Traveling Light: The Guards Resupply in Wachovia

As part two in our series on the Brigade of Guards' 1781 "Road to Yorktown", this article continues their February 1781 chase through North Carolina on the heels of Morgan's "Flying Army", which would shortly be absorbed into the larger force of Major General Nathaniel Greene.  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 books Long Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse by Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard and With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783 by Matthew Spring.

In the days immediately following the Battle of Cowan's Ford, Lord Cornwallis continued his march northeastwards. Resting on February 2nd, the Guards set out the next day as part of the army's vanguard commanded by Brigadier General Charles O'Hara. They encountered the rebel rearguard at the Trading Ford on the Yadkin River, but Morgan's troops successfully crossed and left the British van on the far bank without boats of their own. Flooding prevented Cornwallis's forces from crossing there for several days, and the British commander chose to march 40 miles upstream and attempt a crossing at Shallow Ford instead. This took them on a path through several villages of North Carolina Moravians: namely, Bethania, Bethabara, and Salem.

View of SALEM in N. Carolina 1787, by Ludwig Von Redeken (1757-1797). Courtesy of Wachovia Historical Society.

These pacifist communities of roughly 80 to 170 people, originally from an area that is now part of the Czech Republic, had migrated south from Pennsylvania in the 1750s as part of a land grant they named "Wachovia". Passing through, the British Legion's Banastre Tarleton expressed admiration for his surroundings, remarking on the:
mild and hospitable disposition of the inhabitants, being assisted by the well-cultivated and fruitful plantations in their possession, afforded abundant and seasonable supplies to the King's troops during their passage through the district. (Babits and Howard, p. 27)
His last remarks are indeed key, as the British army was in desperate need of supply. Matthew Spring in particular goes to great lengths to describe the logistical challenges the British Army faced throughout the war. The closure of colonial markets to British purchasing agents had forced them to rely on resupply from the sea. Yet once supplies arrived, British forces were often too few in number to keep lines of communication safely open into the interior. As a consequence, British commanders found themselves closely tied to key supply nodes in major cities. (Spring, pp. 32-39)

Cornwallis therefore faced an acutely challenging situation when he found himself operating deep in the interior, far beyond these regular constraints. The North Carolina backwoods provided few opportunities for his troops to "live off the land". Yet, in order to transform them essentially into a light infantry force capable outrunning Morgan, Cornwallis had dramatically burned his army's baggage train (including his own personal belongings) in late January. This prompted O'Hara to make his famous remark that:
without baggage, necessaries, or provisions of any sort for officer or soldier, in the most barren inhospitable, unhealthy part of North America, opposed to the most savage, inveterate, perfidious, cruel enemy, with zeal and with bayonets only, it was resolved to follow Greene's army to the end of the world. (O'Hara to the Duke of Grafton, 20 April 1781, as in O'Hara p. 174)
Thus, in the course of their several days in Wachovia, the British prioritized food and supplies. They requisitioned cattle (killing 60 and seizing 30), sheep, geese, chickens, horses (for the artillery), brandy, bread, and rum. Interestingly, for all the men's need for the latter - Cornwallis also apparently dumped out the rum supply when the baggage was burned - the general was not about to let the situation get out of control. He stationed guards at local taverns and still-houses in order to keep the men in good order. (Babits and Howard, pp. 27-28)

Of note during all of this, Cornwallis was accompanied by Josiah Martin, the Royal Governor of North Carolina who had been living aboard the HMS Cruiser off the coast of the colony since the beginning of the war but joined up with British forces upon their arrival in the South in 1780. Fittingly, Martin had taken over the governorship in 1771 from William Tyron, who was also forced to live aboard a ship for some time as the Royal Governor of New York until British forces took that city in 1776.

Enamel Miniature of Josiah Martin, from the Mr and Mrs. John W. Starr Collection, Kansas City, Mo.

Temporarily restocked, and with literally the entire Royal Government of North Carolina in tow, British forces departed Salem on February 11th and continued their "Race to the Dan"...


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)

Rogers, George C., ed. (1964), "Letters of Charles O'Hara to the Duke of Grafton", The South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 65, No. 3, pp. 158-180

Spring, Matthew H. (2008), With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press)