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Eeedy Fork, and then suddenly reappear in some
other quarter. To the terrified Tories it seemed
as though several armies were moving at once
over the little triangle, and menacing them from
several different quarters. "This," said they, "is
no time for declaring ourselves," and to the great
vexation of the British general, they hung up
their guns, and stayed at home.

Cornwallis was exceedingly perplexed. He
could not make a detachment unless he made it
so strong as to weaken his main body, for Williams
and Pickens and the indefatigable Lee were con-
stantly hovering around him. His foraging parties
were harassed, his outposts were not secure, and
on one occasion nothing but the extreme darkness
of the night saved his baggage from Lee's ad-
venturous cavalry. Still he watched eagerly for an
opportunity to strike a blow, and taking advantage


of a heavy morning fog, made an attempt to beat
up Williams's quarters, and force Greene to an
action.^ But Williams's vigilance was not to be
deceived. Cornwallis had not marched far before
the American scouts detected his movement. The
light troops were promptly in motion, a courier was
dispatched to Greene with intelligence of his
danger ; and after some skillful manoeuvering 'on
both sides, and some sharp fighting at Wetzell's
Mills, an important pass on the Keedy Fork, the
British general gave over the pursuit.^

Cornwallis was now convinced that it was vain
to waste the strength of his troops in efforts to
outgeneral the vigilant American ; and falling back
to Bell's Mills, on the Deep Eiver, he gave a few
days of much needed rest to his weary men. Again
had Greene won in the trial of strategic skill.
" Hitherto," he wrote to Jefferson on the 10th of
March, " I have been obliged to practice that by
finesse which I dared not attempt by force. I
know the people have been in anxious suspense,
waiting the event of a general action ; but be the
consequence of censure what it may, nothing shall
hurry me into a measure that is not suggested by
prudence or connects not with it the interest of
the southern department." ^

1 Gordon, Tol. iv. p. 51. ation, p. 237. Greefte, in a letter of

'^ Lee describes this day's incidents the 10th to Jefferson, calls it " a

in detail ; but there are some serious small skirmish," and that the Ameri-

discrepancies between his narrative, can loss was trifling, while that of the

that of Gordon, and Williams's re- enemy, opposed to riflemen, was con^

port to Greene. Fi'rfe Lee, vol.ii. pp. siderable. Greene MSS. In a letter

322-327 ; Gordon, vol. iv. pp. 50-52. of March 11 to Steuben, he says that

Williams's letter has been published Cornwallis may have been aiming at

by Johnson, vol. i. p. 463. Tarleton's his stores. — Greene MSS.

naiTative is evidently a gi-oss exagger- ^ Greene MSS.


But now reinforcements began to come in; a
brigade of Virginia militia under General Lawson,
two brigades of North Carolina militia under Gen-
eral Eaton and General Butler, and four hundred
Continentals raised for eighteen months. On the
10th of March he dissolved the light corps, with
warm thanks and commendations. Three days he
devoted to the reorganization of his army, and on
the 14th he took post at Guilford Court-house,
prepared to give battle on ground of his own
choosing, or if not attacked to advance and attack
the enemy .^

For both generals a battle was at this time a
military necessity. Cornwallis, to push his enemy
to the utmost, had stripped his own army of its
baggage, and made it impossible to keep the field
long without drawing new supplies from his maga-
zines. The nearest point at which this could be
done was Wilmington, and"* the necessity was daily
becoming more urgent. His men, with aU their
advantages of discipline, were mercenaries, fight-
ing for pay and military honor. With an enemy
in sight they could be relied upon. But long
marches, hunger, cold, and nakedness, were sacri-
fices which they found it hard to make. Deser-
tions became frequent, even from the Guards, who
claimed for themselves the superiority over all the
regiments in the service. It was necessary to
bring the contest promptly to the decision of the
sword. Another consideration pressed upon him

1 Gordon, vol. iv. p. 53. Greene, tion to attack Cornwallis. Greene
in several letters, speaks of his inten- MSS.


urgently. Even though he should win back the
State by his troops, it was only through the in-
habitants that he could hold it, and more than
half of these were Whigs. A successful battle
would show them that it was vain to look to the
Congressional army for protection; would give
courage to their mortal enemies the Tories ; and
swell the ranks of the royal army with devoted
adherents. Without a decided victory he could
neither win North Carolina nor hold it.

A battle was equally necessary for Greene ; but
it was not equally necessary that it should be a
victory. A sharp blow, skillfully dealt, might crip-
ple the British army in its present condition, by
encumbering it with wotmded,^ and throw Corn-
wallis, stunned and bleeding, upon Wilmington.

The American army consisted of 4,243 foot, and
161 cavalry. Only 1,490 of them were Continen-
tals. The remainder were militia, called out for a
short term of service, and so little to be counted
upon for regular duty, that, although there had
been 5,000 of them in motion during the manoeu-
vres of the last four weeks, on the 10th of March
there were but eight or nine hundred of them in
the field.^ To carry out a regular plan, or ac-
complish a remote object with such materials, was
impossible. But they might help to win a battle,
or inflict a dangerous blow. Even if part of them
should give way before the enemy, it was not prob-
able that all would turn their backs without a

■■ Reason assigned by Greene in a " Greene makes this statement in
letter to Jefferson. two different letters.— Greene MSS.


few rounds, and a few rounds from trained marks-
men could not fail to disable some of the enemy,
and bring them with disordered if not broken
ranks into the presence of the Continentals. If
these, also, should be driven from the field, the
American cavalry, supei-ior to the English both in
numbers and in quality, would render a long or a
rapid pursuit impossible. With Cornwallis there-
fore, defeat was ruin. The worst that could befall
Greene was the loss of the field and the dispersion
of the militia.^

Guilford Court-house, it will be remembered, was
the spot at which the main army had effected its
junction with the detachment under Morgan, on
the retreat to the Dan. The advantages which it
offered as a battle field for irregular troops had
impressed Greene so strongly on that occasion,
that now, when the choice of a position seemed to
lie wholly with him, he turned his steps thither,
, resolved to make it the scene of the struggle to
which both armies were looking forward with such
anxious expectation. It lay in the mid^t of a
vast wilderness, interspersed with small clearings,
where some favored spot had been reduced to an
irregular and transient cultivation. In the midst
of one of these clearings, and on the brow of a
large hill surrounded by other hills, stood the
building from which the district derived its name.
Near it, winding its way through dense forests
and thick coverts of copse-wood, with here and

1 letter to President of Congress, March 16, 1781. Greene MSS. Also
to Washington of the same date.


there a cultivated field, ran the high-road to Salis-
bury. The slope of the hill formed a gentle de-
clivity, nearly half a mile in length, and which
terminated in a small valley, intersected by a riv-
ulet, and covered with copse-wood. Directly
around the court-house the ground had recently
been planted, and except in the shrubs and sap-
lings, usually found in new countries even close
upon the tracks of cultivation, presented no ob-
struction to the movements of horse and foot. A
few hundred yards down the slope another open-
ing was formed by a long, narrow field, recently
planted with corn, and extending, on both sides
of the road, to the skirts of a swamp. The swamp,
and the little rivulet which formed it, lay on the
side from which the enemy were expected. The
space between the two clearings was covered by
a forest of oaks, and in the "clearing near the
court-house the road was screened hy a high
growth of saplings. The whole tract is an undu-
lating slope, broken by ravines, and abounding
with strong positions.

From High Rock Ford to Guilford is but a short
march, ftnd when the army reached it on the after-
noon of the 14th of March, there was still light
enough remaining to, admit of a second survey of
the ground before the order of battle was given
out. Then, when all his preparations were com-
pleted, and his final orders issued, Greene's aids
came to him in a body. "Do not," they eai;'-
nestly entreated, " expose your person needlessly.
Put our lives at every hazard, but be careful of


your own. If we fall, our loss will not be felt ; but
your death would not only be fatal to the army,
but in all probability greatly retard, if not de-
stroy, every hope of securing the independence
of the south." ^ The American army slept on
their chosen battle-field, hopeful and confident;
yet some of them, perhaps, with the thought that
the ground on which they lay might before
another night be bathed in their blood.

