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Sketches of North Carolina
Chapter XXI - The Battle at Guilford Court-House


It is a remarkable circumstance that the battle of Guilford Courthouse, March 15th, 1781, which drove the invading army of Cornwallis from North Carolina, was fought within about a day's march of the scene of the first bloodshed for American Independence, made on the Alamance, some ten years before, May 1771, the one in the bounds of Buffalo congregation, and the other on the skirts of Alamance, the two congregations forming the pastoral charge of Dr. David Caldwell.

The pursuit of Greene by Cornwallis across the State, from the time the Catawba was crossed in January, 1781, and Davidson slain, was as rapid as the well disciplined army of English, having destroyed their baggage, could make it, under the direction of brave and skilful officers, through a country for the most part hostile to his majesty's forces, with no magazines, or provisions collected for their supply, and the sources of refreshment along the track of pursuit mostly consumed by the retreating American army. Perhaps in the whole course of the war, generalship and bravery, in pursuit and retreat, were never better exhibited, than in the efforts of his lordship to bring Greene to rattle before he could cross the Dan, and the success of Greene to elude all his lordship's efforts. It is said that the advance guards of one and the rear guard of the other were often within musket-shot without discharging a gun. The great object, a general battle, could not be gained by the death or wounds of a few of Greene's rear, and the officers of Cornwallis refrained from firing on those whom they could not intercept.

At nine o'clock at night, on the 14th of February, the main army having crossed the day before, Lee's legion took the boats that had carried over the forces under Colonel Otho Williams, at Boyd's Ferry; Lieutenant Colonel Carrington, the quartermaster-general, entering the last boat. Had it been daylight, the British forces might have seen the departure, so close was the advance guard. Here the pursuit ended.

Cornwallis chose Hillsborough for his Death-quarters. While a detachment of his army lay at the Red house, they occupied the church of Hugh McAden, the first located missionary in North Carolina, and remembering that those who sang "David's Psalms in Metre," in South Carolina, were rebels against the king, and their ministers fomenters of rebellion, they complimented McAden, a short time in his grave, and his congregation also, by burning his library and papers. Fortunately his early journal escaped the flames.

His lordship tarried about ten days in Hillsborough. In that time Greene, reinforced by militia and volunteers from Virginia, had recrossed the Dan, and commenced that harassing warfare that drew Cornwallis from his head-quarters, and brought on the decisive battle. Between the 18th and 23d those marches and counter-marches took place by forces under command of Greene's officers, that led to the destruction of the regiment of tories under Colonel Pyles, marching to join the invaders, about midway between Hillsborough and Greensborough, and to the entanglement of Tarleton, from which he was rescued only by the watchfulness of his general, who sent three messengers in haste after him, in one night, to speed his return, and just saved him from the forces that were preparing to cut him off before daylight.

On the 26th of February Cornwallis left Hillsborough, and moving south encamped on the fertile Alamance, and moved on, quartering upon the "rebels." On the 6th of March he made a move to entrap that remarkable officer, Colonel Otho Williams of Maryland; and in the manoeuvres that followed, a circumstance occurred that gave a British officer great eclat in the American camp. Above thirty rifle shots, deliberately aimed, were made by King's mountain riflemen, at Wetzell's Mills on Reedy Fork, upon a British officer that was seen slowly approaching the bank of the stream, and carefully fording the current on a beautiful black horse, at the time apparently busied with the movements of a detachment of soldiers, all within view, and in fair rifle shot. To the amazement of all, without harm, or discovering the least sensation of alarm, he crossed the stream and disappeared. Upon inquiring of some prisoners what officer in the manoeuvres and skirmishes rode a black horse, the name of the gallant, gentlemanly and skilful Colonel Webster was given in reply.

Cornwallis removed his army into the bounds of Buffalo congregation, and encamped on the plantation of William Rankin. Remaining there till all the provisions on the plantation and in the neighborhood were consumed, and the plunder secured, the army was marched into the Alamance congregation, and encamped on the plantation of Ralph Gorrel, Esq., who, like `Ir. Rankin, was a man of influence and wealth, and a true Whig. Turning the family out of doors, consuming, plundering, and destroying, with the thoughtless recklessness of invading soldiers, leaving the neighborhood a scene of desolation, after an abode of two days, the army was marched on Sabbath, March 11th, to the premises of Dr. Caldwell. Mrs. Caldwell and the children retired to the smoke-house, and there passed a day without provision and without a bed. The officers that occupied the house insulted her distress with profane language and cruel treatment, until the principal physician, understanding her condition, interposed, and procured for her a bed and a few cooking utensils, and some provisions. The head-quarters of his lordship was at Mr. McCuistin's on the great road from the court-house to Fayetteville; but the army was encamped mainly on Dr. Caldwell's plantation, the line extending entirely across it, and the wings occupying part of two of his neighbor's, one on each side; and the marks of it are still visible." Mr. Caruthers says—"every panel of fence on the premises was burned; every particle of provisions consumed or carried away ; every living thing was destroyed except one old goose; and nearly every square rod of ground was penetrated with their iron ramrods, in search of hidden treasure."

