some of whom were also veterans who had reenlisted. They were soon reinforced by 400 more Virginia recruits under Colonel John Greene, the first of the detachments pushed forward by Steuben. Lee's Second Partisan Corps arrived on 13 January 1781, and Nathanael Greene immediately sent it to support Marion (who raided Georgetown, South Carolina, on 24 January).

Morgan left Charlotte on 21 December with 320 Maryland and Delaware Continentals, 200 Virginia riflemen—all of the infantry under John Howard—and about 80 light dragoons under William Washington. He set off to join the North Carolina militia of General William Davidson and operate between the Broad and Pacolet Rivers to protect patriots of the region, harass the enemy, and gather supplies. Morgan had orders to rejoin the main army or harass the enemy's flank and rear if Cornwallis should advance in the direction of Greene's wing.


Cornwallis received his last major reinforcements from Clinton in mid-December, when Major General Alexander Leslie landed in Charleston with fifteen hundred additional veteran troops. After calling them forward, Cornwallis began to assemble a field force of about four thousand men at Winnsboro. He counted on leaving about the same number behind to hold his scattered posts but recognized that they were less capable soldiers. Before Cornwallis could start taking the offensive again, he began getting disturbing intelligence of the American troop movements. Although he tended to discredit the early reports, by 26 December he was sufficiently alarmed to write Tarleton, who was about twenty miles west on the Broad River with some nine hundred men, to say that "Morgan and [William] Washington have passed Broad river" and asking that he "try to get all possible intelligence of Morgan." On the evening of 1 January 1781, Earl Cornwallis got unnerving reports from two different sources that Morgan was approaching Ninety Six with three thousand men. Cornwallis ordered Tarleton to protect this strategically important place and to find Morgan. "Let me know if you think that the moving the whole, or any part of my corps, can be of use," he told Tarleton.

Morgan had, in fact, reached the Pacolet River on Christmas after a tough fifty-eight-mile march across rainsoaked country. Two days later Washington rode south on his Hammond's Store Raid, which was the basis of the alarming, but incorrect, reports that Ninety Six was threatened.

Cornwallis was relieved by Tarleton's reports that although Morgan was not to be found, he was not around Ninety Six. The earl had confided to Tarleton on 27 December that he planned to resume the offensive northward, and Tarleton realized Cornwallis was reluctant to undertake this operation until Morgan was off his mind. On 4 January, therefore, Tarleton proposed a plan. He asked for reinforcements with which he would move to destroy Morgan or, more probably, drive him north toward Kings Mountain; the main army would advance simultaneously toward the latter point from Winnsboro to trap Morgan should he elude Tarleton. Cornwallis agreed and on the evening of 5 January wrote that he would head north on Sunday, 7 January. He also ordered the fifteen hundred troops of Major General Leslie to leave Camden on 9 January to join the main army on its march.

Meanwhile, Morgan had written Greene on 4 January that because of insufficient forage, he would have either to retreat or to move toward Georgia. Greene answered on 13 January, asking Morgan "hold your ground if possible … disagreeable consequences that will result from a retreat." If that was not possible, he suggested that Morgan move toward Ninety Six or elsewhere in the vicinity if this might alleviate his supply problem. (This is apparently the basis for the belief that Morgan's original directive told him to attack Ninety Six and Augusta.) "Colonel Tarleton is said to be on his way to pay you a visit," Greene concluded cheerily. "I doubt not but he will have a decent reception and a proper dismission."

Rain continued to impede operations, and Tarleton was stopped at Duggin's Plantation on Indian Creek between 6 and 9 January, waiting for a chance to continue north across the swollen Enoree. Cornwallis left Winnsboro on the 8th but took until the 16th to cover forty miles to Turkey Creek. During the critical period of 9-16 January, Cornwallis got only one message from Tarleton; as a result he did not know that on the 14th Tarleton had crossed the Enoree and the Tyger and was in hot pursuit of Morgan. Nor did Tarleton know that Cornwallis had slowed his own advance on the assumption that Tarleton was still being held back by swollen rivers. Too late to remedy matters, Tarleton sent this message from Pacolet at 8 o'clock on the morning of 16 January: "My Lord, I have been most cruelly retarded by the waters. Morgan is in force and gone for Cherokee Ford. I am now on my march. I wish he would be stopped."

On the 15th, when Morgan learned that Tarleton had crossed the Tyger with a force reported to number up to twelve hundred, Morgan wrote Greene: "My force is inadequate to the attempts you have hinted at" (see above). During the day of the 15th, Tarleton probed for a place to cross the Pacolet but found every ford guarded. That night he faked a march up the river toward Wofford's Iron Works and went silently into bivouac; after the Americans outposts had taken the bait and moved up the river opposite him, Tarleton countermarched and crossed the Pacolet, unopposed, six miles below Morgan at Easterwood Shoals. Morgan's scouts brought him this bad news as the Americans were preparing breakfast at about 6 a.m. on the 16th, and a half hour later the rebels were streaking north to put Broad River between them and their pursuers. After eating Morgan's breakfast, Tarleton sent the message quoted above. At Cowpens however, on 17 January, Morgan turned at bay to beat Tarleton in a little jewel of a battle.


