Cornwallis’ troops fire rifles back at the Americans.
It seems every American has been taught to believe that their ancestors in the Revolution all hid behind a rock wall or oak tree using an accurate-shooting rifle to easily shoot down the machine-like British soldier with his red uniform and cumbersome, inferior musket that could not hit the side of a barn. Actually, this is such an entrenched American myth that it is nearly impossible to convince people otherwise.
Actually, most colonial Americans and most soldiers never owned or carried a rifle (a shoulder weapon that featured a barrel whose bore was cut with helical grooves called rifling). A rifled barrel caused the ball to fly straighter and made shooting much more accurate; certainly a positive reason for possessing one on the frontier or even in the backcountry where game was plentiful, but lead and powder were not. Shooting a rifle required skill and practice (why soldiers are trained in target practice today). A rifle was also an investment few could afford. The military much preferred the faster-loading smoothbore musket with its fitted bayonet and colonial laws were written to require the citizen-soldier militiaman to possess a musket or a similar smoothbore civilian version called a fowler. If the smoothbore was required, how could a poor militiaman lavish his meager funds on two weapons? Few could, but those in the backwoods far enough away to escape the militia laws and dependent upon the rifle’s accuracy would spend the extra money.
Although the smoothbore musket was the military weapon of the American Revolution, this is not to say that rifles were not used in any battles. Riflemen were recruited for their shooting skills early in the war and brought their personal weapons with them. Throughout the war, the American Army included several rifle companies and corps. Only in the Southern Campaign did rifles make a major contribution. In 1780 almost every backwoodsman fighting Colonel Patrick Ferguson’s Loyalist army at Kings Mountain was armed with some sort of “rifled-gun” and they all used them with killing effect. Even later at Guilford Courthouse, two special units of riflemen from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia were placed on the flanks of General Nathanael Greene’s first line. Here, they could take full advantage of the long-range accuracy of their American-made long rifles.
Ironically, and contrary to what Americans have been taught of American history, these Americans were not the only soldiers using rifles. Opposing them from the British line, was an 84-man unit of Anspach-Beyreuth and Hesse-Cassel “Feldjägers” (pronounced “Felt-yeah-ghers”), military riflemen recruited from the forests of Germany, clad in grass-green coats and armed with short-barreled European rifles just as accurate--and just as deadly--as their famous American counterparts.
Participants in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse represent a diversity of people.
The soldiers who fought in the two armies at Guilford Courthouse represented several nationalities and ethnic groups. Cornwallis’s British army fielded soldiers from the British Isles—England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Allied with them were several units of German soldiers from Hesse-Cassel and Anspach-Beyreuth. As desperate as the British were for manpower, some soldiers may have come into the British Army from other parts of Europe and America.
The army of Greene fielded Americans of English, Scottish, Scots-Irish and Irish ancestry or of recent immigration. There were soldiers of German ancestry, too. The Marquis of Bretigny, an officer in Greene’s army, was French and the famed Virginia “giant”, Peter Francisco, was of Portuguese birth. Greene’s engineer officer was Thaddeus Kosciusko, a Pole. In the ranks of the American army were Native Americans and African Americans, especially in the two Maryland units, but also documented among the militia, too. Certainly, African Americans may have been represented, if not in as large numbers, in British or Loyalist ranks as well. Large numbers of African Americans, trying to escape slavery and their rebel masters, flocked to the British army along its route of march. Women and children accompanied both armies as wives and camp labor. After the battle, both the Scots-Irish Presbyterian men and women of Guilford Courthouse were faced with caring for of the hundreds of wounded scattered about in their community and assisting in burying the dead. Soon, too, the pacifist English Quakers at New Garden, obeying their religious obligation, would open their homes to the wounded left behind as the armies moved on.
Famous names of another war fight at Guilford Courthouse.
At times visitors to Guilford Courthouse National Military Park walk into the visitor center and are soon, if not immediately, confused with what they see and read. Either not knowing enough of their history or misled in some other form, they come here believing this battle was one not fought during the American Revolution, but the American Civil War! After all, this is the South, and “everybody” knows the Revolution was fought in New England with Paul Revere and the Minutemen; right? !781; can’t be; the war ended in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence; didn’t it? The true answers come as a surprise.
Rangers might choose to compound the confusion if they informed them that four of the famous names of that mid-nineteenth century conflict can also be found as participants in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Yes, names such as Lee, Jackson, Stuart and Grant are also associated with the battle’s history.
Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee of Virginia commanded a legion of infantry and cavalry. North Carolina private Solomon Jackson served here with the Warren County Militia. And, Major Alexander Stuart, an officer in the Rockbridge County Militia of Virginia, fought here and was captured by the British. A young British officer, an Ensign Grant, served in Cornwallis’s army with the 23rd Regiment of Foot, the famous Royal Welch Fusiliers. Other Civil War names also are found, but researchers are yet to find either a Sherman or Sheridan as a participant.
The Civil War came in 1861; eighty years after the battle, and some of these men’s descendents would fight in that great conflict. Henry Lee’s son, born in 1807, was Robert E. Lee, who would command the Confederate armies. Major Stuart’s grandson, James Ewell Brown Stuart, would become the renowned Confederate cavalryman, “Jeb” Stuart. Others, too, descendents of the battle’s Revolutionary War American soldiers who fought to establish one country, would face the fire and destruction of that later divisive conflict.
Greene and Cornwallis are in the thick of the fighting at Guilford Courthouse.
In 1781, communications on the battlefield were two centuries behind the sophisticated digital and satellite systems available today. Without a quick communication system, a field commander, no matter how well he had planned his tactics, had to be in the action to personally direct the fight on the ground. Both Greene and Cornwallis risked death or capture by being in the thick of the fighting at Guilford Courthouse.
Cornwallis’s nearness to battle resulted in at least one horse shot from beneath him and sustained a slight wound. In the thick grayish smoke and swirling action on the second line, Welsh Sergeant Roger Lamb of the 23rd Regiment wrote that he seized the reins of Cornwallis’s horse to keep him from riding into the grasp of the Virginians. At the third line Cornwallis was there to see the repulse of the advance of the Guards by William Washington’s dragoons and the Marylanders, and to personally direct the cannon fire that stopped it. Washington reported that he missed capturing a high-ranking British officer, perhaps Cornwallis, when he stopped for a moment to retrieve his dropped helmet.
Greene and his staff came within a few yards of British troops at the action near the third line, but smoke and the confusion of battle saved him from being seen. Perhaps Greene’s conduct at Guilford was similar to that later at Hobkirks Hill (April 1781). In this South Carolina battle, William R. Davie described the General’s bold behavior “more like a Captain of Grenadiers than a Major General.”
A Virginia Officer misses his chance to fight
Colonel John Green was the scion of an old Virginia family of Quakers. The 50-year old colonel was an experienced officer having seen a large share of the Revolutionary War prior to his arrival with his regiment of 18-Months Virginia Continentals to join Major General Nathanael Greene’s (no relation) Southern Army several weeks prior to the battle of Guilford Courthouse. Starting the war in 1775 as a captain commanding a company of “minutemen”, he became a major serving with the First Virginia Continental Regiment. In the fighting around New York City, Green was wounded as Washington’s American army attempted to retake the small village of Mamaroneck. Recovering, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and then to full colonel of the 10th Virginia Regiment in 1778. Switching to the Sixth Virginia he distinguished himself at the battles of Brandywine and Monmouth. His service in Washington’s army ended, he returned home to Virginia. In mid-January 1781 he brought his 400–man Virginia regiment and wagonloads of supplies from Philadelphia to join General Greene’s Southern Army. Green, his men, and supplies were a welcomed addition to an army preparing to contest Lord Cornwallis’s British Army poised to invade North Carolina.
As his men camped at Guilford Courthouse on the cold, rainy night of March 14-15, 1781, Colonel John Green, described by a fellow officer as “the bravest of the brave”, anticipated the battle he knew was a few hours away and dreamed of the glorious part he and his men would play in it. A tough old warhorse, Colonel Green was not naïve, for he was aware the battle around the courthouse would be a desperate one, but he and his men relished the chance to give ol’ Cornwallis a beating. He may have even asked General Greene for an important spot in the battle. Greene was aware of his subordinate’s trust for, a few dawns before while inspecting the preparedness of the army, he had been distracted by Colonel Green’s raucous snoring. When the general later asked the colonel how he could sleep so soundly knowing the enemy so near, the Virginian replied, “Why, general, I knew that you were awake.”
Colonel Green’s regiment, recently formed of new recruits and old veterans, was a Virginia 18-months unit. More Continental than militia, Virginia had hastily assembled several of these units (whose service time was half that of a Continental regiment) with the intent of putting as many men into the field as possible. Green’s and a brother regiment under Colonel Samuel Hawes were brigaded together under General Isaac Huger, a respectable officer born into an old South Carolina Huguenot family. Huger’s assigned position, on General Greene’s third line to the right of the Continental regiments from Maryland and Delaware, would place his two Virginia regiments in an important spot where they could be assured of some hard fighting.
