Fateful day at Trading Ford

In February 1781, Rowan was the site of a crucial encounter
between British troops and Nathanael Greene's patriot forces


DESPERATE FLIGHT: Gen. Nathanael Greene and his Continental troops escaped the British to fight another day.  portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, courtesy Independence NHP

FRUSTRATED PURSUIT: British Gen. Charles Cornwallis and his Redcoats were thwarted by a rising river.


By Ann Brownlee
For the Salisbury Post

Sunday, February 6, 2005


The destiny of a new nation would rest on their victories and defeats.   The American Colonies had declared their independence from, and taken up arms against, the British Crown.   This week marks the 224th anniversary of these events, which culminated at the Trading Ford on the Yadkin River.  The successful escape of Nathanael Greene’s Continental Army, whether by act of Providence, luck, or military skill, preserved the American army’s strength against the British, who would lose many of their number at Guilford Courthouse come mid-March, and surrender at Yorktown, Va. in October.


America’s War for Independence had moved into the south in full force the previous May when the British occupied Charleston.  The British Navy returned north, leaving the army under the command of Gen. Charles Cornwallis.  Cornwallis moved northward through South Carolina.  He won a decisive victory at Camden in August.  But as he entered North Carolina in October, his forces met a significant defeat at Kings Mountain, and he retreated south again, settling in to winter at Winnsboro, S.C.


The American forces looked to an unlikely new leader, a Quaker from Rhode Island.  Gen. Nathanael Greene had assumed command of the Southern Army.  In a daring move, he divided his forces, hoping the British General would follow suit.  While Greene’s main force wintered in camp on Hicks Creek, near the Pee-Dee River just south of the North and South Carolina border, Gen. Daniel Morgan led an ever-shifting force through western North Carolina.


The Brits rose to the bait.  The brash and cocky Banastre “Bloody” Tarleton pursued Morgan, only to be defeated in a virtual ambush at the Cow Pens in mid-January.  From there, for the next two months, the two armies raced for the river crossings, as Greene led Cornwallis across the heart of North Carolina and away from his base of supply in Charleston.  At Ramseur’s Mill, west of the Catawba, Cornwallis destroyed most of his wagons and baggage and equipped his army as light infantry.  The two forces next exchanged fire across the fords of the Catawba River north of Charlotte. 


With only a small escort, Greene left Hick’s Creek and joined Daniel Morgan at Oliphant’s Mill near Sherrill’s Ford on the Catawba.  From there, he sent for his main army, and hoped to reunite his forces at Salisbury and face Cornwallis there.  Morgan and his light infantry headed from Beattie’s Ford toward Salisbury, to the east, on January 31st.  The militia remained to guard the Catawba River fords, where the British crossed the next day.  While the Whig militia took a considerable toll on the British soldiers crossing at Cowan’s Ford, their loss of their own Gen. William Lee Davidson, much loved among the ranks, dispirited the patriot troops. 


Nathanael Greene remained near the Catawba, and made arrangements to meet the militia at the home of David Carr, on the road between Beattie’s Ford and Salisbury, on Coddle Creek, the night of February 1st.  Those he awaited never came.  A scant six miles away, some of the militia, along with fleeing civilians who clogged the roads, were ambushed by “Bloody” Tarleton at Torrence’s Tavern.  Greene left for Salisbury after midnight.


CROSSING INTO HISTORY: This map of Rowan county shows the probable routes taken by British and Revolutionary forces leading up to their confrontation at Trading Ford.  While Gen. Greene's army made it across the Yadkin River, the British were forced to turn back and take a more northerly course.


The most direct route for Morgan and his 1800 men was east along the old Beattie’s Ford Road to its junction with the Trading Path, by this time called the Great Road.  From there, the road roughly followed the route north now taken by the railroad paralleling Highway 29.  His men were poorly supplied: some wore little more than loincloths, and the bare feet of many left bloody footprints in the red clay.  According to Lt. Thomas Anderson's journal, the march was difficult, "every step up to our Knees in Mud it raining On us all the Way."  Greene followed the same route a day later.


