The Battle of Cowan's Ford
February 1, 1781 at Huntersville, Lincoln, and Mecklenberg County border, North Carolina
The Battle of Cowan's Ford was also called the Battle of McCown's Ford. It was a battle in the Southern Theater of Cornwallis's 1780–1782 Campaign that eventually led to the British Army's surrender at Yorktown. It was fought at Cowan's ford on the Catawba River in northwestern Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, between a force of about 5,000 British and fewer than a thousand Americans who were attempting to slow the British advance across the river.
Facts about the Battle of Cowan's Ford
- Armies - American Forces was commanded by Gen. William L. Davidson and consisted of about 900 Soldiers. British Forces was commanded by Gen. Lord William Cornwallis and consisted of about 5,000 Soldiers.
- Casualties - American casualties were about 4 killed and 26 wounded. British casualties were 31 killed and 35 wounded.
- Outcome - The result of the battle was a British victory. The battle was part of the Southern Theater 1780-83.
Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis and his army of British and Tories successfully crossed the Catawba River, defeating the Patriot forces of Brigadier General William L. Davidson, Major Joseph Graham, Colonel William Polk, and Lieutenant Thomas Davidson. Davidson, perhaps the most loved of all North Carolina's commanders, was killed.
Cornwallis' venturing into North Carolina had been disastrous. The carefully thought out southern campaign upon which he had embarked so hopefully was shattered never to be reshaped. The backbone of the British offensive against the South was broken.
Cornwallis had envisioned a three-pronged drive northward to overpower what he considered would be feeble resistance in North Carolina. He had ordered the capture of Wilmington, to be held as a port city through which he could receive supplies and also as a right wing protection of his own forces in their drive toward Charlotte and on to Hillsboro .
To the west he had dispatched Major Patrick Ferguson from Fort Ninety-Six to move northwestward to enlist Tory supporters and subdue the Americans. Cleared of resistance on the wings and in the rear, Cornwallis would sweep through North Carolina and roll on into Virginia to end all of the American resistance to His Majesty's government.
That had been Cornwallis' plan. But now, hardly more than 5 weeks after he had left Camden, his grand strategy was a shambles. The capture of Wilmington would come too late to help him . To the west, Ferguson was dead and buried at Kings Mountain and his forces, regulars and Tories, were dead, wounded or captured. And in the center his Lordship, chagrined, fearful, bitter, was running southward in disorganized retreat.
The correspondent of the "Pennsylvania Packet" in a subsequent analysis summarized the British's ill-fated 2 weeks in Charlotte :
"Whilst the enemy lay at Charlotte they were confined within their lines by our riflemen, who nabbed them if they set out their heads. In short, his lordship never found himself so far from home as at that place; and it may appear strange that although we were more than two weeks in surprizing distance with our raw militia, yet the enemy never attempted it, owing, I suppose to the great attention of our commander in preventing them from obtaining intelligence, and moving his troops every night."
The British had left Charlotte in virtual panic; in their rush to leave the camp at Barnett's mill they had abandoned some twenty wagons, a large quantity of clothing, many tents and other equipment, and a number of guns. They had heard that Davidson had some 5,000 soldiers and was pursuing them; actually the brigadier general had hardly more than 300 men, but Davie with a part of Davidson's cavalry was harassing the fleeing Redcoats and the number of their pursuers must have seemed frightfully large.
Davidson wanted to attack Cornwallis, particularly after a heavy rain had swollen the Catawba with Tarleton's Tory forces on the west side and Cornwallis' not yet across. He sent a message to Sumner suggesting that they join in an assault on the British, but the rain slowed Sumner and Cornwallis outdistanced his pursuers and withdrew to Winnsboro, where 70 miles south of Mecklenburg's pestiferous hornets he established headquarters.
The Battle of Kings Mountain had electrified American hopes, which after Camden had been at perhaps the lowest point since the Revolution's beginning. In the Salisbury district Davidson was busy enlisting men to take the places of those whose terms of service had expired. By the middle of November, the deeply concerned Col. ?? Davie wrote Gen. ?? Smallwood, "The torments of the damned are scarcely equal to the torture of my feelings these five or six days past, from the rage of the militia for returning home. Most of them deserted before the last evening."
