This year, the Ides of March marks the 236th anniversary of one of the most important — yet widely unknown — battles of the American Revolution: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse.
Near present-day Greensboro, North Carolina, Robert Kirkwood and his men lined up facing the Redcoats, including the dreaded Banastre Tarleton, a cavalry officer known for his ruthlessness. A light breeze carried the sound of fifes and Highlander pipes across the field in front of the county courthouse. With blood dripping from his sword, the Patriot cavalry officer, Light Horse Harry Lee, father of General Robert E. Lee, delivered a stirring address to prepare his men for battle: “My brave boys, your lands, your lives and your country depend on your conduct this day – I have given Tarleton hell this morning, and I will give him more of it before night.”
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Forming the front line, hand-picked members of Kirkwood’s Delaware Blues, flanked by militia and cavalry, stared across the rain-soaked, recently plowed cornfield at the “scarlet uniforms, burnished armor, and banners floating in the breeze” as Cornwallis’s army assembled in formation more than four hundred yards in front of them. In the damp, cold morning air, the Americans took their carefully plotted positions in the defense and prepared for what proved to be one of the most crucial battles of the war.
Born in 1746, Kirkwood graduated from Newark Academy (now the University of Delaware) and worked on his family’s farm before becoming a first lieutenant in the Delaware Regiment at the age of twenty-nine. Later promoted to captain and brevetted to major at the end of the war, “Captain Bob” was a man of steel who marched thousands of miles and, beginning in 1775, took part in at least thirty-three battles for his country during the Revolution. His order book, which served as a daily diary, recorded that he and his men marched more than 5,000 miles, many times barefoot, often without pay or shelter, and with limited food and threadbare uniforms. Typically, Washington employed Kirkwood’s unit for reconnaissance missions or as an indefatigable rear guard. Against the odds, Captain Bob and his Delaware Blues fought and made the difference at many inflection points during the Revolution.
The story of this epic battle and the intrepid Robert Kirkwood is recounted in Washington’s Immortals, a bestselling book released in paperback this week. The first Band-of-Brothers treatment of the Revolution, it captures key events of the war from the point of view of the soldiers in the Maryland and Delaware Continentals (Washington’s elite shock troops). This groundbreaking book offers a boots-on-the-ground perspective from the most elite units in Washington’s army, the fighting force the general called upon, time and again, to hold the line or turn the tide in decisive battles.
The fighting at Guilford began on March 15, 1781, with artillery volleys from both sides. As the men heard and felt the ominous thunder of the cannons, Lee reminded those in the front lines to “stand to make two fires” before falling back. They would use the same “collapsing box” defense tactics that had served them well at the Battle of Cowpens, where Kirkwood’s men and the Marylanders repulsed the British and conducted a famous bayonet charge that altered the course of history.
The British advanced across the field. Remembering their orders, Kirkwood and the others shot twice before withdrawing through the second line of defense. Their goal was to entice the British to follow them deeper into the Patriot lines, forcing the Redcoats to fight through dense brush and gullies before they reached the backbone of Washington’s Army, the Maryland Line, accompanied by the rest of the Delaware Regiment and Virginia Continentals.
The British succumbed to the ruse. Thinking the Americans were fleeing, they surged forward. But as the British drew near, the second line of defense opened up with devastating effect on the enemy troops. Stunned, the British advance momentarily stalled as the Americans continued picking off soldiers.
Falling back from the front line as Lee ordered, the Delaware Blues’ fight was far from over. Now positioned within the trees flanking the battlefield, they used the foliage for cover as they continued firing, drawing the enemy ever closer to the Marylanders and other Continental units that comprised the third and final line of defense.
Approximately and hour and thirty minutes after the battle commenced, the British reached the third line of defense. The fresh Marylanders stood ready to hammer the British troops who were, by then, exhausted from fighting. At first, the Marylanders appeared to be winning, but inexperienced militia were sprinkled within the ranks of the battle-tested veterans. As the British bore down with the cold steel of their bayonets, some of the militia began to break.
Yet most of the Continental Line held as the engagement became a hand-to-hand brawl between men from the opposing sides. Desperate for a victory, British General Cornwallis attempted a dangerous gamble. He ordered his artillery to fire into the mass of fighting men. Deadly grapeshot tore through the limbs of British and Americans alike. Exposed to the deadly fire, the Marylanders began a slow withdrawal.
The American commander on the scene, General Nathanael Greene, decided it was time to cut his losses. He had achieved his objective of badly damaging Cornwallis’s army and inflicting enormous casualties. He left scores of bleeding and dying in his wake. Cornwallis’s commissary general Charles Stedman captured the carnage: “The night was remarkable for its darkness accompanied with rain which fell in torrents. Nearly fifty of the wounded, it is said sinking under their aggravated miseries, expired before the morning. The cries of the wounded and dying, who remained on the field of action during the night exceeded all description. Such a complicated scene of horror and distress, it is hoped, for the sake of humanity, rarely occurs, even in military life.” Harry Lee summed it up differently, calling the battle an American strategic victory and singling out Kirkwood and his men, saying, “The company of Delaware under Kirkwood, to whom none could be superior.”
Despite having achieved a pyrrhic victory, Cornwallis’s army was too attenuated to pursue the Americans as they retreated. The British general relocated his army to Wilmington, North Carolina, to rest and recover, initiating a chain of events that would eventually allow the Americans to trap and defeat his army at Yorktown. Neither side realized it at the time, but the Battle of Guilford Courthouse was a major turning point that positioned the Americans for their ultimate victory.
For Robert Kirkwood, Guilford Courthouse was just one more episode in a decades-long military career. He would survive throughout the Revolution and continue serving his country afterward. He met his fate as he would have desired — on the battlefield. In November 1791, he participated in the fight against Native Americans at the Battle of the Wabash (St. Clair’s Defeat) near present-day Fort Recovery, Ohio. A fellow officer recalled that Kirkwood had been sick for weeks “yet always ready for duty.” At the start of the epic battle, Kirkwood was “cheering his men, and by his example, inspiring confidence in all who saw him.” A veteran of more than thirty battles, Kirkwood, shot through the abdomen, fell mortally wounded. Asked if he wished to be carried off the field, he faced the Indians and told a fellow officer, “No, I am dying; save yourself, if you can, and leave me to my fate. . . . I see the Indians coming and God knows how they will treat me.” The enemy scalped and killed Kirkwood in one of the worst defeats ever for an American army.
Forgotten heroes such as Robert Kirkwood, steeled by resilience and courage, bent history by fighting for a country not yet born and a cause in which they believed with all their hearts and souls.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of ten books. Washington’s Immortals is his newest, which has just been released as a soft cover and has been named one of the 100 Best American Revolution Books of All Time by the Journal of the American Revolution. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickkODonnell.com @combathistorian