Episode 066

Battles of Torrence Tavern & Guilford Courthouse

We'll start with a battle that hits close to home for me (literally), then move into Guilford Courthouse near modern day Greensboro, which while a British victory, would turn into one of the larger turning points for the Patriots in the Southern Campaign.

Torrence Tavern

Torrence’s Tavern, located ten miles east of Beattie’s Ford across the Catawba River on the road to Salisbury in present-day Iredell County, was the site of a stinging Revolutionary War defeat that the Patriot militia suffered at the hands of the British cavalry under Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton. After successfully crossing the Catawba River on the morning of 1 Feb. 1781, British commander Lord Charles Cornwallis dispatched Tarleton with his green-clad cavalry and the 23rd Regiment Bose Infantry to pursue the fleeing militiamen. Prisoners taken by the cavalrymen revealed that the Patriots had fled Beattie’s Ford upstream as well and were falling back toward Salisbury.

Heavy rains made progress difficult, especially for the British infantry, so Tarleton decided to divide his forces in an effort to overtake the enemy. The 23rd Regiment was posted along the Salisbury road five miles from Beattie’s Ford, while the horsemen continued their pursuit. Three miles farther along, Tarleton learned that the Patriot militiamen he was pursuing were planning to rendezvous with militia from Rowan and Mecklenburg Counties a few miles farther on at Torrence’s Tavern.

A motley assemblage of people had gathered at Torrence’s on that day-among them militiamen, fugitives from the morning’s battle, and “South Carolina refugees.” Col. Joseph Graham noted, “Being wet, cold and hungry, they began to drink spirits, carrying it out in pailsful.” Amid the mass of wagons, horses and humanity clogging the road, someone sounded the alarm that Tarleton was near. This created a great deal of confusion among the Patriots. Capt. Nathaniel M. Martin attempted to organize a hasty defense and ordered the militiamen to take cover behind a fence and fight the enemy from there.

Detached so far in advance of his support, with his confidence still hurting from the recent defeat at the Battle of Cowpens, Tarleton hesitated to attack. But considering his superior numbers and his ability to retreat to safety if necessary, he decided to make one charge at the enemy. Another key point in his decision was the inclement weather, the heavy rain giving a decided advantage to his saber-wielding troopers.

The fight that followed was brief but intense. One of the first victims of the British attack was Martin, who was pinned under his dead horse and captured. The Patriot militia fired one volley, then broke into a retreat. Patriot chroniclers have often downplayed the results of the British victory at Torrence’s Tavern, maintaining that the few casualties suffered were unarmed old men. In addition, Tarleton is often accused of exaggerating these events, mainly to make up for his earlier defeat at Cowpens. But in his report of 17 Mar. 1781 to Lord George Germain, Cornwallis remarked on the importance of the engagement at Torrence’s Tavern: “This stroke, with our passage of the ford, so effectually dispirited the militia, that we met with no further opposition on our march to the Yadkin.”

Articles of Confederation

Normally we don’t discuss politics on the podcast, but I do want to point out one important piece of political history that took place at this time. The Articles of Confederation was the first written constitution of the United States. Stemming from wartime urgency, its progress was slowed by fears of central authority and extensive land claims by states before was it was ratified on March 1, 1781. Under these articles, the states remained sovereign and independent, with Congress serving as the last resort on appeal of disputes. Congress was also given the authority to make treaties and alliances, maintain armed forces and coin money. However, the central government lacked the ability to levy taxes and regulate commerce, issues that led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 for the creation of new federal laws.

Guildford Courthouse

The humiliating defeat at Cowpens spurred Cornwallis leave his position at Winnsboro to attack Greene. Greene’s army led Cornwallis’s column deep into the interior of North Carolina, which put such a strain on the British supply lines that Cornwallis ordered the destruction of all heavy baggage. What followed became known as the “Race to the Dan,” as Greene’s army traveled with the utmost speed across North Carolina past the Dan River into Virginia. The British had been stretched to their limit by the chase, and their supply lines were under constant attack by American guerrillas. Cornwallis ordered his exhausted men to abandon the chase in order to march to Hillsborough to regroup and rally Loyalist elements there.

