Governor and General share their bed with a rude stranger!
One bitterly cold rainy night during the campaign across North Carolina, General Nathanael Greene and South Carolina Governor John Rutledge, who had journeyed with the Southern Army after the fall of Charleston, sought the shelter of an abandoned shack. Inside, the two bone-tired leaders piled onto the remains of a bed and were soon sound asleep.
Sometime during the dark night the two men were rudely awakened by a smelly, grunting lout kicking and trying to force his way in on their meager accommodations. How irritating! Who was this soldier so brazen to think he could disturb a tired and now wide-awake general and a governor from their sleep? Whoever he was, he was in for big trouble: KP for a month? At this hour, maybe even a firing squad? Greene and Rutledge’s irritation quickly turned from rage to amusement. Instead of some hapless soldier, a hog, likely as cold and tired as they were, had nuzzled in between them!
Greene decides to fight at Guilford Courthouse and then changes his mind.
General Nathanael Greene, now across the Yadkin River, sped with his army northeast across Piedmont North Carolina toward his next point—Guilford Courthouse—about 40 miles away. Greene had directed all the retreating militia to gather at this small hamlet between the Deep and Haw Rivers. Here, too, Greene had planned that the two wings of the Southern Army would re-unite. Indeed, on February 8, 1781 the Cheraw force under General Isaac Huger (pronounced “U-gheé”), scion of a prominent old French Huguenot family of Charleston, marched into Guilford Courthouse. Although the army was rejoined, only two-hundred militia had mustered at Guilford. Forty miles away, Cornwallis, still determined to overtake and defeat Greene, waded his redcoats over the Yadkin River at Shallow Ford the same day and headed east through Salem, the Moravian settlement. Greene, anticipating the possibility of a battle with Cornwallis within the next few days, called a council of war with his officers. Daniel Morgan, the rugged “Ol’ Waggoner”, had performed well with his victory at Cowpens and in the retreat to date. But Morgan was ill and afflicted with back pains so painful he could not sit a horse. He reluctantly asked leave of Greene to return home in Virginia. Even with his whole army, Greene decided now was just not the time to take on Cornwallis. Instead, the Southern Army moved out of Guilford Courthouse headed toward the fords of the Dan River seventy miles to the northeast.
Cornwallis loses the “Race to the Dan”.
Before General Nathanael Greene left Guilford Courthouse for the middle fords on the Dan River, he directed the army’s adjutant general, Colonel Otho Holland Williams of the Maryland Brigade, to lead a select 700-man contingent of infantry and cavalry to stand between the retreating army and Cornwallis and to deceive the redcoats of the army’s true destination. Williams’ corps or “flying camp” left Guilford Courthouse on February 10, 1781 marching northwest to draw Cornwallis toward the upper fords of the Dan River farther to the west. Much to Greene’s relief, the ruse worked! Cornwallis swallowed the bait and stayed hard on the heels of Williams’ men. Arriving at the wrong ford, Cornwallis was, to put it mildly, annoyed to find he had been decoyed. He shifted direction, again chasing Williams hoping he would take him to the main rebel army. On February 14, Greene and the main army had safely reached Irwin’s and Boyd’s ferries on the flooded Dan River, again crossing on bateaux prepared by his quartermaster, Colonel Edward Carrington. By the time Cornwallis arrived in sight, Williams’ “flying camp” and the rest of the American army was fully across. Unlike the Yadkin River crossing ten days before, the flooded Dan actually began to recede, but Cornwallis decided wisely not to cross into the rebel stronghold of Virginia.
As he looked at Greene’s men on the far bank of the Dan River, Cornwallis knew he had lost a great race. Since moving out of his camp at Winnsborough, South Carolina, in January, his superb army was nearly exhausted and hundreds of miles from the nearest British base. For four long grinding weeks, the rebel fox had eluded the British hounds. Now they were safe.
Greene plans a return to British-held North Carolina.