Before leaving the place, the library and papers of Dr. Caldwell were destroyed by fire. This was done by the command of the officers. The large oven in the yard was used for the purpose. A fire being kindled, armful after armful of the books and papers was, by the servants, committed to the flames, till the destruction was complete. The Dr. was at this time in the camp of Greene, which, on Monday, the 12th, was about five miles from High Rock; on Tuesday, eight miles farther, on Ready Fort, and on Wednesday at the Court House. A price had been set by his lordship on the Dr.'s head: 200 to any one who should bring him in prisoner. As if to revenge his absence from home on his library and papers, the order was given for their destruction. Not even the family Bible was spared. The fatal Psalms in metre probably ensured its destruction. The loss of the manuscripts was irreparable; the library in the course of time was partially replaced.

After remaining two days, the army left the neighborhood a scene of desolation and distress, and removed to the Quaker settlement on Deep River. About this time occurred the massacre of the bugler of Lee's legion, while crying for quarter, but a little more atrocious than the slaughters and plunderings which were enacted throughout Dr Caldwell's congregations.

By Greene's near approach on Wednesday, the 14th of March, it was understood throughout the country, and in the British camp, that the American general, who had so long shunned an engagement, would no longer decline a battle. Lee's legion led on the attack. The king's forces approached the chosen battle-ground in beautiful military order and in high spirits. By the court-house lay Greene with his regulars; in front, to the south, were open fields of a rolling surface with some ravines, through which passed the great Salisbury road, on the right and left of which were woods; about a rifle shot in front, beyond these fields, were woods of about the same depth; in these, on the right and left of the road, were stationed the Virginia volunteers and militia, some of them excellent marksmen with the rifle, in a hollow that ran nearly at right angles to the road, so low that the militia would be unseen by the enemy's line till within gun-shot; in front of the woods on the south, behind a rail-fence enclosing extended open fields, lay the North Carolina forces, militia and volunteers, some excellent riflemen. Across these open fields, the army of Cornwallis, in battle array, advanced on each side of the road in front of the Carolina forces concealed by the fence and flanked on their left by Campbell's riflemen and Lee's legion, and their right by Lynch's rifle corps and Washington's cavalry.

The orders to the first line were, to fire twice, from behind the fence, upon the enemy on their near approach, and then to retire; to the second line, to give the advancing enemy such reception as circumstances required; and in case of a retreat, all were to rally in the rear of the regulars.

The British forces could be seen for a mile or more, as they defiled into the open fields. The field-pieces of Greene stationed in the road under Captain Singleton, just in front of the front line, played upon the advancing enemy, and were briskly answered by that of the enemy under Lieut. McLeod. As the British forces advanced, Singleton retreated according to orders to the court-house. The first fire, from the first line, behind the fence, was unexpected and very destructive. The following extract of a letter from Dugald Stewart, a captain in the army of Cornwallis, to his relative Donald Stewart of Guilford county, North Carolina, dated Ballachelish, Argyleshire, Scotland, Oct. 25, 1525, is taken from Mr. Caruthers.

