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Fateful day at Trading Ford
In February 1781, Rowan was the site of
a crucial encounter
between British troops and Nathanael Greene's patriot
DESPERATE FLIGHT: Gen. Nathanael
Greene and his Continental troops escaped the British to fight another
day. portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, courtesy Independence
FRUSTRATED PURSUIT: British Gen.
Charles Cornwallis and his Redcoats were thwarted by a rising
By Ann Brownlee
Sunday, February 6,
For the Salisbury Post
of a new nation would rest on their victories and defeats. The American Colonies had declared
their independence from, and taken up arms against, the British Crown. This week marks the 224th
anniversary of these events, which culminated at the Trading Ford on the
River. The successful escape of Nathanael
Greene’s Continental Army, whether by act of Providence, luck, or military skill, preserved the American
army’s strength against the British, who would lose many of their number at
Guilford Courthouse come mid-March, and surrender at Yorktown, Va. in October.
America’s War for Independence had moved into the south in full force the
previous May when the British occupied Charleston. The British Navy returned north, leaving
the army under the command of Gen. Charles Cornwallis. Cornwallis moved northward through
He won a decisive victory at Camden in August. But as he entered North Carolina in October, his forces met a significant
defeat at Kings Mountain, and he retreated south again, settling in to
winter at Winnsboro,
forces looked to an unlikely new leader, a Quaker from Rhode Island. Gen. Nathanael Greene had assumed
command of the Southern Army. In a
daring move, he divided his forces, hoping the British General would follow
suit. While Greene’s main force
wintered in camp on Hicks Creek, near the Pee-Dee River
just south of the North and South Carolina
border, Gen. Daniel Morgan led an ever-shifting force through western North Carolina.
rose to the bait. The brash and
cocky Banastre “Bloody” Tarleton pursued Morgan, only to be defeated in a
virtual ambush at the Cow Pens in mid-January. From there, for the next two months, the
two armies raced for the river crossings, as Greene led Cornwallis across the
heart of North Carolina and away from his base
of supply in Charleston. At Ramseur’s Mill, west of the Catawba,
Cornwallis destroyed most of his wagons and baggage and equipped his army as
light infantry. The two forces next
exchanged fire across the fords of the Catawba River north of Charlotte.
With only a
small escort, Greene left Hick’s Creek and joined Daniel Morgan at Oliphant’s
Mill near Sherrill’s Ford on the Catawba.
From there, he sent for his main army, and hoped to reunite his forces at
face Cornwallis there. Morgan and
his light infantry headed from Beattie’s Ford toward Salisbury, to the east, on
January 31st. The
militia remained to guard the Catawba River
fords, where the British crossed the next day. While the Whig militia took a
considerable toll on the British soldiers crossing at Cowan’s Ford, their loss
of their own Gen. William Lee Davidson, much loved among the ranks, dispirited
the patriot troops.
Greene remained near the Catawba, and made arrangements to meet the militia at
the home of David Carr, on the road between Beattie’s Ford and Salisbury, on Coddle Creek,
the night of February 1st.
Those he awaited never came.
A scant six miles away, some of the militia, along with fleeing civilians
who clogged the roads, were ambushed by “Bloody” Tarleton at Torrence’s
Tavern. Greene left for Salisbury after
CROSSING INTO HISTORY: This map of Rowan county shows
the probable routes taken by British and Revolutionary forces leading up to
their confrontation at Trading Ford. While Gen. Greene's army made it
across the Yadkin River, the British were forced to turn back and take a more
direct route for Morgan and his 1800 men was east along the old Beattie’s
Road to its junction with the Trading Path, by this
time called the Great
From there, the road roughly followed the route north now taken by the
railroad paralleling Highway 29.
