Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

General Greene's Famous Retreat

The rain was pouring pitilessly from the skies. The wind blew chill from the north. The country was soaked with the falling flood, dark rain-clouds swept across the heavens, and a dreary mist shut out all the distant view. In the midst of this cheerless scene a solitary horseman stood on a lonely roadside, with his military cape drawn closely up, and his horse's head drooping as if the poor beast was utterly weary of the situation. In truth, they had kept watch and ward there for hours, and night was near at hand, the weary watcher still looking southward with an anxiety that seemed fast growing into hopeless despondency.

At times, as he waited, a faint, far-off, booming sound was heard, which caused the lonely cavalier to lift his head and listen intently. It might have been the sound of cannon, it might have been distant thunder, but whatever it was, his anxiety seemed steadily to increase.

The day darkened into night, and hour by hour night crept on until midnight came and passed, yet the lone watcher waited still, his horse beside him, the gloom around him, the rain still plashing on the sodden road. It was a wearing vigil, and only a critical need could have kept him there through those slow and dreary hours of gloom.

At length he sharply lifted his head and listened more intently than before. It was not the dull and distant boom this time, but a nearer sound that grew momentarily more distinct, the thud, it seemed, of a horse's hoofs. In a few minutes more a horseman rode into the narrow circle of view.

"Is that you, sergeant?" asked the watcher. "Yes, sir," answered the other, with an instinctive military salute.

"What news? I have been waiting here for hours for the militia, and not a man has come. I trust there is nothing wrong."

"Everything is wrong," answered the new-comer. "Davidson is dead and the militia are scattered to the winds. Cornwallis is over the Catawba and is in camp five miles this side of the river."

"You bring bad news," said the listener, with a look of agitation. "Davidson dead and his men dispersed! That is bad enough. And Morgan?"

"I know nothing about him."

Sad of heart, the questioner mounted his impatient steed and rode disconsolately away along the muddy road. He was no less a person than General Greene, the newly-appointed commander of the American forces in the South, and the tidings he had just heard had disarranged all his plans. With the militia on whose aid he had depended scattered in flight, and no sign of others coming, his hope of facing Cornwallis in the field was gone, and he was a heavy-hearted man when he rode at length into the North Carolina town of Salisbury and dismounted at the door of Steele's tavern, the house of entertainment in that place. As he entered the reception-room of the hotel, stiff and weary from his long vigil, he was met by Dr. Read, a friend.

"What! alone, General?" exclaimed Read.

"Yes; tired, hungry, alone, and penniless."

The fate of the patriot cause in the South seemed to lie in those hopeless words. Mrs. Steele, the landlady, heard them, and made all haste to prepare a bountiful supper for her late guest, who sat seeking to dry himself before the blazing fire. As quickly as possible a smoking hot supper was on the table before him, and as he sat enjoying it with a craving appetite, Mrs. Steele again entered the room.

Closing the door carefully behind her, she advanced with a look of sympathy on her face, and drew her hands from under her apron, each of them holding a small bag of silver coin.

"Take these, general," she said. "You need them, and I can do without them."

A look of hope beamed on Greene's face as he heard these words. With a spirit like this in the women of the country, he felt that no man should despair. Rising with a sudden impulse, he walked to where a portrait of George III. hung over the fireplace, remaining from the old ante-war time. He turned the face of this to the wall and wrote these words on the back: "Hide thy face, George, and blush."

It is said that this portrait was still hanging in the same place not many years ago, with Greene's writing yet legible upon it, and possibly it may be there still. As for Mrs. Steele, she had proved herself a patriot woman, of the type of Mrs. Motte, who furnished Marion with arrows for the burning of her own house when it was occupied by a party of British soldiers whom he could not dislodge. And they two were far from alone in the list of patriot women in the South.

The incident in General Greene's career above given has become famous. And connected with it is the skilful military movement by which he restored the American cause in the South, which had been nearly lost by the disastrous defeat of General Gates. This celebrated example of strategy has often been described, but is worth telling again.

Lord Cornwallis, the most active of the British commanders in the war of American Independence, had brought South Carolina and Georgia under his control, and was marching north with the expectation of soon bringing North Carolina into subjection, and following up his success with the conquest of Virginia. This accomplished, he would have the whole South subdued. But in some respects he reckoned without his host. He had now such men as Greene and Morgan in his front, Marion and Sumter in his rear, and his task was not likely to prove an easy one.

As for Morgan, he sent the rough-rider Tarleton to deal with him, fancying that the noted rifleman, who had won undying fame in the North, would now meet fate in the face, and perhaps be captured, with all his men. But Morgan had a word to say about that, as was proved on the 17th of January, 1781, when he met Tarleton at the Cowpens, a place about five miles south of the North Carolina line.

Tarleton had the strongest and best appointed force, and Morgan, many of whose men were untried militia, seemed in imminent danger, especially when the men of the Maryland line began to retreat, and the British, thinking the day their own, pressed upon them with exultant shouts. But to their surprise the bold Marylanders suddenly halted, turned, and greeted their pursuers with a destructive volley. At the same time the Virginia riflemen, who had been posted on the wings, closed in on both flanks of the British and poured a shower of bullets into their ranks. The British were stunned by this abrupt change in the situation, and when the Maryland line charged upon them with levelled bayonets they broke and fled in dismay.