The regiment to which I belonged, the 71st or Frazier's highlanders, was drawn up on the left of the British line along with the 23d, or Welsh Fusileers, with some other regiments. In the advance we received a very deadly fire from the Irish line of the American army, composed of their marksmen lying on the around behind a rail-fence. One half of the Highlanders dropt on that spot. There ought to be a pretty large tumulus where our men were buried." This "Irish line" and these "marksmen" in the front line were probably the company of volunteers under Captain John Forbes from the Alamance, made up of his friends and neighbors, the Allisons, the Kerrs, the `Vileys, the Paisleys and others, who had come to take part in the battle. Captain Forbes fired the first gun; his men saw a British officer fall; they gave their "deadly fire," and repeated it, and then retreated. Forbes in the retreat received a mortal wound. William Paisley, the father of the Rev. Samuel Paisley, was also wounded, but not mortally. Had the whole front line behaved as gallantly, the fortune of the day would have been still more disastrous to the invaders. But there were some who thought "discretion the better part of valor"—"that he that fights and runs away, may live to fight another day." The British line resumed its march, inclining to the left in front of the regulars under Greene, with whom the sharpest contest was anticipated. Encountering the second line of militia and volunteers, the enemy met another unexpected reception from the Virginia marksmen. The right of that line under General Lawson wheeled round upon their left, and then retreated in confusion. Col. Webster, who led the British left, then advanced upon the regulars under Col. Gunby. The left of the second line of militia and volunteers was encountered by the British right under General Leslie, and maintained their ground, alternately advancing upon the enemy and then retreating to their original position, till the retreat of the regulars under Greene. In a short diary kept by a Virginia rifleman who stood on the left of the second line, who said he discharged his rifle fourteen times that afternoon, Samuel Houston, afterwards so long the pastor of the Highbridge congregation, Rockbridge county, Virginia, he says that, before the battle, he retired and committed himself to the merciful providence of God; and then, "standing in readiness, we heard the pickets fire. Shortly, the English fired a cannon, which was answered, and so on alternately till the small-armed troops came nigh, and then close firing began near the centre but rather towards the right, and soon spread along the line. Our Brigade-Major, Mr. Williams, fled. Presently came two men to us and informed us the British fled. Soon the enemy appeared to us. We fired on their flank, and shot clown many of them. At which time Captain Telford was killed. We pursued them about forty poles, to the top of a hill, when they stood, and we retreated from them back to where we formed ;—then we repulsed them again; and they a second time made us retreat back to our first ground, when we were deceived by a regiment of Hessians, whom we took for our own, and cried out to them to see if they were our friends, and shouted aloud Liberty, Liberty, and advanced up, till they let off some guns; then we fired sharply on them and made them retreat a little, but presently their light-horse came on us, and not being defended by our light-horse, nor reinforced, though firing had long ceased in all other parts, we were obliged to run, and many were sore chased and some cut down. We lost our Major and Captain then. We all scattered; and some of our party, and Campbell's, and Moffitt's, collected together, and with Campbell and Moffitt and Major Pooge, we marched to head-quarters."

It is stated by Johnson, that General Stevens placed in the rear of the left of this second line some good marksmen, with orders to shoot down any of his men that deserted the ranks. It is also well known that this part of the line kept its position till Greene ordered a general retreat.

Let us go to the fiercest part of the battle. The court-house is gone; the village is wasted to a house; the actors in that eventful strife are all passed away;—but the face of the country is unchanged; the open fields and the woods retain the relative position of sixty years since. Taking your stand on this highest ground, where the court-house stood, you may look over the whole battlefield of the sharpest contest. Directly in front, to the south, is the open rolling field across which the gallant Webster led his regiment, as boldly as if his life was charmed against powder and leaf, on to attack the first Maryland regiment, renowned for their conduct at the Cowpens. The gallant colonel's regiment recoiled at the first deadly fire, and gave way before the advance of the Marylanders. Grievously wounded, Webster rallied his men on the skirts of the wood in front of you, and in a little time was ready to re-enter the battle. From the Salisbury road, Leslie sends clown two regiments to advance upon the second Maryland regiment, which behaved in an unsoldierlike manner, and did nothing worthy of their name. O'Harra hastened on with two regiments to the flank of Howard regaining his line, and made an attack on the second Maryland regiment, which gave way and fled. Just then, Colonel Washington rapidly passed by the head of Leslie's regiment, leaped a ravine with his corps unseen, and made a terrible onset upon the Queen's Guards, exulting in their victory over the second regiment.

