Saturday, August 6, 2011

Guilford Courthouse in Miniature (7)

This is the seventh 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, Part 6.

The second defensive line at Guilford Courthouse was comprised of two brigades Virginia militia. Brigadier-General Edward Stevens commanded the brigade on the left; Brigadier-General Robert Lawson commanded the brigade on the right.

Among those serving in Stevens’ brigade was a young rifleman named Samuel Houston. He recorded in his journal how that morning the men formed a line in the woods and loaded their rifles.

“Presently our brigade major came, ordering [us] to take trees as we pleased. The men run to choose their trees, but with difficulty, many crowding to one, and some far behind others. But we moved by order of our officers, and stood in suspense.” [1]

The men could plainly hear the opening cannonade (Part 2) followed by the roar of muskets and rifles as the first American line came under attack (Part 4). Gradually the sounds of battle drew closer.

Eventually, the 71st Regiment of Foot (Fraser’s Highlanders) emerged through the trees and attacked Stevens’ men. The blow fell not on Houston’s front (on the left end of the brigade), but rather against Stevens’ center and right.

On the first line, the Highlanders quickly overcame resistance by firing and charging with the bayonet. They found Stevens’ men much more difficult to dislodge.

According to American Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Lee, “the Virginia militia… were not so advantageously posted as their comrades of North Carolina, yet gave every indication of maintaining their ground with obstinacy. Stevens… had placed a line of sentinels in his rear with orders to shoot every man that flinched.” [2]

Instead of a single swift charge, the fighting was marked by a long thunderous exchange of rifle and musket fire. According to a Scottish author familiar with the battle, “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.” [3]

Eventually, Stevens was shot in the thigh and his horse killed. [4]

Perhaps at the same time, some of the British Guards had begun to threaten Stevens’ right flank and rear. [5]

In any case, “the Virginians stood their ground & fought until their commander the brave General Stevens ordered them to retreat.” [6] Stevens’ men could hold their head high as they fell back; theirs was the one brigade of militia to wholly carry out their assignment in the Americans’ defense in depth.


British Guards and Fraser’s Highlanders advance through the woods towards the American second line. Mumford’s regiment of Lawson’s brigade is partially visible at the extreme left. Stevens’ brigade is on the right side of the road. Some of the North Carolinians that had fought on the first line can be seen retreating in the distance. [7]

Guards and Highlanders battle Virginia militia in the woods. At left, the bulk of Lawson’s brigade has taken flight (see Part 6). In the distance is part of the American third line. Some of the North Carolinians that had fought on the first line can be seen retreating towards the third line.

Another view of the above.



1. Houston's account appears in William Henry Foote (1855). Sketches of Virginia....

2. Henry Lee. (1812). Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States.

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

4. Lee, ibid; Pension application of Cornelius Sanders.

5. According to Lee, part of the Guards first attacked Lawson’s brigade and then turned on Stevens’ brigade. In his words: “brigadier O’Hara, advancing… with fixed bayonets, aided by the seventy-first… compelled first Lawson’s brigade and then Stevens to abandon the contest.”

6. Pension application of Christopher Hand.

7. This depiction refers to the following statement by British Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis:

The 71st regiment and [Guards] Grenadiers, and second battalion of Guards, not knowing what was passing on their right, and hearing the fire advance on their left, continued to move forward, the artillery keeping pace with them on road, followed by the cavalry.

Events “passing on their right” will be covered in the next post in this series. The “advance on their left” refers to Webster’s activity on the British left flank, which I began to describe in Part 5, and which I will take up again in Part 9.

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