George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Nathanael Greene, 15 February 1781

From Major General Nathanael Greene

Camp Irwin’s ferry1 on the Dan river Feb: 15th 1781.


I wrote your Excellency at Guilford Court House, giving you an account of our situation and of the measures devised by The Council of War.2 Since which we have been manouvring constantly in the face of the enemy, who pressed our rear every day. Finding our numbers and condition so unequal to the enemy that it would be too hazardous to risque a general action, and being pressed in point of time to get off our stores and baggage, notwithstanding I had orderd it to file off for Hillsborough when the Army began their march from Pedee, and the stores from Hillsborough to cross the Roanoke the moment I could satisfy myself that it was the intention of Lord Cornwallis to penetrate the upper Country, to gain time to effect this business, as well as give the Militia an opportunity to collect, I found it necessary to form as strong a covering party as possible which was commanded by Col. Williams who had orders to keep as near the enemy as he could without exposing the party too much and retard their march all in his power. His conduct upon the occasion does him the highest honor. Lord Cornwallis has been at our heels from day to day ever since we left Guilford and our movements from thence to this place have been of the most critical kind, having a river in our front, and the enemy in our rear. But happily we have crossed without the loss of either men or Stores. Much credit is due to Lt Col. Carrington on this occasion. The enemy are on the other side of the river and as it is falling, I expect it will be fordable before night and the fords are so numerous, and the enemy Lay in such an advantageous situation for crossing, that it would be a folly to think of defending them, as it would reduce our force to small parties which might prove our ruin. The miserable situation of the troops for want of clothing has rendered the march the most painfull imaginable, several hundreds of the Soldiers tracking the ground with their bloody feet. Your feelings for the suffering soldier had you been here, must have been pained upon the occasion.

The enemy’s movements have been so rapid and the Country under such terror that few or no Militia have joined us, and the greater part we had have fallen off.

Inclosed I send your Excellency the strength of the British Army, which you will see is much stronger than I had calculated upon in my last. This account I believe may be depended upon.3 tho’ I have not a shilling of money to obtain intelligence, notwithstanding my application to Maryland for money for this particular service,4 and your Excellency knows that good intelligence is the Soul of an Army, and ought to govern all it’s movements.

I have done every thing to call out the Militia of the upper country, and have kept Governor’s Nash & Jefferson as regularly advised of the state of matters as time and circumstances would permit. Nothing is yet done to give me effectual support and I am not a little apprehensive that it is out of the power of Virginia & North Carolina to afford it.

I must repeat again what I have said in several of my letters; that I fear nothing can save the Southern States but a good regular Army;5 and I am more confirmed of the importance of the Cavalry upon this occasion than ever I have been, tho’ strongly impressed with it before.

Should Lord Cornwallis cease his pursuit after this army I imagine he will file off for Hallifax, and endeavour to establish a post there; to prevent which I have sent Col. Kosciuszko to fortify it.6 That position would greatly awe Virginia and almost totally subject N. Carolina. If we can prevent his taking post there, and oblige him to fall down into the lower Country, he will reap little advantage from his movements. I wish it was in my power to give your Excellency more flattering accounts from this quarter; but I fear unless reinforcements come from the Northward, this will prove a devoted Country.7 However my utmost exertions shall be continued to save these states and shall be happy if my conduct meets with your approbation as my situation affords me no prospect of personal glory.

Lt Col. Lee made a charge upon the enemy’s advanced party a few days since and cut off the greater part of them, a Captain and several privates were made prisoners.8 The enemy move with great caution though with great rapidity, frequently performing marches of 30 Miles a day. My self and my Aids are almost worn out with fatigue, which prevents my giving you more frequent and particular accounts of our movements.

Our Army are in good Spirits, notwithstanding their sufferings and excessive fatigue.

I have had no further accounts from Willmington or the Baron Steuben since I wrote.9 I am With great respect Your Excellency’s Most Obedient Humble Servant

Nath. Greene

LS, enclosed in Samuel Huntington to GW, 5 March, DLC:GW; Df, NjP: De Coppet Collection; LB, DLC: Nathanael Greene Papers; copy, DNA:PCC, item 172. GW replied to Greene on 21 March (DLC:GW).

1Irwin’s Ferry in Halifax County, Va., was located ten miles southwest of Halifax Court House and ten miles west of the junction of the Staunton and Dan rivers.

3The undated enclosure headed “An estimate of the Enemies force advanced with Lord Cornwallis” listed the strength of Maj. Gen. Alexander Leslie’s “brigade of Hessians” as 1,000 men; Brig. Gen. Charles O’Hara’s brigade “of the Guards” as 600 men; Lt. Col. James Webster’s brigade, composed of the 23d and 33d regiments and the second battalion of the 71st regiment, as 800 men; Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion as 200 cavalry and 300 infantry; and Lt. Col. John Hamilton’s “N. Carolina loyalists” as 350 men. Cornwallis’s total force was estimated as 3,250 (DLC:GW; filed under 6 Jan.; see also n.2 above).

4Greene had requested £1,000 in specie (see Greene to Thomas Sim Lee, 10 Nov. 1780, in Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 6:473–75).

6See Greene to Thaddeus Kosciuszko, 16 Feb., in Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 7:296–97.

7In this sense, devoted means “Formally or surely consigned to evil or destruction; doomed” (OED description begins James A. H. Murray et al., eds. The Oxford English Dictionary: Being a Corrected Re-Issue with an Introduction, Supplement, and Bibliography of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. 12 vols. 1933. Reprint. Oxford, England, 1970. description ends ).

8For the report of this skirmish between a troop of Lt. Col. Henry Lee, Jr.’s dragoons and the advanced dragoons of the British army, see Otho Holland Williams to Greene, 11 Feb., in Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 7:283.

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