The Race to the Dan

By Frances Hallam Hurt. The following is the narration used as a recording for the Race to the Dan diorama at the Pittsylvania Historical Society Museum in the 1813 Clerk's Office in Chatham, Virginia.

The three days of the Race to the Dan played a critical role in the victory of a little upstart army of colonists in defeating the mighty kingdom of Great Britain. A classic among military scholars, the Race is little known among Americans who might otherwise be British.

By the winter of 1780, Lord Cornwallis, with his 3,000 British Redcoats, had conquered the South.

At the Battle of Camden, the American General Horatio Gates had wheeled his horse and fled before the awesome ranks. The American army scattered wildly, not knowing what to do. It was into this chaotic situation that General George Washington dispatched his right-hand man — the cool, unflappable, brilliant General Nathanael Greene.

“How I shall support myself under all these embarrassments, God only knows," he wrote Washington. “My only consolation is, if I fail, it will not be accompanied with any peculiar marks of disgrace.”

His first act was to order boats built, for he knew that the Carolinas were threaded with rivers, and he might need to cross them for a getaway — a signal mark of his brilliance. Then he set out for Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina where the shattered army was assembling. He left without saying goodbye to his adored wife, Kitty, whom he had planned to meet the next day after a long separation. His love letters to Kitty are tender and beautiful.

He could scarcely believe the sight that awaited him — 1500 scarecrows, half naked, half starved, half sick. He resolved that they must be fed and rested before they could begin to fight. He settled them to hunt, fish, and rest on the Pee Dee River. He called it the Camp of Repose.

Camp of Repose

Gen. Greene's Camp of Repose on the Pee Dee River. (Photo of a detail in the diorama.)

Greene's Camp of Repose in South Carolina on the Pee Dee River was a virtual supermarket of available fish and game. Its shelters were made of brush, as described in his memoirs by Col. Lighthorse Harry Lee. Greene settled only 1100 of his 1700 men here, however, sending 600 west under the command of a living legend, Gen. Dan Morgan, the Old Wagoner. To divide an army like was military heresy, but it worked. Cornwallis then had to divide his army. He dispatched the despised Banastre Tarleton to wipe out Morgan. Instead, Tarleton's men were wiped out at the Battle of Cowpens.

General Greene had one terrible problem at his Camp of Repose. His conscripts from farms kept going AWOL. They were dazzling marksmen but were not accustomed to obeying orders. They paid no attention to Greene when he ordered them not to leave camp. When he announced that the next man to leave would be hanged, they paid no mind. But the next man to leave was hanged. It drove home the importance of orders, the bedrock of a disciplined army.

Greene was a Quaker, committed to nonviolence. When he joined up to fight for his country, he was “put from the meeting,” but was still a Quaker. To hang the man made him physically ill, but it also shaped a headstrong crowd into an army.

Greene had given his men a month's rest, but now he had to move them. Cornwallis would be coming. Should he stand and fight with these inexperienced troops, or should he run, risking massacre if caught on the way? He did a rare thing for him; he called in his officers to debate the best plan. They came from every direction — an assembly of brains and grit, pledged to the American cause. Greene summoned all units to Guilford Courthouse, still undecided whether to fight or run. So he called a rare war council.

It was made up of men worth listening to — daring guerillas used to fighting against odds and winning.

There was Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox. He and his men lived in the South Carolina swamps, stealing out by night to wreak havoc on sleeping British soldiers. When food was short, they ate snakes.

Gen. Andrew Pickens was a dour Presbyterian Elder, also from South Carolina, whose ferocity matched his piety. Then the legendary Old Wagoner in his buckskin, Gen. Daniel Morgan, adored by his men. He had to return to Virginia, too sick to fight.

Dashing Col. Lighthorse Harry Lee in his white leather pants, green cape, and brass helmet was Greene's eyes and ears. Finally, there was Gen. Greene as he studied every detail of the map. He fought war like chess, figuring every move in advance.

The officers weighed the deplorable condition of the raw half-naked troops who had already marched 150 freezing miles in the mud. They opted to run for the river.

And Greene had a plan. He assigned to Col. Otho Williams the hair-raising job of playing decoy to the enemy. Williams and 700 light troops were to allow themselves to be seen as they lathered their horses going in the wrong directions towards more shallow fords upriver. Cornwallis did not question the direction, never dreaming that Green could croos downriver. He could not possibly have enough boats, so Cornwallis headed north.

It was February 10, 1781. The barefoot scarecrow army set out on the 80 miles to Boyd's and Irwin's Ferries — and the boats. Could Williams, as the rear guard, hold off Cornwallis? Or would the Americans be massacred as they ran?

It was said of General Greene that he had never seen the Catawba River but he knew more about it than the men who were born on its banks.

It was also true of the Dan. As soon as Greene received his unwelcome assignment, he began to study the rivers. He ordered “100 batteaux” from Col. Carrington in Richmond, then sent him down to map the Dan. Before he moved out of the Camp of Repose, he ordered Carrington to hide the boats along the banks near Boyd's and Irwin's Ferries.

