Year
1781

Davidson College namesake killed at Cowan’s Ford

On this day in 1781, American Brigadier General William Lee Davidson dies in combat attempting to prevent General Charles Cornwallis’ army from crossing the Catawba River in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

Davidson’s North Carolina militia, numbering between 600 and 800 men, set up camp on the far side of the river, hoping to thwart or at least slow Cornwallis’ crossing. The Patriots stayed back from the banks of the river in order to prevent Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tartleton’s forces from fording the river at a different point and surprising the Patriots with a rear attack.

At 1 a.m., Cornwallis began to move his troops toward the ford; by daybreak, they were crossing in a double-pronged formation–one prong for horses, the other for wagons. The noise of the rough crossing, during which the horses were forced to plunge in over their heads in the storm-swollen stream, woke the sleeping Patriot guard.

The Patriots fired upon the Britons as they crossed and received heavy fire in return. Almost immediately upon his arrival at the river bank, General Davidson took a rifle ball to the heart and fell from his horse; his soaked corpse was found late that evening. Although Cornwallis’ troops took heavy casualties, the combat did little to slow their progress north toward Virginia.

General Davidson was the son of Ulster-Scot Presbyterian immigrants to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The family moved in 1748, two years after William’s birth, to what was then known as Rowan (now Iredell) County, North Carolina.

In 1835, Davidson’s son, William Lee Davidson II, gave the Concord Presbytery land on which to build a college in his father’s honor. The school was named Davidson College.

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