An Old Soldier Fights at Guilford Court House.
In 1833, James Patrick, aged 103 years, infirm, but still seemingly of keen mind, submitted a written declaration for a veteran’s pension in Floyd County, Kentucky. Appearing before the Justice of the Peace, he declared in open court that he had volunteered in early 1781, sometime around his 51st birthday, in a militia company from Botetourt County, Virginia, commanded by Captain James Newell and Colonel Love. Arriving in North Carolina, they joined General Nathanael Greene’s army maneuvering to avoid contact with Lord Cornwallis’ hounding British army. A few days later, on March 15, 1781, with Patrick and over 2,000 other Virginians helping him, Greene engaged Cornwallis in battle at Guilford Court House. A few days afterward, these men followed Greene on his campaign back into South Carolina. Sometime before the siege of Ninety Six in the summer of 1781, Patrick fell ill and was sent back to Salisbury, North Carolina, to recuperate. Discharged, he returned home to Virginia and after the end of the war moved to and settled in eastern Kentucky.
This was not James Patrick’s first experience in military service! He had been a Revolutionary War soldier several times before Guilford Court House and the frontier wilderness and Kentucky were not new to him. In March 1776 he had been drafted into Colonel Russell’s Virginia State Regiment and served in a combined campaign against the Cherokee Indians in what is now Tennessee. Returning home, he again entered a year’s service in 1777 from Montgomery County, Virginia. Again, he marched westward to the Cumberland Ford in Kentucky to again fight the Cherokees. Patrick’s unit joined with others at the settlement of Boonsboro and moving on overtook the Indians at French Lick (present-day Nashville). Here, they took the Indian town and destroyed their stores of food. Returning to Boonsboro, he spent the fall and winter there. Discharged in the spring of 1778, forty-eight year old Patrick prepared to return home to Virginia and “leave the battle field to Abler and younger men”. But before he could leave, he was “insisted on to join” an expedition under General George Rogers Clark to march against the Indians on the Miami River in Ohio. For another year, Patrick served with Clark who finally subdued the Indians in several hard-fought skirmishes. Returning to the Falls of the Ohio, Patrick became ill and lay sick for several months. In the spring of 1780, he was discharged at a blockhouse “where Cincinnati now stands” and returned to Virginia after being away from home for nearly three years. In February 1781, now 51 years old and drawn to the beat of the drums, he again entered military service and, as mentioned above, marched with Colonel Love to North Carolina where he fought in the battle of Guilford Court House.
By 1781 James Patrick had performed more military service in the American Revolution than many of the soldiers half his age. Although we think of all Revolutionary War soldiers as being in their teens and twenties, a common soldier of or near Patrick’s age was not typical, nor a rarity. The upper age for service in most of the militia laws was age fifty and there were probably more than a few older soldiers than he who fought.
In 1833 James Patrick was an old soldier, both in age and by his long service. In addition to the Revolution, he had also soldiered in an earlier conflict. Applying for his pension, James Patrick three times reminded the court that he had been a soldier in the French and Indian War. Seventy-eight years earlier, in 1755, as a young ranger in the Virginia militia forces, he had marched with British General Edward Braddock into the Ohio wilderness and fought in a disastrous battle near the French Fort Duquesne where Braddock was killed and his army defeated. Fighting here, too, and displaying courageous leadership was Patrick’s commander, a then obscure Virginia colonel named George Washington!
Greene “Helps” Cornwallis Win the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.
Who won the battle of Guilford Courthouse? Greene’s retreat off the field leaves little doubt that it was a technical victory for the British, but the twenty-seven percent casualties suffered by Cornwallis’s army suggests to many an American victory. Even in 1781 reports, it is Cornwallis’s army that is credited with winning the battle since they held the field at the conclusion of the action. Greene admitted that he had lost the battle and credited the enemy for winning their victory “by superior discipline”.
Greene’s plan of battle was basically sound, but it did possess certain flaws. In analyzing the battle, military historians have found fault and credited Greene’s tactics with actually helping Cornwallis to win! The American general planned the battle by limiting his goal. He did not want to gamble and risk too much in this, his first major battle where reward or ruin rested with his decisions. This obviously made him too cautious, a bad thing for a general to be. Many historians, instead, believe that Greene must have intended to only cripple Cornwallis, that he did not have the power to defeat or destroy him. For sure, Greene did not want to risk losing his Continental troops, the backbone of his army, and his retreat off the Guilford battlefield did save these troops to fight again.
