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Posted on Sep 21, 2004 in Armchair Reading

Bonus Game: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse

By Mark H. Walker

Grab the free bonus game Guilford Courthouse using this link. You will need to enter the username of "gch" and the password is the "download key" found on P. 61 of the November 2004 issue of Armchair General magazine. This game comes in the form of a PDF file and is a hex-based tabletop wargame. You will need to print the map and units (counters) before you can play the game.

For Our Freedom: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse
Mark H. Walker
Game Artwork by Nicolas Eskubi

Introduction

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse occupies a unique place in American history. It is one of the least well known, yet most influential battles, ever fought by our soldiers. Nathan Greene’s tactical defeat in the bare woods and muddy fields of North Carolina heralded a strategic triumph that would eventually lead to Cornwallis’s retreat, encirclement, and surrender at Yorktown—an event that signaled the end of armed conflict in the freshly born United States of America.

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Despite the momentous consequences of Guilford Courthouse few would list it in the annals of Revolutionary War history. Concord, Bunker Hill, Yorktown, these are the battles taught in High School history books and the confrontations that most often stick in our minds. Not so, however, in southern Virginia. Guilford Battleground is 60 miles from my door, and the family treks south each March to see the 23d Foot, Hessian Jaegers, and Campbell’s Rifles duke it out once again. These treks, coupled with the colorful writing of Burke Davis (The Cowpens-Guilford Courthouse Campaign) fired my enthusiasm. But Guilford Courthouse was more than just a pivotal battle; it was a battle of courage, a battle of personalities. For example, Charles Lynch—the Colonel in command of the rifle regiment on the north flank of the American’s first line, was a fervent patriot with a burning hatred of Tories. In fact, he so hated the Tories that he would hang them from the nearest tree on sight. So, the act of hanging a man from a tree became known as lynching.

Personalities or not, it was a battle decided by the common man. Men blasting three-quarter inch thick balls of lead at each other over distances better measured in feet than yards. The battle saw the heroism of the British Guards and North Carolina’s Surry County Militia, the grim determination of the 23rd Foot and the 1st Maryland, and the fear of the North Carolina militia staring at the British gleaming bayonets.

The battle proper started at 1:30 PM on March 15th, 1781. Lee’s Legion had been skirmishing with the British since the dark hours of the morning, but it was early afternoon before the British force approached the American’s first line of resistance. The Americans were arrayed in three lines. It was a trick Greene had learned from his trusted general, Daniel Morgan, and it was a trick that had earned Morgan’s troops victory over the British cavalry commander, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, at Cowpens, South Carolina. In the first, or western, line stood the men of the North Carolina militia. There was about a thousand men—farmers and clerks mainly—arrayed behind rail picket fences. On the North Carolinian’s right flank, Colonel William Washington’s cavalry and Lynch’s riflemen stood. Light Horse Harry Lee’s (father of Robert) Legion and Campbell’s rifles covered the left flank.

A few hundred yards behind this first line were the Virginia militia under generals Robert Lawson and Edward Stevens. Some were farmers and clerks like the Tarheels to their front, but many others were former Continentals who had heeded Steven’s call to return to arms. Furthermore, embarrassed by his troop’s flight at Camden, Stevens had placed forty marksmen behind his line with orders to shoot any man who ran from the British. Continentals comprised the third, final, and most eastern line. These Continentals were the object of Cornwallis’s attack. Guilford Courthouse meant nothing to the British, but if he could destroy Greene’s Continentals his army would dissolve, and victory in the south would be Britain’s.

Cornwallis wasted no time when his men marched into the clearing west of the line of North Carolina militia. He quickly assessed the situation, and barked his orders. The 33d Foot, 23d Foot, Jaegers, Guards 2d Battalion, light infantry, and grenadiers would attack the American’s right, or north, flank. The 1st Battalion of the Guards, 71st Highlanders, and the Hessian regiment Von Bose would attack the American’s left.

