Review: Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse

Note: I’m stepping outside of the bounds of my typical Civil War book reviews for a look at the Revolutionary War battle of Guilford Courthouse, Lord Cornwallis’ pyrrhic victory over Nathanael Greene’s Continentals and militia near modern day Greensboro, North Carolina.  Rest assured this departure from the Civil War will not become a trend, but instead is more of an aberration.

longobstinateandbloodyguilfordcourthousebabitshowardBabits, Lawrence E. & Howard, Joshua B. Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford CourthouseThe University of North Carolina Press (February 21, 2009). 304 pages, illustrations, maps, endnotes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0807832660 $30.00 (Hardcover).

How can a battle of such importance have so little written about it and be so misunderstood for over 225 years?  Incredibly, this was the case for the Battle of Guilford Courthouse until now.  Using pension records, muster rolls, firsthand accounts of the fighting, and archaeological research to write Long, Obstinate, and Bloody, Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard set out to recreate Guilford Courthouse from the ground up.  They provide a framework for future research on the battle in the process.

In 1781 Lord Cornwallis’ British army was marching through the Carolinas attempting to secure those two states and Georgia for the British Crown.  Opposing him was master of strategy Nathanael Greene, whose ability to keep an army in the field, much like George Washington, kept the American Revolution going and the hope for independence alive.  After some maneuvering through North Carolina Greene made a stand near what is present-day Greensboro, North Carolina.  His defense in depth was modeled after Daniel Morgan’s successful strategy at Cowpens.  Greene had two lines of militia for softening up the British with the third and final line composed of Continentals and artillery to deliver the coup de grace.  The first two lines did manage to split the British into separated groups and caused them to reach the final American line at different times and exhausted from fighting.  Greene’s preparations were rendered ineffective when the 2nd Maryland, composed of newer troops from all over Maryland and recently placed under new officers, broke under the charge of the 2nd Battalion of Guards.  Although the line was restored Greene elected to save his army to fight another day and ordered a retreat.  Guilford was a pyrrhic victory for Cornwallis.  The British lost over a quarter of their men to death, wounds, or capture.  The battle was the final straw for his Lordship, who elected to move to Virginia…where Yorktown awaited.

Babits previously wrote A Devil of a Whipping, a book on Cowpens which attempted to reconstruct the battle from the ground up.  Babits and Howard, co-authors of a book on the North Carolina Continentals, have applied the “Cowpens” process to Guilford Courthouse in Long, Obstinate, and Bloody.  Using pension applications, muster rolls, and personal accounts, the authors have pieced together what they believe to be the most likely series of events during the battle.  Unbelievably, although more than 225 years have passed since the Battle of Guilford Courthouse was fought on March 15, 1781, this is the first scholarly book length study for that fight.  The way the authors went about piecing together information made for a rather disjointed read.  I was particularly puzzled by their full summary of what happened on the third line prior to going into the fighting in detail.  It was also apparent that in some cases we still do not know what happened at Guilford Courthouse, with the authors positing their best guesses in lieu of any kind of definitive account.  To be fair, the authors have intended this work as a baseline for future study of the battle and in this they have succeeded admirably.  Though this book cannot be classed in the definitive category, it is a good start.

Howard and Babits used a collection of pension records to help piece together the puzzle that is Guilford Courthouse.  The pension records also provided an interesting look at what some of the veterans of Guilford Courthouse were up to after the war.  Interestingly almost two-thirds of these men moved west after the war.  The most pertinent portion of the book for Civil War book readers is the chapter which discussed what happened to the officers on both sides.  Numerous descendants of Guilford veterans fought in the Civil War, including Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, J.E.B. Stuart, Irvin McDowell, R.H. Anderson, and others.  The ancestors of Stuart and McDowell were officers in the same regiment!

With the detailed level of fighting the book could have used a few more maps.  All of the maps of the battle proper were zoomed in portions of a map cartographer Mark A. Moore did of the battle.  Moore might be familiar to those of you who have read Mark Bradley’s book on the Civil War Battle of Bentonville.  Rather than using Moore’s map it would have been better to have numerous maps specifically tied to the text.  An example of confusion is the text relating that the 2nd Guards turned and faced entirely west, 180 degrees from their initial line of advance.  This cannot be found on Moore’s map.  Some previous knowledge of the Revolutionary War will prove helpful to readers of Long, Obstinate, and Bloody.

Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard have provided a readable scholarly study of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, providing a baseline for further research.  More maps tied directly to the text and a smoother flow of the text would have made this an even better book.  Considering the dearth of material on this battle, those interested in the fight and in the military aspects of the American Revolution will want to own this book.  Those new to the study of the conflict or this battle may want to ease into it with George Washington’s War or the Osprey Campaign series book on Guilford, respectively.

I would like to thank Gina Mahalek at The University of North Carolina Press.

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