Guildford Courthouse and an Eighteenth-Century Adonis of War

21 February 2018

Empire and Globalism | History | War and Conflict

1775 and the American colonies were in turmoil. A young, newly-volunteered cavalry Cornet by the name of Banastre Tarleton set sail for America with Lord General Cornwallis, hoping to play a part in the rising conflict. Like many young men with modest fortunes, a debauched London lifestyle had left its mark and the army offered excellent prospects to make a name for himself. As it turned out, army life did more than that. Tarleton displayed such an aptitude for war that his exploits soon became legendary (both bad and good), earning copious mentions in despatches and the London periodicals. By 1780, just five years after joining the army, Tarleton had advanced to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, with his own troop of American Loyalist cavalry and light infantry – the British Legion. He was just 26 years old.

With the ground-breaking inclusion of HTR in Colonial America, we can track Tarleton’s escapades through the manuscript voices of his various commanding officers. One such account penned by Lord General Cornwallis on 17 March 1781 provides a vivid picture of the intense firefight at Guildford Courthouse, North Carolina.

Lord Cornwallis had hounded the Continental General Greene to a dense wooded area not far from Deep River and, receiving intelligence that he had been joined by a regiment from Virginia and 3,000 militia, deemed it prudent to hazard an engagement before Greene had a chance to join up with the main army.
© The National Archives, Kew

Striking camp, he detached the baggage, sent the cavalry forward (commanded by Tarleton) and marched the 12 miles to Greene’s encampment. It was not long before the advanced guard stumbled across the first of the reinforcements “… which he attacked with his usual good conduct and spirit, and defeated.” (folio 111) Prisoners were taken and Cornwallis lined up in front of Greene; cannon at the centre.

At half-past one on the afternoon of 15 March 1781 the action began. Continental detachments were swiftly routed, with Cornwallis concentrating on infantry fire and cannon. Instructions were relayed to Tarleton “… not to charge without positive orders, except to protect any of the Corps from the most evident danger of being defeated.” (folio 112) All seemed to be going well, however, troops soon found the woodland cover so thick that bayonets were of little use – the terrain also afforded ample chances for men to escape and regroup; forcing the battle into desperate broken skirmishes.
© The National Archives, Kew
Grenadiers on the left wing found themselves under heavy fire and resolved to attack, however they pursued with “… too much ardour …”(folio 112) and soon found themselves in chaos. Storming to the rescue, they were ably extricated by Tarleton’s cavalry, which regrouped under fire to perform the same manoeuvre on the right flank. One can imagine this eighteenth-century Adonis and his well-trained troop zipping around the field to where they were needed most, sabres flashing.
Public domain. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782
The fight was exhausting for all. The terrain made recovery of the wounded challenging and decisive victory impossible. Losses were heavy on both sides, with over 300 Continental troops dead, and British losses at 90 killed and over 400 wounded. In his summing up of the action, Cornwallis praised his officers and soldiers, in particular that “Lieut Colonel Tarleton’s good conduct & spirit in the management of his Cavalry, was conspicuous during the whole action;” (folio 115).
Now a national military park, I was fortunate to visit the Guildford Courthouse battlefield whilst in the US last year. Preserved almost as it had been at the time, it was chilling indeed standing on the hills overlooking the woodland imagining the chaos and carnage wrought by cannon, cavalry and hand-to-hand combat. It was also fascinating to see the hostility in which Tarleton is held; a man who earned national favour, courted the Prince Regent’s mistress and still has a life-sized portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds hanging in The National Gallery. Whatever side you come down on, however, his military prowess and celebrity are indisputable, and I must admit to rather a crush. 
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Images © The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

About the Author

Sarah Buckman

Sarah Buckman

Since joining Adam Matthew in September 2013, I have worked on many projects, including The First World War, Leisure, Travel & Mass Culture: The History of Tourism and Migration to New Worlds. My special interests are in restoration and eighteenth-century history, particularly military history.