Major General Nathanael Greene’s handling of the retreat across North Carolina in the late winter of 1781 had been brilliantly conceived and masterfully executed—a strategic triumph. Although he had not yet fought a battle, he had, as Washington advised, kept the Southern Army intact. Furthermore, he had saved its supplies and his prized Continental troops, all the while drawing the enemy deeper into hostile territory. Washington, Greene’s master, had every reason to be proud of his apprentice.
Lord Cornwallis had enough of this seemingly endless chase. He halted the pursuit of Greene’s rebel army on the south bank of the Dan River, rested a day, and marched his tired British army south toward Hillsborough, North Carolina passing through what is now Caswell County. At a red-bricked Presbyterian Church his army stopped for the evening and camped. Here, perhaps because of disgust at failure, British soldiers or the flotsam of stragglers with the army committed an outrage. The grave of the Rev. Hugh McAden, who had only died a few days before, was dug up, it is said, by some soldiers thinking it contained buried gold. When the poor reverend’s corpse was the only thing found, they plundered the church and McAden’s home burning his library of books, journals and papers. Whether Cornwallis condoned this action it is not known.
Riding along with the British army was North Carolina’s Royal Governor, Josiah Martin. Arriving at Hillsborough, he and Cornwallis redeemed military disappointment with political success. At this town, frequently a center of colonial government, they announced, in Royal Proclamation, the colony again restored to crown authority. Here, too, they “raised the King’s Standard”, an ancient call for all friends of the King to take up arms against their enemies.
As Cornwallis pondered his future plans in North Carolina, Greene at his headquarters in Halifax Courthouse, Virginia, began calling upon Governors Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and Thomas Burke of North Carolina for men and supplies. Within a few weeks, units of Virginia 18-Month State Troops; militia; and riflemen from the Blue Ridge Mountains began to arrive with more on the way. Beginning on February 18, Greene sent his regular and militia cavalry under Lt. Col. Henry Lee and Brigadier General Andrew Pickens of South Carolina back to North Carolina to reconnoiter Cornwallis’s activities and if possible disrupt their efforts to gather provisions and loyalist support. On the 20th Greene dispatched more troops, and on the 24th, Greene rode with the rest of the army back into North Carolina.
The strength and size of the American Southern Army were growing, and with information that the militia from Eastern North Carolina was on the way, the American commander was encouraged. Still, he felt the army was not yet strong enough to go head-to-head with Cornwallis’ army of tough regulars. In the first two weeks of March 1781, Greene continued to move from one headquarters site to another. Planning the actual time and place for a battle he knew was imminent would have to wait.
Cornwallis decides to hold on to North Carolina with Loyalist support.
The desire to obtain the help of loyal Americans had been from the beginning very much a part of Britain’s political and military strategy in the South. After a failed race to catch Nathanael Greene before he reached Virginia, Cornwallis marched to the heart of North Carolina and raised the King’s Standard in Hillsborough. This was an official royal proclamation, as if George III himself had sent out the call to every loyal citizen of North Carolina to come to the aid of the King’s troops.
One group of several hundred mounted loyalists gathered in Chatham County under their commander, Colonel John Pyle. Riding north toward Hillsborough on February 25, 1781, they encountered a column of cavalry coming from the direction of the town. The column was led by several British officers, including a young green-jacketed officer. They knew this officer must be the renowned Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and the green-jacketed men in the column dragoons of his America-raised British Legion. The British officers and Tarleton courteously greeted Pyle and his men, speaking with them as the column continued past. However, as the two columns were side by side in the road a fight began in the rear and quickly spread all along the line. Pyle’s men began pleading for the killing to stop, shouting that they were loyal subjects of the King, but the fight grew even more intense. Dozens of Pyle’s men fell dead and wounded by saber and pistol. Horrified and bewildered, the rest of the loyalists, taking self-preservation to its maximum level, fled into the forest. Colonel Pyle, too, saved himself by hiding rather unceremoniously underwater in a cold pond breathing air through a hollow reed. The survivors quickly spread the word amongst their Loyalist neighbors that Tarleton, who the rebels called the “Butcher”, was killing the King’s own friends.
