Battle of Cowans Ford – The beginning of the Race to the Dan
In the afternoon of January 31st Lt. Gen Charles Cornwallis split his army of 2,500 professional soldiers in two, giving Lt. Col Webster of the 33rd Regiment command of a demonstration force to occupy rebel attentions at Beatie’s Ford while he took the bulk of his Army to cross at Cowans Ford. The British army consisted of the elite Guards Brigade, the 71st Highlanders, the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers, 33rd Regiment, Tarleton’s Legion, a battery of Royal Artillery, a 19 man detachment from the 7th, Royal Fusiliers, and the Regiment Von Bose.
On the northern bank opposing Cornwallis were 300 NC militia under the command of Brig Gen Davidson. Gen Davidson had split his 500-man force between Beatie’s and Cowans ford, the bulk of which he placed at Cowans ford where he suspected the main British force would cross. Davidsons objective was to delay the British army and give Greene the time he needed to escape with his Continental army north towards Virginia and reinforcements.
Arriving at Cowans ford at dawn after an exhaustive march through near total darkness, rain, and in freezing temperatures, the British army slipped into the ice-cold waters of the Catawba river. Recent rains had swollen the Catawba to a width of over 400 yards and in some places was chest deep and it is into this obstacle that Col. Hall of the Guards led the Light Infantry and Grenadiers of his brigade. Followed by the rest of the army the Guards pressed on hoping to catch the rebels encamped on the opposite bank sleeping.
Having reached the middle of the river without incident a rebel sentry cried out and having heard no response fired his weapon. Soon the crack of muskets and rifle shots began to ring out from the opposite bank which only caused the men to increase there pace. Bullets began to whiz by and splash amongst the Guards. Within seconds the thunder and crash of Artillery could be heard coming from behind the Guards. The Royal Artillery had unlimbered two guns on the southern bank in an attempt to suppress the rebel positions and poured a galling fire onto the opposite bank. After some moments, the Guards gained the far bank and poured a murderous fire into the militia, killing Brig Gen Davidson and inflicting approximately 30 American casualties. With the full force of the British army streaming across the river the American position was untenable.
The militia, which Greene had hoped would cause a significant delay to Cornwallis’s approach, melted away and fled for there lives. The British were triumphant and quickly began to pursue Greene’s force but at the cost of Col. Hall and 36 other British casualties, all of whom where all from the Brigade of Guards. This action would commence the Race to the Dan river, where Gen Greene hoped to cross into Va and receive men and supplies substantial enough to resist the British army. The men of the Royal Fusiliers would take part in the race and would see sustained action in the forthcoming campaign which culminated in the battle of Guilford Courthouse.