Friday, May 20, 2011

The 71st at Guilford Courthouse

The 71st Regiment of Foot (Fraser's Highlanders) was one of the most active British units serving in the southern theater of the American Revolutionary War. The regiment played an important role a string of British victories in the south from 1778-1780. However, 1781 proved to be a very difficult year for the regiment. The 1st battalion of the 71st was captured at the battle of Cowpens, while the 2nd battalion was first mauled at Guilford Courthouse and then captured at Yorktown.

In this post I summarize the experiences of the 71st Foot at Guilford Courthouse, giving special attention to the role the 71st may have played in breaking the American “third line” at the battle.

The map below shows the approximate movements of the 71st during the battle. The red and blue lines show positions early in the battle for British and American units, respectively. The long red arrow marks the approximate path taken by the 71st. The numbers on the map refer to important events involving the 71st during the battle. These are:

  1. The 71st attacks North Carolina militiamen behind a rail fence on the first line.
  2. The 71st battles Virginia militiamen on the wooded second line.
  3. The 71st struggles to cross a ravine.
  4. The 71st reaches the high ground near Guilford Courthouse and threatens the Americans’ left flank.

Movements of the 71st Foot at Guilford Courthouse.

1. Attack on the First Line.

Early in the battle, the 71st was ordered to cross a muddy field and assail the American first line (specifically, part of John Butler's brigade of North Carolina militia). David Stewart, a historian who chronicled the experiences of the highland regiments during the Revolutionary War, wrote that:

The Americans, covered by the fence in their front, maintained their position with confidence, and reserved their fire till the British were within thirty or forty paces. At this short distance, their fire was destructive to [the British in front], nearly one-third being killed or wounded. The [British] returned the fire, and rushed forward on the enemy, who abandoned their fence, and retreated on the second line. [1]

Some of the most vivid accounts of this attack were given by the North Carolinians who faced the 71st. John Wadkins recalled:

The North Carolina Militia was stationed in the front line in the rear of a fence – [I] was in the left wing – orders were given us not to fire until the Enemy passed two dead Trees standing in the field through which he was to approach us, about 100 yards from the fence. The morning was cloudy – cannonading commenced on both sides which lasted a short time only – after it ceased, the enemy began to advance and fire – and as soon as they reached the trees the N. C. militia fired – and that part of the line in which [I] was exchanged three or four fires – when [we] became alarmed by report that the enemy was surrounding [us] – and fled [2]

Nathan Slade also appears to have faced the 71st. He recalled:

At the battle of Guilford I was one of the North Carolina militia. We were in that battle stationed by Genl. Greene behind a fence that being a position which he thought most advantageous for raw troops who were unaccustomed to stand the shock of battle... The enemy approached us and were according to the best of my belief within eighty to an hundred yards of us when they made their first fire—my recollection is that most of us stood firm until after the second fire. On the third fire there were but few if any of us left to receive it—all or nearly all had broke and retreated in great disorder. [3]

2. Attack on the Second Line.

The 71st then moved on to attack the second line (specifically, part of Edward Stevens' brigade of Virginia militia). Here the fighting was more prolonged, but the 71st suffered fewer losses. According to Stewart, “The ground was level, but the wood was so thick and difficult, that, though the fire rolled in torrents, few were killed on either side.” [1]

3. Delay.

The attacking British regiments reached the American third line at different times. The 33rd Regiment attacked Continentals first and was repulsed. Then the 2nd battalion of Guards arrived and defeated the Americans' 2nd Maryland Regiment. The American army commander, Major-General Nathanael Greene, was alarmed by the defeat of the 2nd Maryland, and he ordered a general retreat. Before this order was received, the Guards were defeated by the 1st Maryland Regiment and William Washington’s dragoons. The Marylanders and dragoons then chased the Guards to the western edge of the cleared ground on the third line. The 71st arrived just as the Washington's dragoons received a check.

According to British army commander, Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis:

The enemy's cavalry was soon repulsed by a well-directed fire from two 3-pounders just brought up tip by Lieutenant Macleod, and by the appearance of the grenadiers of the Guards, and of the 71st regiment, which, having been impeded by some deep ravine, were now coming out of the wood on the right of the Guards, opposite to the Court-house. [4]

4. The 71st Reaches the Courthouse.

Following the defeat of the Guards, the 71st boldly advanced around the American left flank. According to Stewart, this was maneuver prompted the retreat of the remaining American forces. He wrote:

…the Highlanders, who had rapidly pushed round the flank, appeared on a rising ground in rear of the left of the enemy, and, rushing forward with shouts, made such an impression on the Americans, that they immediately fled, abandoning their guns and ammunition, without attempting farther resistance. [1]

This account is partly confirmed by Lieutenant-Colonel John Eager Howard of the 1st Maryland Regiment, who recalled:

After passing through the guards [i.e., defeating the British 2nd battalion of Guards]… I found myself in the cleared ground, and saw the seventy-first regiment near the courthouse, and other columns of the enemy appearing in different directions. Washington's horse having gone off, I found it necessary to retire, which I did leisurely [5]

Howard said that the Washington's dragoons had “gone off” without elaborating. It is possible that they charged the 71st.

Philemon Holcombe, who was with Washington’s cavalry this day, recalled that after defeating the Guards,

…Colo. Washington moved against a large body of Tories, two hundred in numbers, who were formed near the Court house. They were well armed. On the approach of the Cavalry, they fired their guns, and took shelter in the Court house, and under it, for it was not underpined. [6]

A large body of American militia rallied near the courthouse after the British broke the first and second lines. Curiously, none mentioned the advance of the 71st. For example, James Martin recalled that

General Greene… wished me to go with Major Hunter to the Court House in case of a Defeat to rally the Men which we did and collected about 500 & was marching them to the Battle Ground when I met General Stephens [Edward Stevens] of Virginia Corps retreating I asked if the Retreat was by General Greene's Orders he told me it was I then retreated with him [7]

John Wadkins' account suggests that some of the militia may even have attempted to pursue the defeated British Guards. He remembered that “…some of the militia who had stopped at the Court House followed in the rear of the Horse to the Battle Ground” [2]

If all of these accounts are accurate, then it would seem that the American militia left the courthouse area shortly before the 71st arrived. As mentioned above, General Greene ordered the army to retreat after the 2nd Maryland was routed.

In any case, the last of the American units began to withdraw.

Cornwallis wrote that “The 23rd and 71st regiments, with part of the [British] cavalry, were ordered to pursue.” [4] The pursuit, however, does not appear to have been especially energetic. Thomas Cook, a North Carolina militiaman, recalled, “The British did not follow us as we guessed, just took our cannon and fired it upon us.” [8] Possibly this was men of the 71st regiment firing two 6-pounders the Americans had abandoned near the courthouse.

By the conclusion of the battle, the 71st had lost 13 killed and 50 wounded out of 244 men (or 26%).


1. David Stewart (1825). Sketches... of the Highlanders of Scotland.

2. Pension application of John Wadkins.

3. Pension application of Nathan Slade

4. Cornwallis' account of the battle (among others) can be found in this compendium.

5. Howard is quoted in James Herring and James Barton Longacre (1835). The national portrait gallery of distinguished Americans, Vol. 2.

6. Pension application of Philemon Holcombe

7. Pension application of James Martin

8. Pension application of Thomas Cook


  1. Excellent post. I like the summary of the one unit in the context of the larger battle. It helps break down the action in more bite size chunks.

  2. Thanks, Chris, for the helpful feedback.