In reality, the green-jacketed young officer was not Tarleton! It was Lt. Colonel Henry Lee and the green-coated men riding with him were not Tarleton’s men, but troopers of Lee’s Legion, a Continental Army cavalry unit also uniformed in green jackets. To complete the deception, Lee had recently captured several British officers and had used them, likely with the threat of death, as decoys in this ruse that came to be known as “Pyle’s Hacking Match.”
The brief, unplanned encounter in the road had been deadly--over 100 Loyalists had been killed and dozens wounded--yet few, if any, in Lee’s force. Accounts of “Tarleton’s” brutality were told and retold many times by those who had survived the incident. Piedmont Loyalists were aghast. Although an often overlooked minor skirmish, the resultant outrage, fear and hesitancy among the King’s friends were better than any plot the rebels could have dreamed up. At this critical time in his campaign to destroy Greene and gain Loyalist support, this one incident denied Cornwallis help when he needed it so much.
A battle is imminent.
On February 26, 1781 General Nathanael Greene established the headquarters of the Southern Army at High Rock on the Haw River less than 30 miles northwest of Hillsborough. Over the next few days he changed his headquarters several times. Cornwallis left Hillsborough sending forces to probe to the northwest hoping to bring Greene into battle or to cut off that part of the rebel army operating south of the Haw River. On March 2 Thomas Sumter and Henry Lee’s cavalry, infantry and riflemen struck Tarleton and Brigadier James Webster’s forces at Clapp’s Mill on Alamance Creek and then withdrew. Just after dawn on March 6 these units clashed again at Whitesell’s (Wetzel’s) Mill on Reedy Fork. The Americans, under Colonel Otho Holland Williams, withdrew as Webster’s British troops pushed them back for over a mile. Fearing a battle with Cornwallis before more reinforcements arrived; Greene called all of his forces to join him north of the Haw River.
Having tasted blood, Cornwallis now moved quickly to catch Greene before the rebel army grew any larger. Greene responded by keeping his army moving, like a boxer avoiding his opponent, changing camps almost daily. After the recent fights at Clapp’s and Whitesell’s, Greene grew cautious, wary that a British surprise attack might catch him unprepared or one that might come in the early morning hours. He made it a habit to be up well before dawn personally inspecting the sentries and watching and listening for signs of any enemy activity. Certainly, such vigilance by their commander instilled confidence in the men. One morning Greene was drawn to the rather audible snoring of Virginia Colonel John Green, commander of one of the two Virginia 18-Month regiments. Asked how he could sleep so soundly while the enemy was so near, the veteran Colonel confidently replied, “Why, General, I knew that you were awake!”
Greene returns to Guilford Courthouse.
Although General Nathanael Greene had passed through Guilford Courthouse during the retreat to Virginia in February, there is not very much indication that he thought much of it as a future battle site. Some historians over the years, writing of the battle and the Southern Campaign have argued that Greene’s overall plan was to lure Cornwallis back into a “trap” at Guilford Courthouse.
Greene, having camped here a month before, knew something of the area and was knowledgeable of the Piedmont and its rolling terrain, its roads and rivers and certainly had advisors who could point him to places ideal for a battle. But, when he came back on March 14, the location of Guilford Courthouse was, to Greene, more as a known point, an easy to find place with good access, a place where his militia reinforcements from eastern North Carolina and Virginia could rendezvous. With now less than half-day’s march existing between them, Greene intended (in his March 16th post-battle report to Congress) an offensive action against Cornwallis. Set for the morning of Thursday, March 15, it was to begin with a dawn sortie from Guilford Courthouse in order to strike the British in their camp located twelve miles to the southwest.
