|A Short History of
The 3rd Continental Dragoons by Dan Murphy
On January 9, 1777 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Baylor. A Virginian, Lt. Col. Baylor had previously served as George Washington's aide de camp and had been marked for serving with distinction at both Trenton and Princeton. The 3rd was to be composed of six troops, two to be dismounted. Assigned to Baylor's 3rd was Captain George Lewis' troop of horsemen who were already serving as General Washington's Bodyguard. Other men were recruited from Virginia and North Carolina, with eighty men coming from Francis Nash's North Carolina Brigade. But equipping and outfitting a regiment of dragoons proved to be a task that the Continental Quartermasters was not fully up to. Throughout their history the 3rd was hampered with issues of supply, and it was a constant struggle for their commanders to keep their men and horses in fighting condition. Nonetheless, elements of the 3rd Dragoons saw their first limited action at Brandywine and then Germantown before going into winter quarters at Valley Forge. Shortly after they were moved to the vicinity of Princeton, New Jersey where forage was more readily available.
One of the 3rd's early successes occurred May 4th, 1778 at Cooper's Ferry, New Jersey. A force of 3rd Dragoons under Major Alexander Clough was detailed to scout a 200 man British fatigue party under the watchful eye of three British redoubts. After reconnoitering the fatigue party, Clough sent two troopers with sight of the redoubts as a decoy. A strong squad of 17th Light Dragoons came charging out in pursuit of the two decoys and Clough, in turn, charged the squad of the 17th. In the following melee, the 3rd Dragoons routed the British 17th and took four of them prisoner. More importantly to the men of Clough's command, they were allowed to sell the captured horses as prize money for 170 dollars apiece.
In the coming campaign the 3rd Dragoons took a more active role and were actively engaged at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse. After the American victory the 3rd harassed the retreating British all the way to Sandy Hook where the British were then ferried over to safety in New York City.
By September, the 3rd Dragoons boasted 159 troopers and Col. Baylor, with 103 men were moved to new quarters near Old Tappan, New Jersey. On the 27th of September they received a new issue of uniforms. White coats with medium blue collar, lapels, cuff and coat tail turnbacks, polished caps of black leather, black neck stocks, medium blue waistcoats, white breeches and black boots.
That very same night they were surprised by British troops under General Sir Charles Grey at 2:00 am. The night attack was carried out in total silence and the dragoon's picket was overrun before they could warn the main camp. Quartered in three separate barns, many of the other dragoons were bayoneted in their sleep, 67 dragoons were killed, wounded or captured. Among the dead was Major Clough. Lt. Col. Baylor was wounded and taken prisoner. After securing the camp, the British went on to kill 70 horses. The survivors made their way back to Middlebrook by dawn where they rejoined the other two troops who had fortunately remained there. The encounter became known as Baylor's Massacre.
After the disaster, General George Washington transferred his second cousin, Major William Washington of the 4th Dragoons over to the 3rd. On November 20, 1778 William Washington was commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel and given command of the 3rd Dragoons. William "Billy" Washington was 26 years old when he took command of the 3rd. He had the cherubic face of a gentleman and the stocky build of a country smith. If they'd played football in the 18th century, Washington would have been a linebacker. More practical than polished, he was far more comfortable in the saddle than the parlor, and his men quickly grew to love him for it.
The regiment soon went into winter quarters near Fredricktown, Maryland. To further complicate matters, many of the troopers enlistments ran out and so it was September of 1779 before the regiment was recruited, remounted and resupplied. They spent that fall skirmishing and scouting around Paramus, New Jersey and were briefly detailed to General Maxfield's Corps. On November 19, 1779, Washington received orders to begin preparations to move south to Charleston, South Carolina and join the Southern army of General Benjamin Lincoln.
In the South
Once in Charleston, Washington began courting a local girl by the name of Jane Elliot, when he mentioned that his regiment had no standard, Miss Elliot promptly cut out a finely embroidered silk chair backing and presented it for the purpose. Washington gladly excepted and the scarlet square of heavy silk was carried by the dragoons for the rest of the war.
Soon after, General Lincoln detached the 3rd Dragoons to harass the approaching army of British General Sir Henry Clinton as he advanced on Charleston. Among Clinton's forces was a young cavalry commander by the name of Banastre Tarleton. Tarleton commanded a Legion of provincial, or Tory, cavalry and infantry. On March 26th, Tarleton and his cavalry were scouting in the vicinity of the Rutledge plantation when they were attacked by Washington's 3rd Dragoons. In a quick flurry of blades Tarleton's men were routed and sent fleeing for their lines. Among the prisoners taken by the 3rd Dragoons was Colonel Hamilton of the North Carolina Royalists. In addition, Tarleton lost seven men killed in the assault while the Dragoons suffered only one man wounded. It was an unqualified victory for Washington and his 3rd Dragoons. He followed it up by hatching a plan to capture and kidnap General Clinton, the British commander. He nearly succeeded when Clinton was out visiting some new troops just arrived from Georgia.
In response, Tarleton led a 550 man force after the 3rd Dragoons on April 5th, hoping to catch them encamped at Middleton's plantation near Goose Creek. But Washington was warned of his advance and quietly slipped away while leaving his ca burning. After capturing the campfires Tarleton turned about in failure. As he withdrew, Washington sent out a small force of dragoons who attacked Tarleton's rear guard, capturing three prisoners. So far the score read Washington 2, Tarleton 0. But as everyone would soon learn, Banastre Tarleton was not a man that quit easy.
A week passed and the British began tightening their noose about Charleston. Washington was ordered back to Moncks Corner where he joined up with a force of 1st Continental Dragoons under Major Jameson and several members of Pulaski's Hussars left from the '79 Savannah campaign. At 3 am on the 14th, Tarleton struck with a vengeance, rolling into the camp under cover of darkness and driving the Americans into the surrounding swamps. Losses on the American side were heavy. Out of 379 dragoons, 15 were killed, 17 wounded and about 100 captured. Tarleton also bagged 83 fully equipped horses. Make that Washington 2, Tarleton 1, - a big, fat, strapping 1.
Washington and Jameson regrouped their dragoons and withdrew to the north of Charleston along the Santee River where they were joined by Lt. Col. Anthony White and his remaining 1st Dragoons. White was now the senior officer present and he took command of the c combined dragoon force. This was an easy transfer as White and Washington were old friends, Washington having served under White in the 4th Dragoons. Combined, the two colonels counted 250 mounted and equipped effective out of 272 men. They were posted on the Santee in an attempt to keep Lincoln's one remaining supply line open to the besieged city of Charleston.
On the 6th of May a squadron of 3rd dragoons captured a forage party of 1 officer and 17 men from Tarleton's Legion Infantry. The Dragoons marched the prisoners back to Lenud's Ferry where they found the rest of White and Washington's men spread along the bank waiting to cross the rain swollen Santee. Across the river, Colonel Buford was posted with a his Virginia Continentals and was supposed to be sending over a supply of boats for the Dragoons to cross by. Unfortunately, the boats were late and rather than moving on, Col. White had decided to wait their arrival. Shortly after the prisoners arrived Tarleton's cavalry came storming into the dragoon camp, driving in the pickets and overrunning the dragoons in a matter of seconds. Only one officer and seven dragoons managed to mount and fight their way out, the others were forced to either swim the river or flee into the swamps. Many were drowned or shot as they tried to escape. 41 dragoons were killed or wounded. Another 67 were taken prisoner along with nearly two hundred horses. Tarleton had more than evened the score.
125 dragoons eventually made their way into Buford's camp across the Santee, less than 50 still had horses. White and Washington decided to split the command, with Washington immediately marching the dismounted troopers of the 3rd up into North Carolina, while the mounted contingent fell in with Col. Buford in a last bid attempt to reinforce General Lincoln in Charleston. Exactly where Lt. Col. White was is unclear. While Buford and the remaining dragoons were in route, news arrived that Charleston had fallen on the 12th of May. Worse still, Tarleton kept coming and caught Buford's command at the Waxhaws on May 27th. Barely pausing to form, Tarleton charged into Buford's infantry and rode right through them. Col. Buford and 45 dragoons escaped. What followed during the infantry's attempted surrender became known as the Waxhaws massacre as Tarleton's men killed 113 and wounded another 150. Tarleton was forever given the infamous nickname of "Bloody Ban."
The remaining troopers made their way up to North Carolina and found Washington. At that time Lt. Col. White decided to head north with the surviving officers of the 1st Dragoons and attempt to refit in Virginia. Lt. Col. Washington stayed in North Carolina with the remaining troopers and began the long, now familiar, process of rebuilding the 3rd Dragoons.
Several months passed and on July 27, 1780 General Horaito Gates was placed in command of a new Southern army sent down from the north. The hero of Saratoga, Gates was selected by congress over George Washington's recommendation of Nathaniel Greene. Known by his men as "Granny Gates" for his stooped stature and ever present spectacles, Gates rested solely on his former laurels and refused to heed any advice from his new field commanders. Lt. Col. Washington approached Gates offered his Dragoon's services and at the same time entering a plea for supplies. Gates sent Washington packing and marched blindly south while the British, under Lord Cornwallis, swept north behind a screen of cavalry. Cornwallis struck Gates outside Camden, South Carolina, breaking the American line and driving t them from the field. Gates himself fled his troops and kept on fleeing, switching from horse to horse as he rode north for a hundred and eighty miles in three days, all under the pathetic guise of attempting to rally the militia.
With General Greene
In the wake of Gates' defeat congress heeded General Washington's original recommendation and appointed General Nathaniel Greene to command the American forces in the South. This time when William Washington offered the services of his 3rd Dragoons, Greene wholeheartedly welcomed. Washington arrived with roughly eighty men split into four troops under the following commanders. Maj. James Call, Cpt. Churchill Jones, Cpt. William Barrett, and Cpt. William Parsons.
Greene quickly assigned Washington to Daniel Morgan's Flying Corps, a light, fast moving force of veteran riflemen and Continental Infantry. The famous rifleman led his flying corps west into the South Carolina upstate, or back country as it was called, while Greene took the remaining troops east in search of supplies. Upon reaching the Chessney Plantation, Morgan sent William Washington after Colonel Rugeley, a local commander of Tory partisans. Assigned under Washington's command was a force of South Carolina State dragoons under Lt. Col. James McCall, not to be confused with Cpt. James Call of the 3rd. Washington and McCall surrounded Rugely on his farm on December 4th. The Tories were snugly enclosed in a strong log barn with a surrounding entrenchment and line of abatis. Washington realized his force was inadequate to take the position with out artillery. Instead, he had several of his dragoons fell a tree and form it into the shape of a cannon barrel. He then had the troops fix the "gun" to a farm carriage and position the "artillery piece" in view of Rugely's barn where they promptly went through the motions of loading it. Rugely quickly surrendered before the "gun" could be fired.
Morgan was so pleased that he sent Washington and McCall after another Tory commander, Col. Waters. Waters' band of mounted militia had been burning and raiding the Patriot settlements of Fair Forest Creek and were particularly hated by the back country patriots.
Washington's force caught up to Waters men at Hammond's Store on the 29th of December. At the sight of Washington and McCall, the Tories began forming a dismounted line in an open field. The combined force of dragoons quickly drew swords and charged. The Tories broke without firing a volley. When the melee was over 150 Tory were dead or wounded and 40 taken prisoner. Waters fled to the woods with another fifty. Neither Washington or McCall lost a single man killed. After the victory at Hammond's Store, Washington and McCall drove even further south, threatening the British outpost at Ninety-Six and capturing a store of provisions at Fort William before returning to Morgan's camp in the upstate. As the year 1780 drew to a close, Washington's Dragoons were clearly back on the scoreboard.
