Out-Leaned at the Finish: Cornwallis and the Guards Lose the Race to the Dan

As part three in our series on the Brigade of Guards' 1781 "Road to Yorktown", this article continues the narrative of their February 1781 chase through North Carolina on the heels of General Nathaniel Greene's Continental forces, who had absorbed Morgan's "Flying Army" and were furiously marching to reach their base of supply in Virginia and avoid destruction at the hands of Lord Cornwallis' southern army. As in previous entries, it is adapted heavily from research by Linnea M. Bass and William M. Burke available on the 4th Company's website as well as the excellent book Long Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse by Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard.

In the days following Cornwallis' departure from Wachovia, the British vanguard (commanded by Brigadier General Charles O'Hara and including the Brigade of Guards) frequently found itself within musket range of the Continental rearguard as the two bodies of soldiers raced neck and neck northward toward the Dan River and the Virginia border.

The Dan River near Danville, VA, near the sites of Irwin's and Boyd's Ferries where Greene's forces eventually crossed.

In reality, the race could have been even closer. Cornwallis, in a misguided attempt to prevent a merging of Greene's forces that had already happened, sacrificed precious time; rather than march northeast on a direct line to intercept Green, he chose to move southeast on February 11th. This allowed Greene more time and space to evacuate his position at Guilford Courthouse, where he had been encamped for several days.

At the same time, Greene detached his rearguard of light troops under the command of Colonel Otho Holand Williams to mislead the British into thinking he planned to cross the Dan at Dix's Ferry, and therefore to provide additional time for Greene to make the Dan crossing at Irwin's or Boyd's Ferries further downriver and to the east. It was this rebel rearguard - and more specifically Lieutenant Colonel Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee's Legion - that subsequently encountered the British van. The first clash occurred at a place known as Bruce's Cross Roads, located seven miles northwest of Guilford Courthouse. After Lee and his men encountered Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton's British Legion at the leading edge of the British van, a skirmish ensued that resulted in the killing of Lee's unarmed bugler. The boy had unfortunately switched horses with a local Whig guide, and was subsequently run down by Tarleton's horsemen on his slower pony and "sabered several times while prostrate on the ground." (Babits and Howard, p. 32)

In the ensuing struggle, Lee's unit managed to capture several of the British dragoons, including company commander Captain Thomas Miller. And in a fit of rage over the manner of his bugler's death, Lee immediately ordered Miller's hanging. The British officer's execution was only stayed due to the arrival of the remainder of Tarleton's Legion on the scene, after which Miller and the others were taken as prisoners on Lee's retreat northwards. It is possible Miller's "saving force" included the Guards' Light Company, which had been serving under Tarleton since he lost the majority of his lights at the Battle of Cowpens in January. However, without a further direct evidence, it's difficult to say; the relatively numerous British losses (upwards of 18 that day compared to only Lee's bugler for the Continentals) were all dragoons, many of which were alleged to be drunk at the time the battle occurred.

Posthumous 1839 portrait by William Edward West of Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, who twice encountered the British vanguard on his mission to mislead and delay Cornwallis.

Later that same day, while Lee's men were taking their delayed breakfast on a shortcut designed to lead them to Irwin's Ferry forty miles northeast, they once again encountered the British van. This time, Cornwallis's advance troops under O'Hara (which included the Guards) had determined that Williams was misleading them to Dix's Ferry and resolved instead to find the shortest path to Irwin's crossing. Local guides led them down the very same shortcut Lee had chosen himself, and the O'Hara's men promptly surprised the Continental troops, who soon fled "at full run" for a nearby bridge across a swollen creek. It is here, however, that the British blundered; rather than give immediate chase, the British light troops (as Lee referred to them, in a possible reference to the Guards' Light Company) halted and reported back to their commander for instructions on how to form up. When they did resume the chase, Lee's men had crossed the nearby bridge and regained their headstart on a furious race to Irwin's Ferry. (Royster, pp. 11-13; Cole)

Lee describes in his memoirs a chase so close in distance that the two groups almost took on the appearance of single army:
More than once were the legion of Lee and the van of O'Hara within musket shot; which presented so acceptable an invitation to the marksmen flanking the legion, that they were restrained with difficulty from delivering their fire. This disposition being effectually checked, the demeanor of the hostile troops became so pacific in appearance, that a spectator would have been led to consider them members of the same army. Only when a defile or a water course crossed our route did the enemy exhibit any indication to cut off our rear: in which essays, being always disappointed, their useless efforts were gradually discontinued. (Lee, p. 290)
By the evening of February 14, Lee (who had rejoined Williams) arrived at the Dan and was among the last to cross (Greene had done so earlier in the day). The British were only several hours behind, with Tarleton's Legion arriving by the morning of the 15th and the remainder of the infantry vanguard under O'Hara (including the Guards) reaching the banks of the Dan by early that afternoon. In a final push to catch the rebel rearguard and possibly disrupt their crossing, Cornwallis at 4am on the 15th ordered his main force to shed all packs other than their canteens (Babits and Howard, p. 35). But it was all too late. He had lost the "Race to the Dan". Greene had safely reached his base of supply in Virginia. And Cornwallis could only look on from the other side.

Note: There is considerable debate about the exact dates for the skirmish at Bruce's Crossroads and Lee's "interupted breakfast" immediately following that skirmish. Williams' own dispatch from the afternoon of the 11th states it took place on that very day (Babits and Howard, p. 34), and thus gives Williams and Lee over three days to cover their forty miles. However, Lee's memoirs place the skirmishes on the 13th, a date that most modern narratives continue to use and which would mean he traveled those miles in just over 24 hours. A third version, as conveyed in the First Guards' own history (published in 1874), places the Guard's arrival at the Dan on the 12th and Greene's crossing the day before. In total, these discrepancies provide a fascinating insight into the roles that memory, simple historical error, and possible intentional distortions (a shorter timeline would make Lee's pace more impressive) play in the reconstruction of a past event.


Babits, Lawrence Edward and Joshua B. Howard (2009), Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press)

Cole, Ryan (2019),  Light Horse Harry Lee: The Rise and Fall of a Revolutionary Hero (Washington, DC: Regnery History)

Lee, Henry (1812), Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, in Two Volumes: Volume I (Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep)

Royster, Charles (1981), Light Horse Harry Lee and the Legacy of the American Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knofp, Inc.)