The Battle of Guilford Courthouse took place on March 15, 1781. After the British defeat at Cowpens on January 17, 1781, British General Cornwallis decided to pursue the American Continental and militia soldiers “to the end of the World.” Cornwallis ordered many of the British wagons to be burned, which included the rum. He then chased General Nathanael Greene’s army in what is known as the “Race to the Dan.” But, Greene eluded Cornwallis and his army forded the Dan River into Virginia. After a brief period of rest and resupply, Greene’s army re-crossed the Dan back into North Carolina. The American and British armies finally squared off near tiny Guilford Courthouse, which is located near present-day Greensboro, North Carolina.
In the book, Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse, authors Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard dive into the minutiae of the battle. It is a short book, yet carefully researched from primary sources to include veterans’ pension records. For hardcore military history fans, this is a great read. While the book is less than 250 pages, it requires time and effort because of all of the moving pieces on the battlefield.
Babits previously wrote A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens. This book is an excellent sequel to that one. In a similar style to his work on Cowpens, Babits provides strong analysis of tactics and weapons employment. Furthermore, he discusses the battle in a way that allows the reader to understand the complexity of the situation from the perspective of commanders on the ground. In the case of Guilford Courthouse, the densely wooded terrain presented a significant challenge for Greene’s ability to command and control the battlefield.
Setting the Stage
Getting to Guilford Courthouse requires an in depth look at the epic chase that occurred after Cowpens. The book traces Cornwallis fateful decision to loosen his supply wagons by destroying unnecessary supplies. One has to respect the general’s determination to pursue Greene at all costs. Furthermore, Cornwallis did set the example himself. Brigadier General Charles O’Hara said, “Lord Cornwallis set the example by burning all of his Wagons, and destroying the greatest part his Baggage” (Babits and Howard 15). On January 28, 1781, the British launched their campaign against Greene “in the most barren, inhospitable unhealthy part of North America… with zeal and with Bayonets only.”
On the other side, Greene demonstrated his leadership through careful study of the terrain and planning for amphibious crossings. If the adage “amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics” is true, then Greene was a true professional. He had tremendous foresight to anticipate points of friction and allow his army avenues to withdraw and keep a water feature in between his troops and those of Cornwallis. Meanwhile on the tactical side, he employed his militia as well as Continental dragoons under Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee as a screening force. Lt. Col. Lee, in particular, distinguished himself as an able cavalry officer, who squared off with the notorious Lt. Col. Banastre “Bloody Ban” Tarleton.
After a two week chase, Greene’s army crossed the Dan River on the night of February 13 and 14. Over the next several days, the Americans were able to rest and refit. Since his arrival in the southern theater, Greene had lamented the poor state of his army. From his perspective the soldiers were always underfed and poorly clothed to the point of nakedness. The army suffered from a lack of provisions to include weapons and ammunition. Furthermore, Greene had a recruiting challenge and needed reinforcements. Nevertheless, after crossing the Dan, Greene was able to take a few days to address these problems. Thus, on February 19, Greene began sending forces back across the Dan River. He was ready to take the fight to Cornwallis in North Carolina.
The Battle Begins
Babits and Howard detail the strengths and weaknesses of Greene and Cornwallis’s armies. On the American side, the Continentals were the professional soldiers while the militia were short-term enlistees. Among the Continentals, the 1st Maryland Regiment had the most extensive experience while the 2nd Maryland was a new unit. The militia comprised the bulk of Greene’s troops. Their performance record had several highs and a few notable lows. Among the low moments was the Battle of Camden in August 1780. However, under General Morgan, militia soldiers had performed well at the Battle of Cowpens. Morgan employed them in accordance with their capabilities, which is to say that he only required them to fire two volleys before before they could withdraw. Greene determined to use his militia in the same manner as Morgan.
On the day of the battle, Greene placed his army in three successive lines. This was the same defense in depth tactic that Morgan used at Cowpens. The forward units were made up of militia and sharpshooters. Their mission was to degrade the enemies strength until the enemy reached the main effort position, which was where the Continentals stood. The goal was to weaken the British to the point where the Continentals could deliver a decisive blow.
Both sides had artillery and cavalry. During the battle, cavalry fighting on the flanks turned into separate engagements. In one case, Lee’s cavalry separated from the militia units, which allowed the British to wreak havoc on the fleeing militia. Unlike Cowpens, the terrain was much more dense with woods and thick foliage. As a result, unit cohesion was harder to maintain. Lines of communication were frequently broken.
