Skip to comments.Battle of Guilford Courthouse gets its due
Posted on 01/10/2010 12:08:49 PM PST by Pharmboy
From Hollywood to the history shelf, the Civil War was a widescreen epic, while the American Revolution has too often been a footnote. One of the most important battles of the Revolution happened in what is now Greensboro on March 15, 1781, but, over the past century, Americans have treated that war as an afterthought.
The Civil War was "Gone with the Wind," "Glory" and 11 hours by Ken Burns. The Revolution, by contrast, was little more than a few forgettable movies, an occasional special on The History Channel and a handful of books (or more often booklets) sold at battleground visitors' centers.
When Hollywood finally tried to catch up by making a true Revolutionary War epic in 2000, it failed miserably with "The Patriot," a movie dense with such cringe-inducing dialogue as, "It's a free country ... or at least it will be." The movie portrays British officers as sadistic proto-Nazis, and the climactic battle -- based loosely on Guilford Courthouse -- is a gruesome cartoon. The reluctant warrior portrayed by Mel Gibson ends up in a mano a mano grudge match with The Thing That Wouldn't Die, a British officer loosely based on cavalry commander Banastre Tarleton, but depicted on screen as something closer to the Terminator.
The real Tarleton was quite human -- he lost two fingers when he fought here, one of many details about the battle I learned from reading "Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse" by Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard. The book occasionally gets bogged down in thickets of detail as dense as some of the woods the soldiers fought through that late-winter afternoon in 1781. But for the most part it's a compelling read, and the first full-length book devoted exclusively to the battle that proved a Pyrrhic victory for Lord Cornwallis and the British army.
The authors present the book as a sequel to Babits' 1997 "A Devil of a Whipping," about the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina, which preceded Guilford Courthouse by two months. Babits is a professor at East Carolina University, and his collaborator on the sequel and one previous Revolutionary War book, Howard, is a research historian for the state of North Carolina. Another state historian, Mark A. Moore, created clear, detailed battle maps. The book also includes a series of modern paintings by Don Troiani that show vividly the uniforms of different types of soldiers who fought in the battle.
As a longtime Civil War buff, it took me a while to find a compelling entry point to the Revolutionary War. The real turning point was discovering the work of David Hackett Fischer, whose "Paul Revere's Ride" taught me that everything I knew about the Revolution was wrong -- and that the truth was a lot more interesting and complex than the legend.
I also appreciate the efforts of my father, Dick Huffman, who did a lot of genealogical research before he died in 2003. At the beginning of this decade, he told me that one of our ancestors -- my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Christian Hoffmann Jr. -- fought at Guilford Courthouse, along with his brother, John.
My ancestor doesn't rate a mention in "Long, Obstinate, and Bloody," but I wouldn't have been surprised to find him in the book. Babits and Howard give interesting details about dozens of people involved in the battle, including a local volunteer who helped Gen. Nathanael Greene pick the best places to set up his cannons.
Unlike some of their predecessors, the authors took care not to rely on memoirs written many years after the battle by bitter veterans with axes to grind, such as Tarleton and his American counterpart, cavalry commander Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, father of legendary Confederate General Robert E. Lee. They get great details from unexpected sources, such as the journal of Virginian Samuel Houston, who had a bird's-eye view of the beginning of the battle from a tree he climbed along the American second line.
Wherever possible, Babits and Howard rely on letters and reports written closer to the action, and they also lean heavily on reports written after the war by veterans applying for government pensions. In many ways, their book is an expansion of an outstanding 1997 work they cite in their preface and elsewhere, John Buchanan's "The Road to Guilford Courthouse," a richly detailed, meticulously researched look at the war in the South in 1780 and 1781.
But where Buchanan's book devotes only 11 pages to Guilford Courthouse, "Long, Obstinate, and Bloody" devotes 69 pages to the battle proper, and many more to the skirmishes near present-day Guilford College the morning of the battle. If the endless detail in the preliminary chapter "Greene's Army" feels a bit like the first chapter of Matthew in the New Testament ("Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas ...."), the unflinching accounts of the battle itself make up for the excessive scene setting.
A gruesome description of a soldier getting his spine ripped away by a cannonball concludes the battle's preliminaries, and the book provides many details I don't recall learning from any other source, such as a fire that killed a number of wounded soldiers.
The biggest surprise in the book comes when the authors debunk one of the battle's most enduring legends, that Cornwallis -- over the protests of Brig. Gen. Charles O'Hara -- preserved the victory by having his artillery fire into a melee that included his own troops. Babits and Howard make a convincing argument that the legend came primarily from Lee's memoir and has little basis in reality: "The image of a draconian Cornwallis ordering his guns to cut down his own elite Guards over the pleas of his courageous, wounded subordinate became legendary in the annals of Guilford Courthouse, despite the fact that neither Cornwallis nor O'Hara, nor for that matter any actual participant in the event, actually recorded it taking place."
