After Daniel Morgan’s devastating victory over the British commander Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens on 17 January 1781, the American commander of the southern theatre, Nathaniel Greene, was leading a confident force. However, they were still far outnumbered by British Lord Cornwallis’ forces. Greene needed to recruit more before he turned to face the British. To this end, Greene ordered William Lee Davidson to take a small force and provide rear cover to Greene’s evasion.
Background to the Battle of Cowan’s Ford
Davidson was a member of a family that had immigrated from Ulster to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania before the Revolution. They had moved to North Carolina shortly after William’s birth. Davidson became a respected member of the colonial establishment in the area. He served as an envoy to the Cherokee to set boundaries and later served as a constable. By the time of the Revolution, Davidson was a prominent patriot leader in the area of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina and knew the area well. He was responsible for a highly successful recruitment effort. The Mecklenburg County area had become known to Cornwallis as a “hornet’s nest” of Revolutionary activity. The victory at the Battle of Cowpens had re-energized the recruitment. He was to become one of the founding members of Jim Webb’s Born Fighting breed of Scots-Irish American fighting men.
The Battle of Cowan’s Ford
On 31 January 1781, Davidson had sent pickets out to the east of the fording areas of the Catawba River that he felt were likely to be used by Cornwallis in his pursuit of Greene’s army. There were two suspected, Beatties Ford to the north (now part of Lake Norman formed by Cowan’s Ford dam) and Cowan’s Ford to the south (now the point of the dam on the Catawba River). Therefore, Davidson had to spread himself thin with his cavalry and infantry contingents. Cornwallis had sent a show force to Beatties Ford to make a racket in an attempt to fool the patriots into thinking he was crossing there. However, Cowan’s Ford was always the more likely with high water from recent rains, because Cowan’s had both a deep, but straight wagon crossing and a shallower, but oblique horse crossing. Davidson had situated himself near, but to the rear of Cowan’s Ford, wanting to ward off a suspected attempt by Tarleton to flank him.
In the early morning of the 1st of Febuary 1781, the pickets near Cowan’s Ford fired to alert Davidson. Davidson’s force began firing on the British near daybreak as they crossed the rain swollen river at the deeper wagon crossing point. Many British horses were going under and the Americans were able to take quite a toll on the British as they floundered in the Catawba. Davidson moved to the sound of the guns and arrived at the river’s edge not long after the skirmishing began. Unfortunately, Davidson was almost immediately hit in the chest. The loss of Davidson made the patriots in the immediate area retreat and soon the retreat was general. The patriots hadn’t lost many in number, but in Davidson, they had lost their charismatic leader.
Cornwallis completed the crossing and was not slowed much, but the British morale must have slumped even further with the significant casualties. These rebels were proving hard to root out. Davidson’s death was taken hard by the local community. Davidson College would later be named after him when his son provided ground for the college.
Battle of Cowan’s Ford Motorcycle Ride Recommendation
Check out the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission’s tour of the area. Here is my imperfect attempt to recreate their route using Google Maps.