Photo report from 234th Anniversary Guilford Courthouse
By Jason Pipes
Guilford Courthouse: Yesterday March 15th was the 234th anniversary of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. I spent the day walking the ground of the actual engagement around the time the fighting would have been occurring. The following is a photo report showing some perspectives of the ground as it exists today along with some background materials to provide context. The battlefield photos are those I took yesterday. The maps comes from multiple sources including images I captured on site. Much of the background material comes from my notes and references as well as from the excellent site A Miniature History of the American Revolution. The initial background info is from this fantastic AWI resource.
Guilford Courthouse was in some sense the high water mark of British fortunes in the southern theater of the Revolutionary War. After the battle, the British army, commanded by Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis, embarked on a path that ended in capture at Yorktown, Virginia. Meanwhile, the American army, commanded by Major-General Nathanael Greene, began the reconquest of South Carolina and Georgia.
- Guilford Courthouse is known for having been one of the hardest fought battles of the Revolutionary War. The British army lost more than ¼ of its men killed and wounded; American casualties were also considerable, especially among the Continentals.
- Guilford Courthouse was the largest battle fought in North Carolina during the Revolutionary War. Today the site is a national military park, and one of the better preserved battlefields of the war.
After the British captured Charleston, South Carolina, in May, 1780, the seat of war shifted to the North and South Carolina back country. British sought to control this vast area with small detachments, but isolated forces soon proved vulnerable, and the British met with stinging defeats at such places as Ramsour’s Mill and Williamson’s Plantation. The British gradually began to field larger, more mobile forces, but these too proved vulnerable as demonstrated by the crushing defeats at King’s Mountain, Blackstock’s Plantation, and Cowpens. The one area where the British appeared to hold a consistent advantage was in its main army versus that of the Americans. In August, 1780, the British main army, led by Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis, destroyed the American main army, led by Major-General Horatio Gates, at the battle of Camden.
In late January, 1781, Cornwallis attempted to destroy the American main army again, which had regrouped and was now led by Major-General Nathanael Greene. Cornwallis followed Greene’s army across the state of North Carolina in what is now known as the Race to the Dan on the Virginia border. However, the British army suffered substantial attrition in this campaign and they took up winter quarters in Hillsboro NC. By early March, Greene had receive reinforcements of Continentals and militia, and he felt strong enough to recross the Dan and attempt to face Cornwallis in battle. Greene then moved to draw the British out and soon the two main armies clashed near Guilford Courthouse.
The battle of Guilford Courthouse was fought on March 15th 1871. In the early morning hours, Cornwallis got his army on the road to Guilford Courthouse where the Americans were encamped. The fighting began along the route the British followed known as the New Garden Road when an American detachment, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Lee, repeatedly skirmished with the advancing British. Several times the Americans halted or drove back the British vanguard. However, it wasn’t long before Lee’s men were forced to give way before overwhelming numbers. This skirmishing at New Garden Meeting House about 5-6 miles from Guilford Court House gave Greene’s men extra time to prepare for battle and deploy for battle.
The following map shows an overview of the general positions of the forces engaged.
This map shows the battlefield park as it exists today.
Superimposed on the map are the locations of each photo shown in this report numbered as they appear here. You can reference this map to understand where each view was taken in relation to that overall battle.
The British army assembled on the Hoskin’s Farm about a quarter mile in front of the first American position, which they advanced on around 12:30pm on March 15th.
Location 1: This is a view of the Hoskins Farm as it appears today. The farm property is preserved and the location is now a North Carolina Colonial Life Museum and Research Center. None of the buildings are original to the battle of Guilford Courthouse but they are very good examples of what would have been present at the time of the fighting.
At approximately 12:30pm on March 15th 1781 the British began their advance across Hoskins’ fields towards the first American position. This first image is a painting of that moment followed by the British view centered on the New Garden Road by Keith Rocco.
Location 2: This is the modern view from the British position on the New Garden Road looking approximately north towards the first American defensive line with the British and American positions superimposed.
