|Interesting Stories Associated with
(Short essays about people and events related to the history of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse)
Guilford County is created in reaction to a taxpayer’s revolt.
Some things never change! Americans today who grumble about how their government operates or interferes with their lives may find the eighteenth-century North Carolina Regulator movement an interesting study, if not only of history, but of people and their government.
North Carolina prior to the American Revolution was a crown colony of Great Britain. As such, the King of England governed by appointing a royal governor to administer the affairs of the colony. The people were represented in an Assembly. These literate men (remember women were not yet enfranchised) came from the landed gentry and served to further the best interest of the king or the governor, an interest they made sure was as close to their own interest, too! One of the advantages of being so close to the power of the crown was the platinum opportunity to obtain for themselves, or for a friend, the “gift” of a lucrative governmental post, such as assemblyman, county tax collector, judge, militia colonel, magistrate, justice of the peace, or all of them at once! Multiple officeholding was quite common because, without a salary, their income came from the collection of taxes and fees.
By the late 1750’s the people of piedmont and western North Carolina were beginning to have their fill of these local officials who either in their opinion or on a rare indictment were all corrupt, abusing the power of their office for personal gain, particularly through the highly favored practice of misappropriating or embezzling public funds. Riots and protests in 1759 and 1765 resulted in some officials or their agents angrily confronted or, worst, beaten short of death. North Carolina’s Royal Governor, William Tryon, viewed by the people as sitting on top of this mountain of corruption, was not immune either. His condoning of these practices and benefiting from them, too, irritated and ignited the citizenry. Fueling the fire was his extravagance in building a “palace” for himself at New Bern using tax money “stolen” from them.
In the backcountry counties of Rowan and Orange, far removed from the improvements and benefits going to eastern North Carolina, rose up a vigilante force of citizens taking the name “Regulators”, an old English term applied to those “with the professed object of supplying the want of the regular administration of justice.” Herman Husbands, their outspoken leader, protested in the Assembly with no result, except to be expelled. Rebuked in this lawful way-to-do-things arena, the Regulators picked more aggressive leaders and their actions grew bolder. From 1768 to 1771, acts of violence and retribution against these officials ranged from protests to mock trials. As these grew into mob violence more than once the Governor was required to call out the militia. Seeking to control the wrath of the Regulators, the Assembly passed the “Riot” or “Bloody Act” on January 15, 1771 making rioters guilty of treason and giving the Governor the power to quell any insurrection with military force. In defiance of the Assembly, an “army” of Regulators marched on Hillsborough. Barring the road near Alamance Creek stood Tryon’s force of militia. On May 16, 1771, in a short one-sided battle, the Regulators were defeated. Content the rebellion was crushed and to be certain it remained crushed, one of the movement’s top leaders was executed immediately and twelve others were later tried in court. Six of them were hanged; their bodies drawn and quartered, and buried in unmarked graves. Those not put to death were obliged to swear allegiance to the government. As calm descended over middle-North Carolina, many of the ex-Regulators left their homes in self-banishment for the “non-government” of the frontier. Tryon and Fanning left to fill similar government jobs in New York. Later, when the Revolution began, many of those who had participated in this rebellion against the governor and his cronies had to choose sides. Some took the road again to rebellion and supported the cause of independence; others, sensing the officials they had bitterly despised in 1771 were the same ones now in charge of the Revolution, chose to remain loyal to the King.
One of the political reactions to the Regulators was the creation of a new county formed by slicing off the western part of Orange and the eastern part of Rowan County. The Governor and the Assembly hoped this new county, stretching north from the Virginia border south to the Uwharrie Mountains, would weaken the political influence of the Regulators by installing more new “appointed” officials. Thus Guilford County, named for the father of King George’s Prime Minister, Lord North, began by an act of Assembly in 1770 to take effect in April 1771, a month before the battle of Alamance. A few years later, in its center, county commissioners began erecting a small wooden building along the Great Salisbury Wagon Road. Here, too, in less than ten years, an important battle of the American Revolution would be fought.
Lord Cornwallis, a soldier who opposed a war against the colonies.