Although confident and seemingly aggressive, throughout the night of the 14th-15th, Greene, as cautious as a stranger in a dark house, questioned his original decision. Leery that Cornwallis might make an offensive thrust at him, and if the rain continued, his firepower would be useless knowing the British were better with the bayonet. Sleep must have been impossible. In the cold dark rainy hours before dawn, dispatches coming in from cavalry patrols reported signs Cornwallis might be preparing to leave his Deep River camp. Indeed, on March 14 at this camp within the forks of the Deep River, Cornwallis had issued orders for his soldiers to be ready to march at dawn the next day. Before sunrise, Greene’s choice was obvious. Rather than move his army out and encounter the enemy somewhere not of his choosing, he dropped his original plan and began preparing for a defensive action at Guilford Courthouse. Whether or not he planned it that way from the beginning, the rolling terrain with its fields and forests west of the county seat would now become a “trap” to take on Cornwallis--only if the rain would stop! It would by mid-morning.
A battle in a Quaker community precedes the battle of Guilford Courthouse.
General Nathanael Greene must have concluded Lord Cornwallis might attack him before he could get his original plan into action. To protect his forces gathered around Guilford Courthouse, Greene sent Colonel William Washington and Lt. Colonel Henry Lee to wait and watch what he knew would be the two possible road approaches. On the morning of March 15, 1781, Greene ordered Lee, who had spent most of the dreary night on patrol duty, to advance with his cavalry and foot troops, along with several companies of riflemen and militia, and post on the Great Salisbury Wagon Road near the small Quaker settlement of New Garden, four miles west of Guilford Courthouse.
In a misty rain, the British army moved out of their camp at 5:30 A.M. choosing the Great Salisbury Wagon Road approach, a route that would take them by way of the New Garden Meetinghouse. At about 10 A.M. the cavalry and light infantry led by Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, in advance of Cornwallis’s army, ran into Lee’s troops at New Garden. Forcing Lee’s weaker force back a half-mile along the road in a running firefight, Tarleton’s cavalry confidently galloped after them as they passed into a narrow lane. Here, Lee’s cavalry coming from the opposite direction charged headlong into them. Stopped, the British troopers were trapped within the confines of the fenced lane. Many of Tarleton’s troopers fell as Lee’s men cut into them with drawn sabers. As soon as the survivors could turn about, Tarleton and his men were routed. Tarleton led them down a side road through thick woods, but Lee chose to dash after them using the Great Road as a certain shortcut. It was a mistake. Instead, Lee ran face to face into the approaching main British column. Lee fell back and made a brief stand at a crossroads a half-mile farther. Again outnumbered and outgunned, he wisely withdrew. Arriving back at Guilford Courthouse, Lee reported to Greene of the recent action at New Garden and the British approach. In less than two hours the British army would arrive on the battlefield.
Greene’s army has decided military advantage at Guilford Courthouse.
General Nathanael Greene’s American army on the afternoon of March 15, 1781 numbered approximately 4,400 to 4,500 men. His opponent, Lord Charles Cornwallis, started out at 5:30 AM with about 1,924 men. Suffering some casualties in the fight with Lee at New Garden in mid-morning, Cornwallis now led a little over 1,900 British troops to the battlefield. Reports from other British officers hint that Cornwallis expected a larger force of rebels waiting for him at Guilford Courthouse, possibly as many as 7,000. While this high figure was an error based on either poor information or estimation, tactically the size of Greene’s army gave the rebels a numerical superiority, an important military factor, of almost 2½ to 1!
In defense, Greene possessed another favorable military factor. He was able to choose the field of battle and deployed his larger forces into positions based on its best terrain features. Today, modern military tacticians give an army in defense a multiplication factor of three, giving Greene the equivalent of over 13,000 troops! Cornwallis, as the offensive army, was placed on the disadvantage by being forced to march his weary redcoats twelve miles to the battlefield and then engage a waiting American force that was fresh and ready to fight.