The route taken by the British, numbering 2500 to 3000, has long befuddled historians, made more enigmatic by the British difficulty with American names.  On the night of February 1st, according to "A British Orderly Book," they camped at "Cross Roads to Salisbury", and a map by Joseph Graham shows that location a few miles east of Beattie's Ford.  The following day the British forces burned patriot John Brevard's house and several other houses on their march.  The "British Orderly Book" records camp on February 2nd at "Canthard's Plantation" and "Cossington."  It is not certain if these are two places, or variant names for one place.  According to several records, this location was about 20 miles south of Salisbury.  The British marched at 7:00 the morning of the 3rd.  Two incidents were reported in the vicinity of the junction of the old Beatty’s Ford Road and the Trading Path or Great Road, indicating that as the route taken by some of the British.  At Savitz Mill on Grant’s Creek (near the new South Rowan library), William Armstrong with eight men encountered “42 footmen and 15 dragoons” on a foraging raid, who retreated after a short skirmish.  Nearby, British soldiers entered the home of John Phifer, where seven-year-old Margaret successfully pled that they spare the house.  But what of the route of the main British army?  Could Canthard’s have been Cathey’s, putting the army on a road roughly equivalent to Highway 150? 


General Greene arrived in Salisbury on February 2nd, without the militia he had hoped to rendezvous with at David Carr’s, feeling the loss of General Davidson, and disappointed that the main army, moving north up the Pee-Dee /Yadkin River, had not reached the county seat.  At Steele’s Tavern he encountered his physician Dr. Read, who inquired of his well-being.  “Fatigued, hungry, alone, and penniless” was the General’s reply.  Elizabeth Maxwell Steele, the mistress of the tavern, overheard his remark.  After bringing a comfortable breakfast, she presented the commander two small bags of specie [coins].  “Take these, for you will want them, and I can do without them.”  Before he left the tavern, Gen. Greene, encouraged by Mrs. Steele’s generosity, turned about a portrait of King George hanging on the wall and wrote on the back, “O George, Hide thy face and mourn.”  The portrait of the King, with Greene’s inscription still visible on the back, is kept in the heritage room at Thyatira Church.


FEMALE PATRIOTISM: Elizabeth Maxwell Steele hands a dispirited General Greene two bags of coins.  Engraving by J. B. Hall, from painting by Alonzo Chappel, published  in J. A. Spencer’s History of the United States, 1858.

 A plea for aid


Salisbury in 1781 was a small frontier town which served as the military headquarters for western North Carolina.  A laboratory produced cartridges, and could have made other military supplies.  A shoe factory was located here.  Cloth was given to the women of the area, who sewed it into garments and were paid in salt.  Nathanael Greene was appalled to find in Salisbury “1700 stand of Continental Arms in one Store, kept for the use of the Militia, in the most miserable order you [can] imagine.”  The General wrote a letter to the residents of Salisbury, imploring their aid, especially asking for wagons to transport supplies.


Generals Greene and Morgan spent the remainder of the 2nd and all of the 3rd moving their men, the Salisbury District supplies, the Cowpens prisoners who arrived via a different route, and fleeing civilians across the Yadkin River at the Trading Ford, six miles east of Salisbury.  For two days all the boats which could be mustered plied back and forth across the muddy brown waters.


Their task was nearly complete by the end of the day on the 3rd, dusk according to Joseph Graham, midnight according to Tarleton.  All were across except about 100 Virginia militia, under Major David Campbell and a small party of North Carolina Militia Horse under Col. John Luttrell, and a few baggage and civilian wagons.  The British had reached Salisbury late in the day.  The vanguard of the British army, the Brigade of Guards - 1st and 2nd battalions - and the Van Bose Regiment, about 800 men under Col. Tarleton and Gen. Charles O'Hara, pressed on to the Trading Ford, where they were in time to catch Greene's rear guard still on the near side.


