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.
Map Credit: By Otis Ashmore and Charles Olmstead [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
An enduring idea the British had about the American colonists during the Revolutionary War was that many of them were actually loyal to the Crown. The British had spent considerable effort trying to round up these Loyalists and get them in the fight. After several years of being disappointed by the lack of Loyalist fervor in the North, the British became sure that there were more Loyalists to be found in the backwoods of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. In early 1779, a Loyalist named James Boyd was dispatched by the British with a open Colonel commission from Savannah to recruit more Loyalists in the Georgia interior. He had done this and even fought a few skirmishes with Patriots when he arrived at the Battle of Kettle Creek, in Wilkes County, Georgia on 14 February 1779. His 600 men set up camp on the creek and many of them set off to forage for food.
Colonel Andrew Pickens was a patriot commander in the area and he had heard of Boyd’s expedition. Pickens decided to tail Boyd and put a Georgia whupping on him for stirring up the area. Pickens had with him Colonel John Dooly, Lieutenant Colonel Elijah Clarke and 340 Patriots.
The Battle of Kettle Creek
Pickens caught up with Boyd at Kettle Creek and planned to surprise the camp. Pickens took a little over half the force and went straight at the camp. Dooly and Clarke each took half of the rest and went around the swampy ground on either side of the camp. Pickens’s men
, however, were spotted by Boyd’s pickets. Boyd was able to get his men behind rocks and trees and fend off Pickens for several hours. Things were looking pretty grim for Pickens, because Dooly and Clarke were delayed in the swamps. Boyd must have been feeling confident that he could see off this group of traitors. He was confident right up to the point that a musket ball got him. Seeing their leader fall put the panic in the Loyalists and they all ran for their camp. About this time, Dooly and Clarke emerged from the swamps and converged on the camp from opposite sides. The rout was now on and the battle swung wildly in favor of the Patriots.
Although a small battle of volunteers in the backwoods of Georgia, the battle of Kettle Creek was important. It disabused the British of the notion that the backwoods of Georgia could be held for the Crown. It effectively ended the Loyalist cause in Georgia.
Battle of Kettle Creek Motorcycle Ride Recommendation
Try this ride through some of East Georgia’s best country and end up at the Kettle Creek Battleground Memorial.
British Boston in the Revolutionary War
In early 1776, the American colonists were trying hard to limit the area in which British forces, based in Boston, could operate. As long as the British could retreat to the safety of Boston and its harbor, General George Washington would not be able to control the eastern end of Massachusetts. From Boston, British General Howe could re-supply from the sea and conduct operations with Boston as a base. In fact, Howe had taken nearby Bunker Hill (albeit with heavy losses) and was planning more of these types of operations in early March 1776.
Henry Knox and the Guns of Fort Ticonderoga
Washington knew bold, unexpected and decisive action was needed to disrupt Howe’s plans. In Late 1775, Washington had dispatched Artillery Colonel Henry Knox to Fort Ticonderoga, a British garrison captured by the Green Mountain Boys with Benedict Arnold tagging along, to bring the impressive array of artillery to Boston as soon as possible. Washington had probably expected it in late Spring, but the big man Knox drove his oxen and men hard over the lakes, rivers and frozen terrain of New England to get the 44 guns, 14 mortars and one howitzer to the outskirts of Boston by early February 1776. Knowing good fortune when he saw it, Washington wanted to take aggressive action immediately. Washington wanted to conduct a daring cross Charles River attack from Cambridge, but his council of war thought it too risky. Washington’s leaders agreed on the decisive action, but wanted to do it without significant risks to their small and largely untested militias. The compromise was to take aggressive action on Dorchester Heights which overlook Boston from the southeast.
Taking Dorchester Heights
On the 2nd and 3rd of March 1776, the Patriots fired the Knox artillery on the British in Boston and the Brits returned the favor. Washington had prepared a river crossing unit to the west of Boston to provide relief, if Howe tried to break out and disrupt the Dorchester Heights plan, although it seemed as if he had no idea what was going on. Whilst the artillery dueled, heavy, but transportable, fortifications were being fabricated down the hill. On the night of 4 March 1776, General Artemas Ward’s forces used an old ploy of Washington’s and put straw on the wheels of his wagons’ wheels to move quietly and began occupying Dorchester Heights from neighboring Roxbury. With a mammoth effort and 300 ox carts of material moved up the hill, the rebels had constructed 4 works on the heights and the flanks. By daylight on the 5 March, General Howe awoke to incomplete, but substantial works on the southeastern hills overlooking the harbor and the city. Howe was reported as saying, “The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month.”
The British Admiral Molyneaux Shulddown informed Howe that he could not maintain his ships in the harbor with such a threat. In the following days, Howe planned a quick counter-attack, but bad weather or a bout of under confidence or both made him quit Boston. By 17 March, in agreement with Washington not to destroy Boston if allowed to leave unmolested, the British had left Boston on ships for Halifax, Nova Scotia. They would be back, but for now Boston was in the Patriots hands and the radicals of the American colonies had a lot to crow about.
Motorcycle Ride Recommendation
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