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Colonial and State Records of North Carolina
Letter from Charles Cornwallis, Marquis Cornwallis to George Sackville Germain, Viscount Sackville
Cornwallis, Charles Cornwallis, Marquis, 1738-1805
March 17, 1781
Volume 17, Pages 995-1001


Guilford, March 17th, 1781.

My Lord:

Having occasion to dispatch my Aide-de-Camp, Capt. Brodrick, with the particulars of the Action of the 15th. in compliance with the general directions from Sir Henry Clinton. I shall embrace the opportunity to give your Lordship an account of the operations of the Troops, under my Command, previous to that event, and of those subsequent, until the departure of Captain Brodrick.

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My Plan for the Winter's Campaign, was to penetrate into North Carolina, leaving South Carolina in security against any probable attack in my absence.

Lord Rawdon with a considerable body of Troops had charge of the defensive and I proceeded about the middle of January, upon the offensive operations. I decided to march by the upper in preference to the lower roads leading into North Carolina, because Fords being frequent above the Forks of the Rivers, my passage there could not be easily obstructed. General Greene having taken post on the Pee Dee, and there being few fords in any of the great rivers of this Country below their Forks, especially in Winter, I apprehended being much delayed, if not entirely prevented from penetrating by the latter route. I was the more induced to prefer this route, as I hoped in my way to be able to destroy or drive out of South Carolina the Corps of the Enemy, commanded by General Morgan, which threatened our valuable district of Ninety Six; and I likewise hoped by rapid marches, to get between General Greene and Virginia, and by that means force him to fight without receiving any reinforcements from that province, or failing of that to oblige him to quit North Carolina with precipitation, and thereby encourage our friends, to make good their promises of a general rising, to assist me in re-establishing His Majesty's Government.

The unfortunate Affair of the 17th of January was a very unexpected and severe Blow; for besides reputation our loss did not fall short of 600 men; however, being thoroughly sensible that defensive measures would be certain ruin to the Affairs of Britain on Southern Colonies, this event did not deter me from prosecuting the original plan.

That General Greene might be uncertain of my intended route as long as possible, I had left General Leslie at Camden, until I was ready to move from Wynnesborough, and he was now within a march of me. I employed the 18th in forming a junction with him, and in collecting the remains of Lieut. Colonel Tarleton's Corps; after which great exertions were made by part of the Army without baggage, to retake our Prisoners, and to intercept General Morgan's Corps on its retreat to the Catawba; but the celerity of their movements and the swelling of the numberless Creeks in our way, rendered all our efforts fruitless. I therefore assembled the Army on the 25th at Ramsoure's Mill on the South Fork of the

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Catawba, and as the loss of my light Troops could only be remedied by the activity of the whole Corps, I employed a halt of two days in collecting some flour, and in destroying superfluous Baggage. And all my Waggons, except those loadedwith Hospital Stores, Salt and Ammunition, and four reserved empty in readiness for sick or wounded. In this measure, tho' at the expence of a great deal of Officer's Baggage, and of all prospect in future of Rum, and even a regular supply of provisions to the Soldiers, I must in justice to this Army say that there was the most general and cheerful acquiescence.

In the mean time the rains had rendered the North Catawba impassable and General Morgan's Corps the Militia of the rebellious Counties of Rowan & Mecklenburg, under General Davidson, or the Gang of Plunderers, usually under the command of General Sumpter, not then recovered from his wounds, had occupied all the Fords in a space of more than forty miles upward from the Fork, during its height. I approached the River by short marches so as to give the enemy equal apprehensions for several Fords, and after having procured the best information in my power I resolved to attempt the passage at a private Ford (then slightly guarded) near McCowan's ford, on the morning of the 1st of February.

