On the blustery afternoon of February 14, 1781, General Nathanael Greene’s starving, exhausted, and outnumbered army crossed the Dan River, narrowly escaping destruction by a British Army led by General Charles Cornwallis. Referred to as “The Race to the Dan,” this relatively unknown series of engagements and epic escape had a profound effect on the course of the American Revolution.
Following the disastrous American defeats at Charleston and Camden, S.C., in 1780, the Revolution tilted in favor of the Crown. The British Southern strategy appeared unstoppable, and even America’s French allies considered pulling the plug. To stem the British tide, Washington sent Greene, his most able general, to rehabilitate the army and save the South. Boldly, Greene divided his army. One wing, the Flying Army, commanded by the legendary Daniel Morgan, won a crushing victory at Cowpens, capturing hundreds of British prisoners. Cornwallis was bent on avenging his losses and, if possible, liberating his imprisoned men. One British officer summed up Cornwallis’s quest to annihilate his foe: “With zeal and with bayonets only it was resolved to follow Greene’s Army to the end of the world.”
They had first squared off against Cornwallis at Brooklyn, in one of the most important small-unit actions in American history. During the Battle of Brooklyn, the war nearly came to an end, but the Marylanders’ near-suicidal bayonet charge allowed Washington’s army to escape destruction. Scores of Marylanders perished that day and were buried in what is now a residential area in Brooklyn — though the exact location of this mass grave remains a mystery to this day. Initially composed of “men of family, fortune, and honour” who were some of the most prosperous in America, the Immortals eventually became an integrated unit of different classes and races. Free African Americans, such as Maryland Private Thomas Carney, participated in some of the greatest battles of the war. In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day 235 years ago, Washington’s Immortals would once again play a pivotal role in enabling the young American army to evade its veteran enemy and live to fight another day.
The Immortals endured unimaginable hardships during the Race to the Dan. They faced one of the most formidable and adaptable armies in the world, which was determined to exterminate them. The Immortals also weathered incessant frigid rain and snow that transformed roads into a quagmire of muck and filth; as one soldier described it, “Every step being up to our Knees in Mud . . . raining on us all the way.” The barefoot men were soaked to the bone, and some left a trail of bloody footprints. Greene himself noted, “One half of our number are naked.”
Greene and the Immortals were always just a whisker ahead of Cornwallis, who was doggedly pursuing the American army. Their flight was part of Greene’s larger strategy of wearing down his opponent through all the marching and skirmishing as they pushed north toward Virginia. Greene did not have enough men for a stand-up fight, but was hoping to receive additional reinforcements after crossing the Dan River. He dispatched his quartermaster general, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Carrington, to collect all available boats on the Dan. The small craft would ferry the Americans across, and without any additional boats at their disposal, the British would be stranded in North Carolina, on the far side of the river.
To distract Cornwallis, Greene divided his army, and a screening force under the command of Marylander Otho Holland Williams, combined with Light Horse Harry Lee’s cavalry, lured Cornwallis away from the point where the rest of the American army planned to cross the Dan.
The distraction worked. At 2:00 p.m. on February 14, 1781, Williams received a dispatch from Greene that the bulk of the Americans had made it safely across the Dan. Hearing the news, the Immortals let out a cheer and “the whole corps became renovated in strength and agility; so powerful is the influence of the mind over the body.” His exhausted men covered a staggering 40 miles in 20 hours to reach the Dan, beating the pursuing British by mere hours.
The valiant efforts of these resolute men in one of the great retrograde actions in military history led to their salvation on Valentine’s Day, and depleted Cornwallis’s ranks. The power of an idea, the concept of freedom, drove unpaid volunteers to march, often barefoot and naked, thousands of miles to fight a war against tyranny — a war they seemingly could not win. Yet, they prevailed, and weeks later, Greene’s reinforced army recrossed the Dan to confront Cornwallis’s attenuated army at a small North Carolina town, Guilford Courthouse.
— Patrick K. O’Donnell is a best-selling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of ten books, of which Washington’s Immortals is the newest. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickODonnell.com @combathistorian