The Battle of Guilford Courthouse: A Most Desperate Engagement, by John R. Maass, The History Press, Charleston, S.C., 2020, $32.99
A historian for the U.S. Army Center of Military History, John R. Maass is the author of several books focusing on the American Revolution, including The Road to Yorktown (2015) and Horatio Gates and the Battle of Camden (2001). His latest book studies the crucial but little-known 1781 Battle of Guilford Courthouse, N.C., which put the battered British army on the rocky road to ultimate defeat and ignominious surrender at Yorktown.
Beginning with their 1778 capture of Savannah, Ga., British forces and their Loyalist allies had been largely successful. By the end of 1780 they occupied Charleston and key points throughout Georgia and South Carolina, having routed an American army led by Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates at Camden, S.C. Though the British suffered reverses in the backcountry at Kings Mountain and Cowpens, S.C., that did not prevent the aggressive British commander, Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis, from invading North Carolina. Despite logistical challenges, the British took Charlotte. By the end of February most of the rebellious colony was under their thumb. The outcome at Guilford Courthouse changed all of that.
There American Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, employing tactics similar to those used by Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan at Cowpens, deployed his army of 4,500 men, largely militia, in three lines. Cornwallis attacked head on with his smaller, more professional 2,100-man army. Though the latter managed to repel the ably led Americans, Greene knocked out a quarter of Cornwallis’ men, slowing his momentum. News of the battle was received poorly in London, one Parliamentarian wag wryly exclaiming, “Another such victory would ruin the British army!” Lacking additional Loyalist recruits, Cornwallis was unable to pursue his enemy and forced to retreat, ultimately back to Virginia. Greene, on the other hand, kept his army in the field and was able to resupply. “We fight, get beat, rise and fight again,” he said in defiance. By May 1781 most of North and South Carolina were back under American control.
Containing a select bibliography, detailed endnotes, an extensive index, and contemporary and modern maps, as well as engravings and black-and-white autographs strategically interspersed throughout the text, The Battle of Guilford Courthouse is thoroughly researched, engagingly written and highly recommended.
—William John Shepherd
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