Had Cornwallis been at Kings Mountain, as he had so optimistically planned, Greene's campaigns in the South might have ended here. But the realities of operations in adverse terrain and weather had left him still at Turkey Creek, thirty miles from Cowpens, when he learned on the evening of the 17th that Tarleton had been beaten. He had decided to wait there for Leslie who, ironically, arrived about the time "Bloody" Tarleton rode in with his two hundred survivors on the 18th.

Morgan wasted no time. Not more than two hours after the battle he marched east, crossed the Broad River, and camped six miles from the scene of his triumph. Early the next morning he was racing toward Ramseur's Mill (later Lincolnton). He crossed Sherrald's (or Sherrill's) Ford the morning of the 23rd and went into camp with the Catawba between him and pursuit. (He had unburdened himself of the prisoners by detaching Pickens with most of the militia and Washington's cavalry to escort them to Island Ford on the upper Catawba, where a commissary for prisoners sent them on to Virginia. Pickens rejoined Morgan's camp behind Sherrald's Ford.)

The first impact of Tarleton's defeat came from the way it crippled Cornwallis's reconnaissance and intelligence capabilities. He did not take up the pursuit until 19 January. Then, apparently thinking Morgan might still be around Cowpens, his force of almost 3,000 trudged northwest toward Kings Mountain. Two days later, after Tarleton finally was able to scout west of the Broad, Cornwallis corrected his course and picked up the trail. But the two lost days kept the British from reaching Ramseur's Mill until about 7 a.m. on the 25th. At this point, as it had earlier in the war in December 1776, Cornwallis's youth and inexperience led him to make a terrible mistake. Frustrated by the slow pace of march and unaware that it was caused by the weak nature of the British logistical structure coupled with the terrain and the lack of civilian support, the British commander now decided to convert his entire command into light troops in order to run Morgan to ground. He ordered all impedimenta destroyed, and during the next two days at Ramseur's Mill, his troops burned all their tents and all the wagons except the minimum number needed for ammunition, salt, medical supplies, and casualties; all the provisions that could not be packed into haversacks were destroyed, even the rum. The historian Christopher Ward has suggested in War of the Revolution (1952) that this may explain the 250 desertions at Ramseur's.

This dramatic move proved futile and, in the long run, disastrous. Cornwallis misread his opponents and instinctively sought to apply the same boldness that had worked against Lincoln and Gates. He should now have remembered the mission that Clinton had given him when placing him in command in the South and that Germain had assigned in the original instructions for a southern campaign. British forces first had to secure the agricultural resources needed to supply the West Indies, and they were to do it by organizing the Loyalists behind a secure screen of regular troops. For Cornwallis in January of 1781, North Carolina was to be invaded only if South Carolina and Georgia were properly secured; Cornwallis had abandoned his first invasion when Ferguson was destroyed at Kings Mountain and should again have done so when Tarleton met so similar a fate.

When Greene received word on 23 January of Morgan's victory, he was, naturally, delighted, but he also realized the mortal danger his army now faced. From the beginning Greene's southern campaign assumed that he might have to retreat, and he now profited from the careful plans of the previous weeks. As soon as he realized that Cornwallis was going to advance, Greene began carefully to trade space for time. Huger was directed to move his wing of the army from Cheraw toward Salisbury, on Morgan's line of retreat, as soon as possible. Commissaries at Salisbury and Hillsboro were told to get ready to move their prisoners and stores into Virginia. Carrington was told to assemble boats on the Dan. On 28 January, Greene left Cheraw with a small escort for a hazardous cross-country ride of 125 miles to join Morgan on his line of retreat. Thesame day Huger started his march, having previously sent nonessential baggage, the weakest horses, and the worst wagons to Hillsboro.

Greene joined Morgan in his camp behind the Catawba on 30 January. He found that Morgan, the Old Wagoner, thought the entire army should retreat west into the mountains. But Greene correctly interpreted Cornwallis's baggage-burning as an indication that the British would try to stabilize the situation in South Carolina by intercepting American men and supplies in North Carolina. By choosing to fall back in front of the British, Greene knew that he could draw Cornwallis further away from his bases while simultaneously shortening the Americans' lines of supply. At some point along that path Greene knew that a British mistake might give him the opportunity to turn the tables. Greene issued orders for Lee's Legion to rejoin him from the lower Peedee, where it had been operating with Marion. He wrote Huger of the ambitious new plan and urged him to hurry to effect a junction with Morgan. Although he first intended using Morgan's men to delay the enemy's crossing of the swollen Catawba, when the river started going down he ordered Morgan to continue his retreat to Salisbury, where he hoped Huger would soon arrive.


General William Davidson had turned out eight hundred North Carolina militia and more were supposed to be coming. In Greene's master plan, as in Morgan's tactical plan at Cowpens, the militia forces played a valuable economy-of-force role, screening the Continentals from having to engage the British prematurely and wearing Cornwallis down. Greene planned to use Davidson's men to cover the four crossing sites along a thirty-mile front where Cornwallis might move. Shortly after 2 p.m. on the 31st, when Morgan's troops had already started toward the Yadkin, Greene met with Davidson, Morgan, and William Washington at Beattie's Ford on the Catawba to plan the defense of that obstacle. (Details of this commanders' conference are given because they clear up considerable confusion as to who was where at this important moment.) The British had been camped across the river for two days waiting for the water to go down, and an advance guard of four hundred or five hundred men appeared on the hill overlooking the stream as this twenty-minute conference started. When the meeting broke up, Morgan and Washington rode off to join their troops (temporarily commanded by Howard), Greene left with one aide to help assemble North Carolina militia a few miles behind the river, and Davidson made final arrangements to defend the fords.