Once news of Cornwallis’s counter march reached him, Greene reentered North Carolina to put pressure on isolated British garrisons, gather supplies, and prevent British recruitment of Loyalist militias. Throughout the second week of March in 1781, Greene continued to receive reinforcements until his army swelled to roughly 4,400 men. He made camp near Guilford Courthouse and prepared for upcoming operations against Cornwallis. The British only numbered 1,900 men, but they were all seasoned regulars. Cornwallis, eager for a decisive battle, marched within eight miles of Greene’s position at Guilford Courthouse on March 14, 1781.

Greene was also eager for a fight, as he believed “if we were successful it would prove ruinous to the enemy, and if otherwise, it would prove a partial evil to us.” The first British scouts were sighted by American sentries at 2 a.m. on the morning of March 15. Greene’s force was mainly composed of militia from Virginia and North Carolina, with a core of Continental Regulars of varied origin. Upon sighting the British vanguard, the Southern Army was formed into three lines. The first line comprised the North Carolina Militia under Generals John Butler and Thomas Eaton. Four hundred yards behind them was the second line, which was made up two brigades of Virginia militia under Generals Edward Stevens and Robert Lawson. The last line held the Continental regulars, mostly from Virginia and Maryland. The regulars were joined by riflemen, light infantry and dragoons on the flanks. Greene deployed his three lines on the face of a hill, each roughly 300-400 yards apart.

The battle began with a twenty minute artillery barrage from American six-pounders against the forming British troops. The British artillery answered with three six-pounders, though losses on both sides were minimal. The British advanced towards Greene’s first line in two (later three) columns. They were composed of both British, Loyalist, and Hessian formations. When the British came within 140 yards of the North Carolina infantry, the Americans began to fire from behind a rail fence. However, few militiamen got off more than two shots, and most simply threw their guns down and ran. Those that did fire rarely hit their mark at the extended range. Greene reported to Samuel Huntington “[we] did all [we] could to induce the men to stand their ground, but neither the advantages of the position nor any other consideration could induce them to stay.” As the British advanced, the Virginians in the second line delivered several effective volleys upon the enemy. Their success was short lived, and the second line fell back before the weight of Cornwallis’s army and numerous units regrouped with Continental regulars on the third line and in the flanks. A hotly contested battle immediately followed, and Greene recalled that the fighting was both “long and severe.”

As the British approached the third line, their ranks were noticeably depleted. The first two lines of militia and the irregular actions on both flanks had inflicted numerous casualties as well as diverted large detachments of British troops. The third line contained one brigade of regulars from Virginia, and another brigade from Maryland. The British 2nd Battalion of Guards turned the American left flank as the 2nd Maryland Regiment prematurely broke due to poor training and confusing orders. The Guards were vigorously counterattacked by American dragoons under Lieutenant Colonel William Washington, but Cornwallis’s artillery prevented the destruction of his Guards when they fired grapeshot into the melee. The British guns killed many of their own men, but the counterattack was checked. Soon after, the remaining regiments of the third line began a general retreat north, abandoning their artillery as they marched.

In three hours, Cornwallis’s army took possession of the field, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Official reports stated that the British lost 93 killed, 413 wounded, and 26 missing. Many irreplaceable officers also lay dead on the field. Greene’s Southern Army had lost a “very trifling” 300 killed, wounded, and missing. Cornwallis could not afford the casualties his army sustained, and withdrew to Wilmington. By doing so, Cornwallis ceded control of the countryside to the Continentals. While the British licked their wounds, General Nathanael Greene’s army proceeded to isolate and destroy British and Loyalist garrisons in the state’s interior, confining British control to the coasts.

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