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Virtual Battleground Tour of Guilford Courthouse

Read more about the Battle of Guilford Courthouse



Guilford Courthouse: Looking Beyond the Battlefield

I've got war on my mind. Not just any war, but the Revolutionary War, the one that freed our country from Britain and instilled an independent spirit in our people. Nick and I have been touring its major battle sites for the past week, from Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina to Yorktown, Virginia. It hasn't been easy for me. I've always hated studying about war - and today, I realized why. But before I reveal this realization, let's look at the way we usually learn about war.

Take, for example, the battle at Guilford Courthouse - the last major skirmish of the Revolution prior to the British surrender at Yorktown. It was orchestrated by two of the war's greatest masterminds: Britain's Lieutenant General Charles Earl Cornwallis and America's Major General Nathanael Greene. At that point in the game, Cornwallis had already destroyed rebel armies in Georgia and South Carolina. From there, he set his eyes on North Carolina and marched in with an army of 2,200 redcoats. Greene and 4,400 rebels set out to meet them.

Greene had planned on leading the attack at Guilford Courthouse, but Cornwallis beat him to it. He roused his troops from their slumber well before dawn on March 15, 1781, and they marched out to the wooded site, wiping the frost from their eyes. It was bitterly cold, and the ground was still spongy from a long winter of blizzards and storms. As soon as they reached the site, the rebels cocked their muskets and ignited their cannons. A vicious, two-hour combat thus ensued. Since Greene was the first to retreat, Cornwallis was considered the "winner." Approximately 265 of Greene's men were killed or wounded - roughly six percent of his total force. Cornwallis, meanwhile, had about 500 casualties - or twenty-seven percent of his men. The dead were buried, the wounded were healed, and the armies packed up their camps and prepared for the next skirmish. Another day, another battle.

Now, if you're like me, your eyes probably glazed over when you read the above passage. It is difficult to feel for the soldiers who gave their lives at Guilford Courthouse when we only hear the bottom line. A death count is just another statistic - and statistics make me numb.

And so, as Nick and I hiked through the woods of Guilford Courthouse, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be a soldier in the American Revolution. Would I have had the guts to run straight into enemy fire with only a temperamental musket and a rusty bayonet at my disposal? Knowing that if I were injured, a doctor would pack my wounds with salt and sew me back together with horsehair? Knowing that if I were killed, my wife and children would be impoverished? Knowing that if I ran away in fright, my commanding officer would find me and hang me?

Yikes. It is a dismal scenario, isn't it? But it happened - to thousands and thousands of people.

This chilling realization made me curious about other aspects of the Revolution - not about military tactics and battle plans, but about the daily lives of these soldiers. What did they do off the battlefield? They weren't in combat twenty-four hours a day, after all. What did they eat? When did they sleep? Where did they go to the bathroom? Who were these soldiers who fought for our nation's independence?

Well, if you were a male between the ages of sixteen and sixty, it could have been you! The wealthy sometimes sent slaves in their place, but for the most part - there was no escaping the draft. Under most circumstances, soldiers were issued a uniform soon after they enlisted. This included a pair of wool or linen coveralls, breeches that extended to the knee, long stockings, a garter belt, a white vest and a cocked hat. The color of their regimental coat represented their colony. Soldiers from the Mid-Atlantic States, for example, wore red, while Northeasterners wore white.

Then soldiers received military training. Back then, the musket was the most widely used weapon, since it was cheap to produce and easy to load. It was also horribly inaccurate, so officers trained their soldiers to line up elbow-to-elbow and load and fire in unison. They were also taught how to use a cannon. Under ideal conditions, a crew of thirteen could fire four to five rounds per minute. Finally, newcomers were trained in hand-to-hand combat. Each soldier was issued a bayonet, but they needed to be skilled with their fists as well. When cartridges and cannons ran out, these wars often turned to regular street fights.

Once soldiers were trained and outfitted, they were sent off to war. In most cases, men lived six to a tent! Each tent was called "a mess" - and they were! Keep in mind that few of these men ever lived a bachelor's life. Most had gone from their parents' home to the one they shared with their wives. They weren't accustomed to cooking and cleaning for themselves - but they had to learn in a hurry. Other daily chores included fetching water, gathering wood, forming search parties for wild fruits, vegetables and nuts, and digging latrines. Known as "sinks," these latrines were nothing but giant holes in the ground. They were generally constructed the distance of one football field away from camp. In their spare time, men played cards and marbles and wrote letters to their loved ones back home.

The Quarter Master was in charge of the men's daily rations. Ideally, soldiers received a pound of preserved meat, such as salted pork, per day. Another staple was the aptly named "hard bread" - disc-shaped manna made of flour, salt, and water. (Once it aged a few days, "hard bread" could serve as an effective military weapon!) Soldiers also received a few pints of rice, beans, or peas a week, plus any fresh fruit they were able to pick, pilfer, or purchase. Other rations included beeswax candles, musket cartridges, sewing needles, thread, lye soap, vinegar to ward off scurvy, and - when supplies allowed - a four-ounce dose of alcohol. Once a month, the Quarter Master wrote out the soldier's paychecks for a whopping $6.67.

Of course, the conditions I described above are ideal scenarios. In reality, American soldiers sometimes went days without eating. Nick and I read horrifying accounts of soldiers roasting their shoes for dinner, or eating sticks and stones to fill their swollen bellies. Their uniforms grew so worn and scraggly, soldiers had to cut patches out of their blankets - meaning they froze in the wintertime. Paychecks were also far from reliable. More often than not, they received Continental Scripts in lieu of cash - and these scripts were worthless.

Another major problem was illness. In the American Revolution, diarrhea, dysentery, and malaria killed far more soldiers than muskets, cannons, and bayonets. The medical treatment they received often only made them sicker. Take, for example, the common fever. Doctors reasoned that the soldier's face was red because he had too much blood. So guess what the doctor did? That's right! He either leeched the patient or cut slits up and down his arms and let him bleed into a bowl. This madness wouldn't stop until the soldier turned pale again - usually after losing eight to ten ounces! Only then was the soldier sent back to his tent (without a cookie or a "Kiss Me - I Gave Blood" sticker).

Men wounded in battle faced even scarier scenarios. If a soldier was hit by a musket ball, for instance, the doctor would pull his flesh apart with two metal prongs and reach in with a pair of forceps to yank it out. Then he'd pack the wound with salt and patch him together with a needle threaded with boiled horsehair. Keep in mind that anesthesia is a fairly recent invention. Revolutionary soldiers were either given a stick to bite or a bonk on the head so that they'd pass out.

Incredible, isn't it? Learning about the hardships that these soldiers endured helped me put the American Revolution into perspective. Real men, women, and children died on those battlefields. And people should never be thought of as a simple statistic.

Fortunately, the British realized this at the battle of Guilford Courthouse. The news of the heavy British losses helped turn the British Parliament against the continuation of this brutal war. America, they decided, simply wasn't worth the loss of lives. Half a year later, they surrendered in Yorktown.

As a nation, we should be glad that they reached this conclusion. But isn't it sad that it took so many casualties to do so? Why isn't the loss of a single life reason enough to stop a war?


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

MAD - 30,000 shot dead each year - what YOU can do!
Nick - Shave, grease up, and put on a skirt, there's a war on!
Daphne - Letters from the trenches of the revolution
Kevin - Slaves fighting for American freedom? What's up with that?
Teddy - Blowing the British confidence to smithereens
Nick - The real revolutionaries at the battle of Yorktown
Rebecca - One man rises above to prove all men ARE created equal
Stephanie - Fearless Females
Teddy - Just an old fashioned 'Green Mountain Boys' whupping