Two fords had been obstructed with felled trees and could be held by small detachments. Davidson ordered patrols to watch most of the river during the night and concentrated the bulk of his militia around the remaining two crossing points. Beattie's Ford had not been obstructed because civilian refugees were still using it; about three hundred men took up defensive positions there. Four to six miles downstream, at a private crossing called Cowan's, Davidson put about the same number.

Thinking Morgan's troops were around Beattie's, Cornwallis planned a demonstration there, to consist only of an artillery bombardment; Lieutenant Colonel James Webster would command this operation. Cornwallis would lead the main body across Cowan's Ford at dawn and encircle Morgan at the principal ford. The troops turned out at 1 a.m. on 1 February and moved toward the river. The demonstration fizzled out in the rain. But Cornwallis was able to force a crossing at Cowan's Ford led by the heroics of the Guards Brigade. General Davidson fell in this action, and without his leadership the militia scattered. Webster crossed later in the day without opposition. At Tarrant's Tavern, about ten miles beyond the river, Tarleton scattered another militia group. Although Cornwallis had not come close to catching Morgan, the defeats temporarily demoralized the North Carolina militia. Greene wrote on 13 February that all but about eighty had deserted him, which was an exaggeration, but the rest of his retreat took place with less support than before.


From Salisbury, where he arrived alone during the early hours of 2 February, Greene sent word to Huger to rendezvous with Morgan at Guilford Courthouse unless he was within twenty-four hours of Salisbury. When Morgan reached the Yadkin on 2 February, boats were waiting, and he crossed at Trading (Trader's) Ford during the night. The British advance guard under General O'Hara arrived too late to accomplish anything more than rout the militiamen who were guarding a few wagons left by fleeing civilians.

Having been frustrated at the Catawba and the Yadkin, Cornwallis still hoped to catch Greene before he could reach the Dan. Greene's movement north from Trading Ford the evening of 4 February supported Cornwallis's belief that the Americans lacked the necessary boats to cross the lower Dan and would head for the fords upstream. But the rebels turned east a few miles before reaching Salem and, after a march of forty-seven miles in forty-eight hours, camped near Guilford Courthouse on the 7th. On this day they were joined by Huger and Lee. Huger's troops had completed a remarkable march under adverse weather conditions and with pitifully inadequate clothing—many of them barefooted—without the loss of a man.


Greene studied the ground and gave serious consideration to making a stand at Guilford, but a council of officers persuaded him not to do so. Tradition holds that Greene hoped to fight there to encourage the militia but chose not to when relatively few of them mobilized. The truth is probably that Greene correctly assessed that the tables had not yet turned. His fifteen hundred or so reliable Continentals were still outnumbered by the enemy's estimated twenty-five hundred regulars, so Greene kept falling back. Henry Lee gave this explanation of Greene's plans for further retreat:

The British general was 25 miles from Guilford Court-House; equally near with Greene to Dix's Ferry on the Dan, and nearer to the upper shallows or points of that river, which were supposed to be fordable, notwithstanding the late swell of water. Lieutenant Colonel Carrington, quartermaster-general, suggested the propriety of passing at Irwin's Ferry, 17 [this should be 70] miles from Guilford Court-House, and 20 below Dix's. Boyd's Ferry was four miles below Irwin's; and the boats might be easily brought down from Dix's to assist in transporting the army at these near and lower ferries. The plan of Lieutenant Colonel Carrington was adopted, and that officer charged with the requisite preparations. (Memoirs, p. 236)

A 700-man light corps, including all the cavalry and the best infantry troops, was organized to serve as rear guard and also to draw the enemy away from Greene's line of retreat. William Washington commanded the mounted element, 240 men, which included his own dragoons and the cavalry of Lee's Partisan Corps. John Howard commanded the infantry element, which included his 280-man battalion, Lee's 120 foot troops, and 60 Virginia militia armed with rifles.

Morgan was asked to command this body, but he declined on grounds of bad health and intimated that he would like to retire. Lee says he was asked to persuade Morgan to "obey the universal wish" and even argued that "the brigadier's retirement at that crisis might induce an opinion unfavorable to his patriotism." Although this almost swayed the Old Wagoner, on 10 February, Greene granted him his requested leave of absence. Morgan was suffering from sciatica, rheumatism, and a less delicate ailment "so that I scarcely can sit upon my horse," as he wrote Greene on the 5th. (There is no reason to believe, as some have charged, that his real reason for leaving was to dissociate himself from a strategy he considered too hazardous.) Command of the rear guard fell into the capable hands of Otho Williams.

