Long, Obstinate and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse
by Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2009, $30
Those who like their combat served raw will enjoy this deeply researched book on the clash between the Continental Army led by Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene and the British army led by General Lord Charles Cornwallis along the North Carolina Piedmont on March 15, 1781. Authors Lawrence E. Babits, George Washington Professor of History at East Carolina University, and Joshua B. Howard, research historian at the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, have examined no fewer than 980 pension applications by Revolutionary War veterans who participated in the battle. They have also delved into published recollections of numerous participants, from cavalryman Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton and Sergeant Roger Lamb on the British side to cavalryman Lt. Col. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee and gigantic militia dragoon Peter Francisco on the American side. The result is an account of the battle second to none in details.
The first hundred pages relate the background of how Guilford Courthouse came to be fought. Here, actually, Long, Obstinate and Bloody does finish a poor second to John Buchanan’s 1997 book, The Road to Guilford Courthouse, with a repetitious and often confusing buildup narrative. Babits and Howard lack Buchanan’s ability to sum up important insights in a memorable sentence, such as, “The British strategy had in common with other well-laid plans a cold, clear logic unencumbered by evidence.”
These flaws do not, and should not, minimize the superb battle narrative the authors launch on P. 101. The next 67 pages are an incredibly vivid account of brave men risking imminent death or disablement for a victory that might decide the outcome of the war. The authors exhaustively note where various regiments and even companies fought and present a thorough list of officers and men who received often-horrendous wounds, described in gruesome detail. At times the two sides were so close that when they fired, their “muzzle flashes overlapped in a wide sheet of flame.” Where they met, bayonets and swords became the weapons of choice. Lt. Col. James Stuart of the Guards dueled with Captain John Smith of the 1st Maryland Regiment—and succumbed “to a backhanded blow across the head.”
The authors argue convincingly for a new account of the climactic moment of the battle—Cornwallis’ supposed decision to order his artillery to fire point-blank rounds of grapeshot through the ranks of the fleeing 2nd Guards Battalion at the 1st Maryland Continentals. They find the artillery had another target—Lt. Col. William Washington’s charging cavalry— and only a few guards, if any, were hit.
The account ends with Greene’s masterful withdrawal, leaving Cornwallis’ decimated army in possession of the corpse-strewn field. The final chapters describe the British retreat to the seacoast and, ultimately, to Virginia, where Washington, with the help of the French fleet and expeditionary force, trapped them at Yorktown. Meanwhile, Greene cleared South Carolina of British troops using the same strategy he applied so well at Guilford Court House: “We fight, get beat, rise and fight again.”
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.