(1781) George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence: Nathanael Greene to George Washington, February 9. February 9. [Manuscript/Mixed Material] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/mgw427095/.

Letters About the Skirmish
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson

Major General Nathanael Greene to George Washington
Camp Guilford Court House [N.C.] Feb: 9th 1781.

Since I wrote your Excellency by Major Giles, Lord Cornwallis has been constantly in pursuit of the Light Infantry and the prisoners, and is now between the Shallow Ford upon the Yadkin and Salem, one of the Moravian towns; and still pushing into the country with great rapidity.  The moment I was informed of the movements of Lord Cornwallis, I put the army in motion on Pedee and left it under the command of Brigr Genl [Isaac] Huger and set out to join the Light Infantry in order to collect the Militia and embarrass the enemy ‘till we could effect a junction of our forces.

General [Daniel] Morgan after the defeat of Tarlton [Banastre Tarleton] had very judiciously made forced marches up into the Country and happily crossed the Catawba the evening before a great rain, which prevented the enemy from following him for several days, during which time the prisoners were got over the Yadkin and on their march for Dan River, which I hope they have passed and are in Virg.


On my arrival at the Lt. Infantry Camp I found them at Sherards [Sherrald’s] Ford on the Catawba. The enemy were a little lower down the river at McCowan’s [Cowan’s] Ford, and the river still so high that they could not cross. We made the best disposition we could to stop them when the river should fall. But the fords were so numerous, and our force so small that we could not effect it. Genl Davidson who had great influence among the Mecklenberg & Roan [Rowan County] Militia had made use of all the arguments in his power to get the Militia into the field, but without effect. They had been so much in service and their families so distressed that they were loth to leave home even on the most pressing occasion.

The enemy crossed at McCowen’s Ford where Genl Davidson was posted with the greatest part of the Militia who fell by the first discharge. The enemy made good their landing, and the Militia retreated. A place of rendezvous was appointed for the Militia to collect at, who were posted at the different fords up and down the river above 30 miles. Part of them halted at Mrs Tarrences [Torrence’s] about seven miles short of the place of rendezvous, and were over taken by Tarlton & dispersed. I waited that night at the place appointed for the Militia to collect at, untill morning, but not a man appeared. The light Infantry continued their march to Salisbury and crossed the Yadkin. But before we got over all the baggage and stores the enemy were at our heels. A pretty smart skirmish happened between a party of our riflemen and the advance of the enemy near the ford. We had secured all the boats, and the river was so high
that the enemy could not follow us.

The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, ed.

Major General Nathanael Greene to Dennis Conrad et al. (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 1999). Full texts of documents calendared in The Papers of General Nathanael Greene (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), Vol. 7, pp. 152-289. http://adh.sc.edu [Accessed May 20, 2006].

Gen. Edward Stevens provided more details of the crossing and skirmish in a 8 February, 1781, letter to Gov. Thomas Jefferson

The Great Quantity of Rain that fell the night before raised the River in such a manner as made it difficult to Cross even in Boats. General Greene with a small Party of Horse was still at Salisbury, Pushing out the remainder of the Stores from that place to the Tradeing Ford which was effected that night, except some few old musketts which were unfit for service.... On the evening of the 3rd Inst. the enemy appeared at the River tho by this time we had Compleated Crossing all to a Waggon or Two and those they paid Pretty dear for, as there was a Party of Virginia Rifflemen of about a Hundred under the Command of Major [David] Campbell, and a small party of North Carolinia Militia Horse [about 50 men including James, William, Elias and John Allred] was formed in ambush to receive them with Orders to give them a fire or Two and then Disperse down the River and Cross in Canoes which they executed very well and with but a very Triffleing loss on their part. (Boyd, Jefferson Papers, 4: 561-62)

Joseph Graham, who served with the mounted militia that carried out the ambush, wrote in his memoirs that the militia lost two men killed; British losses were unknown, but “from the appearances of blood in different places, [were] believed to be ten or twelve.” (Graham, Graham, pp. 300-301) According to Graham, the wagons that the British captured had been used by militiamen to haul their baggage from Cowan’s Ford. Banastre Tarleton concurred, calling the captured items “waggons and stores belonging to country people.” (Ibid., p. 301; Tarleton, Campaigns, p. 227)