Muskets fired Saturday moments before living history re-enactors led by Dan McMichael, portraying Major General Nathanael Greene, traveled across the Dan River by ferryboat.
Dressed in colonial attire, re-enactors took spectators attending the 236th anniversary commemoration of the Crossing of the Dan back to Feb. 14, 1781 to the Race to the Dan.
Weeks before crossing the Dan River to safety, Greene’s southern army had outrun British forces under Lord Cornwallis as both armies raced northward across the Carolinas.
The Race to the Dan became a turning point in the American Revolution and was part of events that led to the British surrender at Yorktown.
Embedded in the troops Saturday was Violet Horsley of Greensboro, a member of the Guilford Militia, North Carolina Living History Society, who had made her way to this historic event for the first time.
Originally from the west coast, she moved to North Carolina roughly 10 years ago.
“In the west coast, you can re-enact medieval times, but to come here and re-enact something that actually happened here, it brings you so much closer to history,” said Horsley before calling the Crossing of the Dan a unique event.
“I’ll definitely be back,” she added. “All of the people have been really great to us.”
Joining Horsley on the ferryboat also were two of the youngest troops, 18-year-old Ethan Knick and 17-year-old Robert Bowers III of the 7th Virginia Regiment.
Knick, a young history buff, brought Bowers to share in his love for history.
As they made their way across the Dan River, Knicks said even though he was nervous, “It was an honor to portray the troops who actually did it, and riding a wooden ferryboat across the river was indescribably cool.”
After reaching the shores, Bowers also helped re-enactors fire the canon.
While re-enactors portrayed the Race to the Dan, others shared the joys of being part of a living history encampment.
Tents were perched as J. Niemoller, Rick Williams and Steve Younts, also of the Guilford Militia, cooked a meal over an open flame.
It was Williams’ first time at the Crossing of the Dan, but Neimoller and Younts had attended last year when the river flooded days before which meant their camp was set up behind the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center Innovation Center.
“It was lackluster last year,” said Younts as the men spoke of the cold day, which was similar to the weather conditions Greene’s troops endured in 1781, and were much in contrast to Saturday’s sunny, warm weather.
Neimoller said despite the cold and flooding weather of last year, “even if just a few people are moved by the event, it makes for a great day.”
He spoke of what it was like for those troops many years ago.
“The troops had a lot of rivers and swamps to cross, and it presented a danger to the men who could fall off the boats, and they could lose artillery,” said Neimoller.
“Greene’s troops would ask people for their boats,” he continued, “and some would offer theirs, and others would be taken. They knew if they were using the boats, (Lieutenant General Lord Charles) Cornwallis and his troops wouldn’t have it. Crossing the Dan became a turning point in the war.
“Being here today, it’s about seeing that light bulb go off when someone learns something new. I myself am an amateur historian and am constantly learning, and I am excited to learn.”
The living history reenactment on the Dan River culminated the day’s events that had begun in The Prizery when McMichael spoke on “The life and times of Major General Nathanael Greene.”
He spoke about the life of Greene, and how “sometimes as a child, we do things that affect us” later on in life.
“Starting in 1974, many things happened in two years, consequences that led to me being here,” said Greene before talking about the taxation and regulation from Great Britain.
“We formed our own militia and started doing our own drills,” he added, which led to him being disowned from the church.
He told the Quakers, “My support is behind freedom,” and those words were evident more than ever when he began leading his troops in 1780.
Benedict Arnold had been commander of West Point, an American fort on the Hudson River in New York, but eventually he began secret negotiations with the British to surrender the American fort.
Though Arnold successfully fled to the enemy side, his chief intermediary, British Major John André was captured and hanged.
George Washington then gave Greene command of West Point.
He wasn’t there for more than two weeks when he received word that his services were needed in the South, said McMichael.
With Greene’s army of 800 troops and Cornwallis with 3,200 men ready for battle, McMichael said Greene decided they “would not meet the enemy on their terms.
“We will divide forces and make him catch us… We will fight, get beat, and rise and fight again,” he concluded.
After his speech, McMichael, members of the Guilford Courthouse Fifes and Drums unit, members of the Virginia Society Sons of the American Revolution Color Guard and cadets of the Danville Composite Squadron Civil Air Patrol led re-enactors and spectators to Boyd’s Ferry on the banks of the Dan River where a wreath laying ceremony took place.
After representatives from a number of historical organizations presented their memorial wreaths, Colonel David King recognized all service members present.
Halifax County Middle School student Hailee Terry, with help from McMichael, then tossed a memorial wreath into the Dan River.
At the conclusion of Saturday’s event, guests were invited to visit the Crossing of the Dan permanent exhibit located on the third floor of The Prizery, and a Brunswick stew lunch, prepared by the Virgilina Volunteer Fire Department, was sold.