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The British wasted little time getting organized after defeating the small militia force of William Lee Davidson at the Battle of Cowan’s Ford on February 1, 1781. Rain began falling again, slowing Cornwallis’s progress, but the British army managed to reunite and made a wet camp six miles from Beattie’s Ford during the evening hours of February 1. Before setting out from Cowan’s Ford, Cornwallis dispatched Tarleton with the 23rd Foot and his Legion dragoons to discover Greene’s location, seemingly unaware that the Continentals had fallen back to Salisbury.
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Tarleton left the 23rd Foot about five miles in advance of Beattie’s Ford due to “heavy rain and bad roads,” and continued on with his horsemen. Captain Joseph Graham’s North Carolina militia light horse company barely escaped Tarleton’s men by hiding in a “swampy branch” along the road. At first, Graham’s men thought the passing dragoons were Whigs until they saw “the tails of their horses being docked square off, which all knew was the mark of Tarleton’s Cavalry.” “Bloody Ban” and his Legion failed to notice the rainsoaked North Carolinians and kept riding. Tarleton’s party went three miles further where he “gained intelligence that the fugitives from the fords . . . were to assemble at two o’clock in the afternoon at Tarrant’s tavern.” He realized that, although likely outnumbered, he had two advantages: the element of surprise, and the weather. “Time was advantageous to make impressions upon the militia; that the weather, on account of a violent rain, was favourable for the project,” he wrote. With the rain, most of the militia’s powder would be soaked, and therefore unusable.
Greene intended for Davidson’s militia to fall back to Salisbury, but several dozen halted ten miles from Beattie’s Ford at a small tavern owned by the Tarrant family (also known as Torrence’s Tavern). They were joined by hundreds of fleeing refugees, mostly women and children, their wagons piled high with belongings. Many militiamen were apparently drunk, as pitchers of whiskey and other spirits were liberally passed through their ranks. The Whigs had no idea that nearly 200 British Legion were riding in their direction.
Tarleton arrived shortly after 2:00 pm. What happened next is the subject of controversy. Several postwar accounts claim that Tarleton found the militia in complete distress, many of them drunk, and completely incapable of fighting back. Joseph Graham, who did not witness the event firsthand, stated “The wagons of many of the movers with their property mixed in the lane, the armed men all out of order, and mixed with the wagons and people, so that the lane could scarcely be passed, when the sound of alarm was given from the west end of the lane, ‘Tarleton is coming!’” Tarleton claimed, “The militia were vigilant, and were prepared for an attack,” a sentiment echoed by Cornwallis’s description of the event afterwards as an “attack on a large body of infantry posted behind rails & in strong houses.”
Whether the North Carolinians were intoxicated or “prepared,” or a combination of the two, remains unknown, but Tarleton “resolved to hazard one charge,” and implored his dragoons to “remember the Cowpens.” His men charged “with excellent conduct and great spirit” and quickly cut down the Whigs. Militiaman Elisha Evans described how “After we were driven from the Catawba we were overtaken in a lane called Tarrance’s Lane and here we had a sharp engagement and were defeated. One young officer, Captain Salathiel Martin, saw Tarleton’s men approaching, and tried in vain to rally his men to stand along a rail fence, but had his horse shot from under him. Entangled in the horse’s tack, Martin was captured. One of his men, Jonas Clark, recalled that “at Mrs. Torrens we had a sharp skirmish and our Captain Martin had his horse killed and him taken prisoner.” Tarleton claimed little loss, and credited his men with killing 40-50 Whigs and capturing an unknown number. Joseph Graham claimed Whig casualties were closer to ten. The British burned the tavern and “made great destruction of the property in the wagons…ripped up beds and strewed the feathers, until the lane was covered with them.”
Although Tarleton had destroyed the small militia force, the Whigs had bought precious time for Greene’s army to continue its escape through Salisbury. Cornwallis would be halted again at the Trading Ford, kept at bay by the constant rain and swollen banks of the Yadkin River.
John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse (1997)
Franklin B. Wickwire, Cornwallis: The American Adventure (1970)
Burke Davis, The Cowpens-Guilford Courthouse Campaign (1962)
Richard K. Showman, Robert E. McCarthy, and Dennis Conrad, and others, eds., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene (1971-2005)
Banastre Tarleton, Campaigns of 1780-1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America (1781)
Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States (1812)
Joseph Graham Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill