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Crossing of the Dan gets its place among history’s elite

General Nathanael Greene’s Crossing of the Dan River in 1781 is one of the best-kept secrets of the American Revolution.  For over 200 years that pivotal moment in the war for independence remained nearly forgotten while Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Day in 1776 and the subsequent Battle of Trenton was celebrated.

School children learned about Washington’s great feat, and history books described it along with illustrations of Emanuel Leutze’s famous if idealistic painting of that moment. 

Hardly anyone remembered Greene’s Crossing of the Dan during the southern campaign of that war.  

Except, in South Boston and Halifax County, a roadside marker erected in 1939 by the Berryman Green Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, told the story in brief.  Then during the Bicentennial of the American Revolution, a small booklet of 40 pages titled “The Retreat to the Dan” by Carroll Headspeth and Spurgeon Compton kept the story alive for decades afterward.   

Despite these efforts, little note of Greene’s Crossing  (if it was mentioned at all) occurred in history books and documentaries about the war.  There was no battle at the river and since retreats don’t win wars, it has been deemed of little importance that Greene’s army escaped from the British when they crossed the Dan and prevented Cornwallis’ British troops from crossing by keeping all the available boats on the other side.  

Never mind that Greene recrossed the river and confronted Cornwallis at Guilford Courthouse and inflicted such casualties on the British there they retreated to the coast and then into Virginia where they were surrounded at Yorktown. Any school kid knows what happened there. 

Of late things have taken a turn for the better, however.  Television series and books are beginning to notice that something happened in South Boston that most likely changed the course of the Revolution from a stalemate to a success. I never knew about this great story from the history books in school. 

That is until I discovered my fifth great-grandfather repaired guns, shoed horses and supplied food for the troops during that time. Until then I was totally ignorant of the game-changing event that happened 30 miles or so from where I lived. 

I started doing research and discovered Headspeth’s book and also one by Frances Hurt of Pittsylvania County that discussed it. From then on I fell in love with this story.   

When I became involved with others in celebrating the event each February,  the group conceived the idea of a first quality museum exhibit and to help raise funds for such an endeavor I wrote the “Race to the Dan,” which tells the story and points out the genius of Nathanael Greene in devising a strategy that used his retreat to put the pursuing British army on a slow road to ruin. 

Now the story is available to an even greater audience. With the National Society Sons of the American Revolution recently recognizing the Crossing of the Dan as a nationally ranked event right up there with Saratoga, Yorktown and especially Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware, it was decided the Crossing should have its own documentary to show how instrumental this event was in saving the Revolution that in 1781 was in its declining stages. 

The 23-minute documentary, which is now available for $10 through the Halifax County Historical Society, involved nearly three years of effort with contributions by a number of organizations and artists.  It contains interviews with experts on the Revolutionary War in the South, such as Dr. John Hall, a former West Point professor, and Dr. Lawrence Babits, who has stated that Greene’s Crossing of the Dan was just as important as Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware.  

British and American reenactors are featured as well as the voices of those representing the words of other American and British characters instrumental to the story. The film also contains live footage from reenactments in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. 

It was produced by “Hutch” Hutcheson of Virginia Multimedia, who is also a WBTM radio morning show personality, with some assistance from myself regarding writing and research.  

The goal was to create a narrative that captures the dire situation facing the country during Greene’s Race to the Dan and how Greene’s Crossing saved his army and precipitated events that led to British surrender.   

The Halifax County Historical Society commissioned the film for educational purposes, to spread the story of one of the great moments in American history. It will be available from at the Crossing of the Dan’s 233rd anniversary celebration at The Prizery in South Boston this Thursday through Saturday. 

In Danville the documentary will be available in at Karen’s Hallmark and in South Boston at The Prizery or from the Halifax County Historical Society.  

For more information on the event access