After Cornwallis effected his passage over the Catawba river, at Cowan’s Ford, on the 1st of February, 1781, he only remained about three hours in attending to the burial of his dead. Tarleton was dispatched in advance to pursue the Whigs retreating in the direction of Torrence’s Tavern. Early in the morning of the same day a simultaneous movement was made by Colonel Webster, with his own brigade, the artillery, and a small supporting detachment to Beattie’s Ford, six miles above Cowan’s Ford, where a small guard had been placed on the eastern bank. Colonel Webster, with a view of dispersing the guard, fired several shots (six pounders) across the river, which had its intended effect, and thus enabled him to pass over without meeting with serious opposition. This was a mere feint, intended to create the impression that the whole British army would cross there.
The two British forces pressing forward with as little delay as possible, united at Torrence’s, ten miles from Cowan’s Ford, where a considerable body of the Whig militia had hastily assembled; but having no one to assume command, and greatly discouraged by the death of General Davidson on the approach of Tarleton’s cavalry, poured in one effective fire, killed seven of the British horsemen, wounded others, and then dispersed in all directions with a small loss. This skirmish, occurring soon after Tarleton’s defeat at the Cowpens, led him to boast of it in his journal as a brilliant victory!
Lord Cornwallis, in his general orders on the 2d of February, returns his “thanks to the Brigade of Guards for their cool and determined bravery in the passage of the Catawba, while rushing through that long and difficult ford under a galling fire.”
Another order, issued from his camp on the evening of the preceding day, does credit to his head as well as his heart, and shows that he was sometimes governed by the noble principles of moral rectitude. The order is in the following words:
“Headquarters, Cross Roads to Salisbury, February 1st, 1781.
“Lord Cornwallis is highly displeased that several houses were set on fire during the march this day–a disgrace to the army. He will punish, with the utmost severity, any person or persons who shall be found guilty of committing so disgraceful an outrage. His Lordship requests the commanding officers of corps to find out the persons who set fire to the houses this day.”
It is presumable his Lordship never received the desired information. The order, no doubt, has reference to the burning of the houses of John Brevard, who had “seven sons at one time in the rebel army,” and of Adam Torrence, a staunch Whig, where the skirmish had taken place.
General Greene, having been apprised of the battle of the Cowpens, and the result, on the same day when Cornwallis commenced his pursuit of General Morgan, ordered General Stevens to march with his Virginia militia (whose term of service was almost expired) by way of Charlotte, N.C., to take charge of Morgan’s prisoners, and conduct them to Charlottesville, in Virginia.
General Greene being anxious to confer with Morgan, personally, left his camp on the Pee Dee, under the command of General Huger and Colonel O. H. Williams, and started with one aid, and two or three mounted militia, for the Catawba. On the route, he was informed of Cornwallis’ pursuit. General Morgan had previously crossed the Catawba at the Island Ford. On the 31st of January, General Greene reached Sherrill’s Ford, a few miles below the Island Ford, where he had an interview with Morgan, and directed his future movements.
The British army readied Salisbury on that night, and on the next morning started in pursuit of Green and Morgan. These officers did not await the dawn, but crossed the Yadkin river at the Trading Ford, six miles beyond Salisbury, while his Lordship was quietly slumbering, and dreaming, perhaps, of future conquest and glory! When Cornwallis awoke on the morning of the third, he hastened to strike a fatal blow on the banks of the Yadkin, but the Americans were beyond his reach, and Providence had again placed an impassable barrier of water between them. Copious rains in the mountains had swollen the Yadkin to a mighty river. The horses of Morgan had forded the stream at midnight, and the infantry passed over in boats at dawn. These vessels were fastened on the eastern shore of the Yadkin, and Cornwallis was obliged to wait for the waters to subside before he could attempt to cross. Again he had the Americans “almost within his grasp”. A corps of riflemen were yet on the Western side when O’Hara, with the vanguard of the British army, approached, but these escaped across the river, after a slight skirmish. Nothing was lost but a few wagons belonging to Whig families, who, with their effects, were fleeing with the American army.
Lord Cornwallis, after an ineffectual cannonade over the river, returned to Salisbury, and, on the 7th, marched up the western bank of the Yadkin, and crossed at the Shallow Ford, near the village of Huntsville.
Dr. Read, the surgeon of the American army, has left this record of the cannonading scene:
“At a little distance from the river was a small cabin, in which General Greene had taken up his quarters. At this building the enemy directed their fire, and the balls rebounded from the rocks in the rear of it. But little of the roof was visible to the enemy. The General was preparing his orders for the army, and his dispatches to the Congress. In a short time the balls began to strike the roof, and clapboards were flying in all directions. But the General’s pen never stopped, only when a new visitor arrived, or some officer for orders; and then the answer was given with calmness and precision, and Greene resumed his pen.”
It is related as a truthful tradition that, after the British army reached Salisbury, Lord Cornwallis, Tarleton, and other royal officers, were hospitably entertained by Dr. Anthony Newman, although he was a true Whig. There, in presence of Tarleton, and other spectators, Dr. Newman’s two little sons were engaged in playing the game of the “battle of the Cowpens,” with grains of corn; red grains representing the British officers, and white grains the Americans.
Washington and Tarleton were particularly represented, and as one pursued the other, as in a real battle, the little fellows shouted, “Hurrah for Washington, Tarleton runs! Hurrah for Washington.” Colonel William A. Washington, it will be recollected, commanded the American cavalry. Tarleton looked on for a while, but soon becoming irritated at the playful but truthful scene, he exclaimed: “See these cursed little rebels!”
The pursuit of Morgan by Cornwallis was the most exciting and prolonged military chase of the American Revolution. Under various tangible interpositions of Providence, the retreat, as we have seen, proved finally successful, and Morgan’s forces saved for the future service of his country.