Historians also agree that Greene erred by placing his three defensive lines too far apart to be any help to each other. This wasted his two to one numerical superiority and allowed Cornwallis to fight only about one-third of a portion of the American army at each line. The British army equaled or outnumbered the Americans standing on each line.
By seizing the defense Greene did have the advantage of forcing the British to march to him. This was important, but most of Greene’s army was militia, not the sort of soldiers who wait for a battle with the patience of a veteran. At the sound of battle coming from New Garden at 10 AM, Greene began placing these men into their battle positions, forcing them to wait and fret for over two hours before the battle started.
The battle of Guilford Courthouse was an empty British victory.
Lord Cornwallis boldly claimed victory at Guilford Courthouse, but as Charles James Fox (the opposition leader in Parliament and an avowed opponent of Lord North’s conduct of the war) would observe “another such victory would ruin the British Army”. Never since the battle of Bunker Hill in 1775 had the British Army suffered so much for so little. Both battles were “Pyrrhic victories”, a reference to a classical battle against the Romans that had been won at great cost to its victor, King Pyrrhus of Epirus. The American Revolution’s “Pyrrhus” was Cornwallis, whose army at Guilford Courthouse lost about twenty-seven percent casualties of the 1,900 redcoats engaged--killed, wounded, missing and captured. Twenty-nine out of one hundred officers had been killed or wounded, including Cornwallis who had received a slight wound. The only trophies won by the victors were four pieces of artillery captured from the retreating rebels. Normally these would have been something extra to brag about, but at Guilford Courthouse they were little compensation for the heavy losses.
The Quakers at New Garden tend the wounded.
After the battle of Guilford Courthouse there were hundreds of wounded of both sides needing immediate care. Army surgeons and doctors did the best they could, but when the British Army left Guilford Court House on March 17, 1781 they put the worst of the wounded in wagons and carried them to New Garden. Here, on the following day they left the captured rebel and the worst of their own wounded to the care of the peaceful Quakers. Nathanael Greene, born a member of the Society of Friends in Rhode Island, wrote to the meeting leaders asking them to prove their faith by opening their homes to the wounded and giving every man equal care. The Quakers did so and some paid a deadly price for devotion to their faith.
At least one of the wounded, most likely a British soldier, carried the smallpox germ. In the winter of 1780-81 smallpox had broken out in the British camp at Winnsborough, South Carolina, making ill many of Cornwallis’s soldiers including the commander himself. In January 1781 one British unit, the Seventh Royal Fusiliers, marched with Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and was captured in the battle of Cowpens. Interestingly, a document among the Cornwallis papers lists one man of that regiment among the wounded at Guilford Court House. Could he have been on the sick rolls while his regiment was marching to Cowpens and afterward joined the main army as it marched into North Carolina? Could that wounded man have infected his Quaker caretakers with the smallpox? Not to know whom to blame, we do know that the dreaded disease afflicted several in the Quaker community and several men and women died. Despite the best of care many of the badly wounded soldiers also died from their wounds and some by being weakened by the smallpox.
The Quakers buried these soldiers in the cemetery behind their New Garden meetinghouse. They rest there today, now at peace, buried together, without regard to any uniform or flag, a testament to the Quaker belief in the equality of mankind.
The British win the battle, but lose the war.
Historians may argue over who won the battle of Guilford Courthouse, but the results are obvious. The severe losses by the British army meant they could not follow up on their success. Now too weak and anxious to escape before Greene could rebuild his scattered forces, Cornwallis left two days after the battle first heading west back to New Garden, then southeast crossing the Deep River at Ramsey’s Mill forty miles south of Guilford Courthouse just ahead of the advanced forces of Greene’s army. Here, the Americans found the camp kettles still boiling and several unburied dead. Moving along the Cape Fear River toward Cross Creek (now Fayetteville) Cornwallis expected to get needed supplies sent up from British-held Wilmington. To his disgust there were no supplies waiting for him at Cross Creek. Cornwallis’s tired and battered army continued on. After arriving in Wilmington, theater commander Cornwallis, in a council of war, decided to abandon the Carolinas and march his army north into Virginia to join with a larger British force under General William Phillips and the newly appointed general, Benedict Arnold. In October, Cornwallis’s hope for any success in the South would end with his surrender at Yorktown. Reverses in America, compounded with other political and military problems, plagued the British in the early 1780’s. By September 1783 the British were reluctant, but willing to concede to the provisions of the Treaty of Paris that would end the American Revolution and their control over the thirteen American colonies.
Greene loses battles, but wins a campaign.