Lieut. Colonel Webster was detached with part of the Army and all the Baggage to Beattie's Ford, six miles above McCowan's, where General Davidson was supposed to be posted with 500 Militia and was directed to make every possible demonstration by cannonading and otherwise, of an intention to force a passage there, and I marched at one in the morning with the Brigade of Guards, Regiment of Bose, 23rd Regiment, 200 Cavalry, and two three pounders, to the ford fixed upon for the real attempt; the morning being very dark and rainy & part of our way through a wood where there was no road, one of the three pounders in front of the 23rd Regiment and the Cavalry, overset in a swamp, and occasioned those Corps to lose the line of march, and some of the Artillery Men belonging to the other Gun, (one of whom had the match) having stopped to assist were likewise left behind. The Head of the Column in the meanwhile, arrived at the bank of the River and day began to break. I could make no use of the Gun that was up and it was evident from the number of fires on the other side, that the opposition would be greater than I had expected. However, as I knew

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that the Rain that was then falling would soon render the River again impassable, and I had received information the evening before that General Greene had arrived in General Morgan's Camp, and that his Army was marching after him with the greatest expedition, I determined not to desist from the attempt; and therefore, full of confidence in the Zeal & Gallantry of Brigadier O'hara and of the Brigade of Guards under his command, I ordered them to march on, but to prevent confusion, not to fire until they gained the opposite bank. Their behavior justified my high opinion of them; for a constant fire from the enemy, in a ford upwards of five hundred yards wide, in many places up to their middle, with a rocky bottom and strong current made no impression on their cool and determined valor, nor checked their passage. The light Infantry landing first immediately formed, and in a few minutes killed or dispersed everything that appeared before them, the rest of the Troops forming and advancing in succession. We now learned that we had been opposed by about three hundred Militia that had taken post there only the evening before under the command of General Davidson. Their General and two or three other officers were among the killed, the number of wounded was uncertain, and a few were taken prisoners. On our side Lieut. Colonel Hall and three men were killed and thirty-six wounded, all of the Light Infantry, and Grenadiers of the Guards. By this time the rear of the Column had joined and the whole had passed with the greatest dispatch. I detached Lieut. Colonel Tarleton with the Cavalry and 23rd Regiment to pursue the routed Militia. A few were soon killed or taken and Lieut. Colonel Tarleton having learned that 3 or 400 of the neighboring Militia were to assemble that day at Tarrant's house, about ten miles from the ford. Leaving his Infantry he went on with the Cavalry and finding the Militia as expected, he with excellent conduct and great spirit, attacked them instantly and totally routed them, with little loss on his side; and on theirs between forty and fifty killed, wounded or prisoners. This stroke with our passage at the Ford so effectually dispirited the Militia that we met with no further opposition on our march to the Yadkin, through one of the most rebellious tracts in America.

During this time, the Rebels having quitted Beattie's Ford, Lieut. Colonel Webster was passing his detachment and the Baggage of

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the Army, this had become tedious and difficult by the continuance of the rain and the swelling of the River, but all joined us soon after dark, about six miles from Beattie's Ford. The other fords were likewise abandoned by the Enemy; the greater part of the Militia dispersed, and General Morgan, with his Corps, marched all that afternoon and the following night towards Salisbury. We pursued next morning, in hopes to intercept him between the Rivers, and after struggling with many difficulties, arising from swelled Creeks & bad Roads, the Guards came up with his rear, in the evening of the 3rd, routed it, and took a few Waggons at the Trading Ford of the Yadkin. He had passed the Body of his Infantry in Flats, & his Cavalry and Waggons by the ford, during that day and the preceding night, but at the time of our arrival, the Boats were secured on the other side, and the ford had become impassable. The River continuing to rise, and the weather appearing unsettled, determined to march to the upper Fords, after procuring a small supply of provisions at Salisbury. This, and the height of the Creeks in our way, detained me two days, and in that time, Morgan having quitted the Banks of the River, I had information from our friends who crossed in Canoes, that General Greene's Army was marching with the utmost dispatch, to form a junction with him at Guilford. Not having had time to collect the North Carolina Militia, and having received no reinforcement from Virginia, I concluded that he would do everything in his power, to avoid an action on the Southside of the Dan; it being my interest to force him to fight, I made great expedition, and got between him and the upper Fords, and being assured that the lower fords are seldom practicable in winter, and that he could not collect many Flats at any of the Ferries, I was in great hopes that he would not escape me without receiving a blow. Nothing could exceed the patience and Alacrity of the Officers and Soldiers, under every species of hardship and fatigue, in endeavoring to overtake him; but our intelligence upon this occasion, was exceedingly defective, which, with heavy rains, bad roads, and the passage of many deep Creeks, and bridges destroyed by the Enemy's Light Troops, rendered all our exertions vain, for upon our arrival at Boyd's Ferry, on the 15th, we learned that his rearguard had got over the night before his Baggage and main body having passed, the preceding day, at
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that and a neighboring ferry where more flats had been collected, than had been represented to me as possible. My force being ill suited to enter by that quarter so powerful a Province as Virginia, and North Carolina being in the utmost confusion, after giving the Troops a halt of one day, I proceeded by easy marches to Hillsborough, where I erected the King's Standard, and invited by Proclamation, all loyal Subjects to repair to it, and to stand forth and take an active part, in assisting me to restore order, and Constitutional Government. As a considerable body of Friends were said to reside between the Haw and Deep Rivers, I detached Lieut.-Colonel Tarleton on the 23rd with the Cavalry, and a small body of Infantry, to prevent their being interrupted in assembling. Unluckily a detachment of the Rebel light Troops, had crossed the same day, & by accident, fell in with about two hundred of our Friends, under Col. Pyle, on their way to Hillsborough, who, mistaking the Rebels for Lieut. Colonel Tarleton's Corps, allowed themselves to be surrounded, and a number of them were most inhumanly butchered, when begging for quarters, without making the least resistance. The same day I had certain intelligence that General Greene having been reinforced, had recrossed the Dan; which rendering it imprudent to separate my Corps, occasioned the recall of Lieut. Colonel Tarleton's detachment, and forage and provisions being scarce in the neighborhood of Hillsborough, as well as the position too distant (upon the approach of the Rebel Army) for the protection of the body of our Friends, I judged it expedient to cross the Haw, and encamped near Allamance Creek, detaching Lieut. Colonel Tarleton, with the Cavalry, Light Company of the Guards, and 150 men of Lieut. Colonel Webster's Brigade, a few miles from me on the road to Deep River, more effectually to cover the Country.

