By the winter of 1780, the principal objective of British strategy in America was to conquer the southern colonies. Since capturing Savannah in 1778, the British had total control over Georgia. In May 1780 Charleston fell, and the following August, Major General Charles Cornwallis, destroyed an American army led by General Horatio Gates, the “hero” of Saratoga. After trouncing Gates’s force, Cornwallis turned his attention towards North Carolina, convinced that the remaining southern colonies would fall like dominoes. In September 1780 he entered North Carolina. British patrols ranged through the countryside foraging for provisions and taking any livestock found. On September 20, William R. Davie, a North Carolina militia officer, attacked one of Cornwallis’s patrols at Wauchope Plantation in Union County. Six days later Cornwallis’s advance guard engaged and pushed aside North Carolina militia at the Battle of Charlotte.
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After the encounter at Charlotte, Cornwallis returned to South Carolina, sending two expeditionary forces out from the main army. The first group, led by Patrick Ferguson and consisting of mostly Loyalist provincial troops, was destroyed on October 7 at the Battle of Kings Mountain by a force of American militia from Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia, including “overmountain men” from the backcountry. The second, larger force, a mixture of both Loyalists and British regulars and commanded by Banastre Tarleton, fell to an American army commanded by Daniel Morgan at Cowpens in South Carolina on January 17.
In the interim period between the two battles, Cornwallis had crossed into North Carolina a second time in present-day Cleveland County. Having watched his expeditionary arms be destroyed, Cornwallis focused his attention on the main American force, the Southern Army led by Nathanael Greene. Greene had taken command of the remnants of Horatio Gates’s defeated army in Charlotte in December 1780. He had dispatched Daniel Morgan with the column that destroyed Tarleton’s forces at Cowpens.
From January until February, Cornwallis chased Greene throughout the Piedmont. While retreating with his main army of Continental regulars, Greene left several detachments of militia to delay Cornwallis’s advance. On February 1, North Carolinians led by William Lee Davidson engaged Cornwallis at Cowan’s Ford. The British troops waded the Catawba River under fire, and eventually pushed the Americans back after killing Davidson. The majority of the Whigs fled, but a small number congregated at Torrence’s Tavern, a few miles north of the ford. The following day, Banastre Tarleton, who had returned to Cornwallis’s army after the fiasco at Cowpens, found them drunk and in disarray around the tavern. Tarleton charged with his dragoons, killing and capturing nearly all of the militia.
While Tarleton’s men scattered the survivors of Cowan’s Ford, Greene’s main army crossed the Yadkin River at Trading Ford, having plundered Patriot supplies at Salisbury. Cornwallis maintained his pursuit, and entered Salisbury on February 4 after driving back Whig militia at Grant’s Creek led by Francis Locke. His army reputedly camped at the Old Stone House. Several of Cornwallis’s men are buried in Old English Cemetery in the city.
Cornwallis moved north and crossed the Yadkin at Shallow Ford. Shortly thereafter he entered the Moravian communities of Salem and Bethabara and pushed hard for the upper fords on the Dan. Greene, however, moved toward the lower reaches at Irwin’s and Boyd’s Ferries. The race was intense, with both armies averaging ten to fifteen miles a day in constant downpours of freezing rain and sleet on frozen, muddy roads. Cornwallis’s men were suffering intensely, for he had burned his excess baggage and supplies at Ramsour’s Mill in February. One of his subordinates, Charles O’Hara, summed up the British zeal: “We endeavored to follow Greene’s army to the end of the World.”
On February 14, Greene won the “Race to the Dan,” crossing into Virginia in Caswell County. He had sent several subordinates ahead with orders to collect every boat they could find along the river. Greene used the vessels to cross the swollen Dan, so that when Cornwallis arrived he had no means to follow the Americans. Through a combination of luck, nature, and incredible foresight, Greene had once again saved his army from destruction.
After refitting his army, Greene recrossed the Dan on February 22, now intent on drawing Cornwallis into a battle. Cornwallis had marched his army to Hillsborough for supplies, where on February 23, a small detachment of his army was attacked at Hart’s Mill. That same day a large Loyalist force intent on joining his army was annihilated at what has become known as Pyle’s Defeat. Greene established his headquarters at High Rock Ford in Rockingham County, where he awaited Cornwallis’s next move. Despite the hardships that his army was under, Cornwallis moved to meet Greene, and detachments from the two armies fought several severe skirmishes at Clapp’s Mill and Weitzell’s Mill in the first week of March.
On March 15, the two armies clashed at Guilford Courthouse. That morning, advance elements led by Henry “Light Horse” Harry Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee, and Banastre Tarleton skirmished at New Garden Friends Meeting House. By late afternoon nearly 1,000 men were dead and wounded on the field at Guilford, including nearly 27% of the British army. Cornwallis held the field, however, as Greene retreated in part due to the poor performance of the North Carolina militia.
After Guilford Greene retreated to Troublesome Ironworks. Cornwallis remained on the field for two days, then chose to retreat toward British-held Wilmington, where he hoped to gain supplies and comfort for his wounded. Greene pursued Cornwallis as far as Ramsey’s Mill on the Deep River. Along the retreat Cornwallis reportedly camped at Snow Camp and at the Cane Creek Meeting House. The British entered Cross Creek and Campbelton, halting his army on land that would become Fayetteville on April 1, and then followed the Cape Fear to Wilmington, where they arrived on April 7. The same day Cornwallis arrived in Wilmington, Nathanael Greene chose to take the war into South Carolina. His army marched south, crossing the Pee Dee River near Colson’s Supply Depot.
Headquartered at the home of John Burgwin and St. James Church in Wilmington, Cornwallis established a new strategy to win the American war. Tossing aside hopes of maintaining control over the Carolinas, he became convinced that conquering Virginia would end the conflict. Cornwallis’s army marched out of Wilmington on April 25. They camped at several places along the way including Crowell’s Plantation. During the march, advance elements of Cornwallis’s army clashed with American militia at Peacock’s Bridge, Swift Creek, and finally at Halifax on May 11. That evening Cornwallis began crossing into Virginia, just outside of Halifax. Five months later, Cornwallis surrendered his army to the combined Franco-American army led by George Washington and the Comte de Rochembeau. British popular support for the war waned considerably in the debacle’s aftermath and, within two years, the war ended with the Treaty of Paris.
John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse (1997)
Franklin B. Wickwire, Cornwallis: The American Adventure (1970)
Burke Davis, The Cowpens-Guilford Courthouse Campaign (1962)