(This is an excerpt from The Race to the Dan – The Retreat That Rescued the American Revolution by Larry G. Aaron that was printed by the Halifax County Historical Society. It is re-printed with permission from the society. This story details how the Crossing of the Dan exhibit came to be. That exhibit has now been moved to the South Boston – Halifax County Museum of Fine Arts and History and will open at this year’s Crossing of the Dan event on Feb. 20.)
The echo of Compatriot Douglas Powell’s footsteps permeated the silence of the stairwell in The Prizery — a century old abandoned tobacco factory in South Boston. As he entered a vast and vacant upstairs room, he envisioned times gone by when tobacco was king and the leaves were “prized” or pressed layer by layer in hogshead barrels for later shipment.
The smells and sounds of ongoing renovations reminded Powell that The Prizery’s past was now being transformed into a community, fine arts and welcome center, complete with banquet hall and theater.
As Powell, a member of the Dan River Chapter the Virginia Society SAR, surveyed the room, he turned and noticed a window behind him. The parking lot below was not what suddenly captured his attention. It was the perfect view of Boyd’s ferry site.
That ferry site, along with Irwin’s ferry four miles upstream, was used by Nathanael Greene’s army as his men escaped the clutches of Cornwallis’ veteran British troops in the Race to the Dan during the winter of 1781.
Like the evacuation of Dunkirk in World War II, boats were gathered together to transport Greene’s army across the river on Feb. 13-14. When Cornwallis arrived, Greene’s troops were safe on the other side of the river with all the boats. All Cornwallis could do was watch the celebration.
Greene’s crossing of the Dan River was not just another retreat in the face of a superior enemy. It rescued the American Revolution from certain disaster, and also set the stage for the Battle of Guilford Courthouse followed by the surrender at Yorktown.
It was this crossing of the river that Compatriot Powell thought of when he gazed out the window. He envisioned an exhibit that would tell General Greene’s story and what happened beyond the tree line on the banks of the Dan River over 200 years ago.
Powell, also a board member of the Halifax County Historical Society, one of the user groups at The Prizery, began promoting his idea. Through the leadership of President Barbara Bass, the society made floor space available for the exhibit and appointed Compatriot Powell to chair a committee to make it happen. Important community leaders, such as South Boston’s town manager, Colonel Ted Daniel, as well as retired judge and former Virginia House of Delegates member Frank Slayton have joined the effort.
Work on the exhibit began in 2004, with volunteers conducting research and Dr. Ralph Wileman, University of North Carolina professor emeritus, developing a design. Virginia’s 5th District Congressman Virgil Goode assisted the group in securing an initial $20,000 planning grant. Further funding will be needed to complete the project in time for America’s 400th Anniversary at Jamestown in 2007. When completed, the exhibit will highlight the major military leaders and battles in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution, especially the events involved in Greene’s retreat across the Carolinas and his crossing of the Dan River.
A timeline of the retreat and a wall mural of the Crossing will also greet visitors. A large interactive wall map will offer audio descriptions of selected events as re-enactors portray the voices of Cornwallis, Greene, and others.
At the end of the exhibit tour, visitors will stand where Powell stood alone that day at the top of the stairs and saw the ferry site. Because of private property restrictions, and lack of accessibility, the site has never been available for the general public to visit or see. Now, for the first time, the Boyd’s Ferry location can be viewed from The Prizery’s third floor vantage point. Also, at the window a video presentation will detail the movement of men and supplies across the river.
According to President Bass, with the exhibit’s completion, the Halifax County Historical Society will host a resource room to allow guests to research local history and that related to Greene’s Southern Campaign. Future plans include a model of a boat used by Greene’s troops as they crossed the river and an artist’s rendition of Greene crossing the Dan.