Cornwallis, still blocked at Trading Ford by high water and a lack of boats, and still holding his preconceived idea of Greene's route, sent Tarleton with his cavalry and the Twenty-third Foot up the Yadkin toward Shallow Ford, twenty-five miles north. Meeting no resistance, Tarleton crossed on the 6th, and Cornwallis left Salisbury with his main body on the 7th and entered Salem on the 9th. Greene left Guilford with the main body on the 10th and headed for Carrington's crossing sites, seventy miles beeline to the northeast. Williams got in front of Cornwallis this same day, with the immediate result that the British checked their advance to close up ranks and reconnoiter. The British then started a vigorous pursuit of Williams, who succeeded for about two days in drawing them in the desired direction. Through intermittent rain and snow, over red clay roads that were churned into mud during the day and frozen into the thus-distorted surface at night, the armies struggled along on three parallel routes. Williams kept on the middle route, with the enemy to his left rear. Lee's cavalry had the particularly exhausting and nerve-racking mission of bringing up the rear and of watching for any indication that Cornwallis might have discovered the true situation. Lee had to keep the enemy advance guard from circling to the right to get between him and Williams; the latter had to avoid being cut off from Greene by the same maneuver. This meant that half of Lee's troopers were on duty every night and got only six hours' rest out of forty-eight. Lee pointed out, however, that the enemy cavalry "although more numerous … was far inferior in regard to size, condition, and activity of their horses."

Before dawn of the 13th, Tarleton informed Cornwallis that Greene's main body was headed for the lower Dan. Ordering his van to proceed as if the army were still following the former route, Cornwallis started on a forced march and soon found a causeway that led to the road Williams had been following with his infantry. As on previous days, the Americans had broken camp at 3 a.m., marched rapidly, and stopped for their one meal of the day. Mounted outposts covered the rear and reported that the enemy was moving forward in the normal manner. Having completed his preparations along the Dan, Quartermaster General Carrington was commanding the dragoon detachment in contact with the British van. His periodic reports informed Lee that the enemy was advancing at the usual pace. Suddenly, an excited civilian appeared to report that Cornwallis was on the other road and less than four miles away. Williams had ordered Lee to send a cavalry detachment back with this man to check on this report, and soon after Captain James Armstrong departed on this mission, a report from Carrington, saying that the enemy to his front had slowed down, confirmed the previous intelligence. Williams then ordered Lee to reinforce Armstrong and to take command.

This led to a clash in which eighteen of Tarleton's troopers were killed. Lee was about to hang the enemy commander, Captain Thomas Miller, in reprisal for the cold-blooded killing of his unarmed, teenage bugler by Miller's men, when the enemy van approached. (The boy, whose name was Gillies, had been ordered to lend his horse to the civilian when the latter was sent forward with a dragoon patrol. Lee then led his detachment off to the side of the highway and the boy was sent back to tell Williams no contact had yet been made. The dragoon patrol soon reappeared with the enemy hard on its heels. Not seeing Lee's detachment and unable to overtake the American patrol, some enemy dragoons ran down the unarmed bugler and sabered him as he lay on the ground. Lee then descended on the British, killed eighteen, and captured Miller and all but two of his men as they tried to escape. Miller argued that since he was on an intelligence mission, he had tried to save the boy's life, and he was not hanged.)

The Americans then resumed their retreat with Lee bringing up the rear and looking for a chance to chop off the head of Cornwallis's advance guard should they made the mistake of getting beyond supporting distance. "The skilful enemy never permitted any risk in detail, but preserved his whole force for one decisive struggle," said Lee. As the day of 13 February wore on—and both sides would have approved that choice of verb—Williams decided he had accomplished his mission by luring Cornwallis toward Dix's Ferry. Ordering Lee to continue screening to the rear with a small force, Williams led his main body onto a more direct route toward Irwin's Ferry. Cornwallis soon detected this change of route and came close to surprising Lee's men when they pulled off onto what they hoped was an obscure side road for the breakfast they had missed. A moment's hesitation by the British point and the superiority of the Americans' horses enabled them to escape. In his Memoirs, Lee called his momentary but near-fatal lapse of judgment "criminal improvidence!"

Cornwallis felt that he was coming close to his objective and pushed his men even harder into the night. The Americans had a bad moment about 8 p.m., when they saw campfires and thought they marked Greene's bivouac, but to their immense relief they found he had left this camp two days earlier and that a handful of local inhabitants were keeping the fires going to guide Williams's men. When the British stopped, so did the rebels, but at midnight the race was on again. They were still forty miles from the Dan. At night the combination of wet and cold added a crust of frost to the deep mud of the road. On the 14th, both sides stopped for only one hour to rest during the morning. At about noon came a message from Greene: "All our troops are over…. I am ready to receive you and give you a hearty welcome." It was dated 5:12 p.m. of the preceding day.

O'Hara's British vanguard heard the Americans cheer and made one final rush in an attempt to trap the rebels against the river. But although the British marched forty miles in those last twenty-four hours, the Americans covered the distance in sixteen hours. Thus, Greene was able to drop Lee off at about 3 p.m. some fourteen miles from the river and continue safely to Boyd's Ferry. The infantry reached the bank before sunset to find boats waiting. Lee's cavalry arrived between 8 and 9 p.m. and crossed on the same boats (the horses swimming, as was normal practice). "In the last boat, the quarter-master-general, attended by Lieutenant-Colonel Lee and the rear troop, reached the friendly shore," said Lee in his Memoirs.