Morgan's continued presence in the back country so worried Lord Cornwallis that he decided to send his own flying corps after the famous rifleman. He chose Banestre Tarleton to command it. Tarleton force included his Legion infantry and cavalry, two companies of 17th Light Dragoons, some Light Infantry, a battalion of the 71st Highlanders and the entire 7th Fusiliers. In all over one thousand men.
Morgan began giving ground moving rapidly up the Broad rivers western branches until he arrived at "The Cowpens" a large open field hemmed by brush and marsh that was used by local drovers. He set his men in two lines, the first composed of militia the second of Continentals. Washington's dragoons were to act as a reserve shock force and were placed in the rear with McCall's dragoons. An additional 40 men were drafted from Pickens' militia and equipped with extra sabers. Morgan's plan was for the first line of Militia to give two fires and then withdraw as the second line of Howard's Continentals hammered Tarleton's men long enough for the militia to reform and flank the British.
Tarleton showed up at dawn on the 17th of January and true to form attacked straight away. When the first line fell back he sent the 17th Dragoons to exploit the route. Known as Death's Heads for the skull and cross bone emblems on their helmets, the 17th pitched into the American left and nearly hacked their way into the American rear. Washington counterattacked, sending the entire weight of his force against the smaller 17th. He cut through the British dragoons at a gallop, clearing saddles and sending the 17th scurrying back to their lines. Washington's dragoons reformed as Howard's Continentals traded volleys with the British infantry. Again Tarleton tried to break the Americans with his cavalry. This time he sent a squadron of his Legion Cavalry against the American right. Again Washington responded with his full force, utterly breaking Tarleton's cavalry in a flurry of flashing blades that cleared the field and secured the American right. As Washington's men reformed, Howard's line of Continentals began withdrawing, falling back in good order with the 71st Highlanders rapidly pursuing. Howard's men halted on the edge of a swale and then delivered a lethal volley into the very faces of the Highlanders. Washington then drove into the rear flank of the Highlanders as Howard's men pitched into their front. Now reformed, the militia jumped into the fray as well. Unable to with stand the combined pressure, the Highlanders crumbled and the entire British Infantry began fleeing the field.
Tarleton now turned to his remaining Legion Cavalry and ordered them forward to stop the route. Apparently, they wanted no more of Washington's Dragoons. To a man they ignored the command and fled the field. Just how you score that remains a mystery.
It was left up to the 17th Dragoons to try to halt the British retreat. The Death's Heads bravely rode forward, charging Washington's scattered dragoons. Legend has it that at this point Tarleton and Washington met in hand to hand combat. However, Tarleton fails to mention any such thing in his extensive memoirs and it's far more likely that the British officer was a Coronet Patterson of the 17th dragoons, who later entered a report of the action. Patterson claims to have made a dash at Washington, Washington guarded Patterson's cut and his saber snapped in half. As Patterson was about to make another cut he was slashed on the shoulder by Washington's Sergeant Major, Matthew Perry. A second British officer closed and he was in turn disabled by a pistol shot delivered by Washington's "waiter". Another pistol shot struck Washington's horse and the combatants broke apart. Historians still debate whether the "waiter" was of African descent. Ultimately, his skin color is not important and the brief counter attack of the 17th, valiant though it was, did little more than temporarily check the American dragoons. Tarleton, the remaining Death's Heads, and anyone else on the British side with a horse, turned and ran, leaving Morgan with a complete victory.
Tarleton left behind 839 killed, wounded and captured. Morgan's casualties totaled 72. Another legend states that Lord Cornwallis was so upset with the news that he snapped his sword in two. In celebration of the unparalleled victory, congress struck medals for Morgan, Howard and Washington.
No fool, Morgan quickly gathered his flying corps and headed back east to link up with General Greene on the banks of the Catawba. In the meantime, Lord Cornwallis was heading north with a force of nearly three thousand men, he burned his slow moving wagons, loaded his men's backs with the barest of provisions and marched out in a desperate bid to catch Greene's army. Rather than give battle, Greene led Cornwallis further and further north, fighting a series of brilliant rear guard actions that stung the hard charging British time and again. The British body count rose but still Cornwallis kept coming, driving his men to exhaustion on half rations in a furious attempt to catch the Rebels at one of the countless river crossings. Washington's Dragoons served in the rear guard, always a half step ahead of the British and leaving nothing behind but empty mills and burned ferries.