Lord Charles, Second Earl Cornwallis revealed that he was somewhat sympathetic of America’s colonial grievances in the years preceding the Revolutionary War. While serving in Parliament he opposed the Stamp Act and the other detested parliamentary measures that led the colonies to start a shooting war in 1775. But, after the war began, Cornwallis shared the displeasure with many of his fellow high-ranking British commanders of having to fight against colonial Englishmen. But his higher sense of duty as a professional soldier to king and country directed him to serve in America. He performed amazingly well in contrast to his superiors whose conduct of the war so far had not proved all too successful. Cornwallis’ abilities did not escape the eye of the king and others within the military leadership. In 1779 he came quite near to being appointed Commander in Chief in America. This lost opportunity for Cornwallis, and perhaps Britain, came at a time when British military strategists were considering a change in plans for the war in America. Had King George III ignored his advisors and appointed Cornwallis CIC over the favored Sir Henry Clinton, the final course of the war would have been very different. The shift of the war to the South, already set firm in the minds of the British military and political strategists, would have, without a doubt, continued. But, with the more aggressive Cornwallis in charge, would it have led to a place called Guilford Courthouse?
Nathanael Greene, a pacifist who chose to become a soldier.
Greene was born in Rhode Island in 1742 to Quaker parents. His pacifist upbringing scorned any connection to the evils of warfare or the military life. In his early educational process Greene enjoyed reading the Greek and Roman classics. Maybe the epic stories of the Trojan War, the histories of the campaigns of Hannibal or the Roman conquests spurred a martial interest inside him. By the 1770’s, now successful in his father’s iron founding business, he had begun to take a personal interest in the colonies’ growing discontent over British policies. By 1773, then a Rhode Island Assemblyman, Greene’s interest in things military was apparent. After he was spotted at one too many military parades, he was informed by the Society of Friends that his contradictory actions forced them to remove his name from the meeting. Then, in 1774, the British revenue cutter, “Gaspee”, was boarded and set afire in the waters off his Rhode Island home. In the trial that followed, Greene was accused of complicity in the affair by one of its crewmembers. Greene’s anger over the accusation led to the utterance of some very un-pacifist remarks. Although innocent of the charges, Greene was now linked to the growing revolutionary movement. Lacking formal military training Greene began to develop his own skills as a soldier. Touchy about a stiff knee that he thought disqualified him, he declined an officer’s rank in the Kentish Guards, a local militia unit he had helped to raise. He joined anyway as a private in the ranks carrying a musket he purchased from a British deserter from Boston. Greene’s keen mind and natural leadership qualities made him less the private soldier and more the obvious choice as its company commander. In June 1775, after the Assembly appointed Greene brigadier general, he reported with the Rhode Island militia to General George Washington’s rebel forces then assembling at Cambridge, Massachusetts. After Boston was evacuated in March 1776, Greene’s brigade was sent to defend New York City from a British attack. On April 9 he was promoted to the rank of major general by the Congress to command a newly formed division to defend Long Island.
Cornwallis and Greene’s first battlefield encounter was not at Guilford Courthouse.
Soon after Greene’s promotion to major general in April 1776, the British Army of Sir William Howe attacked New York City. One of Howe’s trusted and experienced division commanders was Lord Cornwallis. At the American-held Fort Washington, New York, Greene and Cornwallis came very close to fighting each other for the first time. Greene, still learning the art of war first-hand, wisely ordered the abandonment of the fort. Later and still serving under other commanders the two came close to blows at Princeton and Brandywine. They may have had their first real head-to-head military encounter in June 1778 at the battle of Monmouth, New Jersey. Here, Cornwallis led the attack of Sir Henry Clinton’s British army against General George Washington’s American right commanded by Greene. After Monmouth, the war began to change. Two and one-half years of the war would elapse before they would actually face each other again on a battlefield--on March 15, 1781 to be exact--at Guilford Courthouse. By then both generals were experienced enough to respect each other’s ability.
Nathanael Greene might have been the “Father of the Country”.
