Battle of Cowan’s Ford

The British Push Across the Catawba

Location


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Coordinates: 35.4280, -80.9596.

Type: Sight
Tour: Race to the Dan
County: Lincoln

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The coordinates take you to the Cowan’s Ford Dam viewing area. Sadly, the dam was probably built partially on the ford used by a British Army to cross the Catawba in 1781, wiping out a key part of the battlefield to the north. (Beattie’s Ford and the heights above it, mentioned on this page, were completely inundated.)

Man in a white tee shirt that says, "Just a Regulator Guy"

Context

After defeating and capturing much of a British/Loyalist army at the Battle of Cowpens (S.C.), Continental Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan is retreating north while the rest of the British give chase.

Situation

British/Tory

Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis’ army, after decamping from Ramsour’s Mill, attempted to cross the Catawba River at Beattie’s Ford north of here on Sunday, January 28, 1781. But the river was too high, and it fell back five miles to the plantation of Jacob Forney. The evening of the 30th, a small detachment under Col. James Webster moved back to that ford with artillery and the army’s wagons. Cornwallis hoped this would trick the Patriots into believing his entire army would cross there, and shift their part-time “militia” soldiers in the area to defend it. The combination of more rain coming and not knowing if the rest of the Continental Army would appear made him feel he must try to cross despite bad conditions.

Continental/Patriot

Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene ordered his main force to move to Beattie’s Ford from its camp on the Pee Dee River in South Carolina, called the Yadkin in N.C. He then apparently rode 110 miles over four days, with two aides and no guards, to Morgan’s camp at Sherrill’s Ford where Morgan’s force had crossed.[i] Some of those troops were defending Beattie’s, the best crossing, further south. Smaller detachments were guarding three other fords, including around 25 at Cowan’s Ford six miles downstream, backed up by 350 nearby under Brig. Gen. William Davidson. Greene, Morgan, and Davidson had met, supposedly on a log at Beattie’s Ford, to confer on the placements.

Date

Thursday, February 1, 1781.

Timeline

Imagine the Scene

Walk to the right back corner of the parking area, by the railing and transmission tower.

The river is a little high after several days of rain: two- to four-feet deep and 400–500 yards wide. It is dawn. Campfires flicker on the hillside across from the island (roughly behind the tower), hard to see through fog that fills most of the valley in front of you. That combines with the roar of the river to block both the view and the sound from the left side. The few American pickets on duty might have been invisible from here.

Photo of woods across a river, with the base of a transmission tower in the left foreground
Area of Patriot picket camp (AmRevNC photograph)

Look to the left of the dam. Depending on the time of year, you may get a better view by walking toward the other end of the railing.

The British army arrives by passing down a wagon road from the left (exact location unknown) to the ford below where the modern dam is. They left camp at the Forney plantation in the wee hours to do so at dawn. The British are led by a local Tory guide, Frederick Hager. They go into the water on this side of the dam’s location.

There are two routes to the other side of the ford. One shorter but deeper continues directly across the river and is mostly used by wagons. The more popular one called the “horse ford,” shallower and flatter, turns south partway across down to the island below you. From there it cuts diagonally about a third of the way down the right side, and then goes straight across the rest of the river from there. Most of the Patriot guards are sleeping at that location on the assumption that British forces would cross there. Indeed, given that Cornwallis had burned most of his wagon train at Ramsour’s Mill, Hager likely intended to use that landing.

Between the dam site and the island, the British march in small groups (platoons) into the water to help each other against the current. Because the bottom is rocky and deep at this part of the ford, many have picked up long poles or branches they use to probe the bottom ahead of them and steady themselves.

On the far side there is a narrow flat area, only five or six yards, at the base of the sharply rising river bank. The flat runs from the wagon ford landing to a small stream and ravine just north of the current dam on that side. Another set of pickets are there. A road leads toward you up the bank and then switches back to the top before turning east toward the Charlotte-Salisbury Road at Torrence’s Tavern.

Color drawing of three men in brown or green long coats with muskets,, and one in a green vest and white shirt with a flintlock pistol
Typical militia outfits

When Hagar and the first soldiers are about halfway across, a Patriot militiaman on the flat either sees movement or can hear them, and calls a challenge three times. Receiving no answer, he fires a warning shot and begins yelling, “The British!” Two dozen men there and at the camp wake up, join him, and open random fire.

A small cavalry unit under Col. Joseph Graham responds from the right. dismounting and running to the top of the bank above them, across the road. By then the first Redcoats are 50 yards out, half an American football field. The Graham company’s first volley thins out the front ranks in the water, halts the column, and scares Hager, who turns back. As the pickets join them, these Patriots begin firing at will, stepping back from the edge to reload and forward to shoot.

As more militia arrive, Lt. Col. William Polk yells down, “‘Fire away, boys! Help is at hand!'” Among them is a teacher, Robert Beatty, and some of his students, who had been camped at the lower crossing. Beatty has a disability that helps inspire them. As one wrote later in the terms used at the time, “‘I saw my lame schoolmaster Beatty loading his gun by a tree. I thought I could stand it as long as he could and commenced loading.'”[a]

British Lt. Col. Francis Hall rides up your side of the column and shouts orders. Not knowing about the horse ford, he simply orders his men straight across.

