After the battle of the Cowpens, on the 17th of January, 1781, Lord Cornwallis left his headquarters at Winnsboro, S.C., being reinforced by General Leslie, and marched rapidly to overtake General Morgan, encumbered with more than five hundred prisoners, and necessary baggage, on his way to a place of safety in Virginia. His Lordship was now smarting under two signal defeats (King’s Mountain and the Cowpens) occurring a little more than three months apart. But the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong. “Man proposes, but God disposes.”
The original manuscript journal of Lord Cornwallis, now on file in the archives of the Historical Society of the State University at Chapel Hill, discloses, with great accuracy, the movements of the British army through Lincoln, Mecklenburg and Rowan counties.
On the 17th of January, 1781, the headquarters of General Leslie were at Sandy Run, Chester county, S.C. On the 18th, at Hillhouse’s plantation, in York county, he returns his thanks to the troops under his command, and informs them that all orders in future will issue from Lord Cornwallis and the Adjutant General. At eight o’clock at night, Lord Cornwallis issues his orders to the army to march at eight o’clock on the ensuing morning in the following order: 1. Yagers; 2. Corps of Pioneers; 3. two three pounders; 4. Brigade Guards; 5. Regiment of Bose; 6. North Carolina Volunteers; 7. two six pounders; 8. Lieutenant Colonel Webster’s Brigade; 9. Wagons of the General; 10. Field Officers’ wagons; 11. Ammunition wagons; 12. Hospital wagons; 13. Regimental wagons; 14. Provision train; 15. Bat. horses; a captain, two subalterns, and one hundred men from Col. Webster’s Brigade, to form a rear guard. On the 19th the army camped at Smith’s house, near the Cherokee Iron Works, on Broad river. On the 20th the army camped at Saunder’s plantation, on Buffalo creek. On the 23rd the army crossed the North Carolina line, and camped at Tryon old Court House, in the western part of the present county of Gaston. On the 24th the army arrived at Ramsour’s Mill, near the present town of Lincolnton. Here Cornwallis was compelled to remain three days to lay in a supply of provisions for his large army. To accomplish this, foraging parties were sent out in different directions to purchase all the grain, of every kind, that could be procured. Ramsour’s Mill, surrounded with a guard of eight or ten men, was set to work, running “day and night”, converting the grain into meal or flour.
General O’Hara camped at the “Reep place,” two miles and a half northwest of Ramsour’s Mill. His forces crossed the South Fork, about a mile above the bridge, on the public road leading to Rutherfordton. Tarleton’s cavalry crossed the same stream in “Cobb’s bottom,” passing over the present site of Lincolnton, to form a junction with Cornwallis. This small divergence from the direct line of travel, and subsequent concentration at some designated point, was frequently made by sections of the British army for the purpose of procuring supplies.
Lord Cornwallis, during his transitory stay, made his headquarters nearly on the summit of the rising ground, two hundred and fifty yards east of the Mill, on which had been fought the severe battle between the Whigs, under Colonel Francis Locke, and the Tories, under Lieutenant Colonel John Moore (son of Moses Moore), in which the former were victorious.
Christian Reinhardt, one of the first German settlers of the county, then lived near the base of the rising battle ground, and carried on a tan-yard. He owned a valuable servant, named Fess, (contraction of Festus,) whose whole “soul” was exerted in making good “sole” leather, and upper too, for the surrounding country. This servant, greatly attached to his kind master, was forced off, very much against his will, by some of the British soldiery on their departure; but his whereabouts having been found out, Adam Reep, and one or two other noted Whigs, adroitly managed to recover him from the British camp, a few days afterward, and restored him to his rightful owner.
The Marquee of Lord Cornwallis was placed near a a pine tree, still standing on the battle ground, left there by the present owner of the property, (W.M. Reinhardt, Esq., grand son of Christian Reinhardt,) in clearing the land, as a memento of the past–where Royalty, for a brief season, held undisputed sway, and feasted on the fat of the land.