Greene’s men were also better fed and clothed. Quantities of provisions and supplies had been issued to Greene’s men prior to the battle, whereas Cornwallis’ men had been a long time on short rations with no reserve of any extra supplies. Despite their many disadvantages, the only advantages the British army possessed were the professionalism of its soldiers and the number of artillery pieces--they had six guns to the American’s four.
The battle of Guilford Courthouse was fought in North Carolina, but it might be considered a Virginian’s battle.
In addition to the blow suffered with the fall of the South’s major seaport, Charles Town (Charleston), South Carolina, in May 1780, was the surrender of the Continental regiments from Virginia and North Carolina. The loss of these Continental line troops (some of these troops were sent home as prisoners on parole) meant that, at a time of facing a British invasion, both states were solely dependent on calling out their militia. North Carolina managed to raise two companies of Continentals (sometimes described as “drafted militiamen”) in time for Guilford Courthouse. Virginia, facing British forces in her Tidewater area and south in North Carolina managed to raise several units of regular troops, or 18-month regiments, sending two in time for Guilford Courthouse. Although North Carolina fielded over 1,100 militiamen and about 100 Continentals at the battle, The two 18-Months regiments and the large number of Virginia rifle companies, and county militia cavalry and infantry regiments sent to the battle by Virginia’s Governor Thomas Jefferson accounted for well over half of General Nathanael Greene’s 4,500-man army.
The King’s loyal subjects fail Cornwallis.
Weak on manpower from the beginning of the war, the British began early to seek support for their outnumbered and overworked professional soldiers. The British first approached Catherine the Great of Russia who declined their request. Rebuked, the British were more successful in negotiations with the princes and Landgraves of the German states. Several of these were, for a price, quite willing to hire out their soldiers as allies with the British. As the war progressed, manpower again became a concern. The royal officials of the South, mostly removed from their power by the newly-formed rebel governments, spoke of something worth listening to. To them the South was a vast reserve of loyalist manpower sympathetic and supportive of British military operations. This convincing and irresistible offer made a noticeable change in British military affairs beginning as early as 1778.
Lord Cornwallis, planning a fall 1780 campaign into North Carolina, wanted the good Loyalists to stay at home and tend their farms during the summer growing season. By remaining quiet, yet productive, they would provision his troops as they marched across North Carolina toward Virginia, his September 1780 goal. Part of this plan also included the establishment of a British base of supplies at Wilmington to supply him by way of the Cape Fear River, navigable as far inland as Cross Creek (Fayetteville). But, by mid-summer of 1780, the loyalists in North Carolina could not wait any longer to go to war to settle some old scores with their rebel neighbors. Taking matters in hand they rose up and created a poorly-organized and ill-prepared force. Their hasty “flash-in-the-pan” uprising was stopped cold by a rebel force on June 20 at Ramseur’s Mill (Lincolnton). Cornwallis was furious, threatening to court-martial the loyalist leader, Colonel John Moore! Four months later, the disastrous defeat of the model loyalist army at Kings Mountain on October 7 ruined his fall campaign plans and the harsh treatment of the survivors quenched much of the loyalist fervor. Cornwallis was devastated!
Some independent loyalist groups such as the one led by David Fanning continued to operate out of Chatham and Randolph counties of North Carolina by keeping the rebels busy in campaigns of attack and run. Despite Fanning’s successes, much of Cornwallis’ immediate loyalist support was destroyed following the disastrous episode called “Pyle’s Hacking Match” of February 25 where over a hundred were killed by American cavalry posing as Tarleton’s green-coated cavalrymen.
At Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781, Cornwallis was forced to fight his opponent, Nathanael Greene, primarily with his outnumbered British regulars. His 250 loyalist North Carolina Volunteers under Colonel Hamilton were detailed with 120 regulars to protect the baggage train. Only one loyalist Provincial unit was on the field—Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion of about 270 men recruited in America.
Had the loyalists been a little more patient back in the summer of 1780, Cornwallis might have had the manpower and logistical support he so absolutely needed to wage a successful fall campaign. Certainly the disaster at Kings Mountain would have been avoided and with unfettered loyalist support Cornwallis would not have had to force his army to live off the land thereby escaping the destructive campaign that led to Guilford Courthouse.