As the sounds of battle rattled far to the front, Green and Hawes readied their men. As the sounds of battle grew louder in approach, General Greene rode to Huger and ordered him to take Green’s regiment out of line to head north to guard the army’s escape route via the Reedy Fork Road. Colonel Greene was stunned! Send somebody else, I’m here to fight! Guard the retreat? What a disgrace! Green’s men were fighters, not rear echelon troops! General Greene recognized the Colonel’s disappointment, but he needed a dependable commander he could trust to safeguard the route of a possible retreat. Although he may have been sympathetic of Green’s feelings, General Greene was more concerned of the safety of his whole army. If the road or the ford on Reedy Fork Creek was blocked by British cavalry or infantry, the army could be trapped. Who could he better trust for such an important mission than dependable Colonel John Green?
Colonel Green was rightly furious. Withdraw his men without even a “taste of battle”? He resented the order and his opinion of the General was quickly dropping. But, he was a soldier and he had to obey orders. As the battle swung against Greene, the army had to retreat. Although Colonel Hawes’ Virginians helped protect the rear until the American army was safely across the Reedy Fork and headed to the camp on Troublesome Creek, it was Colonel Green who had given General Greene the relief of knowing the retreating American army was in safe hands.
Colonel Green, in his dissatisfaction and anger, must not have fully understood the importance of his orders. Other officers tried to console him by pointing out the confidence placed in him, but he dismissed their words and acerbically announced that in the next fight some other regiment could have “the honor of covering the retreat.” Greene had great respect for the colonel and when heard of Green’s bruised feelings, he asked him to be patient, “you shall have the first blow next time.” According to Henry Lee’s Memoirs, Green’s demeanor changed. He was delighted, and “he always reckoned upon the promised boon with pleasure.”
Did Colonel John Green’s “promised boon” by Greene ever come? Thirty Virginia officers, as a whole complained of their circumstances in a letter to the general in April, 1781. Dissatisfied over discipline, organization, soldier’s clothing, and duties, they chose Colonel John Green to return to Virginia to have their complaints resolved. Colonel Green left for Richmond with a letter from the general and, after a time, requested leave to return home. A recurring bout of rheumatism had hit him hard. Colonel Green writes back to the general to assure him of the success of his mission, but Greene’s “promised boon” never comes. However, Colonel Green may have gotten into the fight again. In some later battle, perhaps Yorktown, he was wounded while storming a breastwork and was crippled for life. He retired in January 1783 and became one of the original members of the Order of the Cincinnati. He died in 1793.
Despite his orders to leave the field, Colonel John Green is still considered a participant in the battle of Guilford Court House. Although he was buried at his Virginia home, Liberty Hall, his remains were moved in 1911. Today Colonel John Green lies buried in the Arlington National Cemetery, the only known soldier of the battle of Guilford Court House buried in that hallowed ground.
A mistake in uniforms nearly spells disaster.
After the initial charge of the British on the first line at Guilford Courthouse, a separate action began on the American left flank. This was to become a very hotly contested action separate from the main flow of battle centered on the New Garden or great Salisbury Road. Lieutenant Colonel Henry (“Light-horse Harry”) Lee’s Legion and militia on the far left flank broke off, first back to the left of the second line and then southeast, drew several British units of Cornwallis’ right flank with it. One of Cornwallis’ units drawn into this action was a German allied unit from Hesse-Cassel--the Regiment Von Bose. As these Germans approached through the forest on the flank of one of one of the Rockbridge County, Virginia militia units, the Virginians squinting through the thick battle smoke thought they were Continentals coming to their assistance. Holding their fire and shouting “liberty,” perhaps as a parole-sign, the Virginians did not receive a recognizable countersign. Fortunately, the men from Virginia found out their mistake in the nick of time. Uniformed in blue coats, the Von Bose Musketeers had been mistaken through the smoke for friendlier American Continentals who, by the way, also wore blue regimental coats.
A British officer is killed.