It is here that Pittsylvania's Revolutionary records leap to life. Greene needed additional transportation, so he called on the ferries. The court of Claims lists four Pittsylvania ferrymen making claims for ferrying men, horses, and wagons in large numbers across the river. They are John Dix, Sherwood Toney, John Wynne, and John Owen. John Lewis asked recompense for the use of three canoes, indicating a need for anything that would float.

This human tide of 1600 exhausted men, plus horses and wagons, were still under the knife-edge of time. The British may well have overtaken Williams and discovered the ruse, and might at any moment swoop down upon a helpless mass trapped between the enemy and the river.

But it didn't happen. All got over the river swiftly and smoothly. The horses, swimming to save boat space, turned around in the middle of the river and swam back to North Carolina. Rounding them up and loading them on boats may well have been accompanied by strong language.

Boat on the Dan

Gen. Greene's foresight in having boats ready was key to the success of the Patriots in their Race to the Dan. (Photo of a detail in the diorama.)

By nearly 200 years, this evacuation anticipated the legendary rescue of the British soldiers at Dunkirk in World War II when Great Britain used any craft it could muster to bring them back safely to England.

“Nothing like it has before been known,” writes Donald Barr Chidsey in The War in the South. “Military men to this day go every foot of that chase, a classic.”

Beginning February 12, 1781, the next three days saw the kind of courage that transcends the flesh. The main army — those bone-tired Patriots in rags with their feet wrapped in more rags — dragged themselves through freezing mire and rain 19 hours a day. On the last day, they made 40 miles in 16 hours. They had only one meal in 24 hours, but it was hot — mush and bacon. They slept only four hours huddled around a fire, three or four to a blanket.

Not everyone slept four hours. General Greene is said to have slept only four hours during the entire march. He was up and down the lines, giving heart and spirit to those half-starved heroes who were winning freedom for a country.

Then there was agony for the wagons. Their axles broke, they overturned in the mud, the horses were too weak to pull. Nonetheless, by the afternoon of February 13 the American army was at the Dan. By the afternoon of February 14, the entire American army was safe in Halifax, thanks to the brilliance of providing the boats.

But what of Col. Williams and his live bait, luring the British away from the march? The third day a courier brought Williams a message. It read, “The greater part of our wagons are over and the troops are crossing. Only then did Williams and his men wheel and run for it with the Redcoats on their heels. Then came a second message, “All our troops are over and the stage is clear — I'm ready to give you a hearty welcome. - N. Greene”

Williams and his magnificent band received that welcome that evening in Halifax.

Six hours later the British hit the river. Again, they fired cannon shots across the Dan in furious frustration. They had no boats.

On the afternoon of February 14, 1781, the good people of Halifax were waiting for the exhausted troops at the present site of South Boston. Williams' men arrived several hours later. Among them were the last of Lighthorse Lee's rear guard who had to cross at Boyd's Ferry, four miles downstream.

The homefolks welcomed the ragged hard-bitten soldiers as heroes. Those unlikely-looking men had kept Lord Cornwallis and his mighty legion from their door. The grateful patriots brought food, spirits, warm clothing and medicine to honor these men who with superhuman will had dragged themselves 80 miles to cross the river, outfoxing their enemy.

And what of General Greene? He was writing dispatches to beg enlistments to go back and fight Cornwallis. As he waited for recruits, he had his guerillas continually harass Cornwallis' army at Guilford, never in the same place.

On March 15, one month after the Race to the Dan, Greene took on Cornwallis at Guilford. Records list many Pittsylvanians as militia and the Court of Claims Record notes heavy requisitions of materials.

The Guilford Battlefield Park brochure cites Cornwallis' army at only 2,000, but they were professionals. Greene had 4,000, but only 1600 experienced Continentals. The rest were raw recruits,but they savaged Cornwallis. When the Americans were wreaking havoc on the British lines, Cornwallis ordered his gunners to fire into them all, killing his own men. He clearly was desperate, but Greene would not risk the destruction of his own men. He said of himself that he lost battles but saved his army and was ready to fight again. Cornwallis' defeat was utter. He had 600 casualties — more than one-fourth of his army.

The Americans withdrew to the Ironworks at Troublesome Creek and after Greene got his men safely bivouacked he fainted. Cornwallis made it to Yorktown, but he was so weak that he could do nothing to forestall the British surrender.

His tailfeathers had been plucked by a cool, quiet, unflappable Quaker — General Nathaniel Greene, remembered with awe and affection for the Race to the Dan.

(Music to the tune of Yankee Doodle)

“Cornwallis led a country dance,
The like was never seen, sir,
Much retrograde and much advance
And all with General Greene, sir!

They rambled up and rambled down
Joined hands and off they ran, sir.
And General Greene was like to drown
Cornwallis in the Dan, Sir!”

Herman Melton

Pittsylvania Historical Society president Herman E. Melton at the dedication of the renovated diorama display in 1999. At that time the display was placed in the Educational and Cultural Center in Chatham; since then the diorama has been moved to the Pittsylvania Historical Society Museum in the 1813 Clerk's Office.


Related Book

(Available from the sponsor.)

An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Frances Hallam Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County

Another Publication by Frances Hallam Hurt

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Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County, VA

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History of Pittsylvania County, VA

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Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Footprints from the Old Survey Books

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Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

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Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (Dover)

Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina

Tales About People in a Small Town

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This website is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House B&B, Chatham, Virginia.