As great as Greene’s skills were as an organizer and strategist, he somehow consistently failed as a battlefield commander. At Guilford Courthouse, Greene had planned what he hoped would be a good defensive action, but he made some mistakes. He lost the advantage of his larger force by chopping up his army into three smaller forces, one at each line. None of these lines could possibly support each other and each force was always smaller than the British troops opposing them. Greene, who never really had much regard for the fighting abilities of the militia, depended too much on them to fight, then later criticized them for failing him. Throughout the campaign, he never prevailed in a general tactical action, but his strategic genius (along with a huge measure of British bad luck) would eventually win the campaign. This seemingly failing campaign prompted Greene to describe his army’s performance as “We fight, get beat, and rise again.”
Greene has generally been overlooked in his contributions to the war and Washington is rightfully regarded as the great general of victory, but it was Greene’s successful campaign in the South that set the stage for Yorktown. Greene succinctly summed up his eclipsed contribution in a letter to Henry Knox after learning Washington was closing in on Cornwallis: “We have been beating the bush and the General has come to catch the bird!”
The town of Guilford Courthouse fails to survive.
Immediately after the battle the courthouse building was used as a hospital and at times, a military warehouse. Some people began leaving the area to escape the reminders of war left behind by the armies. As the war shifted away from North Carolina, the town continued to witness the passage of troops and supplies. In 1785, two years after the war was over, the little town was officially named Martinville (for its chief promoter, former General and Governor Alexander Martin), with hopes of growth and development. Back in 1771 when the county seat was fixed here, Guilford Courthouse was near center of the new county, the intended site of the county seat, but by 1800 two new counties had been created out of Guilford shifting the county’s geographic center southward. Beginning in 1807 a movement was underway to move the seat and in 1808 county commissioners voted to build a new courthouse on the new center. A year later, Martinville was abandoned as the county seat when the new courthouse, built six miles south, became operational. Here, in the center of the county, the little town of Greensboro would start and grow around it. As it did, Martinville began to decline. By the mid-nineteenth century the town was gone, but Martinville’s successor, Greensboro, named for the American General, continues to thrive as the third largest city in North Carolina.
The original Guilford Court House structure remains a mystery.
Fires have denied us much of the first decade history of the Guilford Court House. The British burned the Clerk of Court’s (John Campbell) records in 1781 and several post-1809 court house fires in Greensboro have destroyed valuable 18th-century documents. Among these were records that would have certainly described the courthouse building that was standing on March 15, 1781, the day of the battle. Neither contemporary drawing nor description is available to tell us how it looked. Perhaps the lack of such data might still tell us something of its appearance. Lack of descriptions could indicate that it was of a common appearance, quite possibly a simple log-type structure akin to many others built in the county around 1775. Log buildings, without a good foundation, generally tend to decay rapidly in the humidity, acidic red clay soil, and termites of the North Carolina Piedmont. Surviving records of the courthouse show numerous repairs to the old building including new blocks and underpinnings beginning in 1782, only seven years after its construction. Continuing repairs prompted the county’s officials by 1792 to begin work on a new, second courthouse in Martinville. Others believe the court house was of frame construction referencing information that it was covered with clapboards in later descriptions. Frame buildings do better describe such early public buildings and the argument is sound.
The exact locations of the old courthouse and its replacement are also troublesome to those who want to know. The few surviving records and period deeds give no real evidence of where they stood. The British engineer map, drawn on the field (and Colonel Tarleton’s engraved copy), shows that the original courthouse stood in close proximity to Greene’s third battle line. Participant accounts confirm this. Indeed, witnesses standing near the courthouse observed the clash of the Guards and Marylanders. Someday, archeology, science and history may find the answers to the mystery of the two Guilford Court Houses.
Greene dies in debt never getting to witness the formation of the country he helped start.
While Greene was Quarter Master General under Washington he developed a successful system of using paid contractors to obtain supplies for the army. As commander in the South, he instituted the same system, but so far from the purse strings of Congress he was asked by his chief contractor, John Banks, to personally guaranteed payment, which he did seemingly without the consent of Congress. When the war was over, a destitute Congress was slow in paying its bills, so Greene was honor bound to pay Banks, now in bankruptcy, the money he pledged. First, Greene liquidated his assets. He also gladly accepted gifts of property in North and South Carolina, and then promptly sold them. However, he retained a land gift in Georgia, a plantation formerly owned by the Royal Governor called “Mulberry Grove”. Here, he and his family settled hoping that growing cash crops, especially rice, could help settle the rest of their money problems. In June 1786, after touring his fields, 43-year old Greene suffered what might have been the complications of sunstroke, dying just fifteen months before the Constitution of the United States created the new nation. What position of high office might Greene have obtained had he lived? We will never know. Certainly, the new government could have enjoyed and benefited from his leadership abilities.