But Hall pays for his leadership with his life. A cavalry rifleman takes aim and shoots him. Both he and his horse go under, the horse possibly rolling over him. A few of his men grab his body. Hall is the only British officer to die here.

A British sergeant recorded the crossing in some detail, as retold in a history journal:

“Caught up in the fast moving current, Sgt. Lamb instructed his men to hold tightly to each other and ignore the bullets striking the water around them. In front of his group, in about four feet of water, one of the artillerymen lost his footing and started to thrash helplessly down the river. Recognizing the man as an irreplaceable part of the artillery unit, Lamb broke from his men and took off swimming downstream to rescue the gunner. All the firing stopped on both sides as men watched the pursuit. Lamb took about ten full strokes and grabbed the thrashing man. They struggled for a moment before the gunner found his footing and then pushed back against the current to regain their position with the column. Only at that point did the Americans return to their sniping.[1]

It was a bad trip for officer’s rides. The horse of the commanding officer of the assault, Brig. Gen. Charles O’Hara, loses its footing and tumbles them both 40 yards downstream.[2] Later Cornwallis’ horse is shot in the crossing, but struggles the rest of the way across before collapsing upon reaching the far side.

Photo of British soldiers in red coats, viewed from behind firing at Continental soldiers in the distance
Re-enactors exchanging fire (Dori / CC BY-SA 3.0 US [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en])

The disciplined Redcoats exit the water and eventually form a 500-foot line in good order on the flat, as Graham reports:

“As each section reached the shore, they dropped their poles and brought their muskets and cartridge boxes to their proper places, faced to the left, and moved up the narrow strip of low ground, to make room for the succeeding section, which moved on in the same manner. By the time the front rank got twenty or thirty steps up the river, they had loaded their pieces and began to fire up the bank.”[3]

Davidson had kept most of his forces at the Lucas House less than a mile away upriver to your right, where he could respond at one of several fords in the area. On hearing gunfire, he leads around 300 reinforcements here on horseback (this number may include Graham’s). You see some pickets remount their horses, and head down the far bank in your direction. Davidson has ordered them to another ford to prevent British cavalry from getting behind his infantry.

The last of the British infantry on the scene and first part of green-coated cavalry are in the river when you hear a horn sound from the far end of the British line. There is a pause in shooting from the British as they load. The horn sounds again, and the Redcoats start marching or climbing up the riverbank. The bank is so steep, especially on the far end at the ravine, in some cases they are pulling themselves up by exposed roots. Davidson withdraws his line another 50 yards and orders his men to take cover behind trees, one end probably within the current tree line your right.

Photo of the right side of the dam and the grassy leading up to it, with a railroad in the foreground
(AmRevNC photograph)

When the British reach the top, they fire a volley. Davidson is probably at the near end of his second line, around the picket camp,[b] when he is hit in the chest and falls from his horse, dead at 35. Polk takes command and withdraws the Patriots east, though many have already left on their own.

The British complete the crossing over the course of hours, camp overnight to the north of the Lucas house, and bury their (known) dead.

Battle Map

The Battle of Cowan’s Ford: All locations are approximate. 1) British approach and begin crossing while most Patriots sleep in camp. 2) British form line while pickets and Graham’s cavalry fire from top of bank. 3) As British climb bank and ravine, Patriots withdraw to second line; in ensuing volleys, Davidson is killed. 4) Patriots withdraw east.

Casualties

  • British: 4 killed, 36 wounded (per Cornwallis, but likely far higher—see below.)
  • Patriots: 4 killed, unknown wounded, 3 captured.

After the Battle

Later that morning, upon hearing Cornwallis was across, Greene orders Morgan’s army to retreat to Salisbury. He also sends word to his main army to head there if in condition to fight, and if not to go up the far side of the Yadkin to that area.

The British follow Morgan’s army the next day. After the British leave, two Patriots appear and find Davidson’s body. (One source reports it was partially in the river, but Graham’s biographer and grandson says it was where he fell.) The British had stripped it, and his wallet turns up 183 years later in London’s British Museum! That night, by torchlight, they bury him at Hopewell Presbyterian Church.

Cornwallis reports relatively few losses. But military records suggest he underestimated badly, probably because many casualties were swept downstream. A Patriot militiaman who lived in the area, Robert Henry, wrote, “a great number of British dead were found on Thompson’s fish-dam, and in his trap, and numbers lodged on brush, and drifted to the banks; that the river stock (sic) with dead carcasses; that the British could not have lost less than 100 men on that occasion.”

An 1888 source says something else interesting turned up the day after the battle: “an elegant beaver hat, made after the fashion of the day, and marked in the inside, ‘The property of Josiah Martin, Governor,’ was found floating on the Catawba River about ten miles below Cowan’s Ford.” Cornwallis reported that the colonial governor traveled with the army “cheerfully bearing all the hardships of camp life…”[4]

Red tee shirt saying "Do Whig Out!" on a parchment scroll

More Information


[i] Sherman 2007.

[1] Lynch 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Anderson 2018.

[4] Rumple 1916.

[a] Babits and Howard 2009.

[b] Graham 1904.

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