The legends live on in the Triad, though now with more historical accuracy thanks to the hard work of Babits and Howard. "Long, Obstinate, and Bloody" is another step forward in giving the Revolutionary War its due.
Contact Eddie Huffman at email@example.com
The new book looks like a good one...
The RevWar/Colonial History/Gen. Washington ping list...
I kinda’ like King’s Mountain.
Great book, but he certainly overlooks the contribtions of Thomas Fleming, whose Now We are Enemies predates Paul Revere's Ride by 40 years. Speaking of Fischer , have you ever heard how/why/bywhom the PC crowd (presumably) squelched Colonial Plantations which was supposed to be installment II of his magnum opus , to follow Albion's Seed? This without so much as a whimper about academic freedom being compromised?
No...unaware of those actions. Tom Fleming is a great guy...gave him a lift home one day (in NYC). We were both memebers of the NYC RevWar Roundtable.
Thanks Pharmboy, Great Post! Knowing history is crucial- especially our own. We could do with less lawyers, and way more historians serving as our appointed employees (our representatives).
and a bit easy on Tarleton
men with reputations like that are seldom undeserving of them
Agreed. Tarleton’s actions were even too brutal for Cornwallis. As you likely know, “Tarleton’s Quarter” meant “No quarter,” meaning no prisoners.
1) I agree that generally, the RevWar has been ignored, egregiously.
2) While 1 is true, we have had more things for it in the last decade or so, including SEVERAL good “mini-series” documentaries, starting in 1994.
3) “The Patriot” was far from perfect, but it was good that it was there at all (how many RevWar ONLY movies have there ever been? And yes, I’m an OLD movie buff.). It was also good generally. Also nice that they diverted from the usual myth, that it was a war of New Englanders IN New England.
PAGE Smith . . .
Careful what you wish for. Far too many “historians” (including those that insist on “historic districts” which squelch the freedom these rebels wanted so much) are liberal as hell. Most of them have that “spin” on US history that it was all proof of how evil we are.
Well, King’s Mountain had a lot going for it: Ferguson, the brilliat Scots soldier, commanding mostly Yankee Loyalists getting massacred by over mountain men. I will visit that place before I die...
I also dispute the view that “Brits were shown as evil brutal beasts” in the movie. Yes, it was heavy on Tarleton...em...Tavington, but many of the other Brits in charge were quite sympathetic (except for the silly representation of O’Hara as an arrogant superior lackey).
C’mon, man...that “burning the patriots alive in the church” scene was pure fantasy.
Thanks for that story...very interesting.
I thought “The Patriot” was decent, but certainly not great. It is odd that there has never been a truly great movie made about the Revolution.
We hit Camden, Lookout Mt. and Cowpens in one rushed afternoon last summer along the North-South Carolina border , Camden’s undeveloped but there is a marker where DeKalb made his stand. Looked for the Waxhaws where young Andy Jackson had his encounter with the British, didn’t come up with much. The Tennessee State Museum in Nashville gives a good presentation of the OverMountain Boys, compared to the visitors’ center at Lookout Mountain, which gets a little involved with ecology. If the dioramas they have there are accurate regarding the size of the trees they think were on Lookout Mt. at the time, it’s worth getting excited about though. John Bartram was impressed on his journey down that way, anyway.
The battle in “The Patriot” was an amalgam of Guilford Court House AND Cowpens [Hannah’s Cowpens, actually].
Hey. Ferguson had bad karma. Invents a nifty rifle, which the Brits don’t mass produce. Passes on sniping an American officer accross the lines, and Washington goes on to win the war, and eventually become our first President. Gets caught on King’s Mountain in a bad defensive position, and oh, well....
“Drums Along the Mohawk”?
Maybe not a truly great movie but I thought Northwest Passage with Spencer Tracy was good as well as the recent The Crossing with Jeff Daniels as George Washington.
Yep...a good summary.
Yep...aware of that. Thanks.
You’re right, “Drums along the Mohawk” is a great movie.
Thanks for that info. I will eventually put it to good use...
Make it Memorial Day Weekend. Saturday is the best day.
They have a Military Through the Ages Program.
Buchanan takes strong issue with most of the Ferguson legend, including the uniqueness of his brech loader, and the encounter with “Washington” at Brandywine, offering the alernative hypothesis it was Pulaskie.
Genealogy is often an entree into becoming a Revolutionary War buff. For southerners, much history was lost or forgotten during that pit of poverty and ignorance that ensued as a result of the so-called Civil War, and lasted nearly a century. So, it’s necessary to rediscover what was known and honored before that conflict. Many of mine went into the Civil War for the Confederacy, believing they were fighting Hessians, just as their grandfathers had fought.
