You want a revolution?
Hidden in a small closet in the basement of my aunt’s house was a musket. It was only a toy, but I was just a boy when I found this hidden treasure leaning in a dark corner and I didn’t know that then. Light from the room crept in to bring a gleam to the long, black barrel and hammer. Carefully, I would run my fingers along the wooden stock and lightly touch the trigger, my heart pounding with both fear and joy. At the sound of footsteps I would quickly close the closet door so as not to be caught.
One day the urge became too much. But I knew not to handle guns. So taking my mother by the hand I led her down the steps and showed her my secret find. I wanted to hold it. She told me it was a toy and I would need to ask my aunt’s permission. My aunt said yes, and that not only could I hold it, but I could play with it as well.
From that day forward it was my musket. I carried it with pride; its length towered my small stature and it took all the strength I could muster to hold it steady.
During those same years my parents would take me to Pioneer Days at Kings Mountain Battleground where my favorite part was the musket demonstrations. Their loud boom made my heart leap. My grandfather on my father’s side, who lived in California, had a musket, I was told. When my grandparents moved to North Carolina my grandfather brought his musket over to the house and I fired it from the deck at an old Nerf soccer ball lying at the edge of the woods in our backyard. Ahhh, the smell of gunpowder and the kick of the powerful beast thrilled my soul.
My grandfather passed away a few years ago and my father gave me that musket. It needs cleaning and polishing. The hammer won’t stay back. I long to fire it again, like I did when I was a boy. It still fills me with excitement.
At the Revolutionary War Reenactment of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse I know how the boys with their toy muskets and revolutionary hats feel. The boys without guns made them from sticks found on the ground. They played war, shooting at each other and shouldering their rifles with dignity. For a boy, there’s a longing for power, pride and a battle to fight. For my 4-year-old daughter who’s with me there’s nothing more important than the rock candy she sees other kids eating. The guns, the costumes, the battle do nothing for her.
Fife and drum cadences fill the air as troops march onto the field at Country Park to reenact one of the nation’s most decisive wars ‘— one that will weaken the British army enough to later give way to American victory to the north in Virginia at Yorktown. Soldiers from the American Continental Army take the field alongside militia. Far back in the woods are British soldiers and their Hessian allies.
For today’s purposes the battle has been compressed onto a field at Country Park. Grasshoppers, cannons that fire three-pound balls or loads of grapeshot, boom from a wooded location. The British are approaching. A man on a microphone explains the events as British and Americans exchange volleys of fire. Slowly, the British make their way out of the woods and into the open field of waiting Continentals and militia. Very few men are killed in the beginning; the soldiers’ smooth bore muskets are only accurate to about 80 yards. Standing shoulder to shoulder, each side sends a wild barrage of imaginary lead balls across the field in hopes of taking out a few from the opposing side. Thick white smoke fills the air with each volley and soldiers hurriedly reload their flintlock rifles. As the British get closer more bodies fall to the ground. A few wounded Americans try to pull themselves out of harm’s way in a futile attempt as they are nearly trampled by British feet. The British also carry bayonets, a vital tool the militia do not have. What’s left out here is the hand-to-hand combat that is reported to have happened, American men impaled with the deadly bayonets. Soon, the third line breaks and the battle is over. We are thanked for our attention as the dead mysteriously rise from the battlefield and march back to camp.
The real war was much more graphic, of course, but here we have the chance to look into history and learn how and why things happened as they did. There were the American Continentals, the trained American army that had the skills to fight but lacked in numbers, and there was the militia. The militia consisted of farmers, businessmen, free blacks and slaves sent to fight in place of their masters. Basically, they were American citizens who weren’t trained as soldiers. Militia could be called up by their governor for three months of service at any time. They were of importance, for without them the American Continentals wouldn’t have had the manpower to win the war. In Guilford and the surrounding counties most of the militia were backcountry farmers who knew how to hunt, shoot a gun and how to survive in the wilderness ‘— skills that gave them an advantage defending Guilford Courthouse.
Some of the militiamen were eager to fight while others didn’t want to be involved in what they considered a political game. Being inexperienced soldiers, many of the militia ran for their lives in battle. But in the battle of Guilford Courthouse the militia acted more bravely for several reasons. For one, Continentals stood behind them ready to shoot them if they didn’t fire the two or three shots they were ordered to fire before retreating to the next line of defense. Also many were distrustful of the British government. Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, nicknamed ‘Bloody Tarleton,’ had ordered troops to burn and pillage the homes and communities of many American settlers. He was a ruthless killer who spared no mercy for his defenseless victims and prisoners of war. Adding to the unease, the British army stole farmers’ livestock to feed themselves during the cold and bitter winter seasons. Many militiamen knew they would have to fight if they were to keep their homes and food supplies.