Colonel Penn’s militiamen arrive too late.
Among the many historical documents preserved in the Virginia archives is a Revolutionary War period military document, a “General Order” for Major John Waller signed by his commander, Colonel Abraham Penn. Known today to historians as the “Penn Muster Roll” it lists nearly 300 names of Henry County, Virginia, militiamen ordered by Colonel Penn to join General Nathanael Greene’s army in North Carolina. Evidently penned and signed by Penn, it reads:
Henry County, Va.
You are forthwith required to march the militia under your command
from this county to Hillsborough, North Carolina, or to any post where
Genl (Edward) Stevens may be with the men under his command, observing to
avoid a surprise by the enemy, by the best route to be found.
Given under my hand this 11th day of March 1781
Abram Penn, Coll , H.C.
For years this truly rare document has provided historical and genealogical researchers with a valuable list of Henry County men sent by their commander to fight in the battle of Guilford Courthouse. It has also been used by park historians to add names to the battle participant file of Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. However, historians delving into the early 19th-century pension applications of these same men are frustrated to find only a few filed. Of those who did, not one whose name is on the list has been found to say he was in the battle! Why is it, these men from the Virginia border county closest to Guilford Courthouse did not report for action?
Penn’s order was issued on March 11, only four days prior to the battle of Guilford Courthouse. Once called out, assembling the militia would have taken several days, however presuming the militiamen were already gathered and Waller received the order the same day, he still had time to reach Greene’s headquarters. While it is possible to cover the mean distance of sixty or so miles from Henry County to Guilford County in two days by horseback (period militiamen often chose to ride their horses to battle), most of these militiamen were apparently infantry. Covering a hard-marching distance of 15-20 miles a day an infantry unit could not have made the trip in less than three to four days. Those whose record their service in their pension declarations say they arrived for the Guilford battle too late, either “hearing the guns”, or arriving the day after the battle.
Henry County man, Henry Mannon (not on the list), states in his 1833 pension application he was “drafted” for a “tour” of three months “about the first of March 1781” under Captain David Lanier (on the list) and Lieutenant James Prathey (on the list). Mannon states that he “got to Guilford the day after the battle”, but “heard the firing”.
Another Henry County man, Jacob Lawson (not on the list), states they made a “tedious march”, crossing the Dan and other smaller rivers, and arrived on the day after the battle at Greene’s headquarters “encamped at the ironworks on Troublesome Creek”.
Many of the Henry County men had previously been called out for three months under Colonel James Lyons (not on the list), in December 1780 to report to Greene in North Carolina. After having to cross late winter swollen rivers and enduring cold weather they arrived in the area south of the Haw River. Here, they remained for several days without contacting Greene. Growing fearful of possible contact with the British, their commander, according to the men themselves, ignored the advice of his officers and wishes of his men, and retreated home. One soldier, Lewis Franklin (not on the list) of Captain Brice Martin’s (on the list) company, in his 1832 application reported on this earlier turnout: “the men raised and equipped were put under the command of Colonel James Lyons, who delayed some time in the county, and at length marched his men within a few miles of Genl Green’s (sic) camp”. Upon arrival, Franklin states Colonel Lyons and about 30 or 40 men “went off” (deserted!). The remaining men, including Franklin, agreed that several officers should go to headquarters and report the desertion and receive the 40 who had not. When these officers returned, they told the men they were “not wanted”. At that point Franklin and the rest of Lyon’s men went home; end of tour.
With all of his men back by mid-March, Colonel Penn began calling them out again to join Greene in North Carolina, but not under the timid Colonel Lyons this time. Colonel Abraham Penn chose Major John Waller. Although farther-away Virginia militia units would make it to the Guilford Courthouse battle on time, for close-by Henry County, most, maybe all, of its militiamen missed the battle by a few hours or a whole day.