There had been a light frost in the night, and
the morning was cold. But the sky was clear,
the sun rose bright, and there was a bracing and
exhilara,ting freshness in the air. All felt it, and
felt their spirits rise with it, as with a cheerful
augury ; for all knew that the decisive day was
come. And soon the morning duties of the camp
were over ; breakfast was eaten tranquilly, and
then ofi&cers and nien, forming little groups, or
standing apart in solitary meditation, awaited the
signal to range themselves for battle.

Meanwhile Lee had been sent forward to watch
the enemy. Ere long a courier came in at full
speed, with a report for Greene. The van of the
British army was on the march. Towards noon
the sound of firearms, not far distant, was heard ;
and presently it was known that Lee had met
Tarleton, had driven him in with loss, and was
now falling back before the main body. Corn-
wallis was at hand. Greene instantly proceeded
to draw up his troops; and in following him,
we must bear it in mind, that his object was to

1 Gordon, toI. i, p. 68.

VOL. III. 13


cripple the enemy, without putting himself in
their power.

With this view he drew up his army in three
lines, presenting to the enemy three successive
barriers, each of which must be overcome before
the other could be reached. The first line was
drawn up on the skirt of a wood, with open
ground in front of its centre, and with its flanks
extending into the wood.-^

The open ground was an old cornfield, about
two hundred yards in breadth, and whose side op-
posite the Americans was bordered by a small riv-
ulet. The fences, most of which were still stand-
ing, formed a kind of light breastwork, behind
whose shelter those who knew militia best,
thought that they might be depended upon for
two or three rounds before they gave way; and
two or three rounds, as I have already said, might
open dangerous gaps in the British line. This
line was composed of North Carolina militia, prac-
ticed marksmen, armed with muskets and rifles.
Few of them, however, had been in battle ; and
their dread of the bayonet, like that of all men
not steeled by discipline, rendered them incapa-
ble of sustaining a contest of hand to hand.
They were commanded by General Butler and
General Eaton.

Three hundred yards in their rear, and in the.
midst of the wood, was the second line. This too
was chiefly formed of raw troops, raised for a few
weeks' service, although some of them, like those

1 Stedman, yol. ii. p. 338.


who fought SO well at the Cowpens, were old Con-
tinentals, doing militia duty as substitutes. They
were Virginians, led by Stevens and Lawson.
Among the urgent requests that Greene had ad-
dressed to Jefferson, was the request that the oflS,-
cers of the militia contingent should be chosen
from those who had been thrown out of ser-
vice by the reduction of the Continental army.
Greene's wise counsel had been followed, and the
greater part of the officers of the Virginia mili-
tia were men who had seen service in the field.
But Stevens, whose whole heart was in the cause,
had not forgotten the shameful flight of the mili-
tia at Camden ; and to guard against another dis-
grace like that, he placed sentinels all along the
rear of his line, with orders to shoot down the
first man that attempted to desert his post.
Both of these lines extended across the road.
Should the North Carolinians fail, there was still
ground to hope that the Virginians would take
the enemy at a disadvantage. But if both should
perform their duty, there could be but little doubt
that before the British reached the third line,
their own would be demoralized and broken.

This line was composed of Continentals, under
Huger and Williams. They were placed in the
open ground around the Cou^t-house, about four
hundred yards in the rear of the second line, and
on the right of the high road from Salisbury. To
follow the formation of the hill, they were drawn
up with a double front, the two regiments of Vir-
ginia regulars under Greene and Hawes on the


right, and the first and second Maryland under
Gunby and Ford on the left. The only veteran
regiment was that of Gunby. This, it was hoped,
would inspire the new regiments by its example,
and thus all, at the critical moment, putting forth
their combined strength, complete the work of
the first and second lines. i

To secure the flanksj Washington was stationed
on the right with a corps of observation, composed
of the dragoons of the first and third regiments,
a detachment of light infantry, and Lynch's rifle-
men; Lee on the left with his own Legion, the
flower of the army, a detachment of light infantry,
and a party of riflemen under Colonel Campbell,
who had won so brilliant a name at King's Moun-
tain. Both of the flanking corps were posted in
the woods, and covered the extremities of the
first and weakest line. In the road, and a little in
advance of the first line, Captain Singleton was
stationed with two light pieces of artillery.

