The Race to the Dan: The Retreat that Won the Revolution
Charles, Lord Cornwallis—the commander of the British Army in the South—built a bonfire in February 1781. Mustering his men from their camp at Ramseur’s Mill in the North Carolina backcountry, he ordered them to burn everything—creature comforts, extra rations, even their rum—all but the bare essentials, starting with his Lordship’s own baggage. Cornwallis meant to move fast to catch the ragtag Southern Department of the Continental Army and crush them in a final, decisive battle. When he heard what Cornwallis had done, General Nathanael Greene, his quarry and foe, is supposed to have said, “Then he is ours.” What followed was dubbed “the Race to the Dan,” when two armies raced each other across the North Carolina Piedmont in an effort that would lead, less than a year later, to Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Though a retreat by the Continentals, the Race to the Dan would prove to be the undoing of Cornwallis’s army and the British “Southern strategy” to defeat the American rebellion.