Thus ended Greene's first campaign in the South. Part of his army had won a battle against Tarleton and then all of it had run two hundred miles for dear life. For the first time in the war not a single Continental soldier held any of the territory south of Virginia. Greene's pleasure over this apparent defeat and Cornwallis's bitter disappointment over this apparent triumph illustrate a fundamental principle of war—no matter how much territory you occupy, you have not won until you destroy the enemy's armed force. Washington had been proving this in the North; now his disciple Greene was doing it in the South.

The what-ifs of the Race to the Dan have tantalized historians ever since 1781. If Cornwallis had caught and destroyed Greene's army, one line goes, he would have been able to link up with Benedict Arnold (then carrying out a raid along the James River) and swell their combined force by liberating the Convention Army and the Cowpens prisoners. As a consequence, this scenario goes, all four southern provinces would have come back under royal authority. That is wishful thinking, however, because it ignores the reality of logistics and numerical strength. Cornwallis had quite literally run his small army into the ground, and as it lay panting on the south bank of the Dan, he had to start worrying about finding a way to get back to some safe location to resupply and refit his men.


Now what? Cornwallis lacked the boats to follow Greene. He could not maneuver upstream to cross at the fords because Greene could too easily counter such moves. He could not go downstream, as the terrain in that direction became more swampy. Nor could he rest in place. Winnsboro lay 250 miles to the rear as the crow flies, and Charleston was another 125 miles beyond. Every round of ammunition and every morsel of food would have to be transported along that tortured route, open to raiding attack by militia, and there were not enough British, German, or Loyalist troops in the South to secure it, nor were there wagons and horses to transport the supplies. In effect, since crossing the Catawba, every step Cornwallis took had overextended the British and increased American resistance by compressing the Patriots like a spring toward the bases in Virginia.

Cornwallis had no alternative but to withdraw, and on 17 February 1781 he started moving slowly toward Hillsboro, North Carolina. Here he issued a proclamation inviting "faithful and loyal subjects" to escape "the cruel tyranny under which they have groaned for many years"; they could save themselves by rallying around the royal standard with their arms and ten days' supply of groceries. Ironically, the "raising of the royal standard" in this case, as in others during the war, merely tempted locals with Loyalists sympathies into revealing themselves. When the royal troops marched away, as they inevitably did, the Patriots took their revenge. After this pattern had happened a few times, no more supporters of the crown could be found who were willing to speak up. Germain and Clinton's hopes for a secure South were slowly crushed by the tactical requirements of Cornwallis's movements.

Greene's situation was by no means rosy. His Continentals troops had also been worn down during the retreat, and the North Carolina militia was disorganized and demoralized. The Virginia militia was beginning to turn out, however, and Greene discovered that Steuben's efforts had assembled supplies and new recruits for him in Virginia. Greene shifted his main body to Halifax Court House, which became his new base. But he also pushed his light elements across the river a day after the British left it.

On 18 February, Lee's Partisan Corps, supported by two companies of Maryland Continentals, crossed the Dan to operate with Pickens and his seven hundred newly raised militia. Colonel Otho Williams crossed two days later with the light infantry that had comprised a rear guard less than a week before. As soon as he was joined by six hundred Virginia militia under General Edward Stevens, Greene himself moved into North Carolina. His plan was to keep as much pressure on Cornwallis as possible—cutting up his foraging parties and discouraging the Loyalists from rising—while continuing to build his own army up with recruits and mobilized militia. The water level in the Dan was falling rapidly, and Greene did not want to give his opponent a chance either to resume the offensive or to escape.

In an action known as Haw River (Pyle's Defeat), on 25 February, Lee surprised and destroyed a Loyalist force with a violence reminiscent of The Waxhaws. The totality of that defeat, made possible by the fact that Pyle mistook the green of Lee's uniforms for those of the Provincials, effectively ended North Carolina's Tory militia. After some replenishment, Cornwallis took the field again and tried for several weeks to bring Greene to battle. Superior American mobility enabled Greene to maneuver away from danger and avoid a general engagement under any conditions that would have favored the British. The opposing forces did have one sharp skirmish at Wetzell's Mill on 6 March. Finally, in mid-March, Greene felt that he had attracted as many men as he could sustain and accepted the fight that Cornwallis sought.

At Guilford Courthouse on 15 March 1781, Cornwallis attacked and scored a hard-won tactical victory. But it was a strategic defeat, since it bled him dry and left him with no alternative but retreat.


Although Camden, South Carolina, the second most important British post in the South after Charleston, was closer than Wilmington, North Carolina, by forty miles, retreat to Camden would have meant the failure of Cornwallis's entire campaign. Instead, he opted to head toward the British coastal base at Wilmington on the Cape Fear River. Here he could be supplied by sea. Furthermore, Cornwallis believed that Greene would follow him. If Greene did so, it would keep the American field army away from South Carolina and Georgia. Wilmington had many features of a flanking position, but Greene quickly demonstrated that it lacked the essential one.