Greene crossed the rain swollen Dan River on the 14th of February, pulling all ferry boats and anything else that could float men or supplies with him. Cornwallis arrived ten hours later and stood helplessly on the south bank of the river. With no other choice, he turned south where he was forced to beg food from a hostile populace. On the north bank, the Continentals went into camp where supplies and troops soon poured in from Governor Thomas Jefferson.
By March, Greene was ready to fight. He moved south, choosing the ground around Guilford Courthouse. He set his troops in three lines, similar to Daniel Morgan's at Cowpens. The first two lines were made of militia with orders to slowly give ground, the final line was all Continental Infantry posted on a steep wooded ridge. Washington's dragoons served as support for the first two lines and then fell back out of sight on the left of Greene's Continentals. The British soon arrived and attacked Greene's final line only to be thrown back by the Continentals. Cornwallis then committed his reserve, a battalion of Grenadiers and the 2nd Foot Guards - the very cream of the British Infantry. The Foot Guards and Grenadiers rolled forward, breaking the left of the Continental line. Washington then charged with his hidden 3rd Dragoons, slamming into the Guard's flank, bowling them over and cutting right through them. At the same time, a regiment of Greene's Continentals struck the Guards opposite flank and the route was on. Cornwallis was so alarmed that he ordered his artillery to fire into the mixed ranks, killing friend and foe alike, but halting the American counterattack. Rather than risk losing his army, Greene sounded the retreat and fell back in good order leaving Cornwallis the field. Cornwallis rightfully claimed all honors, but he lost a quarter of his men and crippled his command for future actions. After Guilford, Greene led his army south, driving the remaining British back toward Charleston where he proved to be a better strategist than tactician. At Hobkirk's Hill, Greene's forces were initially successful only to be pressed back and have their artillery overrun. A timely charge by the 3rd Dragoons saved the guns. Greene licked his wounds and regrouped continually pressing the British toward Charleston in a series of sieges and battles that reduced one outpost after another.
At Eutaw Springs Greene attacked the British on Sept. 8th, sweeping them from their camps and driving them in route until Greene's infantry stopped to plunder the British camp. The British infantry was then able to rally their line in a thick stand of thorn ridden blackjack. Ordered to envelope the British left, Washington's 3rd Dragoons charged forth in an attempt to break the impenetrable position. Half the dragoons were killed or wounded in the charge. Washington was pinned beneath his horse, bayoneted and taken prisoner. The remaining Dragoons fell back under Cpt. Parsons, one of only three surviving officers. General Greene would later claim a victory at Eutaw Springs, but the 3rd Dragoons were certainly the losers.
Meanwhile, Lord Cornwallis had headed for Virginia, hoping to be resupplied by the British navy on the Chesapeake capes. Instead he was bottled up at Yorktown and forced to surrender on October 18th.
The British before Greene soon retreated to Charleston and Greene's army besieged the city until it was evacuated a year later. The remaining Dragoons under Captain Parsons harassed the British foraging parties as they retired from the city.
A year passed as both side waited for a peace treaty to be signed. In June of 1782 the last of the 3rd Dragoons were consolidated with those of the 4th and placed under their old commander Colonel Baylor, who had finally been released by the British. Pay was nearly non-existent and morale plummeted as they waited for a formal surrender from the British. They stayed in the south until the spring of 1783 and when word spread of a peace treaty being signed, half the dragoons mutinied. Had they endured just a few weeks longer they would have been furloughed pending the formal peace signing. The remaining dragoons were mustered out of service and returned to Virginia.
Colonel Washington was eventually released and he returned to Charleston to marry Jane Elliot. He later served in the South Carolina legislature.
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