In a climactic conclusion to the battle of Guilford Courthouse, the Grenadiers and the Second Battalion of the British Guards broke through into the open field in front of Greene’s third line. Surging across the field they encountered the untried Maryland Extra Regiment Greene had re-designated as the Second Maryland Regiment. These men, faced with a bayonet attack by the King’s own elite troops, tried to hold their ground, but when they tried to reposition their ranks, they gave way. Their flight emboldened the Guards to advance and overrun and capture a two six-pounder gun battery of American artillery. Continuing on into the rear of Greene’s last defense, the Guards were halted by a sudden charge by Colonel William Washington’s dragoons and the veteran First Maryland. Clobbered with saber and bayonet, the Guards fell back over the ground they had just taken. In the midst of this action, Lieutenant Colonel James Stewart, commanding the Second Guards battalion, faced a Captain John Smith of the First Maryland. In what could be described as a personal duel, Stewart was killed not by Smith, but by a shot from a Maryland soldier’s musket. Later, in the battle of Hobkirks Hill, South Carolina, Captain Smith was captured and condemned to death for “murder”, the British claiming Smith killed Stuart after he had surrendered. A barrage of threatening letters from General Greene saved Smith from execution.
Years later, in 1866, a Revolutionary War officer’s sword, still in its scabbard and wrapped in a crimson sash was found in a hollow log on the battlefield. Eventually, the sword, rusty and missing its other components, was purchased by David Schenck, leader in the preservation of the Guilford Courthouse battlefield in the 1880’s. In cleaning the years of neglect from the sword’s blade, Schenck discovered the scant images of a coat of arms. Making a tracing he sent it to England with the hope of finding some small clue as to its owner. A few months later he received notification that the coat of arms belonged to a family that had lost a son at the battle in 1781—Lieutenant Colonel James Stewart! Schenck’s prized sword was placed on display in his “Battle Ground Museum” along with the story of the famous “duel”.
Visitors to the park today can see the monument placed by the Guilford Battle Ground Company in 1895 to mark the spot where the sword was found, but not the sword. Its whereabouts today is a mystery. For several years after the battlefield became a national military park in 1917, the Schenck family kept David Schenck’s personal collection on display. Then, about 1920, the collection was returned and at the same time the sword disappears from all records. What happened to the battlefield’s most important artifact is unknown. Descendents of the park’s founder are just as disappointed as the National Park Service that Stewart’s sword has been lost—again!
Another British officer plays dead.
The elite Brigade of Foot Guards is the King of England’s own personal soldiers---his “Household Troops”. The dignity of being a soldier or an officer in the Guards is a prized honor and one not to be shamed. At the battle of Guilford, a Captain Lovelace (some sources say Lovett or Loveless) led his company of Guards into the attack on the third line. In the midst of the hand-to-hand fighting that ensued, Captain Lovelace went down, one of the many casualties in that terrible engagement. Pushed back by the counterattack of William Washington’s dragoons and the First Maryland, his unit was overrun. An American soldier seeing the dead officer also saw the opportunity to rob him of his engraved gold watch. Seven months later, after the surrender of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown, the watch’s new owner, William Washington, sought to return the timepiece to the dead officer’s family in England, a token of goodwill and an expression of genteel regret for their son’s death. When Washington presented the watch to the captive Guards officers, they were quick to reply that the same Lovelace, now promoted to Lt. Colonel, was still alive! This episode forced the real story to be told. In the fighting at Guilford, then Captain Lovelace, according to one account had feinted death—played ‘possum, so to speak—to survive the fight; another says he gave the watch to keep the soldier from bayoneting him. Whatever the story, this act, viewed as cowardice, was not fitting and proper for a Guards officer. Eventually Lovelace, teased and disgraced by his fellow officers, was forced to resign his commission and leave the army. No more is known of the “brave” Captain Lovelace.
The story, amusing for its day, must have been told widespread. St. George Tucker, a learned man and participant at Guilford Courthouse and at Yorktown, wrote an ode to Lovelace “Who Counterfeited [sic] Death at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse” and likening him to another false hero, labeled him the “living Falstaff of the Age”.
A Virginia officer’s name becomes associated with injustice.
In 1733 Sarah Clark, a Virginia Quaker, married Charles Lynch, a non-Quaker born in Ireland, but one who had lived and worked in their community. About 1750 the Lynch’s moved to “Chestnut Hill”, a farm on the James River. Here, their first son, Charles, was born in 1736. Sarah raised Charles and all her children in her faith, hoping all would follow the tenets to which she was devoted. Indeed, her daughter Sarah became a devout leader in the Virginia Meeting. Her other son, John, born in 1740, became a life-long Quaker and opened a ferry on the James in 1757. In 1786 he gave the land for the town named after him---Lynchburg, Virginia. But it was Charles, the Lynch’s oldest son, who left the faith to become a soldier.