Reliable tradition says that some of the British soldiery, while encamped on the Ramsour battle ground, evinced a notable propensity for depredating upon the savory poultry of the good old house-wife, Mrs. Barbara Reinhardt–in other words, they showed a fondness for procuring “fowl meat” by “foul means”, in opposition to the principles of honesty and good morals. As soon as the depredations were discovered by Mrs. Reinhardt she immediately laid in her complaints at head-quarters. Whereupon his lordship, placing greater stress upon the sanctity of the eighth commandment than his loyal soldiers, promptly replied, “Madam, you shall be protected,” and accordingly had a guard placed over her property until his departure.
Another incident relating to the advance of the British army is to the following effect. As Tarleton’s cavalry passed through the southern part of Lincoln county (now Gaston) they rode up to the residence of Benjamin Ormand, on the head-waters of Long Creek, and tied one of the horses, which they had taken, to the top of a small white oak, growing in his yard. This little Revolutionary “sapling” is still living in the serenity of a robust old age, and now measures, two feet from the ground, “twenty-seven feet in circumference!” Its branches extend all around in different directions from forty to fifty feet, and the tree is supposed to contain at least ten cords of wood.
When Tarleton’s cavalry were on the point of leaving, they took the blanket from the cradle in which James Ormand, the baby, was lying, and used it as a saddle-blanket, and the large family Bible of Benjamin Ormand was converted into a “saddle!!”
The Bible was afterward found near Beattie’s Ford, on the Catawba river, in the line of the British march, and restored to its proper owner. Mr. Z.S. Ormand, a grandson of Benjamin Ormand, and a worthy citizen of Gaston county, now lives at the old homestead, where the Bible, considerably injured, can be seen at any time, as an abused relic of the past, and invested with a most singular history. Tarleton’s cavalry also seized and carried off the bedding and blankets in the house, and some of the cooking utensils in the kitchen.
Mr. Ormand also informs the author that he frequently heard his grandmother, who then lived near Steele Creek Church, say that she was present at the great meeting at Charlotte, on the 20th of May, 1775, and that she exhibited, on that occasion, “a quilt of her own manufacture”. She said it was a large turn out of people from all parts of the county, and was considered a suitable time for the “fair sex” to exhibit productions of their own hands.
Having replenished his commissary department as much as possible while encamped on the Ramsour battleground, and having experienced too much delay in his late march in consequence of the encumbrance of his baggage, Cornwallis destroyed, before moving, all such as could be regarded as superfluous. The baggage at head-quarters was first thrown into the flames, thus converting the greater portion of his army into light troops, with a view of renewing more rapidly the pursuit of Morgan, or of forcing General Greene into an early action.
It is said “pewter plates” were freely distributed among some “loyal” friends in the immediate vicinity, or thrown into the mill-pond; and large numbers of very strong glass bottles, originally filled with English ale, or “something stronger”, were broken to pieces on the rocks, fragments of which may be seen scattered around at the present time.
Thus disencumbered, Cornwallis, early on the morning, of the 28th of January, broke up camp and marched to the Catawba River, but finding it much swollen, and rendered impassable in consequence of heavy rains at its sources, he fell back to Forney’s plantation, five miles from the river. Jacob Forney was a thrifty, well-to-do farmer, and a well-known Whig. The plantation is now (1876) owned by Willis E. Hall, Esq. Here the British army lay encamped for three days, waiting for the subsidence of the waters, and consumed, during that time, Forney’s entire stock of cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry, with all of which he was well supplied. (For further particulars, see sketch of “Jacob Forney, Sen.”)
Having dried their powder, and laid in an additional supply of provisions and forage, the British army was now prepared to renew more actively the pursuit of Morgan.
On the evening before the marching of the main army, Colonel Webster moved forward with the artillery, and a small detachment as a rear guard, and took position at Beattie’s Ford. This was a mere feint, intended to create the impression that the whole British army would cross there, as it was the most eligible pass, and thus elude the vigilance of the Whigs.