 “The militia were drawn up near a half mile from the ford, where a branch crosses which was covered with small timber and bushes, and there was an old field along the road in their front,” recorded Joseph Graham’s account.  “The American position was low along the branch, under shade of the timber; that of the advancing foe was open and on higher ground, and between them and the sky, was quite visible.  When they came within sixty steps, the Americans commenced firing, the enemy returned it and began to form in line.  As their rear came up, they extended their line to the right, and were turning the left flank of the militia by crossing the branch above.  This being discovered, a retreat was ordered after having fired, some two, some three rounds.  It was easily effected in the dark.  They passed down the river two miles and crossed over, abandoning the baggage and other wagons which could not be gotten over, to the enemy, after taking out the horses.  Two of the militia were killed; the loss of the enemy was not known, but from appearances of blood in different places, believed to be ten or twelve.  ... After the firing ceased, the British marched on to the river, but found the water was too deep to ford, and still rising, and that General Morgan, encamped on the other side, had with him all the boats and canoes." The British captured the wagons, which Tarleton described as "waggons and stores belonging to country people."


River rises


It has always been believed in this area that the Yadkin River rose suddenly after Greene crossed.  Again, eye-witness accounts differ.  Joseph Graham’s account agrees with our local tradition.  However, Gen. Edward Stevens of Virginia, who led the Cowpens prisoners, wrote that the river was high on the 2nd.  All that is certain is that, by the time the British reached the Yadkin, it was too high to ford, and all the boats were on the far shore. 


General O'Hara "took post with the infantry on the ground which commanded the ford and ferry," where he remained until the 6th.  The cavalry returned to Salisbury.


On February 4th, the entire British army reached the south bank of the Yadkin.  Cornwallis was eager to engage Greene's army, but was separated from them by the width of the swollen river.  He installed his artillery atop the nearest bluff of the "Heights of Gowerie", and furiously cannonaded the opposite shore.  According to Dr. William Read's eye-witness account, the American Commander had taken up quarters in a cabin not far from the river.  He tended to correspondence while cannon balls flew about him.    Historians have always thought that Morgan had no artillery with him.  However, a field piece had been ordered left at nearby Camp Yadkin Ford the previous fall.   Greene's forces may have had the means to return the British fire.  At some point, the British abandoned their futile attack and returned to Salisbury.  From Salisbury, on February 4th, Cornwallis wrote to Greene complaining that he had heard reports of "cruelties" to the Cowpens prisoners, and that he was "shocked" to find the British prisoners in the Salisbury jail had been "denied common sustenance."


Morgan's light infantry left the Trading Ford on the 4th.  Greene remained until late in the day, when the receding river level made a retreat prudent.  The British remained in Salisbury until the 6th, when they set out for the Shallow Ford, 40 miles to the north.


The successful crossing at the Trading Ford was strategically important to Greene.  Had his forces, inferior in number, been caught by the British army before or during crossing, with their backs to the river, the result could have been disastrous.  Indeed, the course of the war would inevitably have been altered.  In addition, he gained much needed distance from the British army, which had been close behind at the Catawba.  This allowed him the time he needed to reunite his forces and move them safely across the Dan River in Virginia later in February.  After two months of dogging Greene’s steps, Cornwallis would face his adversary at Guilford Courthouse on March 15th.


In commemoration of events at the Trading Ford and the perceived Divine protection of the U.S. army, Rowan County later named the township in this area "Providence," a still-present reminder of events of February 1781.  On October 19, 1929, citizens of Davidson county and the North Carolina Historical Commission dedicated a monument to Greene's Trading Ford crossing.  It was situated on a 1.1 acre lot, which included the still-existing road over which Greene's forces passed.  It's bronze plaque reads:

















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