Battle of Cowan’s Ford (February 1, 1781)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

In the later months of the Revolutionary War, Lord Charles Cornwallis marched his British forces through the backcountry of North Carolina to intercept General Nathanael Greene and his Patriot troops. On February 1, 1781, the Battle of Cowan’s Ford, near present-day Mecklenburg County, was General Greene’s attempt to prevent a full-scale battle with the superior British forces. Although Lord Cornwallis successfully tricked the Patriot forces at Cowan’s Ford, General Greene was able to elude the British with his “fight-and-retreat” strategy.

As General Greene marched his troops through North Carolina, the British chased him and the Patriots through Piedmont North Carolina. General Greene knew that Cornwallis had to cross the Catawba River to continue his pursuit, and he predicted that the British would cross Beattie’s Ford or Cowan’s Ford. With the knowledge of the Brit’s intentions, Greene commissioned General William Lee Davidson with a small force of about five hundred militiamen to stymie Cornwallis’s advance.

Cornwallis, an elusive and masterful opponent, attempted to deceive General Davidson by sending a small number of British soldiers to Beattie’s Ford on January 31. The British commander and the bulk of his forces intended to cross the Catawba at Cowan’s Ford instead. However, Davidson, informed by Greene about Lord Cornwallis’s tactics, moved his men to Cowan’s Ford under the cover of the night.

A recent storm increased the speed of the Catawba’s currents. Yet, Cornwallis was determined to defeat the Patriots, so he ordered his men across. According to historian Jerry L. Cross, British soldiers “waded in, four to a column, with bayoneted muskets and long staffs to steady them in the rough current” (Encyclopedia of N.C., p. 308). Most crossed without alerting any of the encamped Patriot forces on the other side of the river.

General Davidson attempted to gather his troops to hold the line but superior British numbers and cannon outmatched the North Carolina militia. As cannonballs fell down upon the militia defense, Davidson retreated but alerted the remaining Patriot soldiers along the river’s bank. In doing so, Davidson was shot and killed instantly. Davidson’s death caused instant panic among the Americans.

A Patriot later recalled the retreat. In Narrative of the Battle of Cowan’s Ford, Robert Henry writes, “I observed Beatty loading again; I ran down another load—when I fired, he cried, ‘it’s time to run, Bob’” (p. 11). As Henry fled from the British, his friend, Beatty, was struck by British musket fire. He writes: “I then ran at the top of my speed about one hundred yards” (p. 11). Henry’s primary source provides a first-person account of the Patriots’ retreat.

The British victory at Cowan’s Ford delayed General Greene’s attempt to tire the British before engaging Cornwallis in a major battle. Cross writes that the retreat “forced him to make an uncertain race to the Dan River to cross into Virginia, where he rested his troops, secured reinforcements, and procured much-needed supplies” (p. 308). Yet, the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, reflecting Greene’s prediction of a major battle with Cornwallis’s forces, soon occurred on March 15, 1781.

Today, the present site of the Battle of Cowan’s Ford rests under Lake Norman near Charlotte, North Carolina. A memorial site rests near the area that honors General William Lee Davidson.