George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Nathanael Greene, 28 February 1781

From Major General Nathanael Greene

Head Quarters High rock ford on Haw river,1
Guilford County [N.C.] Feb: 28th 1781.


I did myself the honor to write your Excellency on the 15th Inst., when I was endeavouring to collect a body of Militia to reinforce this Army.2 But the enemy early on the 19th filed off to Hillsborough, where Lord Cornwallis issued a proclamation, a copy of which is enclosed, and made use of every art to induce the people to join him.3 To prevent his success in the execution of this business, which we had every reason to believ[e] he would accomplish I was obliged to recross the Dan river before the Militia could be assembled. This was effected the 23d and with great difficulty we have reached this place.

The scarcity of provision, which is rendered more distressing by the loose and irregular manner in which the Militia of this Country take the field is not only embarrassing but very alarming. The want of penal Laws to oblige the inhabitants to supply themselves with Arms and Accoutrements, renders the aid of the Militia precarious and almost useless.

I am anxiously waiting the arrival of Col. Wm Campbell who is expected to join us with a respectable body of mounted rifle men, which will enable this army to approach the enemy with greater confidence, and effectually to harrass their rear.4

Lord Cornwallis evacuated Hillsborough on the 26th, moved on the road to Guilford Court house and crossed the Haw river at Trolinger’s ford 20 Miles below this place last night. His route and his object are uncertain, but circumstances lead to a belief that he will move towards Cross creek; by which I fear he will collect a very large number of the disaffected inhabitants.5

I have recieved no accounts from Genl Sumter, but wish he may be able in conjunction with Genl Marion to destroy some of the enemy’s small posts in S. Carolina, and prevent the accomplishment of their designs in that Country. The enemy have ordered two Regts of Negroe’s to be immediately embodied, and are drafting a great proportion of the young men of that State to serve during the War.6

We have the most unequivocal and full evidence of the disaffection of a great part of this State. The enemy have raised seven independant companies in a single day; and we have the mortification to find that most of the prisoners we take are inhabitants of America. The Legislature, I am informed, have passed a Law for drafting 2700 Men for 12 Months, but they cannot attempt to carry it into effect while the enemy continue in the State.7

Our detachments have been successfull in several attempts upon the enemy’s pickets, having killed and wounded about 30 and made twenty prisoners without any loss. Genl Pickens with a body of mounted rifle men, and Lt Col. Lee with the Cavalry of his Legion were detached to endeavour to harrass the enemy, and being informed that Lt Colonel Tarlton had passed the Haw river near Genl Butler’s plantation,8 they immediately went in pursuit of him, but unfortunately came up with a body of upwards of 200 of Col. Hambleton’s Corps9 and the N. Carolina tories10 three miles in his rear, who were to have joined him that evening. The General attempted to pass by them as a detachment of the British Army, which the Legion succeeded in, but when the Militia came up the enemy discovered their mistake, which obliged our troops to charge them, in doing which some of the Militia, could not be prevented from firing, which alarmed Col. Tarlton and gave him an opportunity to escape. The whole of the enemy were routed in a few minutes, and the greater part of them left dead on the ground. Col. Piles and several Officers were among the number.11

The want of supplies in this Country, the superiority of the enemy and the mode in which the Militia do duty, are alarming circumstances at this critical period, and unless the most vigorous exertions are made in the Southern States we cannot be relieved. Of the12 troops raised by the State of Virga last Summer, 400 are now at Chesterfield Court house naked and unable to march. But the Baron Steuben has detained some clothing coming from Phila. which will enable him to send them forward immediately. They were raised for 18 Months, but the greater part of the time will expire before they join the Army. I wish these States could have been convinced, of the loss they sustain by short enlistments.

Your Excellency’s letter of the 2d Inst. with the enclosed Acts of Congress was handed me the 20th I am convinced that Col. Armand’s Legion can render no service on its’ present footing. The Officers refuse to go on duty with the men, thirty eight out of a detachment of 40 men deserted to the enemy, and the Baron Steuben was obliged to order a number of them to join their Regts who are prisoners at Charlotville.