Though it was a war of nations, the Revolutionary War was also a civil war to some degree. There were inhabitants of America who remained loyal to King George III and fought beside British troops. Back home in Britain loyalists and separatists had family who were neighbors or friends with one another. In America tensions grew hotter ‘— loyalists killed separatists and separatists killed loyalists. Loyalist Tories gathered to help the British fight, but on two occasions they were mistaken for American militia and attacked by British troops. This generated distrust amongst the Tories for the British, making allies harder to come by for the king’s army.
Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene led the troops in the battle of Guilford Courthouse. He had been avoiding the British for some time, making Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis play a game of cat and mouse in the thick backwoods of North Carolina. Greene knew Cornwallis would catch up with him soon, but tried to put him off until he had the troops and supplies he needed. Greene’s army had also been affected by the harsh winter and debilitating disease.
Finally, with approximately 4,400 men, Greene knew he had the best army he would be able to muster, and prepared for battle with Cornwallis. Most of his army was made up of inexperienced militia, though, and he knew it would be difficult to defeat Cornwallis’ 1,900 battle-hardened troops. He moved his men to the area of Guilford Courthouse, where the terrain would be in his favor, and waited.
Before dawn, on March 15, 1781, Cornwallis began moving his troops toward Guilford Courthouse. Greene formed three lines of defense. The first line was made up mostly of militia, around 1,000 men, with flanks on both the right and left sides. This line extended across New Garden Road near where the visitors’ center is located in the park today. New Garden has been routed around the original road, which is now a gravel trail wide enough for almost two lanes. Originally the road was only wide enough for Cornwallis to march his horses in single file. The militia were to fire two shots before retreating to the second line. The second line stretched almost as far across as the first, at about the point where Greene’s monument stands in the park. The American third line was placed farther back, to the left of New Garden Road.
When the fighting began the British noticed the militia were more determined than usual. Many fired more than their required number of shots before retreating, dealing the British a heavy blow from the start. The great number of militia made up for their lack of skill and weaponry, but the British soon made their way through. They captured American artillery as they proceeded to the second line.
Two brigades of Virginia militia waited along what is now Stop 3 on a self-guided tour through the park. A heavy, sustained firefight broke out between British and American forces there. At the third line the British started getting beaten badly, and Cornwallis ordered his cannons be fired into both lines of troops, British and American, in hopes of thinning out the Americans. Grapeshot killed men from both sides, but allowed the British to regain their hold. Greene withdrew his troops and gathered his wounded.
At the end of the day the British had won, but they had only won a field and some woodland. It would do no good to stay and hold this property, for it meant nothing in winning the war for the king. As the British pressed onward the militia were able to take back their property and move on with their lives. The battle was not about winning here at Guilford Courthouse, but about doing as much damage as possible to British forces before they traveled north.
That night the British slept in the battlefield. They were out of food and exhausted. Throughout the rainy night they heard the cries of their dying comrades alongside wounded Americans. An account written by Charles Steadman is recorded in Thomas Baker’s book Another Such Victory:
The night was remarkable for its darkness, accompanied with the rain, which fell in torrents. Near fifty of the wounded, it is said, sinking under their aggravated miseries, expired before the morning. The cries of the wounded and dying, who remained on the field of action during the night exceeded all description. Such a complicated scene of honor and distress, it is hoped, for the sake of humanity, rarely occurs, even in a military life.
Cornwallis is quoted as saying, ‘“I never saw such fighting since God made me. The Americans fought like demons.’” Cornwallis is also known for saying that another such victory as the British had at Guilford Courthouse would be too much for their forces to take.
Cornwallis believed he would need to concentrate forces in Virginia and, after several smaller battles, he would surrender on Oct. 18, 1781 at Yorktown.
The dead from the battle were buried in mass graves that records indicate are on the property of Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, though no physical proof has yet been discovered. The wounded, both British and American, were gathered by the British, and taken to the Quakers at New Garden for care.
At Stop 1 on the self-guided tour is a statue of Kerrenhappuch Norman Turner who rode by horse from her home in Maryland to nurse her wounded son back to health. With her frail frame, kind eyes and modest dress, hers is, in my opinion, the park’s most powerful statue. It evokes a mother’s love, which transcends right or wrong, good or evil and brings healing of both body and soul.
As I watch the battle reenactment my boyhood thoughts are replaced by those of a man. How would I stand in the face of such a battle? I imagine the horror the men on both sides must have felt, the fear of standing muzzle to muzzle with the enemy ‘— it was said that in some cases the flames of opposing barrels touched one another.
I imagine how they suffered the wounds they were dealt without today’s modern medicine. I imagine the cold, the hunger, the thoughts of home. And how the smell of gunpowder that once brought wonder and delight to small boys now sickens them to their stomachs.
To comment on this story, e-mail Lee Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.