Giving his men two days' rest and abandoning his wounded, Cornwallis started withdrawing on 18 March; Greene followed immediately. On the 28th, Greene had an opportunity to hit the enemy forces while they were astride the Deep River at Ramsay's Mill, but he lacked the strength to assure success. In keeping with the fundamental concept behind the whole campaign, Greene refused to risk a devastating defeat for the chance of a decisive blow. He knew that time and attrition worked for the Americans as long as the Southern Department's field army remained intact. Cornwallis withdrew unmolested to Cross Creek (later Fayetteville). Since supplies he had ordered sent to this place were not there, he continued on to Wilmington, arriving on 7 April. (On the 24th he marched north to Virginia.)


The Virginia and North Carolina militias had completed their six weeks' service, and Greene released them with thanks. Although some had run at Guilford, others had stood firm and softened up the redcoats for the Continentals in the main line. More to the point, the citizen soldiers had made that battle possible and had fulfilled their mission. Rather than overextending them, Greene chose to simplify his own logistics by sending them home. After remaining at Ramsay's Mill from 29 March until 5 April, Greene headed for South Carolina.

The two commanders reviewed the lessons of the preceding months and drew different conclusions. As the next stage unfolded, the failure of Cornwallis's strategic conception became as apparent as the soundness of Greene's vision. Determined to replace Clinton's defensive policy with an aggressive one, Cornwallis became fixated on the Southern Department's apparent ability to keep rising again. He kept searching for a way to press the offensive in an effort to cut off the rebels from their northern sources of support, first by pressing to Camden, then to North Carolina, and now by striking against the base areas in Virginia. Each time he compounded his errors; each time he proved to be incapable of looking beyond the battlefield to see the whole of the theater of operations. This lack of vision would be a critical factor in how Britain lost the war. As for the immediate operational situation, however, withdrawing to Wilmington—rather than dropping back to Camden, where Rawdon was located with almost 2,000 troops—surrendered the initiative. He had, in effect, abandoned Rawdon to fend for himself. Ramsay's Mill (where Greene stopped his pursuit), Wilmington, and Camden form an equilateral triangle, the points being about 120 miles apart. If Cornwallis had had the strength in Wilmington to threaten Greene's line of communications as the latter operated toward Camden, then the earl would have had the flanking position mentioned earlier. But he did not. Greene, knowing this, turned his back on Wilmington to hunt down Rawdon. In failing to follow, Cornwallis had made a gambler's desperate wager that he could conquer Virginia before the relentless American pressure ground down his subordinates in South Carolina and Georgia.

Greene's army now contained a solid, veteran Continental cadre over fifteen hundred strong. One brigade comprised the reconstituted First and Second Virginia battalions, the other the First and Second Maryland. Rounding out the heart of the army were artillerymen from the First Continental Artillery Regiment, William Washington's dragoons (now a composite force of the First and Third Legionary Corps), and the combined arms team of Lee's Second Partisan Corps. Partisan forces of Marion in the Peedee swamps, Sumter on the Broad River, and Pickens in western South Carolina had been harassing the British and could now join forces with Greene as he marched south. Even more importantly, militia forces from Virginia and North Carolina had discovered a successful technique for making a contribution. Mobilizing only as needed for decisive engagement (thereby simplifying Greene's supply problems) and using former Continental officers like Stevens and Lawson and a healthy leavening of Valley Forge veterans as a cadre, they provided a far more effective battlefield force than the militia that had appeared earlier in the war. With a little lead time, this "surge" capacity enabled Greene to achieve the principle of mass at the point of his own choosing.

The youthful but capable Rawdon had on paper a strength of 8,141 British regulars, German regulars, and Provincials with which to hold an area of about 25,000 square miles—that is, a rough parallelogram measuring approximately 120 miles on a side. Rawdon himself held Camden, which would inevitably be Greene's first major objective and which was the northernmost point of the parallelogram, with almost a quarter of his total strength. Along the coast were the major posts of Charleston and Savannah along with the less important one at Georgetown. Far to the interior were Augusta, Ninety Six, and Fort Granby. These bases played an important role in maintaining Loyalist support and preserving any hope of coordination with pro-British Indian tribes. Orangeburg, Fort Watson, and Fort Motte served as connecting links between Charleston and these more distant strongpoints.

When Greene advanced on Camden he initiated a coordinated strategy worked out with the partisan leaders. Pickens threatened Ninety Six to keep reinforcements from being detached from that place. Greene called Sumter to the field army near Camden. Marion's mission was to move out of his Peedee swamps and join Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee in an attack on Fort Watson. Lee's primary mission at the onset of the offensive was to screen against a possible move by Cornwallis from Wilmington; as soon as it could be determined that Cornwallis was not heading south, he raced to join Marion.