During the early days of the American Revolution, General George Washington quickly recognized the talents of Nathanael Greene. The great general took on the younger soldier much like a master craftsman takes on a boy apprentice to teach him the skills of a trade. Washington was an insistent master and persuaded the reluctant apprentice to take on several difficult jobs that he knew would test his ability and develop his skills. The friendship growing out of this association helped Greene through many trying situations and obtained for him appointments that might have gone to others of lesser abilities. The Washington and Greene families were also close. When Nathanael and Catherine Greene named their first two children George Washington Greene and Martha Washington Greene the Washington’s took a personal interest in their education and development.
During the war, George Washington was often seen in the thick of the fighting and could have been captured, wounded--or killed. He could just as easily been made sick or died from the epidemics of measles, small pox and other catastrophic diseases that frequently spread through the army. Although we know none of these things really happened, what if something catastrophic had happened to George Washington, the military leader and soul of the Revolution? Who would have taken over as military leader—Gates?—Arnold? It was rumored, if not a known fact at the time, Washington personally preferred Nathanael Greene to take over as Commander in Chief to guide the War for Independence to final victory. Maybe that is why he drove his apprentice so hard.
Nathanael Greene might never have become commander in the South.
Greene saw himself as becoming a great military commander, a leader on horseback of soldiers in battle, much like the heroes of the Greek and Roman classics he had read about as a youngster, so when he was offered the appointment to Quarter Master General, a “desk job”, in 1778, he declined. Urged by Washington to take this important position he accepted reluctantly. Switching from saddle to desk was a hard change, but he excelled in the process. The changes he made in the Quarter Master Department virtually eliminated the supply problems of former times, but not without criticism and the envy of some malcontents in Congress. Perhaps jealous of his success or hopeful to fill the position with a crony, several members of Congress refused Greene even a vote of confidence—a simple acknowledgement that he was doing a good job. When they forced him to accept unneeded reorganization, Greene felt personally insulted and resigned! Repulsed at such reaction, several irate members of Congress wanted him immediately expelled from the army. Had they done so, Greene’s blossoming military career would have ended rather abruptly. But General Washington had plans for his apprentice general and strongly urged Greene to hold on for the betterment of the cause. Washington, of course, was right. Greene’s patience paid off. He stayed with the army, accepting for the time being a command assignment to West Point, the important bastion on the Hudson River. Then, in October 1780, Washington offered his protégé the command of the Southern Department, a difficult assignment Greene knew would be his ultimate test as a general. Greene carefully pondered the offer and then with the confidence born of patience, accepted the challenge.
Nathanael Greene takes over a traitor’s job and hangs a spy.
Not every American general had the patience or virtuous thick skin to endure criticism and personal insult. One of these was American General Benedict Arnold. Wounded in the leg at the Battle of Saratoga, New York, in 1777 Arnold was one of the ablest of Washington’s generals and he knew it. The laurels heaped upon his superior, Horatio Gates, overshadowed Arnold’s ability and his heroic conduct on that field. Growing sour and discouraged by the way Congress and the Army dispensed promotions and glory, Arnold became ever more convinced that these irresponsible leaders would cause the Revolution to fail and he did not want to be around at the collapse. By 1780 Arnold, now commanding the formidable Hudson River stronghold at West Point, made up his mind that he would abandon what he believed was a doomed cause and switch his allegiance to the British. If personal treason was not enough, Arnold arranged to give a British officer, acting as his accomplice, a copy of the plans of West Point’s fortifications and other valuable military information that would aid the capture of that position. After Arnold’s treachery was complete, Nathanael Greene (then out of a job in the Quartermaster Department) was appointed by Washington as the American replacement to command the important Hudson River stronghold. As commander of this post, Greene was therefore in position to sit as head of the military court that would try (and later hang) the captured accomplice in the conspiracy—British Major John André.
Greene takes command of a defeated army.