The carnage was dreadful. At this time it was, as Lieutenant Holcomb related to Dr. Jones of Nottaway, that the noted Francisco performed a deed of blood without a parallel. In that short rencounter, he cut clown eleven men with his brawny arm and terrible broadsword. One of the guards thrust his bayonet, and in spite of the parrying of Francisco's sword, pinned his leg to the horse. Francisco forbore to strike, but assisted him to extricate his bayonet. As the soldier turned and fled, he made a furious blow with his sword, and cleft the poor fellow's head down to his shoulders. The force of the blow, added to the soldier's speed, sent him on a number of steps, with his cleft head hanging upon each shoulder, before he fell. The astonished beholders shouted, "Did you ever see the like?" Howard, with the 1st, came rushing on them, and the contest was renewed in a most desperate manner about midway between the court-house and the woods in front. This was the crisis of the battle. Cornwallis came down from his post, where the Salisbury road enters the wood, to the hollow, to see the condition of the battle, and under the cover of the smoke, rode up to that old oak just in the skirts of the fiery contest. Washington, who had drawn off his troops, was hovering round to watch his opportunity for another onset, and approached that same oak unperceived by his lordship; stopping to beckon on his men to move and intercept the officer, then unknown to him, he happened to strike his unlaced helmet from his head. On recovering it, he perceived the white horse that carried the officer on the full gallop towards the artillery posted on the rising ground, where the road emerges from the woods. His lordship gave orders to Lieutenant McLeod to charge with grape-shot, and fire in upon the contending mass of men. O'Harra, who had been carried wounded to that position, heard the fatal orders, and begged the commander to spare his fine troops. His lordship repeated the order sternly, and stood by the devouring cannon till the regiments who were yielding ground to the Maryland forces rallied, and bravely, or rather desperately, renewed the contest. This rally decided the fate of the day. Greene drew off his forces.

At the time Cornwallis was in danger of being taken by Washington, Greene, also, going down to survey the battle and learn the condition of his forces, under cover of the smoke, approached within a few steps of a large force of the enemy; discovering his perilous condition, he slowly retreated and escaped without observation. In a letter to his lady, the clay after the battle, he says—"I had not the honor of being wounded, but was very near being taken, having rode in the heat of the action, full tilt, directly into the midst of the enemy; but by Col. Harris calling to me and advertising me of my situation I had just time to escape."

The consequences of this battle are well known—the retreat of Cornwallis, and the delivery of Carolina.
During this eventful Thursday, all the active men in Dr. Caldwell's congregation were in some way engaged with the army; and we are told by Mr. Caruthers that there were two collections of females, one in Buffalo, and the other in Alamance, engaged in most earnest prayer for their families and their country; many others sought the divine aid in solitary places. One pious lady sent her son, often, during the afternoon, to the summit of a little hill near which she spent much time in prayer, to listen and bring her word which way the firing came, from the southward or the northward. When he returned and said it was going northward—"Then," exclaimed she, "all is lost, Greene is defeated." But all was not lost; the God that hears prayer remembered his people.

The invaders left the ground the next day, and all the country around were busy in burying the dead and carrying off their wounded, many of whom lay the cold wet night after the battle exposed upon the ground. Capt. Forbis lay about thirty hours before he was discovered by his friends. He was then found by an old lady, who was searching the woods for a relative He survived a short time after being carried to his house. He declared before his death, that on the day after the battle a tory of his acquaintance passed by him and recognized him, and instead of giving him a little water, for which he craved, to quench his raging thirst, kicked him and cursed him as a rebel. After the death of Forbis, that man was found suspended on a tree before his own door.

The strength of the tories had been greatly increased by the presence of the British forces, and the policy of Cornwallis. The feuds and bloodshed in the neighborhood were indescribable for their vexations, and often for their atrocities. For a short time after the battle these were more bitter. The entire departure of the invaders permitted the country to resume its quiet, and pursue their occupations in comparative peacefulness.

The battle at the court-house abounded in acts of heroism and also of cowardice. In that contest, when the grape shot poured upon the contending forces, it is said some of the British officers fell as if dead, and were plundered, but after the battle were not reported either among the wounded or missing.

The gallant Webster, that escaped so remarkably at Wetzell's Mills, and rallied his broken forces so nobly and came back into the action, died of the wounds received in his charge upon the Maryland regiment. He accompanied the retreating army as far as Bladen county, and with the sympathy of his enemies, as well as the king's forces, was consigned to his grave, near Elizabeth, the county seat. There was no fear his grave would be profaned. When General Philips died at Petersbury, Virginia, some time after, his grave was secreted through fear of the irritated country, lest his cruelties should be visited on his ashes.

The Virginia militia and volunteers, that maintained their ground so bravely and received so much applause for their soldierlike conduct, were from Augusta and Rockbridge counties, and almost to a mail the descendants of Scotch-Irish. Some of the congregation of the noted Graham were there; and a company from the congregation of the silver-tongued Waddel, the Blind Preacher of Mr. Wirt, heard a farewell address from him, while under arms ready to march. Many that marched returned no more; and others bore the marks of deep gashes from the light-horse broadswords the remainder of their days. The last of these men were lately carried to their graves.


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