His men were poorly supplied: some wore little more than loincloths, and
the bare feet of many left bloody footprints in the red clay. According to Lt. Thomas Anderson's
journal, the march was difficult, "every step up to our Knees in Mud it raining
On us all the Way." Greene followed
the same route a day later.
route taken by the British, numbering 2500 to 3000, has long befuddled
historians, made more enigmatic by the British difficulty with American
names. On the night of February
1st, according to "A British Orderly Book," they camped at "Cross
Roads to Salisbury", and a map by Joseph Graham shows
that location a few miles east of Beattie's Ford. The following day the British forces
burned patriot John Brevard's house and several other houses on their
march. The "British Orderly Book"
records camp on February 2nd at "Canthard's Plantation" and "Cossington." It is not certain if these are two
places, or variant names for one place.
According to several records, this location was about 20 miles south of
Salisbury. The British marched at 7:00 the morning
of the 3rd. Two
incidents were reported in the vicinity of the junction of the old Beatty’s
Road and the Trading Path or Great Road,
indicating that as the route taken by some of the British. At Savitz Mill on Grant’s Creek (near
the new South Rowan library), William Armstrong with eight men encountered “42
footmen and 15 dragoons” on a foraging raid, who retreated after a short
skirmish. Nearby, British soldiers
entered the home of John Phifer, where seven-year-old Margaret successfully pled
that they spare the house. But what
of the route of the main British army?
Could Canthard’s have been Cathey’s, putting the army on a road roughly
equivalent to Highway 150?
Greene arrived in Salisbury on February
2nd, without the militia he had hoped to rendezvous with at David
Carr’s, feeling the loss of General Davidson, and disappointed that the main
army, moving north up the Pee-Dee /Yadkin River, had not reached the county
seat. At Steele’s Tavern he
encountered his physician Dr. Read, who inquired of his well-being. “Fatigued, hungry, alone, and penniless”
was the General’s reply. Elizabeth
Maxwell Steele, the mistress of the tavern, overheard his remark. After bringing a comfortable breakfast,
she presented the commander two small bags of specie [coins]. “Take these, for you will want them, and
I can do without them.” Before he
left the tavern, Gen. Greene, encouraged by Mrs. Steele’s generosity, turned
about a portrait of King George hanging on the wall and wrote on the back, “O
George, Hide thy face and mourn.”
The portrait of the King, with Greene’s inscription still visible on the
back, is kept in the heritage room at Thyatira Church.
FEMALE PATRIOTISM: Elizabeth
Maxwell Steele hands a dispirited General Greene two
bags of coins. Engraving by J. B. Hall, from
painting by Alonzo Chappel, published in J. A.
Spencer’s History of the United States, 1858.
plea for aid
Salisbury in 1781 was a small frontier town which served as
the military headquarters for western North Carolina. A laboratory produced cartridges, and
could have made other military supplies.
A shoe factory was located here.
Cloth was given to the women of the area, who sewed it into garments and
were paid in salt. Nathanael Greene
was appalled to find in Salisbury “1700 stand of Continental Arms in
one Store, kept for the use of the Militia, in the most miserable order you
[can] imagine.” The General wrote a
letter to the residents of Salisbury, imploring their aid, especially
asking for wagons to transport supplies.
Greene and Morgan spent the remainder of the 2nd and all of the
3rd moving their men, the Salisbury District supplies, the Cowpens
prisoners who arrived via a different route, and fleeing civilians across the
Yadkin River at the Trading Ford, six miles east of
Salisbury. For two days all the boats which could
be mustered plied back and forth across the muddy brown waters.
task was nearly complete by the end of the day on the 3rd, dusk
according to Joseph Graham, midnight according to Tarleton. All were across except about 100
militia, under Major David Campbell and a small party of North Carolina Militia
Horse under Col. John Luttrell, and a few baggage and civilian wagons. The British had reached Salisbury late in the
day. The vanguard of the British
army, the Brigade of Guards - 1st and 2nd battalions - and the Van Bose
Regiment, about 800 men under Col. Tarleton and Gen. Charles O'Hara, pressed on
to the Trading Ford, where they were in time to catch Greene's rear guard still
on the near side.
