Today, the North Carolina State Quarter Coin remembers the events of 235 years ago.
In the his book North Carolina, 1780-’81, Being a History of the Invasion of the Carolinas by the British Army Under Lord Cornwallis in 1780-’81, published in 1889, David Schenck included a narrative by General Graham of the day.
An excerpt follows:
“At Cowan’s Ford the river is supposed to be about four hundred yards wide, of different depths and rocky bottom. That called the wagon ford goes directly across the river; on coming out on the eastern shore, the road turns down and winds up the point of a ridge, in order to graduate the ascent until it comes to its proper direction. Above the coming-out place a flat piece of ground, not much higher than the water, grown over with haw and persimmon bushes and bamboo briars, five or six yards wide, extends up the river to the mouth of a small branch and deep ravine.
“Outside of this the bank rises thirty or forty feet, at an angle of thirty degrees elevation; then the rise is more gradual. That called the horse ford, at the present time much the most used, comes in on the west at the same place with the wagon ford, goes obliquely down the river about two-thirds of the way across, to the point of a large island, thence through the island and across the other one-third to the point of a rocky hill. Though it is longer, this way is much shallower and smoother than the wagon ford, and comes out about a quarter of a mile below.
“From the information received General Davidson supposed that if the enemy attempted to cross here they would take the horse ford. Accordingly he encamped on the hill which overlooks it. Lieutenant Thomas Davidson’s picket of twenty-five men remained at their station, about fifty steps above the wagon ford, on the flat piece of ground before described, near the water’s edge.
“On the same day, as Cornwallis was marching to Beattie’s Ford, about two miles from it at Colonel Black’s farm, he left behind him, under the command of Brigadier General O’Hara, twelve hundred infantry and Tarleton’s cavalry, which in the night moved secretly down to Cowan’s Ford, only three miles below. The next morning at dawn of day, the 1st of February, 1781, he had his columns formed, the infantry in front with fixed bayonets, muskets empty, carried on the left shoulder at a slope, cartridge-box on the same shoulder, and each man had a stick about the size of a hoop-pole, eight feet long, which he kept setting on the bottom below him to support him against the rapidity of the current, which was generally waist deep, and in some places more. (It is stated by historians that the river was swollen so as to impede the passage of the British. The fact is, it was fordable from the week before until two days after this time, though a little deeper than usual. The cause of the enemy’s delay must have been the disposition by General Davidson to guard the fords.)
“The command of the front was committed to Colonel Hall of the guards, who had for a guide Frederick Hager, a renegade Tory who lived within two miles of the place. They entered the river by sections of four, and took the wagon ford.
“The morning was cloudy, and a fog hung over the water, so that Lieutenant Davidson’s sentinel could not see them until they were near one hundred yards in the river. He instantly fired on them, which roused the guard, who kept up the fire, but the enemy continued to advance. At the first alarm those under General Davidson paraded at the horse ford, and Graham’s cavalry was ordered to move up briskly, to assist the picket; but by the time they got there, and tied their horses and came up in a line to a high bank above the ford, in front of the column, it was within fifty yards of the eastern shore. They took steady and deliberate aim and fired. The effect was visible. The three first ranks looked thinned, and they halted. Colonel Hall was the first man who appeared on horseback, behind, about one hundred yards. He came pressing up their flank on the lower side and was distinctly heard giving orders, but we could not hear what they were.
“The column again got in motion and kept on. One of the cavalry riflemen reloaded and aimed at Colonel Hall. At the flash of the gun both horse and rider went under the water, and rose down the stream. It appeared that the horse had gone over the man. Two or three of the soldiers caught him and raised him on the upper side.
“The enemy kept steadily on, notwithstanding our fire was well maintained. As each section reached the shore they dropped their setting poles, and brought their muskets and cartridge-boxes to their places, faced to the left, and moved up the narrow strip of low ground to make room for the succeeding section, which moved on in the same manner.
“By the time the front ranks got twenty or thirty steps up the river they had loaded their pieces and began to fire up the bank.
“The Americans receded a few steps when loading, and when ready to fire would advance to the summit of the hill, twenty-five or thirty steps from the enemy, as they deployed up the river bank. They had gained the ford and just commenced firing when General Davidson arrived from the horse ford with the infantry, and finding his cavalry on the ground he chose to occupy, and impressed with opinion given by General Greene, that the enemy’s cavalry would attack them in the rear, he ordered Graham’s men to mount and go up the ridge and form two hundred yards behind. As they moved off, the infantry took their places, and the firing became brisk on both sides.
“The enemy moved steadily forward, their fire increasing, until their left reached the mouth of the branch upwards of thirty poles from the ford. The ravine was too deep to pass. The rear of their infantry and front of their cavalry was about the middle of the river, when the bugle sounded on the left, on which their fire slacked and nearly ceased. (They were loading their pieces.) In about a minute it sounded again, when their whole line from the ford to the branch advanced up the bank, with their arms at a trail. The hill was in many places so steep they had to pull up by the bushes.
“General Davidson, finding them advancing with loaded guns, ordered a retreat for one hundred yards. On gaining the point of the ridge their fire was so heavy that he had to recede fifty steps beyond the ground assigned for formation; he then ordered his men to take trees, and had them arranged to renew the battle.
“The enemy was advancing slowly in line, and only firing scatteringly, when General Davidson was pierced by a ball and fell dead from his horse.
The North Carolina State Quarter Coin shows with a map of the Battle of Cowan’s Ford and an image of General Davidson’s signature.