Sadly, the General had died while still in debt, but the resolute Mrs. Greene was determined to free her family from the problem they had wrestled with for many years. Caty’s perseverance and pleas to the Treasury and Congress continued without much success. But, when President George Washington came for a visit in 1791, she must have had a long talk with him. After returning to the halls of government following his Southern Tour, Washington “approved and signed an act for indemnifying the estate of the late General Nathanael Greene”. The first installment check of the $47,000 to be paid to Mrs. Greene was written by Alexander Hamilton in April 1791.
An American officer runs for Vice-President of the United States.
One of Greene’s ablest field officers was Lieutenant Colonel John Eager Howard of the Maryland Line. Howard was stationed with the First Maryland on Greene’s third line when the British Brigade of Guards attacked and broke through into the open ground at the Courthouse. Thundering into the field rode William Washington’s dragoons. Ordered to attack in support, the commander of the First Maryland, Colonel John Gunby became entangled in the saddlery of his horse that had fallen. Quickly, Howard took over and led the infantry charge which threw the elite Guards back across the open field. Howard’s attack was finally checked by British artillery fire, but his bravery was unquestionable. After the war, Howard received one of eight gold medals awarded by the Congress, not for his outstanding Guilford Court House, but for his valor in the battle of Cowpens. Howard, son of a very wealthy Baltimore family, decided to enter politics. After serving in Congress and the Senate and as Governor of Maryland, he was chosen to run as one of the Federalist Party candidates in the campaign of 1816 for Vice-President of the United States. Successful in war, his run for the second highest office was not. His party was defeated by the Republicans of James Monroe.
Lord Cornwallis dies far from home.
After Yorktown Lord Cornwallis and his army became prisoners of the United States. The rank and file soldiers were marched off to northwest Virginia and western Maryland under the guard of General Robert Lawson’s Virginia militia, the same Lawson who had faced some of these same men at Guilford Court House. While the enlisted men of the British army were imprisoned, most of the officers escaped imprisonment by being paroled—either to embark for England or wait at some British-held port. Some of the enlisted prisoners escaped. While some were recaptured, others melted into the countryside to take residence among their former adversaries.
In contrast, the ranking British officers were entertained and dined at parties and galas. In November Cornwallis and Charles O’Hara returned to New York as the chief prisoner on parole. Later he was exchanged for Henry Laurens of South Carolina. Back in England Cornwallis was faced with accusations from Sir Henry Clinton blaming Cornwallis for his failure to win the war. The two feuded back and forth in books and periodicals for years. Cornwallis, not one to dwell on the past, continued in the King’s service. He became an administrator in 1786 after being made Governor-General of India. In 1793 he was elevated from earl to a marquis. He returned to Britain in 1797 to become the Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief of Ireland. He had the trust of the people he governed and had the reputation as a very capable civil servant who was, above all, fair and honest. An aged and ailing Marquis Cornwallis was again called to India where he died in 1805. To Americans he will be known as the general who lost America for the British, but to Britain his surrender at Yorktown is overshadowed by his life-long service to King and country.
Mrs. Greene hires a tutor for her children and gets an inventor, too.
After the death of her husband in 1786, Catherine Greene took over the running of the plantation Mulberry Grove. She wisely invested in land and coordinated farming with other plantation owners. In 1792 a young Yankee college graduate came to Georgia recently employed by Mrs. Greene to be a teacher to her children. About his time Mrs. Greene and her friends had decided that the raising of cotton might be a lucrative crop, despite the amount of labor required to remove the troublesome seeds from the boll by hand. The young man Caty had hired pondered the problem and thought he could come up with some better means of tackling the seed removal. With her help and that of Phineas Miller, the young man designed and built a crude wooden machine. Turning a crank operated a series of rollers festooned with wire teeth. In its first demonstration, as the raw cotton was fed into a hopper on top of the machine and the handle of the crank was turned, out the other end the cotton emerged combed free of its seeds! Although the machine was not perfect, the inventor proceeded to make improvements and, with Mrs. Greene’s help, made plans to open a factory to produce them. This new invention, which they called a “Gin”, was kept a secret. Mrs. Greene realized its value. She intended to operate her gins as a business since such machines would certainly demand the growing of more cotton. Mrs. Greene’s monopoly was ended as copy gins popped up outside Mulberry Grove.