But down in South Carolina, Gen. ?? Sumner added to the confidence of the Americans in the Carolinas by a victory over Tarleton at Blackstock's plantation, though in doing so he was himself several wounded. Davidson in writing his congratulations expressed deep concern:
"My anxiety for you (least your Wound be fatal) is such that I have scarcely spirit to congratulate you on your glorious victory. I sincerely wish you a speedy recovery, and in the meantime regret the Want of your services in the field, at this critical and important Juncture. Gen'l Gates with the Continental Troops will be at Charlotte tomorrow. We lie at the old post a dead weight on the Publick. I think I am possessed of all the patience necessary to my profession but I assure you it is nearly exhausted…"
In the last week of November, Lieutenant General Horatio Gates brought what was euphemistically called the southern army into Charlotte .
On December 2, Major General Nathanael Greene took command of this force, numbering, according to a field return made just before the march to Charlotte , more than 1,100 militiamen and upward of 1,000 Continental regulars, with some 400 under command of Morgan. But it was what Green aptly termed "only the shadow of an army."
Several hundred of them did not have any weapons and were almost without clothing in the dead of this winter of 1780, and half of the entire force were untrained militiamen. Also, the fighting in the vicinity of Charlotte had used up all the supplies in that region. Greene decided to leave Charlotte, but before he could get his army moving, heavy rains set in and kept his troops from marching.
On December 20, Greene divided his forces and went with one group to the Cheraw region on the Pee Dee in South Carolina, where he made camp the day after Christmas. The other group was sent toward Fort Ninety-Six under Colonel Daniel Morgan.
On January 17, Cornwallis was on the move. He sent Tarleton to meet Morgan; they clashed at Cowpens and Morgan gave the British cavalry a resounding defeat.
Now Cornwallis, smarting at this new setback started in determined pursuit of Morgan, who began retreating toward Mecklenburg. As Morgan kept safely ahead of the British commander, Greene at Cheraw ordered his force under Huger to march northward toward Salisbury and he himself rode northwestward toward Charlotte to join Morgan.
Morgan had written him that a continuing ailment in his hip would make necessary his taking a leave of absence from his command. "I am not unacquainted with the hurt my retiring will be to the service, as the people have so much dependence in me," he wrote Greene; "but the love I have for my country, and the willingness I have always showed to serve it, will convince you that nothing would be wanting on my side were I able to persevere. So that I must beg leave of absence, till I find myself able to take the field again." He assured Greene that "Gen. Davidson, Col. Pickens and Gen. Sumter" could "manage the militia better than I can, and will well supply my place."
Meanwhile, during the preceding many weeks, Davidson had been riding the district enlisting recruits to fill the places of those men whose terms of enlistment had expired. On learning that Cornwallis was again on the move, he had sent out orders for the militia to meet at Charlotte on January 10.
The victory of Morgan at Cowpens a week later, in which many of the men sent by Davidson to Morgan had fought, had given to the Americans a resurgence of hope and confidence. But even yet, two weeks after the Charlotte muster and a week after Cowpens, Davidson wrote Greene that he was "distressed on account of the Smallness of our Resources and the Want of propper Ecconomy." But he was still anxious to attack the enemy, even though by Greene's appointment of Colonel Davie to be his commissary-general, Davidson would not have the services of that daring and resourceful cavalry leader.
In this new venture into North Carolina, Cornwallis was careful to avoid a second encounter with the Mecklenburg hornets. He swung to the left and came northward west of the Catawba. It was late in January now. For 3 days, he camped at Ramsour's Mill, where he was joined by Tarleton.
On January 28, he marched eastward toward the river to Jacob Forney's; there for another 3 days his hungry troops feasted on the affluent Forney's cattle and sheep, hogs and chickens, while they waited for the swollen waters of the Catawba to subside. Before establishing his camp at Forney's, some 4 miles from the river, he had ventured to Beatties Ford but had fount it impassable because of the raging current.
