The disaster which befell the American Army at Camden on the 16th of August resulted in Congress passing a resolution on the 5th of October ordering General Washington to direct a court of inquiry to be held on the conduct of Major General Gates, as commander of the southern army, and to appoint his successor. Washington designated Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, second in command in the main army, and an officer whose ability, loyalty, and capacity for command were fully appreciated by the commander in chief. On the receipt of instructions from General Washington and Congress, Greene proceeded south, stopping in Philadelphia to confer with Congress, and in the several States on his way, which were immediately concerned in furnishing men and supplies for the Southern Department. He desired to acquire a knowledge of the military situation therein, and plan for the regular support and subsistence of his command in provisions, forage, and transportation. Before leaving Philadelphia he wrote to Washington that his first object would be to equip a flying army of 800 horses and 1,000 Infantry. Greene held the services of Cavalry and mounted Infantry in high regard, the contrary view being entertained by the officer whom he was to relieve. Lieut. Col. Henry Lee was one of the officers whom he desired to conduct partisan warfare, which he knew would constitute an important factor in his campaigns.
General Greene reached Charlotte Town, where Gates's headquarters were now established, on the 2d of December, and on the following day the latter issued his final order to the troops, turning the command over to General Greene. While traversing Maryland,
Virginia, and North Carolina, wise and energetic measures had been taken by Greene, in consultation with the State authorities, to insure that cooperation and assistance would be forthcoming. A survey of his troops at once confirmed his previous knowledge of their needs for food, clothing, transportation, and shelter, as learned from Gates's reports on these matters, and his attention to the correction of these deficiencies was incessant and laborious. His ability as a quartermaster was in no wise inferior to his worth as a commander in the field, and the detailed manner in which he directed the betterment of conditions is a high tribute to his general efficiency. The logistics of supply were carefully covered in his many instructions for the surveys of all possible water routes, the construction of bateaux, the listing of animals and wagons for transportation, and for the operation of mills, ironworks, and other utilities.
Pending improvement in his numbers, and augmentation in the necessary supplies, the army was to remain inactive. The country around Charlotte Town had been depleted so thoroughly of food and forage, that on the 8th of December Greene wrote to Colonel Kosciusko to examine the country along the Peedee for a distance of 20 or 30 miles south of Little River, for a good position for the army
During this enforced period of combat inaction and rehabilitation, intelligence of the enemy was most essential, particularly in view of the many rumors that Cornwallis was to be reinforced by way of the Cape Fear, or through Charleston. For this work troops that were well mounted and extremely mobile were necessary, due to the great distance covered, and Marion, who operated in the eastern part of South Carolina, was selected for this duty. On the 4th of December a letter of instructions was sent to this officer by Greene directing him to continue partisan warfare, thereby harassing the enemy and preserving the tide of sentiment among the people as much as possible in favor of the patriotic cause. Upon Marion he would depend for early information of reinforcements
arriving in Charleston, or departing therefrom to join Cornwallis. To secure this information, and other that might be necessary, Marion was to employ spies and organize an intelligence service.
The unhappy condition of the southern army is pictured in a letter written to Washington on the 7th of December, wherein Greene says:
After two weeks of arduous attention to a multitude of details, report having been received in the meanwhile from Kosciusko of a favorable site for the army on the Peedee, the troops were put under marching orders on the 16th, but due to heavy rains the march was postponed until the 20th. The route followed was by way of Wadesborough to Haleys Ferry, thence to the position selected on the east bank of the Peedee, opposite to Cheraw Hill, which was reached on the 26th. General Greene called his new location a "camp of repose," adding in this connection, in a letter to Washington written on the 28th of December, "no army ever wanted one more, the troops having totally lost their discipline."
General Greene was fortunate in his selection of officers to surround him, and part of his success in the South must be attributed to these capable leaders and administrators. There were Von Steuben, Lee and his legion, which joined on the Peedee early in January, Williams, Morgan, William Washington, Howard, Carrington,
Davie, and the partisan leaders, Sumter, Marion, Pickens, and others, all highly reputed as leaders in their several lines of activities, imbued with a spirit of loyalty for their commander, and possessed of an unquenchable determination to attain the independence of their country.
Before departing from Charlotte Town, General Greene arranged to send General Morgan with an independent command to operate along the tributaries of the Broad and Pacolet, threatening the British post at Ninety Six and the left of Cornwallis's army. During the great depression which existed in the South after the defeat of Gates at Camden, and while the British were triumphantly advancing to Charlotte Town, Morgan had returned to active duty in the Army and joined Gates at Hillsborough in September. Congress appointed him a brigadier general on the 13th of October.
