“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
South Boston in Halifax County, Virginia — The American South (Mid-Atlantic)

Retreat to the Dan

February 1781

Retreat to the Dan Marker image. Click for full size.
By Bernard Fisher, May 18, 2010
1. Retreat to the Dan Marker
Inscription. You are looking toward a site of American Patriot General Nathanael Greene’s strategic “Retreat to the Dan” which occurred on February 14, 1781. This retreat foiled British General Cornwallis’s southern strategy and was a turning point in the American victory.

The Crossing of the Dan took place at Boyd’s Ferry and Irvine’s Ferry. Boyd’s Ferry is just past the railroad trestle. The site of Irvine’s Ferry is four miles upstream.

General Cornwallis commanded an army of seasoned British soldiers in pursuit of General Greene’s smaller force. Cornwallis hoped to overtake the American army in North Carolina, thus setting the stage for the capture of Virginia and a certain victory for England.

Realizing they were unprepared to face the British, the American army traveled from Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina (now Greensboro) for four days to reach the Dan River. Greene, who had been George Washington’s quartermaster, was aware of the necessity of recruits, supplies, and a surprise maneuver to outwit the enemy.

To the rear of the slower foot soldiers, Greene assigned a Light Troop cavalry under Col. Otha Williams and Lt. Col. Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee (father of General Robert E. Lee). This Light Troop led the British cavalry on a series of false leads. This cavalry chase
The Race to the Dan image. Click for full size.
By K.R. Haynes Jr.
2. The Race to the Dan
gave the Americans time to get their slowest units to the crossing site ahead of the British. These units would be safe from British attack once they crossed to the north side of the river.

Boats were at the ferry landings. These boats and their crews were called into service by Col. Edward Carrington, General Greene’s quartermaster. All of the Americans made a safe crossing of the icy, rain-swollen Dan River before the British could catch up. On February 14, 1781, Lighthorse Harry Lee and Edward Carrington were in the last boat to cross to the north side of the river. The stranded British could find no vessels of any kind. Any effort to swim or ford the river would have been met with Patriot resistance. General Cornwallis had been tricked. He had been led far away from his lines of support and communication. His army turned away from the Dan and marched back to North Carolina.

The results of the retreat to the Dan were dramatic. Greene more than doubled his troops in a few weeks. Seeing the enemy on their own property caused many people to join the Patriot army. Also, Greene found much needed supplies in Halifax County. In March, Greene led his increased forces in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. He inflicted heavy losses on the Redcoats of Lord Cornwallis although the British claimed victory by holding the field.

Cornwallis withdrew to Wilmington,
View of the Dan River (facing south) image. Click for full size.
By Bernard Fisher, May 18, 2010
3. View of the Dan River (facing south)
Boyd’s Ferry crossing site is just past the RR trestle in the distance.
NC, for supplies and replacement troops, but the Crossing of the Dan and other factors forced him to camp at Yorktown rather than to sweep through Virginia for a British victory. Cornwallis was trapped when the French fleet held off a British squadron nearby in the Atlantic and when American General George Washington and French General Comte de Rochambeau combined forces on land to bring about England’s defeat. British surrender on October 19, 1781, signaled the end of the American Revolution. Without Greene’s Retreat to the Dan, the surrender at Yorktown would never have taken place.

The Retreat to the Dan is often overlooked for more dramatic and bloody battlefields. The citizens of Halifax County are proud that their ancestors had a part in a turning point in the war which was accomplished with strategy rather than bloodshed.

Given in honor of Mr. Carroll Headspeth
Erected 1999 by The Berryman Green Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Marker series. This marker is included in the Daughters of the American Revolution marker series.
Location. 36° 41.764′ N, 78° 53.975′ W. Marker is in South Boston, Virginia, in Halifax County. Marker can be reached from the intersection of Wren Street and Broad Street (Business U.S. 501). Click for map. Marker is in this post office area: South Boston VA 24592, United States of America.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within 5 miles of this marker, measured as the crow flies. Campaign of 1781 (here, next to this marker); DAR Memorial Cannon (about 600 feet away, measured in a direct line); Crossing of the Dan Monument (approx. 0.3 miles away); Mizpah Church (approx. 0.3 miles away); Washington-Coleman Elementary School (approx. 1.1 miles away); Minister Who Married Lincoln (approx. 3.4 miles away); Green's Folly (approx. 3.4 miles away); Nathaniel Terry's Grave (approx. 4.8 miles away). Click for a list of all markers in South Boston.
More about this marker. On the right is a map by K.R. Haynes Jr. entitled "The Race to the Dan - February 1781" overlaid with text boxes:

Quote from Lord Cornwallis: “Greene is as dangerous as Washington. I never feel secure when encamped in his neighborhood.

Lighthorse Harry Lee in his memoirs records, “The people of Halifax County received us with affection of brothers mingled with the admiration of the brave devotion to country just exhibited…” The army also enjoyed “wholesome and abundant supplies of food in the rich and friendly County of Halifax.

George Washington wrote Greene, “You may be assured that your retreat before Lord Cornwallis is highly applauded by all ranks, and it reflects much honor on your military abilities.
Also see . . .
1. The Race to the Dan. (Submitted on May 20, 2010, by Bernard Fisher of Mechanicsville, Virginia.)
2. DAR's Retreat To The Dan Dedication. (Submitted on May 20, 2010, by Bernard Fisher of Mechanicsville, Virginia.) 
Categories. Patriots & PatriotismWar, US RevolutionaryWaterways & Vessels
Credits. This page originally submitted on , by Bernard Fisher of Mechanicsville, Virginia. This page has been viewed 854 times since then and 80 times this year. Photos:   1, 2, 3. submitted on , by Bernard Fisher of Mechanicsville, Virginia. This page was last revised on June 16, 2016.
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