It didn’t have the usual fanfare of firing of muskets, or re-enactors making their way across the Dan River as in years past, but those attending the 240th Commemoration of the Crossing of the Dan Saturday in-person at the South Boston-Halifax County Museum of Fine Arts and History or virtually, were glad to be able to celebrate this historic occasion.
“It’s important for people to know their history,” said Patrick Kelly of Albemarle County, past president of the Virginia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution as he sat dressed in his revolutionary attire.
In years past, guests would have seen him walking alongside the Virginia Society Sons of the American Revolution color guard as they made their way to the ferryboat site, or in some years, Constitution Square.
“The Virginia SAR jumps at any chance to support our local chapters,” said Kelly.
His lineage is connected to the Crossing of the Dan, the momentous retreat of General Nathanael Greene’s American army through the Carolinas during the American Revolution and its narrow escape across the Dan River before British troops under Lord Cornwallis.
He said two of his ancestors were sent to find Cornwallis for Greene, and he said many in this area of Virginia were sent to the militia.
“Virginia’s military was instrumental in winning battles of the Southern campaign,” said Kelly, who noted those victories were “pivotal” parts in the victory of the American Revolution.
Sharing more on the Crossing of the Dan and the events that lead up to that historic event was keynote speaker, Mike Cecere, who shared his message virtually over Zoom.
He spoke of Greene’s army of roughly 800 infantry that endured “wretched conditions,” were starving and were in need of more clothes.
As the commander of the Continental army’s Southern Campaign, Greene decided to divide Patriot troops in the Carolinas with General Daniel Morgan taking roughly 300 riflemen.
Meanwhile, he said, the enemy had between 7,000 to 8,000 men.
“Can you imagine being in their position in December, January, February in 1781? Talk about nerve-wracking, and uncertain and anxiety-ridden,” said Cecere.
Gen. Greene, who was in Charlotte, wrote to Gov. Abner Nash in January of 1781 saying, “Our percent force is so unequal to the enemy’s and in such distress for want of clothing and other supplies, and forage and provision are so scarce, that I have just reason to apprehend the worst of consequences, should the enemy advance with their collective strength.”
Then, it was “more bad news” as Benedict Arnold arrived with roughly 1,800 troops who braved the James River to go into Richmond and burn buildings there. He then occupied Portsmouth.
Greene, Cecere said, didn’t know about Arnold.
“Remember Greene has about 800 men. This isn’t a fair fight,” the keynote speaker added.
Then came the Battle of Cowpen, what an “important battle,” said Cecere. Led by General Morgan, American troops defeated British forces in South Carolina on Jan. 17, 1781.
He said then became the withdraw, and he said, “I think you can justify by saying the Race to the Dan started at the Cowpen, but I don’t think it was much of a race then… what I see is a grudgingly withdraw by Morgan and Greene hoping that militia will come and reinforce them so they can stand and fight.”
On Jan. 31, 1781, Greene wrote to Congress saying, “I see the least prospect of opposing them with the little force we have, naked and distressed as we are for want of provision and forage. Our numbers are greatly inferior to the enemy’s.”
At Guilford Courthouse on Feb. 9, a council of war was held, and Greene reported that his Continental Army was “badly harmed,” and he was still facing thousands of Cornwallis’ troops.
“So of course he’s going to flee and that gives us the Race to the Dan,” said Cecere.
Saturday’s event also was a momentous occasion for the museum as it cut the ribbon to signify the official opening of the Crossing of the Dan exhibit at its new permanent location.
Prior to the ribbon cutting, president of the museum board Paul Smith thanked everyone involved with the move of the exhibit from The Prizery to the museum.
“I would like to thank all of our volunteers here and the museum and the folks who helped us throughout this time and preparing this project. I also would like to recognize the museum’s director Jennifer Bryant who was responsible for the design and execution of this particular project. She did a terrific job,” said Smith.
Barbara Bass, president of the Halifax County Historical Society, also spoke prior to the ribbon cutting saying, “It is delighted that we have found a new permanent home for the exhibit, and we are very grateful for the museum for accepting it, and we look forward to it being here for many, many years to come.”
The exhibit was originally located at The Prizery and owned by the Halifax County Historical Society.
South Boston Mayor Ed Owens and Halifax County Administrator Scott Simpson then cut the ribbon.
After Saturday’s event, Smith spoke of the importance of the Crossing of the Dan and how it’s going to enhance the museum that already sees roughly 2,500 visitors a year.
Having the exhibit at the museum, he said, puts them on the path for those who want to tour the southern campaign.
“It puts us on a national map, and it helps the county with tourism. It’s equally important to the county. I’m looking forward to it, and this is just the beginning,” said Smith.
In the summer months, he said they’re looking to have colonial days, guest speakers, and militia encampments nearby.
Halifax Mayor Dexter Gilliam also made an announcement of how Halifax plans to further participate with the yearly Commemoration of the Crossing of the Dan.
Following Greene’s Crossing of the Dan, his troops spent a week in Halifax to resupply at what was then called Halifax Courthouse near the Banister River, according to Gilliam.
And, to recognize that, the mayor said, “The town in conjunction with the Crossing the Dan committee and others in the community are working to design and install some national park service quality interpretative panels at Kings Bridge Landing wayside and river overlook beside the Banister River in the town.”
Also, he said, a grant has been secured from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to repair and rehabilitate the stone at the wayside where this display will be installed.
“It is our sincere hope that next year we will have a camp Halifax site fully integrated into the Commemoration of the Crossing of the Dan,” Gilliam concluded.