At half-past two o’clock, on the morning of the 1st of February, 1781, Cornwallis broke up his camp at Forney’s plantation, and marched to a private crossing-place known as Cowan’s Ford, six miles below Beattie’s Ford. As he approached the river, a little before the dawn of a cloudy, misty morning, numerous camp fires on the eastern bank assured him his passage would be resisted; but General Davidson had neglected to place his entire force, about three hundred and fifty in number, near the ford, so as to present an imposing appearance. As it was, only the companies of Captain Joseph Graham, and of two or three other officers, probably not more than one third of the whole force on duty, actually participated in the skirmish which immediately took place; otherwise, the result might have been far more disastrous to the British army.
The river at Cowan’s Ford, for most of the distance across, has a very rugged bottom, abounding with numerous rocks, of considerable size, barely visible at the low water of summer time. With judicious forethought, Cornwallis had hired the services of Frederick Hager, a Tory, on the western bank, and, under his guidance, the bold Britons plunged into the water, with the firm determination of encountering the small band of Americans on the eastern bank.
Stedman, the English commissary and historian, who accompanied Cornwallis in his Southern campaigns, thus speaks of the passage of the river at Cowan’s Ford:
“The light infantry of the guards, led by Colonel Hall, first entered the water. They were followed by the grenadiers, and the grenadiers by the battalions, the men marching in platoons, to support one another against the rapidity of the stream. When the light infantry had nearly reached the middle of the river, they were challenged by one of the enemy’s sentinels. The sentinel having challenged thrice, and receiving no answer, immediately gave the alarm by discharging his musket; and the enemy’s pickets were turned out. No sooner did the guide (a Tory) who attended the light infantry to show them the ford, hear the report of the sentinel’s musket than he turned around and left them. This, which at first, seemed to portend much mischief, in the end, proved a fortunate incident. Colonel Hall, being forsaken by his guide, and not knowing the true direction of the ford, led the column directly across the river to the nearest part of the opposite bank.”
This direct course carried the British army to a new landing-place on the eastern, or Mecklenburg side, so that they did not encounter a full and concentrated fire from the Whigs. Upon hearing the firing, General Davidson, who was stationed about half a mile from the ford, (in the Lucas house, still standing,) with the greater portion of the militia, hastened to the scene of conflict, evincing his well-established bravery, but it was too late to change the issue of the contest, and array any more effectual resistence. At this moment, General Davidson arrived near the river, and in attempting to rally the Whig forces for renewed action, received a fatal shot in the breast, fell from his horse, and almost instantly expired. The few patriots on the bank of the river nobly performed their duty, but had soon to retreat before vastly superior numbers.
The British infantry waded the river, preceded by their Tory guide, staff in hand, to show them the proper ford, and the statement made by some historians that General Davidson was killed by this guide is not corroborated by Stedman, the English historian; but, on the contrary, he leaves us to infer that the American General met his death at the hands of one of their own troops. The same authority states their own loss to be Colonel Hall and three privates killed, and thirty-six wounded. The horse of Lord Cornwallis was fatally shot and fell dead just as he ascended the bank. The horse of General O’Hara, after tumbling over the slippery rocks several times, producing a partial submersion of his rider, finally reached the bank in safety. The British reserved their fire until they reached the eastern shore, and then pouring in two or three volleys into the ranks of the opposing Whig forces, now considerably disconcerted, soon compelled them to retreat with small loss.
Colonel Hall was buried on the edge of the alluvial land a short distance below the crossing-place, with a head and foot stone of rock from the adjoining hill, which were long visible and could be pointed out by the nearest neighbors; but these were finally concealed from view by successive overflows of sand from the swollen river. The privates of both contending forces were buried on the rising ground, near the scene of conflict, and with such haste on the part of the British interring party as to leave one of their mattocks behind them at the graves of their fallen comrades, eager to overtake the vigilant Morgan.