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Trip Report Mini-Trip Report: Asheville & Guilford Courthouse National Military Park

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Several weeks ago I spent an enjoyable day and a half with friends in Asheville. On my way, (and having just finished John Buchanan’s interesting 1997 book “The Road to Guilford Courthouse”), I stopped at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park near Greensboro to check it out. This is what I learned there:

Part I: Guilford Courthouse

Guilford Courthouse National Military Park is a smallish but well-maintained National Park Service property on the northwestern outskirts of Greensboro. It is the little-known site of one of the decisive battles of the American Revolution, and was saved from development and destruction in the late 1800s by the efforts of a local Greensboro citizen, Judge David Schenck. The present day park probably occupies several hundred acres of gently rolling Piedmont forest land and is well worth a short visit -- even for just an hour or two -- if you’re in the Greensboro area: www.nps.gov/guco

In 1780, the British had more or less given up on defeating Washington and retaking the Northern colonies. Instead, they decided to focus their military efforts southward on what they thought would be the more crown-friendly colonies of North and South Carolina. The British struck first capturing Charleston in May of that year after a short campaign, then seemed to be in control of all of South Carolina when their commander Lord Cornwallis virtually destroyed the American army at Camden, South Carolina in August.

The British, however, didn’t count on the partisan warfare that arose in the countryside. Guerrilla leaders such as Francis Marion (the “Swamp Fox”), Thomas Sumter, and Andrew Pickens continuously attacked smaller bands of Britsh soldiers and their American Tory allies, threatened Cornwallis’s supply lines, and generally made life miserable for Cornwallis and his British soldiers. George Washington also sent his most trusted subordinate, Nathaniel Greene, to North Carolina to reorganize the remnants of the American army after the disaster at Camden. Unfortunately, Greene now seems almost forgotten in American history.

After months of harassment, Cornwallis decided to march his British Army into North Carolina, intending to destroy the guerrilla’s supply base and Greene’s rebuilding army once and for all. Greene led Cornwallis on a chase across central North Carolina, buying time and hoping to strengthen his army enough to face the veteran British soldiers. On March 15, 1781, Greene finally chose to make his stand at the small community of Guilford Courthouse. Greene’s army outnumbered Corwallis’s, but most of Greene’s troops were inexperienced militia, turning out to serve from their farms for only a few weeks or months at a time and no match for trained British soldiers. Appreciating their limitations, Greene arrayed the farmers in two parallel lines, asking them to shoot at the British only once or twice and then fight among the woods and forests, which would neutralize British formations and formal military tactics. On his third line, Greene concentrated his small number of experienced Continental soldiers, anticipating the British would wear themselves out when they reached that position.

His plan worked almost to perfection. The inexperienced militia fought much better than expected before they retreated, and by the time the British got to the third line, they had suffered appalling casualties, especially among their officers. In the final confusion of the battle, Greene was forced to withdraw. Cornwallis’s losses were so severe, however, that he retreated to the North Carolina coast. When his report of the battle arrived in London, a shocked Member of Parliament said “another such victory would ruin the British Army.” Cornwallis then marched to Virginia, where he was bottled up by George Washington’s army and its French allies at Yorktown. Cornwallis surrendered there, effectively ending the Revolutionary War.

Purchased by the government in 1917, the battlefield apparently is one of the oldest federally maintained Revolutionary War sites. The small National Park Visitor Center is well organized and worth a stop. A paved park road and several trails run through the forest and some cleared areas, and are evidently popular with local runners and cyclists who were roaming the park on the cool afternoon I visited. The park road stops at eight sites with markers explaining the battle and the trails connected a number of monuments erected over the last century or so commemorating particular officers or states’ units who fought there. The most impressive monument is the huge 35-foot tall equestrian monument of Nathaniel Greene constructed in 1915. Cornwallis is quoted at the base of the monument: “Greene is as dangerous as Washington. I never feel secure when encamped in his neighborhood.” Go see it.

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