The Battle Rages
There is debate over the militia’s performance at Guilford Courthouse. Babits and Howard discuss the varying points of view to include the fact that Greene blamed the militia for a hasty withdrawal on the first line. The best conclusion that the reader can draw is that the militia performed better than they did at Camden, but not quite as well as Cowpens. Furthermore, unlike Cowpens, Greene was not able to ride to each position on the battlefield. As a result, he was not physically present with the first line militia unit in the same way that Morgan had been at Cowpens.
Nevertheless, the bulk of the book discusses the intricacies of each line of fighting. The authors leave no stone unturned. Their breadth of detail is impressive. In a search for accuracy, they seek to dispel certain myths about the battle. For example, they take on the story that Cornwallis gave a callous order for the artillery to fire on both his soldiers and the Americans. This is a story that became popularized primarily through accounts of the battle from Americans like Henry Lee. However, there appears to be no evidence that this was the case at all from either Cornwallis’s own records or the accounts of people that were with him. Thus, the authors conclude that what happened was a case of unintended friendly fire on British Guardsmen, who fled into the direction of the cannon fire.
The book discusses the battle in the woods with the second line militia. The Virginia militia performed well at Guilford Courthouse. Col. William Campbell and Maj. Alexander Stuart commanded these units. The authors give a lot of credit to their leadership and determination to redeem their units reputations after the disaster of Camden. Much of the second line battle was fought in thick woods. The terrain caused this fight to be disorderly. As a result, multiple battles within the battle occurred.
The Culminating Point
By the time the British reached the third line, the fighting had been intense. It was a bloodbath on both sides. The book chronicles some of the violent moments such as the case of American David Steele, who was hacked across the head with a saber and later claimed to have received up to sixteen sword wounds. In fact, even “Bloody Ban” Tarleton lost two fingers in the fighting. When the British reached the third line, the fighting turned to close quarters combat with bayonets.
On the third line, the Continentals stood their ground and fought bravely. However, among the two primary units, the 2nd Maryland Regiment did not have the experience or the same quality commanders as the 1st Maryland. As a result, the 2nd Maryland’s performance was underwhelming to say the least. Meanwhile, the 1st Maryland fought in a way that fitted their reputation. They made a stand until Greene decided to withdraw his units from the field.
Since the Americans withdrew and the British claimed the field of battle, the victory is technically a British one. However, this was a pyrrhic victory to say the least. The British suffered 25% casualties in the fight. Furthermore, they were exhausted from their pursuit and had little food and provisions. Therefore, taking the ground at Guilford Courthouse was an incredibly costly endeavor. It also influenced Cornwallis’s next strategic decision to move his army to Wilmington, NC and ultimately abandon South Carolina for Virginia. On the other hand, Greene moved his army back into South Carolina. In terms of the larger strategic outcome, we now see the Battle of Guilford Courthouse as an American victory.
Babits and Howard discuss the implications of the battle and how it impacted the next phases of the war. In addition, they also chronicle the lives of many of the veterans after the war. It is interesting to read about what happened to both the British and American veterans. Some of them went on to distinguished careers in politics and business. There were other veterans that seemed to have struggled with gambling and booze.
On the American side, it is fascinating how many descendants fought in the American Civil War. In fact, most of them fought for the Confederacy, which makes sense considering the number of veterans from Virginia and North Carolina. Among some of the most well-known Confederate commanders was Henry Lee’s son, Robert E. Lee. Additionally, one of the officers in Lee’s Legion was Lt. Peter Johnston, whose son was Confederate General Joseph Eggleston Johnston. In the case of two veterans, Alexander Stuart and Samuel McDowell, their great grandsons later fought each other at the Battle of First Manassas in July 1861. These descendants were Confederate cavalry officer James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart and Union Army commander Irvine McDowell.
Long, Obstinate, and Bloody is a well-researched, comprehensive overview of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. For anyone who wants to go deeper into the battle, this is the place to start. It is not necessarily the place to finish. In fact, the authors don’t want it to be the final account. They concede that there is more work to be done. But, they have done a lot, and the next generation of Guilford Courthouse researchers will know exactly where to begin.
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The Battle of Guilford Courthouse battlefield review.