Episode 065

The Battle of Cowan’s Ford

On January 17, Cornwallis was on the move. He sent Tarleton to meet Morgan; they clashed at Cowpens and Morgan gave the British cavalry a resounding defeat. Now Cornwallis, smarting at this new setback started in determined pursuit of Morgan, who began retreating toward Mecklenburg.

On January 17, Cornwallis was on the move. He sent Tarleton to meet Morgan; they clashed at Cowpens and Morgan gave the British cavalry a resounding defeat.

Now Cornwallis, smarting at this new setback started in determined pursuit of Morgan, who began retreating toward Mecklenburg. As Morgan kept safely ahead of the British commander, Greene at Cheraw ordered his force under Huger to march northward toward Salisbury and he himself rode northwestward toward Charlotte to join Morgan, who had written him that a continuing ailment in his hip would make necessary his taking a leave of absence from his command. “I am not unacquainted with the hurt my retiring will be to the service, as the people have so much dependence in me,” he wrote Greene; “but the love I have for my country, and the willingness I have always showed to serve it, will convince you that nothing would be wanting on my side were I able to persevere. So that I must beg leave of absence, till I find myself able to take the field again.” He assured Greene that “Gen. Davidson, Col. Pickens and Gen. Sumter” could “manage the militia better than I can, and will well supply my place.”

Meanwhile, during the preceding many weeks, Davidson had been riding the district enlisting recruits to fill the places of those men whose terms of enlistment had expired. On learning that Cornwallis was again on the move, he had sent out orders for the militia to meet at Charlotte on January 10. The victory of Morgan at Cowpens a week later, in which many of the men sent by Davidson to Morgan had fought, had given to the Americans a resurgence of hope and confidence. But even yet, 2 weeks after the Charlotte muster and a week after Cowpens, Davidson wrote Greene that he was “distressed on account of the Smallness of our Resources and the Want of propper Ecconomy.” But he was still anxious to attack the enemy, even though by Greene’s appointment of Col. ?? Davie to be his commissary-general, Davidson would not have the services of that daring and resourceful cavalry leader.

In this new venture into North Carolina, Cornwallis was careful to avoid a second encounter with the Mecklenburg hornets. He swung to the left and came northward west of the Catawba. It was late in January now. For 3 days he camped at Ramsour’s Mill, where he was joined by Tarleton.

On January 28, he marched eastward toward the river to Jacob Forney’s; there for another 3 days his hungry troops feasted on the affluent Forney’s cattle and sheep, hogs and chickens, while they waited for the swollen waters of the Catawba to subside. Before establishing his camp at Forney’s, some 4 miles from the river, he had ventured to Beatties Ford but had fount it impassable because of the raging current. On the other side of the river, too, he had been informed, were Americans awaiting him at all the fording places. Above Beatties were McEwen’s and Sherrill’s, and below were Cowan’s, Tool’s, and Tuckassege.

The task of the Americans, spaced thinly along the eastern bank, was to anticipate Cornwallis’ crossing strategy and slow his advance in order to give Morgan, already impeded by the prisoners and supplies he had taken at the Cowpens, more time to conduct an orderly retreat. Cornwallis, on the other hand, would be trying by a surprise maneuver to get across the river with a minimum number of casualties and as quickly as possible.

On January 31, Cornwallis made his move. It had begun to rain again and the British commander felt that to delay longer might mean the loss of any chance to overtake and destroy Morgan’s forces. He made a move to indicate he was planning to cross at Beatties Ford by sending Lt. Col. Webster and a detachment of British to “make every possible demonstration by cannonading and otherwise, of an intention to force a passage there,” he would write some six weeks later.

On February 1, at 1:00 A.M., he would march down the river to Cowan’s Ford, where he planned his major drive to cross the stream. Meanwhile, Greene had arrived at the Catawba and with Washington had visited Morgan and Davidson at Beatties Ford and planned his strategy. Though no records of this meeting reveal what was said, it is evident by what immediately followed that Greene directed Davidson, who had placed his men at the various fords along the eastern bank, to do what he could to slow Cornwallis’ crossing. And then he and Morgan set out towards Salisbury.

Soon after they left him, Davidson dispatched a company of cavalry under Col. Joe Graham, who had by now recovered from his wounds at Sugaw Creek in late September, and infantry led by Col. William Polk, southward 4 miles to Cowan’s Ford. Graham was to keep a patrol on the move to see that the British did not make a surprise crossing under cover of darkness. Toward nightfall, Davidson himself led a detachment to Cowan’s Ford and set up camp a half mile or so back from the river, but he assigned a picker to watch from the water’s edge the Cowan’s crossing point.

At 1:00 A.M., Cornwallis reveals in his own account of the skirmish at “McCowan’s ford,” he began his march to the river, which was reached after much difficulty and the loss of some of their cannon, “the morning being very dark and rainy & part of our way through a wood where there was no road.” But instead of going to Beatties Ford, which his actions there during the day had indicated he would try to force, he moved down the river to Cowan’s. This was actually 2 fords; one, the horse ford, though shallower than the other, was longer, because it crossed the stream obliquely; the other, called the wagon ford, went straight across the river.

Davidson evidently feared that Tarleton’s troops might, in the darkness of a winter’s night, slip across the Catawba and get behind him, from which position they could attack him as the British infantry began its crossing. So he stayed well back from the river bank opposite to the point where the horse ford emerged on the Mecklenburg side. Meanwhile, the pickets huddled on the bank at the eastern end of the wagon ford.

It was nearing daybreak when Cornwallis reached Cowan’s Ford and, hardly hesitating, began crossing the swollen stream. A man named Frederick Hager, a Tory who lived in the vicinity, was serving as the guide for the British force. Hager led them straight across along the wagon ford and soon the horses were over their heads in the raging torrent. The pickets on the eastern bank were asleep, but the noise of the British crossing awakened them and their firing brought Davidson and his men racing toward the wagon ford.

For a few minutes, the action was lively. The militiamen were picking off many British struggling in the water. The return fire was heavy, and hardly had Davidson arrived when he was struck from his horse. In a few minutes, several other Americans were killed. The British loss was greater, but the skirmish proved a defeat for the Americans. Their resistance hardly slowed Cornwallis’ advance. It would be recorded, however, as the last battle with an invader on Mecklenburg soil. In the Fall, on October 19, Cornwallis would surrender to Gen. George Washington’s Army at Yorktown, Virginia.

Late that evening, Davidson’s body, stripped and rain drenched, was found by David Wilson, brother-in-law of his kinsman, Maj. John Davidson, Pastor Thomas McCaule of Centre Church, and Richard Barry. They took the body to the home of David’s widowed stepmother, Mrs. Samuel Wilson.

Fortunately, they were able to dress the body in a suit left there by Capt. James Jack, Mrs. Wilson’s brother. That night by torchlight, with Pastor McCaule conducting the brief service and with Mary Brevard Davidson standing stalwart beside the red clay grave, Davidson was buried in Hopewell Presbyterian churchyard, which was located on Beattie’s Ford Road, approximately 5 miles south of the battlefield.

Davidson had been killed by a rifle ball through the heart. Frederick Hager’s rifle, said the neighbors, shot such a ball.

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