On the other side of the river, too, he had been informed, were Americans awaiting him at all the fording places. Above Beatties were McEwen's and Sherrill's, and below were Cowan's, Tool's, and Tuckassege.
The task of the Americans, spaced thinly along the eastern bank, was to anticipate Cornwallis' crossing strategy and slow his advance in order to give Morgan, already impeded by the prisoners and supplies he had taken at the Cowpens, more time to conduct an orderly retreat. Cornwallis, on the other hand, would be trying by a surprise maneuver to get across the river with a minimum number of casualties and as quickly as possible.
On January 31, Cornwallis made his move. It had begun to rain again and the British commander felt that to delay longer might mean the loss of any chance to overtake and destroy Morgan's forces. He made a move to indicate he was planning to cross at Beatties Ford by sending Lt. Col. Webster and a detachment of British to "make every possible demonstration by cannonading and otherwise, of an intention to force a passage there," he would write some six weeks later.
On February 1, at 1:00 A.M., he would march down the river to Cowan's Ford, where he planned his major drive to cross the stream. Meanwhile, Greene had arrived at the Catawba and with Washington had visited Morgan and Davidson at Beatties Ford and planned his strategy.
Though no records of this meeting reveal what was said, it is evident by what immediately followed that Greene directed Davidson, who had placed his men at the various fords along the eastern bank, to do what he could to slow Cornwallis' crossing. He and Morgan then set out towards Salisbury.
Soon after they left him, Davidson dispatched a company of cavalry under Colonel Joe Graham, who had by now recovered from his wounds at Sugaw Creek in late September, and infantry led by Colonel William Polk, southward 4 miles to Cowan's Ford. Graham was to keep a patrol on the move to see that the British did not make a surprise crossing under cover of darkness. Toward nightfall, Davidson himself led a detachment to Cowan's Ford and set up camp a half mile or so back from the river, but he assigned a picker to watch from the water's edge the Cowan's crossing point.
At 1:00 A.M., Cornwallis reveals in his own account of the skirmish at "McCowan's ford," he began his march to the river, which was reached after much difficulty and the loss of some of their cannon, "the morning being very dark and rainy & part of our way through a wood where there was no road." But instead of going to Beatties Ford, which his actions there during the day had indicated he would try to force, he moved down the river to Cowan's. This was actually two fords; one, the horse ford, though shallower than the other, was longer, because it crossed the stream obliquely; the other, called the wagon ford, went straight across the river.
Davidson evidently feared that Tarleton's troops might, in the darkness of a winter's night, slip across the Catawba and get behind him, from which position they could attack him as the British infantry began its crossing. So he stayed well back from the river bank opposite to the point where the horse ford emerged on the Mecklenburg side. Meanwhile, the pickets huddled on the bank at the eastern end of the wagon ford.
It was nearing daybreak when Cornwallis reached Cowan's Ford and, hardly hesitating, began crossing the swollen stream. A man named Frederick Hager, a Tory who lived in the vicinity, was serving as the guide for the British force. Hager led them straight across along the wagon ford and soon the horses were over their heads in the raging torrent. The pickets on the eastern bank were asleep, but the noise of the British crossing awakened them and their firing brought Davidson and his men racing toward the wagon ford.
For a few minutes, the action was lively. The militiamen were picking off many British struggling in the water. The return fire was heavy, and hardly had Davidson arrived when he was struck from his horse.
In a few minutes, several other Americans were killed. The British loss was greater, but the skirmish proved a defeat for the Americans. Their resistance hardly slowed Cornwallis' advance. It would be recorded, however, as the last battle with an invader on Mecklenburg soil. In the Fall, on October 19, Cornwallis would surrender to Gen. George Washington’s Army at Yorktown, Virginia.