The Militia of the back Country have returned from their expedition having destroyed most of the Towns belonging to the Cherokee Indians. I have Commissioned a number of the principal Inhabitants to treat with the Cherokee and Chikesaw nations on terms of accomodation subject to the determination of Congress;13 a copy of their instructions I shall enclose as early as possible. I have the honor to be With esteem and respect Your Most Obedient Humble Servant.

Nath. Greene

LS, DLC:GW; Df, MiU-C: Greene Papers; LB, DNA:PCC, item 172; copy, DNA:PCC, item 155. GW replied to Greene on 21 March (DLC:GW).

1High Rock Ford across the Haw River was eighteen miles northeast of Guilford Courthouse and about thirty miles northwest of Hillsborough, North Carolina.

3The enclosed copy of British lieutenant general Charles Cornwallis’s 20 Feb. “Proclamation” to North Carolinians reads: “Whereas it has pleased the divine Providence to prosper the operations of his Majesty’s Arms, in driving the Rebel Army out of this Province, and Whereas it is his Majesty’s most generous wish, to rescue his faithfull and loyal subjects from the cruel Tyranny under which they have groaned for several years, I have thought proper to issue this Proclamation to invite all such loyal and faithfull subjects to repair without loss of time with their Arms and ten days provisions to the Royal Standard now erected at Hillsborough, where they will meet with the most friendly reception, and I do hereby assure them that I am ready to concur with them in effectual measures for surpressing the remains of rebellion in this Province, and for the reistablishment of good order and Constitutional Government” (DLC:GW).

4Col. William Campbell brought only about sixty men (see his letter to Greene of 2 March, 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 , 7:380–81).

5Deeming the area around Hillsborough too deficient in forage and provisions and “too distant (upon the approach of the rebel army) for the protection of the body of our friends,” Cornwallis moved his army across the Haw River and “encamped near Allamance Creek.” Sending a small detachment further west to “cover the country,” Cornwallis with his main force remained in that vicinity watching Greene’s movements (Cornwallis to George Germain, 17 March, in Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 20:85–90, quotes on 89).

6Both of these reports were false.

7In early February, the North Carolina state legislature passed “An Act to reduce the six Continental Battalions belonging to this State to four, to compleat the said four Battalions, and for other purposes therein mentioned,” which ordered that 2,724 men be raised from the state’s militia (N.C. State Records description begins Walter Clark, ed. The State Records of North Carolina. 16 vols., numbered 11-26. Winston and Goldsboro, N.C., 1895–1907. description ends , 24:367–73, quote on 367).

8John Butler (d. 1786), of Orange County, N.C., became lieutenant colonel of the minutemen in September 1775 and colonel of the county’s militia in April 1776. Elected by the general assembly a brigadier general of North Carolina militia in May 1777, Butler fought at the battles of Stono Ferry in June 1779, Camden in August 1780, and Guilford Courthouse in March 1781. Active in state government, Butler served in the state provincial congresses and the state legislature in the 1770s and 1780s. “Mt. Pleasant,” his plantation along the Haw River, was located about fifteen miles west of Hillsborough.

9Lt. Col. John Hamilton’s corps was the Royal North Carolina Regiment.

10“Insurgents” is written on the draft instead of this word, and their location is not included.

11For Col. Andrew Pickens’s account of the bloody defeat of Col. John Pile’s Loyalist cavalry, see his letter to Greene of 26 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 , 7:355–59; see also Henry Lee, Jr., to Greene, 25 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 , 7:347–48. Hamilton was not present at the engagement. For a detailed account and analysis of the clash, see Jeffrey Bright and Stewart Dunaway, Pyle’s Defeat: The Most Comprehensive Guide (privately published, 2011).

John Pile (Pyle; d. 1781), of Chatham County, N.C., received a commission as a captain of the North Carolina Provincials in February 1776. He fought and was captured at the battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge on 27 Feb. 1776, but he escaped the following June. He became a colonel of the royal militia of North Carolina in February 1781.

12The number “1200” is written above the line on the draft at this point and struck out.

13See Arthur Campbell to Greene, 8 Feb., and Appointment of a Commission to Deal with the Cherokee and Chickasaw Nations, 26 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 , 7:258, 351–53.

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