But sadly, the man who invented and built the first crude machine, Eli Whitney, has received the credit of history, but saw little of the profit envisioned from his invention. Instead of the cotton gin, the brilliant Whitney went on to make his fortune in the manufacture of guns for the government using the modern principle of interchangeable parts made on machines and with gauges of his own technological design. It would take Whitney years and much of his fortune to obtain any rewards from his cotton gin that he invented for Mrs. Greene. It is ironic that the cotton revolution in southern agriculture was the result of a northerner’s invention. Ginning demanded more cotton and hence more slave labor to furnish the northern mills. Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin was one of the earliest steps toward the Civil War that would flare in 1861, that was in part decided with the weapons Whitney’s other technology genius made possible.
A future President practices law at Guilford Court House.
In 1787 a young, redheaded lawyer arrived in the town of Martinville fresh from the law school of Spruce Macay in Salisbury. Taking up residence at the home of John McNairy, a friend from law school, he was admitted to the Guilford County bar on November 19. Living near the battlefield and with his law practice in the town, the young lawyer engaged in the professional and social life of the community. He even helped organize one of the first anniversary observances of the battle on March 15, 1788--his 21st birthday! After a short stay of only six months, he left to take advantage of opportunities in western North Carolina, an area that would, in two years, become the new State of Tennessee.
His move to Tennessee proved to be successful--economically, militarily and politically. Andrew Jackson, the young lawyer at Guilford Court House, became a wealthy man and built a huge home, the “Hermitage”, near Nashville. He earned fame as a general in the War of 1812 and the Creek Indian War, and in 1829 entered the White House as the seventh President of the United States.
George Washington arrives on the battlefield--ten years too late!
The Revolutionary War’s greatest general became first President of the new United States in 1788. After tours of the northern and eastern states in 1789 and 1790, he made plans to visit the southern states in 1791. Primarily, the tours were to give Washington an opportunity to observe first-hand the country and the reaction of the people to the new federal government. Departing from Philadelphia on March 21, Washington rode south in his “chariot”, a white and gold carriage pulled by four white horses, along with an entourage of baggage and servants. He traveled along the eastern seaboard as far south as Widow Greene’s plantation, “Mulberry Grove”, near Savannah, Georgia. From here he began the long road home with the purpose of stopping at as many of the battlefields of Greene’s Southern Campaign as his route allowed. In North Carolina, Governor Alexander Martin met him in Salem and encouraged him to stay an extra night in the Moravian town (which had very nice accommodations for this part of the world). On the morning of June 2nd the two departed Salem and arrived in the afternoon on the battlefield of Guilford Court House. After a small crowd of citizens greeted him, Washington spent several hours touring the field escorted by veterans of the battle. He spent that night in Martinville at Martin’s home and early the next morning, the 3rd, he departed north on the final leg of his great Southern Tour for Virginia and his home at Mount Vernon.
Although Washington was never an open critic of Greene as a general, he did later privately comment to Thomas Jefferson that Greene should have put his Continental forces and artillery on the first line. According to Washington, the regulars could have done much more damage to the British crossing the open field in front of them than Greene’s choice of the North Carolina militia. While the faults and merits of Greene’s tactics at Guilford Court House may be argued, it is curious just how very different the outcome would have been if Washington, not Greene, had been the battlefield commander ten years and three months earlier.
The United States preserves a national park on a battlefield won by the enemy.
The preservation of the Guilford Courthouse battlefield can take credit as one of the first efforts to preserve a battlefield of our War for Independence. The actual preservation began as an idea in the 1880’s, the decade following the nation’s Centennial year. Lawyer David Schenck came to Greensboro in 1886 to accept a legal position with the Richmond and Danville Railroad. Schenck’s interest in the American Revolution led him to make several exploratory visits to the battle site that he disappointingly described as a wilderness of abandoned old fields and tangled vegetation. On one of his excursions he decided to do something to save the site, or in his words, “rescue the battlefield from oblivion.” In 1887 Schenck assembled a board of prominent citizens and stock investors chartered as the Guilford Battle Ground Company. The GBGC immediately began the preservation of the March 15, 1781 battlefield. They raised money, oversaw the erection of monuments and constructed roads and a “Battleground Museum” filled with artifacts found on the field and items purchased and donated. After Schenck’s death in 1902 the GBGC continued the operation of the “Battle Ground”, but by 1915 they determined that the site could prosper better under the care of the Federal government (which had already established national military parks on battlefields of the American Civil War). Several bills were introduced over the next few years, but in March 1917 the United States Congress established Guilford Courthouse National Military Park as the first national park to preserve a battlefield of the American Revolution.
As great as all these early acts of historic preservation are, it is also ironic that their initial beneficiary was a battlefield won by the enemy!
Guilford Courthouse NMP 12/99. Rev. 12/10/05