Continentals and British Play Cat-and-Mouse
Tour: Guilford Battle
Park in the tiny lot for High Rock Park at the coordinates, in a forest next to the Haw River.
You are probably in part of the Continental Army camp here. Seeing the ford requires a short walk on a rough dirt trail with possible obstacles.
Continental Brig. Gen. Nathanael Greene has returned to North Carolina from Virginia after withdrawing there to regroup in early 1781, and is changing his army’s position frequently in hopes of delaying his planned confrontation with the British.
British Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis was trying to pin down Greene. He generally kept his army in the vicinity of modern Burlington and moved north when getting intelligence on Greene’s location.
For two weeks, the American army spent no more than two nights in any one camp, trying to avoid a direct confrontation with Cornwallis. Greene is collecting as many part-time “militia” units as he can before the battle, and many N.C. and Virginia companies are on their way.
Thursday, March 1–Tuesday, March 13, 1781.
Imagine the Scene
Take the trail toward the river, by the information panel on the right side of the lot. Near a historical marker, take the fork to the right, which leads under the bridge to a second marker. Stop near there.
A little farther down the trail is the “High Rock” on the right, with part of a post-Revolution mill dam between it and the river. On Thursday, March 1, 1781, a few days after leaving Virginia, Greene’s army arrives by a wagon road on or near today’s High Rock Road from the northeast (your side of the river). The 1,400 regular Continental soldiers, and perhaps 600 part-time “militia” soldiers, set up a very temporary camp. It probably runs along both sides of the road and spills out beside the river, the only water source. Most of the enlisted men apparently sleep in the open; Greene “had brought only a few wagons with him when he recrossed the Dan and only enough tents were carried to shelter the firearms in the event of a steady rain.”[a] A 1754 mill, probably closer to the sign, provides flour.
Walk to the river by the mill dam.
The ford may have been here, though this is speculation. The Haw River was modified for the later mills, but the shallow rapids by the current wall could be the ford of the time. The indentations on the far side suggest a wagon road might have been there at some point.
The comings and goings of the next few days are almost comical:
- Greene’s army leaves the day after arriving, heading southwest.
- The day after, Saturday, he returns from the south and camps here again for one night.
- On Wednesday, Cornwallis’ army of 2,440 men plus camp followers marches up the road to this spot, hoping to catch Greene. He doesn’t realize his route passed Greene’s by less than six miles (on or near modern McLeansville Road, to the west of High Rock Road).
- The British army camps overnight and leaves Thursday morning.
- Thursday evening an American “light corps” under Col. Otho Williams, which is screening Greene from Cornwallis, arrives hoping to catch the British. (A light corps was made up of men selected for endurance and ability, also used to scout and raid.) They had missed each other along the road by hours. Williams camps for the night.
Over 11 days, Green’s army ranges from southwest of today’s Burlington to the north of modern McLeansville to a full-day’s march northwest of here. This serves the dual purpose of providing protection for the militia and keeping Cornwallis unsure of Greene’s location. The army reappears down the road from the parking lot side on Saturday the 10th, having marched to a campsite further north the day before. From the south, the cavalry of Lt. Col. “Light Horse” Henry Lee arrives. He informs Greene that Cornwallis has camped to the southwest, nearer to modern Greensboro. Perhaps more gratifying to Greene are the 1,000 North Carolina militia units awaiting him here as instructed, from area and Coastal Plain counties.
They all move northeast to Troublesome Creek Ironworks, upstream on the Haw, on Sunday. However, more militia arrive here, and Greene comes back with the army to pick them up on Monday.
He also uses an open space somewhere in the area, probably farmland, to train the militia. Evidently, it is needed. One man explained later, “‘We paraded several times, and at last fired in platoons and battalions; in doing which one of the North Carolina militia was shot through the head; a bullet glancing from a tree struck (George) Moore on the head of our battalion.’” They camp overnight and then take the southern route back to the ironworks.
Perhaps it is here that Greene tries to play a practical joke on one of the militia colonels, and instead gets a compliment, according to an 1871 biography by the general’s grandson. Passing the tent of Col. John Green of Virginia at some point in this period, he hears the colonel snoring. He goes in and shakes Green’s shoulder. “‘Good heavens, Colonel, how can you sleep with the enemy so near, and this the very hour for a surprise?’”
Col. Green forces open his eyes, recognizes his commander, and answers, “‘Why, General, I knew that you were awake.’”
The biography explains: “When the labours of the day were over, and the evening and part of the night had been passed in writing, (Greene) would throw himself upon his camp-bed, and springing to his feet at the first streak of dawn, go the rounds of the whole army, and visit every sentinel at his post.”
Contrary to an information marker near the ford, the militia army of Royal Gov. William Tryon did not camp here in 1771 after defeating pre-Revolutionary rebels called the Regulators. The marker’s author confused this spot with another High Rock Ford, at what now is the town of Haw River, on the other side of Burlington.
- Anderson, William, ‘American Revolution Sites, Events, and Troop Movements’, Elehistory Research, 2020 <http://elehistory.com/amrev/SitesEventsTroopMovements.htm> [accessed 16 March 2020]
- Babits, Lawrence, and Joshua Howard, Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009)
- Barefoot, Daniel, Touring North Carolina’s Revolutionary War Sites (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1998)
- EleHistory Research, ‘American Revolution Sites, Events, and Troop Movements’, 2019 <http://elehistory.com/amrev/SitesEventsTroopMovements.htm> [accessed 16 March 2020]
- Greene, George Washington, The Life of Nathanael Greene: Major-General in the Army of the Revolution (G. P. Putnam and Son, 1871)
- Rankin, Hugh F., The North Carolina Continentals (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1971)
- Schenk, David, North Carolina 1780-1: History of the Invasion of the Carolinas (Raleigh, N.C.: Edwards & Broughton, 1889)
 Anderson 2020.
 Babits and Howard 2009.
 Greene 1871.
 Tryon’s journal says his army marched from High Rock Ford to Hillsborough in one day, on the route that today is roughly US 70 and runs by the Haw River (town) ford (see Tryon’s March). This ford is too far away and too far north, while the distance and road description fit the one at Haw River. So does his reported overall distance from Bethabara where he started (Powell, William Stevens, ed., The Correspondence of William Tryon and Other Selected Papers [Raleigh, N.C.: Division of Archives and History, Dept. of Cultural Resources, 1980] <http://archive.org/details/correspondenceof1981tryo> [accessed 16 November 2020].)
[a] Rankin 1971.