The successful siege of Fort Watson on 15-23 April ended with the capture of that place and its garrison by Lee and Marion with only minor losses. The action is more significant, however, for the light it sheds on the new tactics of cooperation employed in the Southern Department. These were built upon earlier experiments in the north but reached new heights of success during 1781 in South Carolina and Georgia. They relied on an experienced cadre of local partisans, under charismatic leaders, to maintain constant pressure on British lines of communication and to develop combat intelligence. When opportunities arose, the much larger number of part-time militia could rapidly assemble, relying on horses for mobility while fighting dismounted. And for important targets the partisans would be reinforced by Lee's Second Partisan Corps, which was specifically tailored to carry out deep operations. Combining the strengths of different groups made the resulting strike force much more flexible. An example of the creative ability to solve problems came immediately from the invention of the Maham Tower, first used in attacking Fort Watson. The man for whom the fort was named, British Colonel John Watson, had been detached from Camden earlier with five hundred of Rawdon's Tory troops to look for Marion in the vicinity of Georgetown (that is, the Peedee swamps), and uncertainty as to his location played a significant part in the operations around Camden as well as at Fort Watson.

At Hobkirk's Hill on 25 April, just outside of Camden, Rawdon defeated Greene in an action that left Greene "almost frantic with vexation and disappointment" (Alden, p. 263). (It was on this occasion that Greene made the statement that summarizes his southern campaigns: "We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.") Greene's problems in coordinating his strategy against the various enemy posts, and also in Rawdon's success at making the best of his scattered dispositions, are clearly visible in the action around Camden. Greene had given the partisan chiefs assignments largely intended to isolate Rawdon so that the Continental field force could crush him. But Pickens was unable to threaten Ninety Six enough and Rawdon got reinforcements from that place. Sumter, the Gamecock, simply ignored the request that he join Greene near Camden (see below). Marion and Lee were supposed to join Greene, or at least to keep Watson from joining Rawdon; although Watson did not reach Camden until after the battle (7 May), he kept Marion and Lee so busy chasing him that they were not present at the Battle of Hobkirk's Hill.

On the other hand, Rawdon could not profit from his temporary victory and had to fall back. Sumter then took Orangeburg on 11 May. Marion and Lee took Fort Motte on 12 May, and Lee took Fort Granby on 15 May.

"With his usual rather arrogant independence," as the historian Christopher Ward had put it, the Gamecock had gone off to attack Fort Granby instead of joining Greene outside of Camden. He had then broken off this attack to take Orangeburg, about thirty miles south-southeast; he then retraced his steps to find that Fort Granby had already surrendered to Lee. At this point, the historian Francis Vinton Greene has written:

Sumter felt that Lee had stolen his glory and complained to [Nathanael] Greene of Lee's conduct, stating that he considered it "for the good of the public to do it without regulars." Greene replied that Lee had acted in accordance with his orders; whereupon Sumter sent in his resignation. Greene diplomatically persuaded him to withdraw it, and he afterward rendered excellent service, in co-operation with Lee, in the vicinity of Charleston. (Revolutionary War, p. 249)

Greene's leadership ability in managing to hold together a collection of difficult personalities is reminiscent of Eisenhower's performance during World War II.


On 10 May, Rawdon abandoned Camden. Taking a more realistic view of the military situation than his patron, Cornwallis, he tried at least to accomplish the ministry's basic orders to hold on to the rice-producing coastal region by concentrating his resources. His own battered force reached Monck's Corner on the 24th. Georgetown's garrison, under pressure from Marion, evacuated by sea on the 23rd. Rawdon also ordered Fort Granby and Ninety Six abandoned, but they did not get the word in time.

Greene moved against Ninety Six on 9 May and detached Lee with some newly raised militia to join Pickens around Augusta. The siege of of Augusta on 22 May-5 June led to the surrender of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Brown's 630-man garrison of regulars and Georgia Tories after stubborn resistance. The siege of Ninety Six during 22 May-19 June did not end with equal success. Greene broke of his attack just as the rebels appeared to be on the point of a hard-won success against the die-hard garrison of Lieutenant John Cruger. Rawdon had just received three fresh regiments from Ireland, the last reinforcements sent out to North America in the war. He was able to assemble a relief column of 2,000, elude Sumter's delaying force, and move rapidly to Cruger's support. Greene wisely avoided the risk of a decisive action in the field and retreated on 20 June. Rawdon pursued about 25 miles but turned back when Greene headed for safety behind the Broad River.

Rawdon ordered Ninety Six abandoned, leaving the place himself on 3 July and withdrawing through Fort Granby to Orangeburg. Here he was joined by Cruger from Ninety Six and by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart and his Third Regiment from Charleston. Greene withdrew his Continental regiments into the Santee Hills to wait out the worst of the summer heat in a relatively healthy location. Rawdon left Stuart at Orangeburg and returned to Charleston with five hundred men; Marion, Sumter, and Lee dogged his heels to within five miles of the city. This ended the second phase. In less than eight months Greene had won back almost the entire South except for footholds around Savannah and Charleston. His little army had marched 950 miles, fought three battles and numerous minor engagements, captured 9 posts, and taken nearly 3,000 prisoners.


During the six weeks his army spent in the Santee Hills, Greene drew a stream of reinforcements that pushed his Continental infantry total to over two thousand. Sumter spent this period around Fort Granby, while Marion was at Nelson's Ferry and Pickens was in his home territory around Ninety Six. Rawdon fell ill and sailed (he was captured en route) home to recuperate, leaving Stuart in command. The latter moved up from Orangeburg to a position sixteen miles from Greene, with the flooded Congaree River between them, and could not be tricked out of position when Greene sent raids all the way to the outskirts of Charleston.