When these arrangements were completed,
Greene passed along the first line. The day was
hot, and holding his hat in one hand, he was wip-
ing the perspiration from his " ample forehead "
with the other. His voice was clear and firm, as
he called his men's attention to the strength of
their position ; and like Morgan at the Cowpens
asked only " three rounds." " Three rounds, my
boys, and then you may fall back."^ Then tak-
ing his position with the Continentals, he held
himself in readiness to go wherever his duty
might call him.

1 Communicated to me as a tradition.


Shortly after one, the British van came in
view, and Singleton opened upon them with his
two field-pieces. The English artillery was im-
medig,tely brought forward, and a sharp cannon-
ade was kept up for about twenty minutes,'^ while
Cornwallis was drawing up his men. He formed
them in one line, with no reserve; for knowing
their superiority in equipments and discipline, he
was resolved to come at once to the bayonet, and
drive his adversary before him by one great effort
of combined and compact strength. On his right
he placed Leslie, with the 71st British regiment,
the German regiment of Boze, and the first ba1>
talion of the Guards under Colonel Morton; on
the left Lieutenant-colonel Webster, with the 23d
and 33d regiments, and Brigadier-general O'Hara
with the grenadiers and the 2d battalion of the
Guards. In the woods on the left of the artillery
were the yagers and light infantry of the Guards.
The cavalry under Tarleton was ranged in col-
umns on the road, with instructions to keep com-
pact, and not to charge without positive orders,
except in case of the most evident necessity.

Watching the intervals of the enemy's fire,
Cornwallis pushed his columns across the brook,
under cover of the smoke from his owp artillery ;
and the different corps, deploying to the right
and left in quick, step, were soon ranged in line
of battle.

For a moment Greene hoped that they would
not be permitted to cross the open field unbroken,

1 Greene to President of Congress, letter says, "a very few minutes."
March 16th. The first draft of this — Greene MSS.


and every ear was listening eagerly for the sound
of the North Carolina guns. But it was a mo-
ment's hope ; for as the ill-nerved militia saw the
enemy advance with firm countenance and regu-
lar tread, and arms that flashed and gleamed in
the slanting sun, they began to hesitate, and then
to shrink; and when, coming still nearer, 'he
paused, poured in one heavy volley, threw for-
ward his dreaded bayonet, and charged with a
shout of anticipated triumph, they broke and fled,
throwing away in the madness of fear, their guns,
most them still loaded, their cartouch-boxes, and
everything that could impede their movements.
In vain their officers tried to stem the torrent of
flight; Eaton and Butler and Davie threw them-
selves before them, seized them by the arms, ex-
horted, entreated, commanded in vain. Lee, spur-
ring in among them, threatened to charge them
with his cavalry, unless they turned again upon
the enemy. All was useless ; terror had overmas-
tered them ; and dashing madly forward, they were
quickly beyond the sound of remonstrance and
threat.-' ^

The British pressed on with loud huzzas ; but a
sharp fire from the flanking corps under Washing-
ton and Lee, galling their uncovered flanks,
brought them to a sudden stand. Cornwallis
promptly wheeled the regiment of Boze upon
Lee ; the 33d, with the light infantry and yagers

■■ In a letter of March 18tli to gun. None fired more than twice,

Washington, Greene writes : " They and very few more than once, and

left the most advantageous position near one half not at all." Correspond-

I ever saw, without scarcely firing a ence of the Revolution, vol. iii. p. 267.


■upon Washington, and ordered the grenadiers
with the 1st and 2d battalions of the Guards to
advance and fill up tl^ break in the line. The
two corps of observation retired slowly and un-
broken, firing, with deadly' aim, as they fell back,
and in a few moments were in position with the
second line. And now was the turn of the Vir-

Undismayed by the dastardly flight of the
North Carolinians, they saw the enemy advance,
and as he came within aiming distance, opened
upon him with the coolness of veterans and the
precision of practiced marksmen. Symptoms of
disorder began to appear in the^ British ranks,
and soon their line became seriously deranged.
But still discipline held them together ; and press-
ing resolutely forward with the bayonet, they
compelled the American right to give ground.
The left still held firm.

By this time all of the British army except the
cavalry had been brought into action; all had
suffered from the deadly fire of the Americans ;
the line was broken and disunited; the corps
scattered, from the necessity of facing the different
corps of the Americans ; and everything seemed
to promise Greene a sure victory. Cheered with
the prospect, he passed along the line of Conti-
nentals, exhorting them to be firm, and give the
finishing blow.