General Greene's light Troops soon made their appearance, and on the 2d, a patrol having reported that they had seen both Cavalry and Infantry near to his Post, I directed Lieut. Colonel Tarleton to move forward with proper precautions and endeavor to discover the designs of the Enemy. He had not advanced far when he fell in with a considerable Corps, which he immediately attacked and routed, but being ignorant of their Force, and whether they were supported, with great prudence desisted from pursuit. He soon learned from Prisoners that those he had beat were Lee's Legion, 300 or 400 back Mountain Men under Colonel Preston, with a number

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of Militia, and that General Greene, with part of his Army, was not far distant. Our Situation for the former few days had been amongst timid friends, and adjoining to inveterate Rebels. Between them I had been wholly destitute of information, which lost me a very favorable opportunity of attacking the Rebel Army. General Green fell back to Thompson's house, near Boyd's Ford, on the Reedy Fork, but his light Troops and Militia still remained near us, and as I was informed that they were posted carelessly at separate Plantations for the convenience of subsisting, I marched on the 6th to drive them in and to attack General Greene, if an opportunity offered. I succeeded completely in the first, and at Weitzell's Mill, on the Reedy Fork, where they made a stand, the back Mountain men and some Virginia Militia suffered considerably, with little loss on our side; but a timely and precipitate retreat over the Haw prevented the latter. I knew that the Virginia Reinforcements were upon their march, and it was apparent that the Enemy would, if possible, avoid risking an Action before their arrival.

The neighborhood of the Fords of the Dan in their Rear, and the extreme difficulty of subsisting my Troops in that exhausted Country putting it out of my power to force them, my resolution was to give our Friends time to join us by covering their Country as effectually as possible, consistent with the subsistence of the Troops, still approaching the communication with our Shipping in Cape Fear River, which I saw it would soon become indispensably necessary to open, on account of the sufferings of the Army from the want of supplies of every kind. At the same time I was determined to fight the Rebel Army if it approached me, being convinced that it would be impossible to succeed in that great object of our arduous Campaign—the calling forth the numerous loyalists of North Carolina—whilst a doubt remained on their minds of the superiority of our Arms. With these views, I had moved to the Quaker Meeting House in the fork of Deep River, on the 13th, and on the 14th I received the information, which occasioned the movement that brought on the Action at Guilford, of which I shall give your Lordship an account in a separate letter.

I have the honor to be, with great respect, My Lord, Your Lordship's Most obedient & Most humble Servant,
Right Honorable Lord George Germain, &c., &c., &c.