On 22 August 1781, Greene resumed the offensive. High water levels on the Santee and Wateree made him take a long detour through Camden to get at Stuart, and the latter withdrew to Eutaw Springs, where he could be supplied better from Charleston. On 7 September, Greene was joined by Marion, bringing his strength up to about twenty-four hundred. The next morning Stuart was surprised to find Greene on top of him, but he formed in time to meet Greene's attack. The Battle of Eutaw Springs of 8 September left Stuart in possession of the hotly contested field but so weakened that he had to withdraw to Monck's Corner. Greene had lost his fourth battle but had practically won his campaign.

The little southern army withdrew back into the Santee Hills again for badly needed rest and recuperation. Within ten days Greene had only one thousand men fit for duty as sickness and expiration of militia services thinned his ranks. The end of active campaigning gave men time to worry about their arrears in pay, inadequate clothing, and other grievances. A mutiny was brewing when one Timothy Griffin staggered onto the parade ground as the Maryland Continentals were being admonished by their officers for recent lax discipline. "Stand to it, boys!" shouted Griffin. "Damn my blood if I would give an inch!" This happened on 21 October, and the rest of Greene's command watched him shot the next afternoon for encouraging mutiny and desertion, which discouraged the others.

Cornwallis had surrendered three days earlier, and General Arthur St. Clair soon started south with two thousand Pennsylvania and Virginia regulars to reinforce Greene. Before he arrived on 4 January 1782, however, the southern army had to take the field to quell a Tory uprising that followed Fanning's Hillsboro Raid on 12 September. The attack on Dorchester on 1 December forced the last British outpost back into Charleston.

On 9 December, Greene joined the rest of his army at the place called Round O, about thirty-five miles west of Charleston, and St. Clair's troops arrived there on 4 January 1782. Wilmington having been evacuated in November, the British in the South were now confined to Charleston and Savannah.

Most accounts of the Revolution in the South end at this point with a general statement that it was over. The following military events are, however, worth recording: Johns Island on 28-29 December 1781; the Mutiny of Cornell on April 1782; the Georgia expedition of Anthony Wayne; and Combahee Ferry on 27 August 1782. The British evacuated Savannah on 11 July 1782 and Charleston on 14 December 1782.

Greene remained at Charleston until August 1783, after news of the peace treaty had arrived. He then returned to Rhode Island, being hailed along the way with the respect and admiration he had earned. After two years of getting his tangled personal affairs in order, he moved to an estate that the Georgia legislature had given him near Savannah. But his days were limited.


The reputation Nathanael Greene won in his southern campaigns has worn well in the hands of historians. Initial writers emphasized the role of the Continentals; the generation of historians writing in the twentieth century shifted the attention to the irregulars, sometimes forgetting that Marion and Sumter in fact had been trained as Continental officers. The more modern interpretation tends to emphasize that both groups played important parts, with Greene emerging as the man who found a way to make them work together. It is clear that the Patriots of the Lower South, although they might have been able to continue guerrilla fighting indefinitely, could hardly have dealt effectively with the British and their Tory allies without the assistance of the regulars from the Upper South (Virginia and Maryland) and Delaware. On the other hand, Greene could hardly have kept the field without the aid of Davidson, Marion, Sumter, Pickens, Clarke, and their partisan bands.

Nor was the glory monopolized by the American Patriots. Rawdon, O'Hara, Cruger, Webster, and others had shown magnificent leadership; Camden, Cowan's Ford, and Guilford are names of which the British army is proud. Cruger's defense of Ninety Six and Rawdon's relief of that place were splendid military accomplishments.

SEE ALSO Augusta, Georgia (22 May-5 June 1781); Carrington, Edward; Combahee Ferry, South Carolina; Convention Army; Cowans Ford, North Carolina; Cowpens, South Carolina; Cruger, John Harris; Davidson, William Lee; Defeat in Detail; Dorchester, South Carolina; Eutaw Springs, South Carolina; Flanking Position; Fort Granby, South Carolina; Fort Motte, South Carolina; Fort Watson, South Carolina (15-23 April 1781); Gates, Horatio; Georgetown, South Carolina (24 January 1781); Georgia Expedition of Wayne; Graham, Joseph; Greene, Nathanael; Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina; Hammonds Store Raid of William Washington; Haw River, North Carolina; Hillsboro Raid, North Carolina; Hobkirk's Hill (Camden), South Carolina; Howard, John Eager; Interior Lines; Johns Island, South Carolina (28-29 December, 1781); Kosciuszko, Thaddeus Andrzej Bonawentura; Leslie, Alexander; Morgan, Daniel; Ninety Six, South Carolina; Orangeburg, South Carolina; Point; Rawdon-Hastings, Francis; Southern Theater, Military Operations in; Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm von; Stewart, Alexander; Tarleton, Banastre; Tarrant's Tavern, North Carolina; Watson, John Watson Tadwell; Wetzell's Mills, North Carolina; Williams, Otho Holland; Yorktown Campaign; Yorktown, Siege of.


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                    revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.

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Southern Campaigns of Nathanael Greene

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Southern Campaigns of Nathanael Greene