And soon, following the retreating right wing
of the Virginians, Webster came out upon the
open space around the Court-house, and directly


in front of Gunby's Marylanders. Here for the
first time discipline was opposed to discipline.
The Americans poured in ^ well directed fire, and
before the British, stunned and confused, could re-
cover from the shock, followed it up with the bay-
onet. The rout was complete ; and had the cav-
alry been at hand to follow up the blow, or had
Greene dared to bring forward another regiment
and occupy an eminence which commanded the
field, the fate of the day would have been decided.
But these were his only veterans, and the occur-
rences of the next quarter of an hour showed the
wisdom of his determination not to risk any
movement that might endanger his last line.

For on the left also the Virginians had at length
been compelled to give way. Stevens was
wounded in the thigh, and his men, yielding to
the bayonet, fell slowly back with their faces to
the foe. Leslie was thus left free to join O'Hara ;
and uniting their forces, the two generals ad-
vanced upon the second regiment of Marylanders.
Well was Greene's caution justified ; for with the
noble example of the first regiment fresh before
them, the second broke and fled. At this critical
moment Gunby advanced, and wheeling upon the
Guards, met them with gun and bayonet. His
horse was shot under him, disabling him for the
moment by the fall. Howard took his place ; and
Washington, attracted by the heaviness of the
fire, came up at full speed, charged, and broke
them. Howard followed with the bayonet, and
pressing close upon their flying traces, gave them
no time to rally or restore their ranks.


Cornwallis's fine horse had been killed, and he
had mounted one of a common dragoon, not ob-
se:^ving, in his haste, that the saddle-bags had
turned under the animal's belly, and were catch-
ing in the underwood with which the ground was
strown. He was pressing forward to the front,
and rushing unawares into the midst of the en-
emy. A sergeant of the Royal Welsh Fusileers
saw his danger, and seizing the bridle guided him
to the skirt of the wood.^ Here the whole scene
broke upon him. He saw the rout of his best
troops; saw them mixed - with their pursuers in
irretrievable disorder. The headlong flight must
be stayed, or the day was lost, and with the day,
the British army. From a small eminence on the
skirt of the wood his artillery commanded the
ground of the deadly conflict.

" Open upon them, at once ! " he cried.

"It is destroying our own men," exclaimed
O'Hara, who was bleeding fast from a dangerous

"I see it," replied Cornwallis ; "but it is a nec-
essary evil which we must endure to avert im-
pending destruction."

O'Hara turned away with a groan. The fire
was opened, striking down equally friends and
foes. It checked the pursuit ; but half the gallant
battalion was destroyed. Still discipline retained
its controlling and organizing power. The shat-
tered and disheartened troops were collected and

1 An Original and Authentic Journal Year 1 783, by R. Lamb, late sergeant
of Occurrences during the late Amen- in Royal Welsh Fusileers, p. 362.
can War from its Commencement to the


formed anew ; formed amid the dead and the dy-
ing, for a third of their number lay dead or
wounded on the field.

Meanwhile Greene also had pressed eagerly
forward to get a nearer view of the field, without
observino; that there was nothina; between him
and the enemy but the saplings that grew by the
roadside. But Major Burnet saw it, and warned
him of his danger, as he was in the act of riding
" full tilt " into them. Turning his horse's head,
but without quickening his pace, he rode slowly
back to his own line.

It was a trying moment. He had heard noth-
ing from Lee, and naturally feared the worst.
The enemy were gaining ground on his right, and
had already turned his left flank. The failure of
the 2d Maryland regiment had confirmed his dis-
trust of raw troops. It was evident also that the
enemy had suffered severely. If he had not con-
quered, he had crippled them. The chief object
for which he had given battle was won ; and faith-
ful to the resolve not to expose his regulars need-
lessly, he ordered a retreat. The enemy at-
tempted to pursue, but was soon driven back. At
the Reedy Pork, three miles from the field of bat-
tle, he halted, drew up his men, and waited several

Online LibraryGeorge Washington GreeneThe life of Nathanael Greene : major-general in the army of the revolution → online text (page 14 of 40)