At the outbreak of the American Revolution, Charles Lynch became an officer in the Bedford County militia rising in 1778 to the rank of colonel. In 1781 Colonel Lynch commanded a regiment of riflemen sent to join another former Quaker, Major General Nathanael Greene, in North Carolina. Lynch’s riflemen were assigned to a unit of infantry and cavalry commanded by Colonel William Washington. At the battle of Guilford on March 15, 1781, Lynch’s riflemen and Washington’s men were hit hard by the left wing of Cornwallis’ army under Brigadier General James Webster. Eventually, they were pushed back to the third line and helped repulse Webster’s bold assault. Lynch’s men fought well, but were ordered off the field as Greene’s whole army left in retreat.
Colonel Charles Lynch’s military record does not seem to be anything less than honorable. However, in the summer of 1780, Lynch and several other Virginia officers had held an informal military court under a black walnut tree on Lynch’s estate, “Green Level”. Here, Tories captured before they could aid the British army or cause the patriots trouble were “tried” in “Judge Lynch’s court” giving rise to the term “Lynch’s Law” coined as a result of their actions. Although it has never been proven that anyone was ever put to death by this “court”, those convicted were tied to the walnut tree and flogged 39 times. If they agreed to cry aloud “liberty forever” the whipping would stop. In 1782, Lynch and his fellow officers were excused from their actions by the Virginia General Assembly.
Eventually, the term “Lynch’s Law” came to define any illegal court handing out irrational or severe punishment or sentences of death by hanging or torture. Regrettably, the boy Quaker and later Revolutionary War hero—and participant in the battle of Guilford Courthouse---has his name smeared by the term “lynching”, a brutal and senseless action practiced by the worst of mankind.
An American Officer’s Grandson Fights in Another War.
On March 15, 1781, twenty-six year old Lieutenant Matthew Rhea was a Virginia officer with one of the two 18-Months Regiments (records are not clear which one) in the brigade commanded by Brigadier General Isaac Huger at Guilford Court House. Having served in the American Revolution since 1777 Rhea was a veteran officer. His company of Virginians fought well in the battle of Guilford Court House, repulsing British General James Webster’s attack on the third line and ably conducting a successful rearguard action protecting the American army’s retreat off the field. At the crossing over the Reedy Fork, these men gave an excellent account of themselves, forming such a formidable defense the two British regiments Lord Cornwallis sent in pursuit refused to attack. Nathanael Greene complimented them in his account of the battle: “General Huger was the last that was engaged and gave the Enemy a check.” According to records, Lieutenant Rhea continued with the Southern Army, finished the war in 1783 and returned to civilian life. He moved to Tennessee and began raising a large family and naming his oldest son, Matthew. On October 5, 1816 the elder Matthew, the veteran of the Revolution, died in Blountville, Sullivan County, Tennessee and is buried there.
In 1861, eighty years after the battle of Guilford Court House, the United States was torn asunder into North and South by the Civil War. As troops assembled for that conflict, Rhea’s grandson, also named Matthew, was commissioned an infantry officer in Company A, 13th Tennessee Regiment, a Confederate unit. In November 1861 Rhea and the 13th were part of a large Confederate army camped near the Mississippi River at the town of Belmont, Missouri. A Union general by the name of Ulysses S. Grant landed a large force of Union troops three miles north of the Confederate camp on November 7, and in one of the war’s earliest western battles, the Union troops attacked and pushed the Confederates back through their camp and heavy woods to the very edge of the Mississippi River. Victory for Grant seemed a certainty. However, another force of Confederate troops counterattacked and outflanked Grant, forcing him to retreat. Defeated in the battle of Belmont, it was a minor reverse for Grant whose later victories would win him promotion and distinction in the war in the east.
The 13th Tennessee and its Company A was one of the Confederate units hit hardest by Grant’s attack. Forced back to the river’s edge, they were cut off and surrounded. Captain Rhea’s company, reduced to a hand few by heavy casualties, refused to surrender. Rhea shouted his refusal to the Union demand and boldly waved his sword above his head in accentuated defiance. His stand was temporary for young Rhea was killed and over half his company was captured.
The sword Captain Rhea had waved over his head was described as a “grand old relic”, an old-style dating to the Revolution. The Confederate grandson’s brave last-stand defiance must have been inherited, for the venerable old sword he waved had been “worthily won” in the Revolution by his grandfather Matthew Rhea, the same Virginia Lieutenant who had stood his ground at Guilford Court House. Inscribed upon its blade were the inspiring words, “Presented by Genl. Greene to Matthew Rhea—the last man to retreat from the Battle of Guilford Court House”!
Thanks to the book, The Battle of Belmont: Grant Strikes South by Nathaniel C. Hughes, Jr.