Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley
Battle of Guilford Court-house—Cornwallis's army greatly weakened by this action—Greene retreats to the Iron Works—Loss of the Americans in the battle—Loss of the British—Courage of the British troops—Desperate condition of Cornwallis—He retreats to Cross Creek—Greene pursues him—Cornwallis arrives at Wilmington—Greene gives over the pursuit—Greene resolves to carry the war into South Carolina—Cornwallis decides to proceed to Virginia.
Now came on the battle of Guilford Court-house. Having determined to risk an action, Greene chose his ground with judgment. Early in the morning of the 15th, the fire of his reconnoitring parties announced the approach of the enemy on the great Salisbury road, and his army was immediately arranged in order of battle. It was drawn up in three lines, on a large hill, surrounded by other hills, chiefly covered with trees and underwood.
The front line was composed of the two brigades of North Carolina militia, who were posted to great advantage on the edge of the wood, behind a strong rail fence, with an extensive open field in front.
The two brigades of Virginia militia formed the second line. They were drawn up entirely in the wood, about three hundred yards in rear of the first, and on either side of the great Salisbury road.
The third line was placed about three hundred yards in rear of the second, and was composed of continental troops. The Virginia brigade, commanded by General Huger, was on the right; that of Maryland, commanded by Colonel Williams, was on the left. They were drawn up obliquely, with their left diverging from the second line, and partly in open ground.
The first and third regiments of dragoons, amounting to one hundred and two troopers, Kirkwood's company of light infantry, and a regiment of militia riflemen under Colonel Lynch, formed a corps of observation for the security of the right flank, which was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Washington. The legion, consisting of one hundred and sixty-eight horse and foot, and a body of riflemen commanded by Colonels Campbell and Preston, formed a corps of observation for the security of the left flank, which was placed under Lieutenant Colonel Lee. The artillery was in the front line, in the great road leading through the centre, with directions to fall back as the occasion should require.
Though Lord Cornwallis was sensible that the numbers of the American army were greatly augmented by troops whose continuance in service would be of short duration, he deemed it so important to the interests of his sovereign to maintain the appearance of superiority in the field, that he was unwilling to decline the engagement now offered him.
On the advance of Greene, therefore, he prepared for action; and early in the morning moved from his ground, determined to attack the adverse army wherever it should be found. About four miles from Guilford court-house, the advance, led by Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton, fell in with Lee, and the sharp skirmish ensued described in the last chapter, which was terminated by the appearance of such large bodies of British troops, as rendered it prudent for Lee to retire. His Lordship continued to advance until he came within view of the American army. His disposition for the attack was then made in the following order.
The seventy-first British regiment, with the German regiment of Bose, led by General Leslie, and supported by the first battalion of the guards under Colonel Norton, formed the right; and the twenty-third and thirty-third regiments, led by Lieutenant Colonel Webster, and supported by Brigadier General O'Hara with the grenadiers and second battalion of the guards, formed the left. The light infantry of the guards and the Yagers, posted in the wood on the left of the artillery, and the cavalry in column behind it in the road, formed a corps of observation.
This disposition being made, the British troops advanced to the charge, with the cool intrepidity which discipline inspires.
The North Carolina militia were not encouraged by the great advantages of their position to await the shock. They broke instantly; and, throwing away their arms and flying through the woods, sought their respective homes.
LEE'S LEGION SKIRMISHING AT THE BATTLE OF GUILFORD COURT HOUSE.
The British then advanced on the second line, which received them with more firmness; and maintained their ground for some time with great resolution. Lord Cornwallis, perceiving the corps on his flanks, brought the whole of his reserved infantry into the line. On the right, General Leslie brought up the guards to oppose Lee; and, on the left, Webster changed his front to the left, and attacked Washington, while the grenadiers and second battalion of guards moved forward to occupy the place which he had just quitted.[note 1]
The ground being unfavorable to the action of horse, Washington had posted Lynch's riflemen, with whom he remained in person, on a height covered with thick woods; and had drawn up his cavalry and continental infantry about one hundred yards in their rear. On being attacked by Webster, the riflemen broke; and Washington, finding it impossible to rally them, rejoined his cavalry.
