Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Guilford Courthouse in Miniature (6)

This is the sixth in a series of posts depicting the battle of Guilford Courthouse in miniature. Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Brigadier-General Robert Lawson commanded the right wing of Virginia militia on the American second line. Lawson’s brigade consisted of three regiments commanded by (from his left to his right), Robert Mumford, John Holcombe, and Beverley Randolph. [1]

During the opening cannonade of the battle, British round shot came bounding through the woods and into their position. According to Lawson’s brigade-major, St. George Tucker:

“Major Hubbard, of Col. Mumford’s regiment, had the skirt of his surtout shot away by a cannon ball, and his horse slightly wounded by the same. There were not, however, above ten men killed and wounded during the whole cannonade…” [2]

Lawson decided against waiting passively for the redcoats to reach his front. Instead, according to Tucker, “When the cannonade ceased, orders were given for Holcombe’s regiment and the regiment on the right of him [Randolph's] to advance and annoy the enemy’s left flank.”

This was the kind of bold gamble that potentially could win or lose a battle. The British left flank was vulnerable (see Part 5), but Lawson’s decision undermined the planned defense-in-depth.


John Holcombe’s and Beverley Randolph’s regiments advance through the woods and encounter North Carolinians retreating from the first line.


While the Virginians trudged through the woods, the British infantry broke the North Carolina line (Part 4). The rapidity of the British advance prevented Lawson’s men from acting as planned. Instead, the Virginians found their own flank imperiled when some British troops – probably from the brigade of Guards – moved into the area between Mumford’s right and Holcombe’s left. This unexpected advance unnerved the Virginians. According to Tucker:

While we were advancing to execute this order [i.e., to harass the British left], the British had advanced, and, having turned the flank of Col. Mumford’s regiment… we discovered them in our rear. This threw the militia into such confusion, that, without attending in the least to their officers who endeavored to halt them, and make them face about and engage the enemy, Holcombe’s regiment and ours instantly broke off without firing a single gun, and dispersed like a flock of sheep frightened by dogs. [2]

A chasm had suddenly opened in the Americans’ second defensive line. Fortunately for the Americans, Tucker was equal to the occasion. He wrote:

With infinite labor Beverley and myself rallied about sixty or seventy of our men, and brought them to the charge. Holcombe was not so successful. He could not rally a man… With the few men which we had collected we at several times sustained an irregular kind of skirmishing with the British, and were once successful enough to drive a party for a very small distance. [2]


Fighting on the Second Line. At left, the 33rd Foot, supported by Hessian Jaegers and the Guards light infantry (the latter not shown) battles William Washington’s flank corps. Meanwhile, other elements of the Guards brigade (upper right) and the 23rd Foot (lower right) battle parts of Lawson’s brigade.

Another view of the above. Mumford’s regiment is at left. Most of the remainder of Lawson’s brigade is fleeing, although St. George Tucker and others skirmish with the 23rd Foot in the woods.


Sergeant Roger Lamb of the 23rd Foot (Royal Welch Fusiliers) was one who got caught up in the “irregular kind of skirmishing” with Lawson’s men. He wrote, “Here the conflict became still more fierce.” When the Virginians finally gave way, he spotted a fleeing American officer. He wrote:

“I immediately darted after him, but he perceiving my intention to capture him, fled with the utmost speed. I pursued and was gaining on him, when, hearing a confused noise on my left, I observed several bodies of Americans drawn up within the distance of a few yards.” [3]

Were these more of Tucker’s men? Or had Lamb reached Mumford’s position? In any event, he was now in grave danger:

Whoever has been in an engagement well knows that, in such moments all fears of death are over. Seeing one of the guards among the slain, where I stood, I stopped and replenished my own pouch with the cartridges that remained in his; during the time I was thus employed, several shots were fired at me; but not one took effect. [3]

Lamb was relieved when a company of the guards appeared and attacked the parties of Americans. He watched with admiration as British troops “with calm intrepidity [attacked] superior numbers,” and he noted that “this instance was not peculiar; it frequently occurred in the British army, during the American war.”

In this manner, the Guards and Fusiliers dislodged the last of Lawson’s men.


Yet another view of the above. In the foreground is the cavalry component of William Washington’s flank corps – chiefly troopers of the 1st and 3rd Continental Light Dragoons. In the middle ground, most of Lawson’s men stream out of action. In the distance, a great blaze of smoke arises from where other Virginia militiamen battle British Guards and Fraser’s Highlanders (more on this next time).



I noted at the outset of this series that I would be presenting a fairly conventional account of the battle of Guilford Courthouse. The present post is something of an exception. The advance made by part of Lawson's brigade has been omitted from virtually every account of the battle (Babits' and Howard's recent history being a notable exception). My feeling is that the major source on this advance -- a letter by St. George Tucker to his wife, written shortly after the battle --provides a clear and believable description of this movement.

1. Letters of St. George Tucker to his wife (from the Magazine of American History); Lawrence E. Babits & Joshua B. Howard (2009) Long, obstinate, and bloody: The battle of Guilford Courthouse. Henry Skipwith led Mumford's regiment on the day of the battle.

2. Tucker, ibid.

3. A copy of Lamb's account (among others) can be found in this compendium.


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this series as with all the information here.