Colonel Washington commanded the small cavalry force, so far held in reserve and unseen. This compact body of troopers now charged on the British cavalry, more than three times their numbers, and quickly put them to flight. Tarleton himself made a narrow escape, for he received a wound from Washington's sword in the hot pursuit. So utter was the rout of the British that they were pursued for twenty miles, and lost more than three hundred of their number in killed and wounded and six hundred in prisoners, with many horses, wagons, muskets, and cannon. Tarleton's abundant baggage was burned by his own order to save it from capture. In this signal victory Morgan lost only ten men killed and sixty wounded.

And now began that famous retreat, which was of more advantage to the Americans than a victory. Morgan, knowing well that Cornwallis would soon be after him to retrieve the disaster at the Cowpens, hastened with his prisoners and spoils across the Catawba. Cornwallis, furious at his defeat and eager to move rapidly in pursuit, set fire to all his baggage and wagons except those absolutely needed, thus turning his army into light troops at the expense of the greater part of its food-supply and munitions.

But when he reached the Catawba, he found it so swollen with the rains that he was forced to halt on its banks while Morgan continued his march. Meanwhile, General Greene was making earnest efforts to collect a force of militia, directing all those who came in to meet at a certain point. Such was the situation on the 1st of February when Greene waited for weary hours at the place fixed upon for the militia to assemble, only to learn that Cornwallis had forced the passage of the river, dispersing the North Carolina militia left to guard the ford, and killing General Davidson, their commander. He had certainly abundant reason for depression on that wet and dreary night when he rode alone into Salisbury.

The Catawba crossed, the next stream of importance was the Yadkin. Hither Morgan marched in all haste, crossing the stream on the 2nd and 3rd of February, and at once securing all boats. The rains began to fall again before his men were fairly over, and soon the stream was swelling with the mountain floods. When Cornwallis reached its banks it was swollen high and running madly, and it was the 7th of February before he was able to cross. It seemed, indeed, as if Providence had come to the aid of the Americans, lowering the rains for them and raising them for their foes.

Meanwhile, the two divisions of the American army were marching on converging lines, and on the 9th the forces under Greene and Morgan made a junction at Guilford Court-House, Cornwallis being then at Salem, twenty-five miles distant. A battle was fought at this place a month later, but just then the force under Greene's command was too small to risk a fight. A defeat at that time might have proved fatal to the cause of the South. Nothing remained but to continue the retreat across the State to the border of Virginia, and there put the Dan River between him and his foe.

To cover the route of his retreat from the enemy, Greene detached General Williams with the flower of his troops to act as a light corps, watch and impede Cornwallis and strive to lead him towards Dix's ferry on the Dan, while the crossing would be made twenty miles lower down.

It was a terrible march which the poor patriots made during the next four days. Without tents, with thin and ragged clothes, most of them without shoes, "many hundreds of the soldiers tracking the ground with their bloody feet," they retreated at the rate of seventeen miles a day along barely passable roads, the wagon-wheels sinking deep in the mud, and every creek swollen with the rains. In these four days of anxiety Greene slept barely four hours, watching every detail with a vigilant eye, which nothing escaped. On the 14th they reached the ford, hurrying the wagons across and then the troops, and before nightfall Greene was able to write that "all his troops were over and the stage was clear."

General Williams had aided him ably in this critical march, keeping just beyond reach of Cornwallis, and deceiving him for a day or two as to the intention of the Americans. When the British general discovered how he had been deceived, he got rid of more of his baggage by the easy method of fire, and chased Williams across the State at the speed of thirty miles a day. But the alert Americans marched forty miles a day and reached the fords of the Dan just as the last of Greene's men had crossed. That night the rear guard crossed the stream, and when Cornwallis reached its banks, on the morning of the 15th, to his deep chagrin he found all the Americans safe on the Virginia side and ready to contest the crossing if he should seek to continue the pursuit.

That famous march of two hundred miles, from the south side of the Catawba to the north side of the Dan, in which the whole State of North Carolina was crossed by the ragged and largely shoeless army, was the salvation of the Southern States. In Greene's camp there was only joy and congratulation. Little did the soldiers heed their tattered garments, their shoeless feet, their lack of blankets and of regular food, in their pride at having outwitted the British army and fulfilled their duty to their country. With renewed courage they were ready to cross the Dan again and attack Cornwallis and his men. Washington wrote to General Greene, applauding him highly for his skilful feat, and even a British historian gave him great praise and credit for his skill in strategy.

Shall we tell in a few words the outcome of this fine feat? Cornwallis had been drawn so far from his base of supplies, and had burned so much of his war-material, that he found himself in an ugly quandary. On his return march Greene became the pursuer, harassing him at every step. When Guilford Court-House was reached again Greene felt strong enough to fight, and though Cornwallis held the field at the end of the battle he was left in such a sorry plight that he was forced to retreat to Wilmington and leave South Carolina uncovered. Here it did not take Greene long, with the aid of such valiant partisans as Marion, Sumter, and Lee, to shut the British up in Charleston and win back the State.

Cornwallis, on the other hand, concluded to try his fortune in Virginia, where there seemed to be a fine chance for fighting and conquest. But he was not long there before he found himself shut up in Yorktown like a rat in a trap, with Washington and his forces in front and the French fleet in the rear. His surrender, soon after, not only freed the South from its foes, but cured George III. of any further desire to put down the rebels in America.