The British continuing to advance, and it being well understood that the militia could not stand the bayonet, General Stevens, who had received a ball in his right thigh, ordered his brigade to retreat. Lawson's brigade having given way a short time before, the second line was entirely routed; and the enemy advanced boldly on the third.
The several divisions of the British army had been separated from each other by extending themselves to the right and left in order to encounter the distinct corps which threatened their flanks; and by advancing in regiments at different times, as the different parts of the second line had given way. The thickness of the wood increased the difficulty of restoring order. They pressed forward with great eagerness, but with a considerable degree of irregularity.
Greene, in this state of the action, entertained the most sanguine hopes of a complete victory. His continental troops were fresh, in perfect order, and upon the point of engaging an enemy, broken into distinct parts, and probably supposing the severity of the action to be over. This fair prospect was blasted by the misconduct of a single corps. The second regiment of Maryland was posted at some distance from the first, in open ground; its left forming almost a right angle with the line, so as to present a front to any corps which might attack on that flank. The British in advancing, inclined to the right; and the second battalion pf guards entered the open ground immediately after the retreat of Stevens, and rushed on the second regiment of Maryland while the first was engaged with Webster. Without waiting to receive the charge, that regiment broke in confusion.
By pursuing them, the guards were thrown into the rear of the first regiment, from which they were concealed by the unevenness of the ground and by a skirt of wood.
Greene was himself on the left, and witnessed the misfortune without being able to remedy it. His militia being entirely routed, the flight of one-fourth of his continental troops would most probably decide the fate of the day. Unwilling to risk his remaining three regiments, only one of which could be safely relied on, without a man to cover their retreat should the event prove unfortunate, he ordered Colonel Greene of Virginia to withdraw his regiment from the line, and to take a position in the rear, for the purpose of affording a rallying point, and of covering the retreat of the two regiments which still continued in the field.
The guards were soon called from the pursuit of the second Maryland regiment, and led by Lieutenant Colonel Stuart against the first. About this time Webster, finding himself overpowered by the first Maryland regiment, then commanded by Colonel Gunby, and by Kirkwood's company and the remaining regiment of Virginia, with whom he was engaged at the same time, had in a great measure withdrawn from the action, and retired across a ravine into an adjoining wood. This critical respite enabled Gunby to provide for the danger in his rear. Facing about, he met the guards, and a very animated fire took place on both sides, during which the Americans continued to advance.
In this critical moment, Lieutenant Colonel Washington, who was drawn to this part of the field by the vivacity of the fire, made a furious charge upon the guards and broke their ranks. At this juncture, Gunby's horse was killed under him, and the command devolved on Lieutenant Colonel Howard. The regiment advanced with such rapidity that Gunby could not overtake it, and was within thirty yards of the guards when they were charged by the cavalry. Almost at the same instant the Maryland infantry rushed upon them with the bayonet, and following the horse through them, were masters of the whole battalion. In passing through it, Captain Smith of the infantry killed its commanding officer.
After passing through the guards into the open ground where the second regiment had been originally posted, Howard perceived several British columns, with some pieces of artillery. Believing his regiment to be the sole infantry remaining in the field, he retreated in good order, and brought off some prisoners. The cavalry also retreated.[note 2]
About the same time the remaining Virginia regiment commanded by Colonel Hawes, and Kirkwood's infantry, who were still engaged with Webster, were directed by General Greene to retreat. The artillery was unavoidably abandoned; the horses which drew the pieces being killed, and the woods too thick to admit of their being dragged elsewhere than along the great road. The retreat was made in good order, and Greene, in person, brought up the rear.
Though the action was over on the right and centre, Campbell's riflemen still maintained their ground on the extreme of the American left, against General Leslie with the regiment of Bose and the first battalion of guards.
After the guards had routed the brigade commanded by Lawson, they were attacked on their right flank by the infantry of Lee's legion, and by Campbell's riflemen, and were driven behind the regiment of Bose, which having moved with less impetuosity, was advancing in compact order.
This regiment sustained the American fire until Lieutenant Colonel Norton was able to rally the guards, and to bring them back to the charge; after which the action was maintained with great obstinacy on both sides until the battle was decided on the right. Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton was then ordered to the support of Leslie. The legion infantry had retreated, and only a few resolute marksmen remained in the rear of Campbell who continued firing from tree to tree. Being unable to resist a charge of cavalry, they were quickly driven from the field.