General Washington wrote an official letter to General Nathanael Greene at West Point on October 14, 1780, offering him command of the Southern Department, an immense area that included Maryland and all the states south to Georgia. Greene penned back an acceptance letter, but with the provision that he must first travel home to settle his personal affairs and to see his beloved wife, Catherine. Washington refused this request, not to punish Greene, but because the worsening situation in the South needed immediate attention. Charlestown, South Carolina had fallen with a sizable force of American Continentals and the present commander, General Horatio Gates, had been defeated in battle at Camden in mid-August; his army all but destroyed. Quickly writing to his wife, Greene explained, “My dear Angel, What I have been dreading has come to pass, His Excellency General Washington, by order of Congress, has appointed me to the command of the Southern Army.” Upon reading her husband’s sorrowful words, she dashed off to see him before his departure. Greene had hoped to embrace his beautiful “Caty” before he left, but the urgency of the times prevented the farewell meeting. At Army Headquarters at Preakness, New Jersey, he met with Washington to receive his orders, hear last minute instructions, and pack his goods before riding south.
Greene had his first shocking glimpse of his new command when he rode into Hillsborough, North Carolina. Here, he saw for himself the wretchedness of Southern Army’s condition. It was worst than he had feared. Riding on, Greene arrived at the Army’s headquarters in Charlotte. General Gates turned the army over to the new commander. There were no bad feelings between the two; on-lookers said both men were extremely cordial in true 18th-century gentlemanly style. Gates, relieved of his burden, went home to Virginia. Now, the fate of the Southern Department rested solely on the broad shoulders of Nathanael Greene.
October 1780, a turning point in the cause of independence.
Two important events in the first half of the month of October 1780 had a significant impact on the war in the South—and the American Revolution. On October 7, the Patriot forces in the South had won a great victory—the total defeat of Major Patrick Ferguson’s Loyalist forces at Kings Mountain at the hands of a host of irate Appalachian farmers and backwoodsmen. This rebel “army” came not into being as an official corps of the Southern Army, but for no other purpose than for its members to fight in defense of their homes and way of life. This host not only crushed the Loyalists and killed their commander, but they dealt harshly with the survivors, hanging some and allowing others to escape to spread fear among their friends. Hearing of this, some thinking loyal Americans began to shy away from supporting Cornwallis, bending the linchpin of the plans the British commander had for the coming campaign in North Carolina. Then, as quickly as this victorious host had waged their war, they returned home. Fearful of such a powerful force in his backyard, Cornwallis evacuated Charlotte and marched back to the safety of South Carolina. Coming in the wake of the dark disaster at Camden, the victory at Kings Mountain was a great patriot morale booster. Thomas Jefferson was quick to recognize the victory at Kings Mountain as a turning point. A moral victory, Kings Mountain was a welcomed relief to an army at a time when it was still suffering from the ill effects of the defeat at Camden in August.
On October 14, 1780 Major General Nathanael Greene was appointed Commander of the Southern Army. A few weeks later, Greene rode into this atmosphere of mixed victory and defeat. Seeing the condition of part of the Southern Army at Hillsborough, he journeyed on to Charlotte to take command on December 2 from General Gates. Greene found Gates’ Southern Army destitute, hungry and dispirited. Greene acted immediately like a doctor tending an ailing patient, first obtaining any available food and medical supplies, then reorganizing the Continentals and finally making plans to take advantage of Cornwallis’s recent reverses. Contrary to by-the-book military strategy, he proceeded to divide his smaller army. Greene sent 600 of his best and most dependable forces southwest under his trusted subordinate General Daniel Morgan while he took the rest east to the Cheraw/PeeDee River area. The plan was bold--and risky. The first, a strong force under Morgan, the tough Virginian, was to divert British attention and make them wary of their mission; the latter, a weak one under General Isaac Huger, to take care of the wounded, sick and hungry. Cornwallis responded to the first by sending a part of his army under Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton to counter Morgan’s end-run around his left flank. These two clashed at the Cowpens, near the Pacolet River, on January 17, 1781 ending in a humiliating defeat for Tarleton and the capture of his army. Word of another British force crushed brought anguish to Cornwallis, but another boost in morale for the rebels.
Because of two important historical events in October 1780--the appointment of Greene and the victory at Kings Mountain--the war in the South was starting to turn.