Nearly every old original settler family in my area has an ancestor who fought at Guilford Courthouse, whether they’ve rediscovered it yet or not. All the Tories were routed and left the area, their properties seized and sold off. My direct paternal 4G was there at Guilford Courthouse, in Colonel Paisley’s Regiment. He was a dragoon, but had been injured on the instep by a roughshod horse, and was guarding horses at the rear. He was involved in several clashes with Tarleton’s forces elsewhere as well. Very colorful descriptions in the recounting for his pension application.
Revolutionary War pension applications are indeed a rich source for a perspective upon the conflict that you just don’t find anywhere else. It’s personal, seen from one man’s eyes, who was rarely all that influential or noteworthy, but an eyewitness nonetheless, with little reason to fabricate or provide an inaccurate representation. Piece these together, across multiple third, fourth and fifth great grandfathers (I have seven proved with five other likelies), and you get a very intriguing, very personal tale.
It appears that this author has done just that, and I applaud the effort. I live just ten miles north of Guilford Courthouse, and drive past it frequently. The public park surrounding it has wide, paved walking paths and trails that are very popular with the locals. Some areas of the park have that “feel” that you get from certain Civil War battlefields. I’ve often wanted to get my hands on an accurate map of the battle, to see just what occurred where.
Indeed, those pension applications have been an invaluable source of information; and a good place to start looking for a good battle map of Guilford Courthouse might be be here if you ever get up north.
Thanks for the link, that may prove very useful.
Here’s as complete of an online repository of Revolutionary War pension applications as I am aware, for those who fought in the southern campaigns:
For those searching who do not find their ancestor, they are very eager to add to their database. If you have proved your ancestor’s participation and have a transcribed pension application, they want to include it and will do so, even if it appears elsewhere. Their goal is to have every one of them in one place.
OH didn’t know there was a Rev War / Washington ping list. Please add me to it. Thanks for this thread also.
I have an ancestor who was an officer in the Revolutionary War - from Virginia. (I am not much into geneology and don’t know all the details but some).
My mother belonged to an organization called “DAR” - Daughters of the American Revolution - because of this ancestor.
She never talked to me any about this group and I don’t even know if it’s still in existence. (She died 30 years ago).
But what got me really interested in the Revolutionary War era was when I first read a biography of George Washington - which I did - AFTER reading the wonderful 2 books by David Manuel and Peter Marshall (son of famous Presbyterian Preacher named Peter Marshall who was chaplain of the US Senate during WWII and the subject of the powerful movie called “A Man Called Peter”....Anyway those books were “The Light and the Glory” and “From Sea to Shining Sea.”
Those books FIRST opened my eyes to the LIES that had been fed me in my schooling about the founding of this country, especially about Washington, and about the Revolutionary War.
That led to me reading “Washington: The Indispensable Man” by Thomas Flexner and then “Washington” by Douglas Southall Freeman.
(Washington is my most admired American of all time).
Then, one of the networks aired a mini-series on Washington which was actually pretty well done (and can be purchased now) - this was in 1976 to celebrate the Bicentennial of our nation’s founding.
That led to me reading several of the excellent books out there on the history of the Revolutionary War.
Most Americans - especially the young - are so ignorant of the truth about Washington and our founding and the Revolutionary War (War for Independence) - that it is infuriating!
I am very grateful that the Homeschool movement and the Christian school movement has helped educate many more young people than would ever have gotten this vital information had they remained in the public propaganda institutions that brainwash most of our young.
Anyway - I’ve been to the Guilford Courthouse battlefield site and it was very moving to be there - as it was to be at the Yorktown battlefield site.
Thank you. Very interesting...
The DAR is very much in existence. Many of the transcribed pension applications available online are the result of their efforts, directly or indirectly. You may want to go to the link I posted, to see if your ancestor is there. If he’s not, he can be. DAR membership is extended to women who have proved their descent from a Revolutionary War Patriot, and so yours has been, otherwise your mother would not have been able to belong.
I think that part of the reason that the Revolutionary War is not portrayed as much is that because most of the battles were British victories. It’s kinda difficult to make a compelling story out of a struggle of preservation & endurance. Possible, but difficult.
Uh, did I say it was perfectly accurate?
Drums - not seriously involved with the RevWar. Mostly backwoods life.
NW Passage - centered on era of French & Indian.
The Crossing - not a real movie (just TV docudrama).
The DAR is very much in existence. It’s a huge organization that’s very old in itself.
“Then, one of the networks aired a mini-series on Washington which was actually pretty well done (and can be purchased now) - this was in 1976 to celebrate the Bicentennial of our nations founding.”
I think you mean the 1984 “George Washington” with Barry Bostwick (my heart be still - he is Washington to me forever more). Fantastic. Unfortunately, it was only ever put out on “video”, and we know what that means.
Maybe part, but I think it’s mostly the domination of the “Civil War”. Everything before that has pretty much been glossed over in history, never mind the wars themselves comparatively.
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