While the British advanced north guiding on the New Garden Road towards Guilford Courthouse, the Americans were waiting formed in three defensive lines as seen in the maps shown earlier. The first line faced south along the northern edge of the fields belonging to Joseph Hoskins. This line was defended by Butler’s and Eaton’s brigades of North Carolina militia in front. Two corps commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Lee and Lieutenant-Colonel William Washington respectively defended the North Carolinians’ left and right flanks. Just ahead of the North Carolina militia, on the New Garden road and facing the British, was a 2-gun section of 6-pounders commanded by Captain Anthony Singleton of the 1st Continental Artillery.
This is a painting by Dale Gallon that represents this view of the battlefield from the American perspective. Notice the Hoskins Farm in the distance and the British army arrayed ready to advance.
Location 3: This is the modern view looking approximately south from the same location as the above Rocco painting with the American and British positions superimposed.
Location 4: This is the modern view from the same location as that in location 3 but looking looking approximately west down the American line with the American position superimposed.
The British advanced and after a brief but stubborn resistance the first American line routed and fell back. The British would now advance upon the second American position. Although the early spring mud in Hoskins’ fields was not an easy obstacle (leading some accounts to describe a resulting staggered British assault on the first line) the advance was still relatively orderly. Once the initial American position fell back though the British were forced to push into a deeply wooded area that significantly hindered their ability to maintain clean lines and proper unit frontages.
The second defensive line at Guilford Courthouse was comprised of two brigades Virginia militia. Brigadier-General Edward Stevens commanded the brigade on the left; Brigadier-General Robert Lawson commanded the brigade on the right.
Location 5: This is the view from the location of the second American line looking approximately west with the general trace of the American line superimposed. Take note of the thick undergrowth and the dense amount of trees present even today. At the time of the battle the growth was older and more dense giving an idea of just how hard it would have been for the British to move forward effectively in line formation.
Location 5a: This is the modern view looking approximately south along the trace of the New Garden Road from between the American first and second positions with both American lines superimposed.
Location 6: This is the view of the RevWar cannon the Park Service has placed at the currently understood location of the third American defensive position (it was for many years thought to have been at location 9 where the victory monument is located but that belief is no longer supported by most research).
Location 7: From this spot are seen two views, one looking north and one looking south, both along the trace of the New Garden Road at the location of the third American defensive line.
Courthouse Area: Using the same view from location 7 north, this image shows the generally accepted location of the Court House along the trace of the New Garden Road. Following that is a portion of a painting by Keith Rocco of the Courthouse and a modern view of about that same spot.
Location 8: This is the view looking along the general area of the third American defensive position. At the beginning of the battle, the third line consisted of two Virginia regiments that averaged about 385 men each (both officers and enlisted men), two Maryland regiments that averaged about 340 men each, and a two-gun battery commanded by Captain Ebenezer Finley. The Virginia regiments formed a brigade on the right of the line, the Maryland regiments formed a brigade on the left of the line, and Finley’s battery was located roughly between them. This was the location of some of the most fierce combat at Guilford Courthouse. You can see the general drop off towards the south as well.
Location 9: This view looking generally south shows the area once thought to be the location of the third American line but now discounted. What it shows though is the rolling terrain the British encountered as they pushed forward after the second American line gave way. Although this area was cleared at the time of the battle between this location and the third American line the British were forced to cross a small stream (called a rivulet in many accounts) and ascend yet another hill directly into the face of the American guns.
Location 10: This view is from the same general area as the above photo, in this case looking south down towards the trace of the New Garden Road.
Location 11: This view is from the opposite side as Location 9, looking generally west across the open ravine.
The British eventually took the field after General Greene’s army either routed away or pulled back to regroup. The American army lost the field but in so doing they bloodied the British so badly they didn’t press Greene as he assumed they would. They camped on the field that evening and would limp away soon after, ending the 1781 Carolina Campaign and leading to the famous British quote by Charles James Fox “Another such victory would ruin the British army.”
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