The initial British assault suffered significant casualties, but after firing a volley or two most of the militia in the first line broke and ran. Certainly the North Carolinians lacked the weapons to defend themselves against the British bayonets, (the militia’s muskets had none) but more importantly they lacked the discipline, training, and spunk. Furthermore, Greene had told them to fire two volleys and then retire. He didn’t, however, say how far to retire, and many of the North Carolinians retired all the way back to their homes. The British burst through the first line and surged through to the second.

But there was a problem; the flanks of the first line did not run, and Washington’s and Lee’s men poured a serious enfilading fire on the British. In the south Von Bose and the 1st Guards redoubled their efforts and slowly forced Lee’s men, and the Surry County Militia, south and east. This fight on the southern flank would slowly degenerate into its own battle, with the combatants on both sides losing contact with the main armies. In the north, Cornwallis committed the 2d Battalion of the Guards, and they—along with the previously engaged forces—drove Washington back.

The Virginians in the second line proved to be a tougher nut to crack. The British skirmished with them for the better part of an hour before segments of the Virginian’s line broke. In fact, the Virginians did not retreat until Cornwallis himself led the charge against them. Still most Virginians fell back slowly, moving tree to tree and sniping at the advancing British. About 3:00 PM the advance British elements, consisting of the Guards’ light infantry, the 33d Foot, and the Hessian Jaegers, entered the small valley across from the Continentals of Greene’s third line. Lieutenant Colonel James Webster led the British troops. The aggressive young Colonel gave the American Continentals little more than a glance and ordered a charge. Big mistake.

As the British advanced on the Virginian Continentals on the right flank of the Green’s line, the 1st Maryland wheeled right and poured a devastating volley into the Englishmen’s side. The Marylanders followed the volley with a counter charge, threw the Redcoats back into the woods, and mortally wounded Colonel Webster. In the lull that followed, American and British units streamed out of the woods. The 2d Battalion of the Guards and the Guard Grenadiers poured out of the woods and immediately charged the Continentals to their front. They struck the 2d Maryland—a mostly inexperienced regiment—and routed them. It looked as if the British would carry the day but the 1st Maryland once again charged into the fray. Those veterans, coupled with Washington’s cavalry, forced the British back—back toward Lord Cornwallis. Cornwallis was directing the fire of his artillery directly across the valley from the 1st Maryland. Many have since claimed that he ordered the cannon to fire into the melee sweeping across the valley floor in order to break it up, and regain the initiative. Instead it appears more likely that the cannon fired in defense of their position when elements of Washington’s cavalry came sweeping toward them. Whatever the reason, the thundering cannon, and ravenous grapeshot tore into friend and foe alike and broke the melee. The Americans retreated to the lines, and the British regrouped.

Perhaps an American charge would have carried the day, many historians have said so, but we will never know. Greene, ever the brilliant strategist, knew that the campaign for the south was more important than a single roll of the die across a bloodied valley. Greene regrouped his men, and retreated north on the Reedy Fork road, denying Cornwallis what he desired most—to destroy the American army. The British had carried the field, but it was a hollow victory, and one that would eventually lead to surrender in Yorktown.

The Game

What grabbed me most about this battle was the courage of the men who fought it. I wanted to show that in the game. Accordingly, I made morale and leadership a key element in the simulation. For example, the British did not smash the North Carolinian’s line because they had superior firepower—in fact the Carolinians outnumbered the British participating in the initial attack—but rather because they had superior training, discipline and morale.

We went with the group activation instead of the igo-ugo tradition for two reasons. It provides more interaction between the players, and it also better simulates the fragmented nature of the battle. So to does our default unit size, the company. This was a fight where small groups of men made a difference, and so did the weapons employed. I wanted to show the difference between the Rifles, muskets, and pistols of the era, and to do this I need to make the scale (both unit and hex size) small enough to allow that.

Last but not least. Play the British aggressively. As Waylon Jennings once sang, "You have a long way to go, and a short time to get there." The American militia, on the other hand, should be handled with kid gloves. Don’t expect too much from them, and they won’t disappoint.

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