Cornwallis wagers his army in a bet on success.
After the battle of Cowpens in January 1781, Cornwallis was determined to catch Daniel Morgan before the American general retreated too far into North Carolina. Putting his army into motion they arrived at Ramseur’s Mill (now Lincolnton), North Carolina, on January 25. So soon into the pursuit of Morgan, it was obvious to Cornwallis that the army was being slowed by the excess number of wagons and camp supplies. He was also aware that it would take a rapid march to catch Morgan and free the British prisoners captured at Cowpens before they could link up with the other half of Greene’s army now preparing to move north out of their camp of repose 150 miles away. Cornwallis, taking a bold gamble, decided to scrap the army’s excess baggage, putting any unneeded items to the torch, including wagons, tents, personal belongings and camp furniture. As a display of solidarity, Cornwallis added some of his own excess goods to the bonfire. The remaining wagons were loaded high with only what was needed for a rapid march--provisions, ammunition, medical supplies, and salt. To provide for the faster-moving vanguard under Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, excess team horses were designated as “bat horses” with provisions and ammunition strapped on their backs. The men were instructed to put their heavy knapsacks into the wagons, roll a few necessities in their blankets and wear them across their shoulders. A large supply of sole leather, acquired from tanneries in the area, was distributed out to each man for future shoe repair, certainly a clear indication to every soldier in Cornwallis’ army a long march was ahead.
Cornwallis was gambling for success, using his reputation and troops as ante, committing the army to a rapid pursuit while living off the generosity of the land. An even greater risk was that they would be marching into territory first passed over by the enemy, a major consideration for the late winter campaign ahead. As risky as it was, Cornwallis was confident that his decision would achieve success. This was very reflective of his aggressive nature that earned him the title “The Modern Hannibal” from his peers. In his army of professional soldiers, some no doubt grumbled, but they all knew they could trust the decision of the commander whom they affectionally referred to as “Ol’ Corncob”.
In the weeks ahead, as the pursuing British army struggled to feed itself, Greene’s retreating army fared much better. The old quartermaster’s past experience as a provider paid off. Ahead of his route of retreat toward Virginia, Greene had issued orders for the location and construction of “magazines” filled with wagonloads of supplies and provisions for the use of the army as it passed by. When he reached Virginia he could then depend more on the steady flow of additional supplies and reinforcements sent to him from its Governor, Mr. Thomas Jefferson.
North Carolina and Nathanael Greene lose a valuable General.
With no way to ask permission from London or seek guidance from Clinton in New York, Lord Cornwallis had to make a tough decision alone. To him, burning his excess baggage at Ramseur’s Mill was a sound military decision, but in many ways it was a roll of the dice. It could go either way, the ruination of his army or success if he could catch Daniel Morgan before he linked with Greene’s other forces coming up out of the Cheraw/ PeeDee area of South Carolina. Defeating Morgan’s force would free the Cowpens prisoners, refilling his ranks to strengthen him before taking on the second half of Greene’s army. Time and speed, after all, were more important than an unneeded trunk or canopy.
Even though Morgan’s force was the stronger of the two halves of the Southern Army, Greene was frantic. He dreaded what could happen if Cornwallis’ force caught up to Morgan before the two halves reunited. The Southern Army needed time and Cornwallis had to be stopped or, at least, delayed. Greene sent out letters urging the militia of North Carolina to assemble and contest the British invasion of their home state. One of these letters went to Brigadier General William Lee Davidson, commanding the militia in the western counties of North Carolina. Davidson was as capable officer as the war could produce. He quickly posted a strong force of militia on the east bank of the Catawba River at Cowan’s Ford. Here, he waited for Cornwallis and his British army to cross. Arriving at the ford on February 1, 1781 the British began crossing the frigid and rapidly flowing river in force. On the river’s western bank, a Loyalist rifleman is said to have taken deliberate aim at a rebel officer on horseback on the opposite side. The rifle ball hit the officer—General Davidson—square in the chest and he fell dead. As Davidson’s body toppled to the ground, his horse bolted. Without their leader, the militiamen were easily scattered by the British infantry and cavalry. Finding Davidson’s body, the British searched it and took a black leather wallet from a pocket in his coat. Cornwallis examined the wallet’s contents finding a few papers, some money and one of the letters Greene had written (the wallet and its contents remained in Cornwallis’ possession throughout the remainder of the campaign and after Yorktown were taken to England). Davidson’s horse, borrowed from a militia major prior to the fight at Cowan’s Ford, returned riderless to its owner’s home still with the general’s two pistols in their saddle holsters. After the British army pressed on in pursuit of Morgan, Davidson’s body was found and buried in the cemetery of nearby Hopewell Presbyterian Church. Davidson’s death came as a severe loss. Greene was denied a capable officer and leader at a critical time. Had Davidson lived, the advance of Cornwallis may not have been stopped, but it would have been slowed, and subsequent events, including the battle at Guilford Courthouse never fought.