The duty to be performed by Morgan's command was so far removed from Greene's headquarters, with the British Army between, that detailed instructions, were prepared for his guidance:
The object of this detachment is to give protection to that part of the country and spirit up the people—to annoy the enemy in that quarter-to collect the provision and forage out of their way—which you will have formed into a number of small magazines in the rear of the position you may think proper to take. You will prevent plundering as much as possible and be as careful of your provisions and forage as may be, giving receipts for whatever you take to all such as are friends to the independence of America.
Given under my hand at Charlotte this 16th December, 1780.
To Brig. Gen. MORGAN. NATH. GREENE.
Early in December General Greene had given orders to General Davidson, of North Carolina, to join Morgan with militia gathered from that State, when the latter had crossed the river; but the British authorities incited the Cherokee Indians to ravage the western settlements, and the men of Burke, Rutherford, Washington, and Sullivan Counties were engaged in safeguarding their homes. Davidson did arrive in Morgan's camp on the Pacolet toward the end of December with 120 men, but returned at once to North Carolina for the drafts that had been ordered to assemble in the district of Salisbury.
On the 27th of December Morgan received intelligence that a body of Georgia Tories, about 250 in number, had advanced as far as Fair Forest, and were committing depredations in that region. For the purpose of routing them he sent Washington's dragoons, and 200 mounted militia under Major McCall, on the 29th. The hostile force was about 20 miles from Grindalls Ford, in the direction
of Ninety Six. The enemy withdrew on the approach of Washington's command, but after a hard march of 40 miles they were encountered the next day at Hammonds Storehouse, and dispersed with great loss. Although at considerable distance from supporting troops, and within range of Ninety Six and Wynnesborough, Washington proceeded to march against a British post called Fort Williams, on the road from Wynnesborough to Ninety Six, and about 15 miles northeast of the latter place. General Cunningham, who was in charge of the Tory militia in this region, evacuated the fort, and Washington perceived the wisdom of retracing his steps to the Pacolet. In the meanwhile Morgan detached 200 men to cover the withdrawal of Washington's command, to guard against any misfortune that might occur to it.
At the time of reporting the success at Hammonds Storehouse, Morgan wrote to Greene on the 31st that the militia were coming in fast, and suggested that when he had collected his force he desired to march into Georgia, if the main army could, at the time, make a diversion against Cornwallis. To expedite this movement, should it meet with the approval of General Greene, he had sent for 100 swords, which he intended putting into the hands of expert riflemen, to be mounted and incorporated with Washington's corps. He said, "It is incompatible with the nature of light troops to be encumbered with baggage," and called for 100 packsaddles to replace wagon transportation, where necessary or desirable.
Morgan remained on the Pacolet to await a reply to his letter of the 31st of December covering the foregoing suggestion, but developments were now so rapid that it became impossible to give further serious thought to a march on Georgia. Greene knew that Leslie was advancing on Camden, at which place a strong post had been established under Lord Rawdon, and in replying on the 8th of January to Morgan's letter which reached him the 7th, he did not think an expedition into Georgia was "warrantable in the critical situation our Army is in." "'Should you go into Georgia, and the enemy push this way, your whole force will be useless."
Greene intimated to Morgan that by remaining where he was he was favorably situated to interrupt communications with Ninety Six and Augusta, and to harass the enemy rear should Cornwallis attempt to push forward. He was cautioned to attempt no major enterprise, unless by surprise, "for you will only beat your heads against the wall without success." As a further warning, Greene added: "I must repeat my caution to you to guard against a surprise."
Before receiving from General Greene a reply to his letter of December 31, Morgan wrote the former again on January 4, as to the difficulties of obtaining forage and provisions in the vicinity of his camp, and declared the necessity either to move into Georgia or retreat. He had spies watching the enemy and did not consider himself in danger of being surprised. Greene replied to this communication on the 13th with the advice that Morgan hold his present ground, as a retreat would discourage the militia, and informed him that "Colonel Tarleton is said to be on his way to pay you a visit." This letter did not reach its destination before the action at the Cowpens.
On the 14th of January Morgan learned that Tarleton had crossed the Tiger at Musgroves Mill, and he prepared to change his position in the direction of the Broad. Leaving detachments to observe the fords over the Pacolet, the army was put in motion on the 15th, and that evening camped at Burrs Mills on Thicketty Creek. It was on this same day that Tarleton reached the Pacolet and reconnoitered the crossings. His strength was estimated by Morgan to be from 1,100 to 1,200 men.
Continuing his retirement on the 16th, the Cowpens were reached, where small parties joined during the night, and the spirit of the camp was strong for fight. Morgan doubtless viewed this augmentation of strength and the high spirits of the men as a favorable omen, and determined to offer battle the following day. The proposed plan of deployment was explained to the several leaders, particular attention being given to the part the militia, whom
Pickens was to command, would take in the battle. For the purpose of strengthening Washington's Cavalry, 45 militia were selected for their ability as horsemen and rifle shots, armed with sabers, provided with suitable mounts and attached to the dragoons.