Two regiments of infantry and a detachment of cavalry pursued the right wing and centre of the Americans for a short distance, but were soon ordered to return. On examining his situation, Lord Cornwallis found himself too much weakened, and his troops too much fatigued by the action, to hazard its renewal or to continue the pursuit. General Greene halted about three miles from the field of battle, behind Rudy fork creek, for the purpose of collecting his stragglers; after which he retired about twelve miles to the Iron Works on Troublesome creek, the place appointed for the rendezvous of his army in the event of its being defeated.
The returns made immediately after the action, exhibited a loss in killed, wounded, and missing in the continental troops, of fourteen commissioned officers, and three hundred and twelve non-commissioned officers and privates. Major Anderson, a valuable officer of Maryland, was killed; and General Huger, who commanded the continental troops of Virginia, was wounded.
The same return states the loss of the militia at four captains and seventeen privates killed; and, in addition to General Stevens, one major, three captains, eight subalterns, and sixty privates were wounded. A great proportion of this part of the army was missing; but it seems to have been expected that they would either rejoin their corps, or be found at their homes.
The victory of Guilford was dearly purchased. Official accounts state the loss of the British army at five hundred and thirty-two men, among whom were several officers of high rank and distinguished merit. Lieutenant Colonel Stuart of the guards was killed, and Lieutenant Colonel Webster, who was ranked by his enemies among the best officers in the British service, was mortally wounded. This loss, when compared to the numbers brought by Lord Cornwallis into the field, was very considerable. The Americans did not compute his troops at more than two thousand rank and file, but his own accounts state them at only fourteen hundred and forty-five.
No battle in the course of the war reflects more honor on the courage of the British troops, than that of Guilford. On no other occasion have they fought with such inferiority of numbers, or disadvantage of ground. Estimating his first line at nothing, General Greene's army consisted of three thousand two hundred men, posted on ground chosen by himself; and his disposition was skillfully made.
The American general, expecting to be again attacked, prepared for another engagement. But the situation of Lord Cornwallis had become too desperate to hazard a second battle, or to maintain his position. He found himself under the necessity of retreating to a place of greater security, where provisions might be obtained.
When the expedition into North Carolina was originally meditated, Major Craig, at the head of a small military and naval force, took possession of Wilmington, a town near the mouth of Cape Fear, and extended his authority several miles up the river. Lord Cornwallis now looked to a communication with this post for aids which had become indispensable to the farther operations of the campaign.
On the third day after the battle, he broke up his encampment, and proceeded by slow and easy marches towards Cross creek.
General Greene, on hearing that the British army was retreating, resolved to follow it. The difficulty of subsisting the troops in an exhausted and hostile country, and the necessity of waiting for a supply of ammunition, impeded the march of his army so much that he did not reach Ramsay's mills until the 28th of March.
At this place Lord Cornwallis had halted, and here General Greene expected to overtake and attack him. But, on the approach of the American army, his lordship resumed his march to Cross creek, and afterwards to Wilmington, where he arrived on the 7th of April.
General Greene gave over the pursuit at Ramsay's mills. So excessive had been the sufferings of his army from the want of provisions, that many of the men fainted on the march, and it had become absolutely necessary to allow them some repose and refreshment. The expiration of the time for which the Virginia militia had been called into service, furnished an additional motive for suspending the pursuit.
At this place, the bold and happy resolution was taken to carry the war into South Carolina.
The motives which induced the adoption of this measure were stated by himself in a letter communicating his determination to the commander-in-chief. It would compel Lord Cornwallis to follow him, and thus liberate North Carolina, or to sacrifice all his posts in the upper parts of South Carolina and Georgia.
The Southern army amounted to about seventeen hundred effectives. That of Lord Cornwallis is understood to have been still less numerous. So impotent were the means employed for the conquest and defence of States which were of immense extent and value.
This unexpected movement gave a new aspect to affairs, and produced some irresolution in the British general respecting his future operations. After weighing the probable advantages and disadvantages of following Greene into South Carolina, he decided against this retrograde movement, and determined to advance into Virginia.