Today, General William Lee Davidson is honored in North Carolina by the county, town and college named for him. In far away London, the Public Records Office preserves the vast Cornwallis Papers Collection. Carefully preserved within this impressive collection of papers written by and to the British general is Davidson’s black leather wallet---with its contents, including Greene’s frantic letter, still as they were in February 1781. Davidson College owns (one now on loan to Guilford Courthouse National Military Park) the two flintlock pistols, marked with the general’s name, that were saved after his borrowed horse returned home.
The Revolution’s Southern Campaign came very close to ending in Piedmont North Carolina.
Following the battle of Cowpens in January 1781 General Daniel Morgan’s victorious American army force retreated northeast across North Carolina. Cornwallis began a rapid pursuit from his camp in Winnsborough, South Carolina hoping to free hundreds of British prisoners captured in the battle and catch Morgan’s force before it could re-unite with the other half of the army moving north from Cheraw. After successfully crossing the Catawba and scattering the local militia, Cornwallis sent a vanguard of fast-moving infantry under General Charles O’Hara toward Salisbury, 30 miles northeast. Cornwallis calculated that Morgan would be stuck at the Yadkin River 10 miles east of Salisbury, unable to ford across rising waters caused by late winter thaw and rain. With the rebel’s backs against this major river, Cornwallis’ gamble would pay off giving him the victory he wanted.
Unbeknownst to Cornwallis, General Greene, hurrying up from South Carolina with a small escort, had already met Morgan west of Salisbury. Greene, the resourceful strategist, had issued orders to have “bateaux” (flatboats) constructed and waiting at Trading Ford to ferry Morgan’s army across. Passing through Salisbury, Greene’s forces began crossing the rising waters of the Yadkin River on February 4. Some of the last to cross were the prisoners from Cowpens. Almost as soon as the last bateaux were safely over, they were sunk, holes drilled through the bottoms and weighted by rocks. Then, General Charles O’Hara’s redcoat vanguard appeared on the western bank above the ford. Irritated at this last minute arrival, O’Hara ordered his artillery to open fire on rebel targets on the opposite shore, particularly at a small cabin surrounded by men and horses. Some of the British iron cannon shot struck the cabin where, inside, Greene sat undisturbed writing dispatches.
Now Cornwallis was stuck! Without boats, it was impossible for the British ford the swollen river. His forced march of weeks and miles to this critical point had been for naught, the gamble wagered at Ramsour’s Mill now lost. Disappointed, if not disgusted, Cornwallis and his army of exhausted redcoats settled for a few days rest in Salisbury. Leaving Salisbury, he marched about thirty-five miles north and crossed the Yadkin at Shallow Ford, west of Salem, still filled with the hope of catching the retreating rebels.
The fortunate rising waters of the Yadkin had bought Greene’s army valuable time, but it cost Cornwallis the golden opportunity of ending the campaign and bringing about the anticipated British victory. Had Cornwallis been able to trap the rebels with their backs against the Yadkin, the out-numbered Americans would have been forced to fight a battle that certainly would have ended with the capture or destruction of this, the strongest division of Greene’s army. The decisive battle of Trading Ford, an important engagement of the American Revolution never fought, might have been the decisive episode of the Southern Campaign!