Late that evening, Davidson's body, stripped and rain drenched, was found by David Wilson, brother-in-law of his kinsman, Major John Davidson, Pastor Thomas McCaule of Centre Church, and Richard Barry. They took the body to the home of David's widowed stepmother, Mrs. Samuel Wilson.
Fortunately, they were able to dress the body in a suit left there by Captain James Jack, Mrs. Wilson's brother. That night, by torchlight, with Pastor McCaule conducting the brief service and with Mary Brevard Davidson standing stalwart beside the red clay grave, Davidson was buried in Hopewell Presbyterian churchyard, which was located on Beattie’s Ford Road, approximately 5 miles south of the battlefield.
Davidson had been killed by a rifle ball through the heart. Frederick Hager's rifle, said the neighbors, shot such a ball.
Stedman: "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 received 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 round 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 direction, as it afterward appeared, carried the British troops considerably above the place where the ford terminated on the other side, and where the enemy’s pickets were posted, so that when they delivered their fire the light infantry were already so far advanced as to be out of the line of its direction, and it took place angularly upon the grenadiers, so as to produce no great effect."
In his letter to Germain of 17 March, Cornwallis wrote: “Lieutenant-colonel Webster was detached with part of the army and all the baggage to Beattie's ford, six miles above M'Cowan's, where General Davidson was supposed to be posted with five hundred 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, 23d, two hundred cavalry, and two three-pounders, to the ford fixed upon for the real attempt.
The morning being very dark and rainy, and part of our way through a wood where there was no road, one of the three pounders in front of the 23d 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 march) having stopped to assist, were likewise left behind. The head of the column in the mean while arrived at the bank of the river, and the 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 that the rain 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 to desist from the attempt; and therefore, full of confidence in the zeal and gallantry of Brigadier-general 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 behaviour 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 valour, nor checked their passage. The light infantry landing first, immediately formed, and in a few minutes killed or dispersed every thing 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; a few were taken prisoners. On our side, Lieutenant-colonel Hall and three men were killed, and thirty-six wounded, all of the light infantry and grenadiers of the guards.”
“Leslie” Orderly Book entry for 1 February: “Lord Cornwallis is highly displeased that Several Houses was set on fire during the March this day, a Disgrace to the Army; & that he will punish with the Utmost Severity any persons who shall be found Guilty of Committing so disgracefull an Outrage –- His Lordship requests the Comdg. Officers of Corps will Endeavor to find out the Persons who set fire to the Houses this day.”
Joseph Graham: “We had none wounded or taken. The enemies loss as stated in the official account, published in the Charleston Gazette, two months after, was Col. Hall of the Guards, and another officer and twenty-nine privates. Thirty-one in all, killed, and thirty-five wounded. They left sixteen who were so badly wounded they could not eb taken along, at Mr. Lucas’s (the nearest farm) and a surgeon under protection of a flag was left with them. Two wounded officers were carried on Biers, and such of the wounded as could not walk were hauled in wagons. Some of the dead were found down the river some distance lodged in fish traps, and in brush about the banks, on rocks, etc., etc. An elegant beaver hat, made agreeably to the fashion of those times, marked inside, The property of Josiah Martin, Governor [Royal Governor of North Carolina], was found ten miles below.
It never was explained by what means his Excellency lost his hat. He was not hurt himself. When General O’Hara sent on Tarleton his men kindled fires on the battle ground to dry themselves, cook their breakfasts, etc. They buried their dead, disposed of their wounded, and about mid-day he marched, and in the afternoon united with Cornwallis at Givens’ plantation, two miles from Beattie’s Ford, and one mile south of the Salisbury road Tarleton joined them before night. It had rained at times all day, and in the evening and night it fell in torrents.
The men [N.C. militia] under Col. [Joseph] Williams and Capt. Potts who were guarding Tuckasege and Tool’s Fords, had early notice of the enemy’s crossing and retired. The different parties met in the afternoon at Jno. McK. Alexander’s, eight miles above Charlotte. By noon the next day all the men who were not dispersed, were collected near Harris’ mill on Rocky river ten or twelve miles from the enemy.”