“The militia were drawn up near a half
mile from the ford, where a branch crosses which was covered with small timber
and bushes, and there was an old field along the road in their front,” recorded
Joseph Graham’s account. “The
American position was low along the branch, under shade of the timber; that of
the advancing foe was open and on higher ground, and between them and the sky,
was quite visible. When they came
within sixty steps, the Americans commenced firing, the enemy returned it and
began to form in line. As their
rear came up, they extended their line to the right, and were turning the left
flank of the militia by crossing the branch above. This being discovered, a retreat was
ordered after having fired, some two, some three rounds. It was easily effected in the dark. They passed down the river two miles and
crossed over, abandoning the baggage and other wagons which could not be gotten
over, to the enemy, after taking out the horses. Two of the militia were killed; the loss
of the enemy was not known, but from appearances of blood in different places,
believed to be ten or twelve. ...
After the firing ceased, the British marched on to the river, but found the
water was too deep to ford, and still rising, and that General Morgan, encamped
on the other side, had with him all the boats and canoes." The British captured
the wagons, which Tarleton described as "waggons and stores belonging to country
has always been believed in this area that the Yadkin River rose suddenly after Greene
crossed. Again, eye-witness
accounts differ. Joseph Graham’s
account agrees with our local tradition.
However, Gen. Edward Stevens of Virginia, who led the Cowpens prisoners, wrote
that the river was high on the 2nd. All that is certain is that, by the time
the British reached the Yadkin, it was too high to ford, and all the boats were
on the far shore.
O'Hara "took post with the infantry on the ground which commanded the ford and
ferry," where he remained until the 6th.
The cavalry returned to Salisbury.
February 4th, the entire British army reached the south bank of the Yadkin. Cornwallis was eager to engage Greene's
army, but was separated from them by the width of the swollen river. He installed his artillery atop the
nearest bluff of the "Heights of Gowerie", and furiously cannonaded the opposite
shore. According to Dr. William
Read's eye-witness account, the American Commander had taken up quarters in a
cabin not far from the river. He
tended to correspondence while cannon balls flew about him. Historians have always
thought that Morgan had no artillery with him. However, a field piece had been ordered
left at nearby Camp Yadkin Ford the previous fall. Greene's forces may have had the
means to return the British fire.
At some point, the British abandoned their futile attack and returned to
Salisbury. From Salisbury, on February 4th, Cornwallis wrote to Greene
complaining that he had heard reports of "cruelties" to the Cowpens prisoners,
and that he was "shocked" to find the British prisoners in the Salisbury jail had been
"denied common sustenance."
Morgan's light infantry left the Trading
Ford on the 4th. Greene remained
until late in the day, when the receding
river level made a retreat prudent.
The British remained in Salisbury until the 6th, when they set out for
the Shallow Ford, 40 miles to the north.
successful crossing at the Trading Ford was strategically important to
Greene. Had his forces, inferior in
number, been caught by the British army before or during crossing, with their
backs to the river, the result could have been disastrous. Indeed, the course of the war would
inevitably have been altered. In
addition, he gained much needed distance from the British army, which had been
close behind at the Catawba. This
allowed him the time he needed to reunite his forces and move them safely across
the Dan River in Virginia later in February. After two months of dogging Greene’s
steps, Cornwallis would face his adversary at Guilford Courthouse on March
In commemoration of events at the Trading Ford
and the perceived Divine protection of the U.S. army, Rowan County
later named the township in this area "Providence," a still-present reminder of events
of February 1781. On October 19,
1929, citizens of Davidson county and the North Carolina Historical Commission
dedicated a monument to Greene's Trading
Ford crossing. It was situated on a
1.1 acre lot, which included the still-existing road over which Greene's forces
passed. It's bronze plaque
GENERAL NATHANAEL GREENE
IN HIS MASTERLY RETREAT FROM THE BRITISH ARMY
FEBRUARY 2-3, 1781. A SUDDEN RISE IN THE RIVER
PREVENTED THE PASSAGE
OF THE BRITISH AND PERMITTED
THE AMERICAN ARMY TO ESCAPE AND PREPARE FOR
BATTLE OF GUILFORD COURT