This Day in History: The Battle of Cowan’s Ford & the incident at Torrence’s Tavern
On this day in 1781, Americans lose the Battle of Cowan’s Ford. They also suffer a devastating incident at nearby Torrence’s Tavern. It was a low point for the Patriot cause. Nevertheless, you’ll love the patriotic heroine who makes an appearance at the end of the story!
At this point in the Revolution, British forces led by General Charles Cornwallis were working to establish a base in the South. Cornwallis was then opposed by General Nathanael Greene, commander of the southern arm of the American army.
The rest of the story gets a bit murky, and the details will vary a bit, depending on where you read an account of it. But a few details remain consistent: Apparently, Greene knew that Cornwallis would have to cross the Catawba River. He sent Brigadier General William Lee Davidson to intercept Cornwallis and slow the British down. Greene would continue to Salisbury where he was to meet with the rest of the army.
Cornwallis made a show as if he were going to cross the river at Beattie’s Ford. In reality, Cornwallis intended to cross at Cowan’s Ford. That crossing, however, almost went badly awry for the British. One part of the crossing was shallow, but another part of the crossing was deeper and harder to get across. The British accidentally took the deeper path. They suffered casualties as they went across, because the Americans on the other side picked them off, one by one, as they struggled in the water.
Unfortunately, once the British made it across, they badly outnumbered the Americans. Davidson himself was killed by a bullet to the chest almost immediately. Without their leader, the Americans were completely routed by the British.
Many men fled to nearby Torrence’s Tavern. Unfortunately, British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre “Bloody Ban” Tarleton caught wind of what was going on. Tarleton went to the Tavern, where he killed and wounded several men. British soldiers later burned down the Tavern.
Meanwhile, Greene went to Steele’s Tavern in Salisbury. As the story goes, the innkeeper’s wife overheard Greene describe himself as “fatigued, hungry, alone, and penniless.” Mrs. Steele, moved by Greene’s plight, handed him two bags of coins to support the American cause (see attached picture). Greene was apparently quite encouraged by the gesture.
The two losses were demoralizing, but the tide would soon turn for America! A little more than 8 months later, Cornwallis would surrender to George Washington at Yorktown.
Captain David Vance, Narrative of the battle of Cowan’s Ford, February 1st, 1781 (1891)
Colonel Joseph Graham’s Narrative of the Revolutionary War in North Carolina in 1780 and 1781 (Reprinted HERE)
Henry Lumpkin, From Savannah to Yorktown (1981)
John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas (1999)