What happened next around the children of John Martin, who at the time ranged from 13 to one, must have been frightening, but if stories were passed down through the generations they are now lost forever. History tells us the facts, but not the fears. Over the next seven months news of the war in the south worsened as the Continental Army continued to lose ground to the British forces led by Lord Cornwallis. The remaining soldiers of the southern division regrouped at Guildford’s Court House in North Carolina not far from Halifax, but there was little left – no ammunition, no food, no clothing, and fewer than 2000 men.
It’s not hard to imagine children being confused at all the preparations that were being made nearby at the Dan River in the freezing February of 1781. At the river, they would have seen for the first time a hundred small boats anchored in one place; all of the river boats for miles were waiting close by at two ferries. Wiley’s Inn across the street from the Martin place became home to the American general, Nathaniel Greene, and traffic on the road in front of the Martin property was certainly heavier.
Early one morning ragged soldiers began appearing on the road, moving east from Guilford on their way to the Dan river; first a few, then a few dozen, then a few hundred, and a few hundred more and more and more. But this was not an army anymore; at least it did not appear as one. These men were starving scarecrows, some half dressed during the worst of the freezing winter. They marched 40 miles in sixteen hours, some with bare, bloody feet against frozen ground. It was not a fighting military anymore; these men were running for their lives.
The remaining cavalry of the southern division was led by Light Horse Harry Lee. He knew the poorly equipped foot soldiers could never escape the feared British cavalry, so Lee sacrificed his men to give the remaining army more time to reach the Dan. He broke away from the main retreating army and led his horsemen in a different direction. The deceived British cavalry followed on a pointless chase, which slowed the British advance and saved the army.
For nine hours the soldiers streamed through John Martin’s property on their way to the river. Once at their destination, they gathered and waited, setting up barricades and watching the road behind them. The British were following and would arrive any minute. Cornwallis expected to catch the main American army with its back against the Dan River with no escape. Cornwallis thought he would go down in history for capturing an entire army. But he did not know Nathaniel Greene.
After most of his army had passed, the American general left Wiley’s Inn and headed for the ferry to join his men. Small boats, one after the other, were filled with men. As one pushed away, another pulled up. So many boats were collected by the Halifax militia, the army crossed the river in hours. Soon horses thundered down the road, and guards prepared for the attack as the last soldiers crossed. But the approaching horsemen were Americans, too. It was Light Horse Harry Lee.
This was it, finally. The enemy was following directly behind, but they could do nothing. As night fell on the cold, freezing river, John Martin’s road filled up with enemy soldiers in bright red coats as they watched the last Americans drop from their horses and immediately crossed the Dan to safety.
Every boat on the Dan River had been collected by the Halifax militia to be used in the escape, leaving the British general with no way to follow. That night the southern Continental army was across the river and safe. They crossed at two close ferries, and marched to the Halifax Court House, where a new army was being formed.
The British general Cornwallis sat in Wiley’s Inn and contemplated a gamble he lost, and a history that would treat him unfairly. In Guilford, Cornwallis ordered his own supplies destroyed so his army could swiftly chase down and eliminate the rebel soldiers as they were backed into the freezing Dan. With no remaining boats and no way to cross the river, Cornwallis was forced to turn his army around and march back to North Carolina for fresh supplies.
It was a major strategic mistake. It had seemed to be an obvious risk worth taking, but now it was the beginning of the end for Cornwallis. Eight months later he surrendered the southern colonies to America.
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