Archive | January, 2017

Touring Guilford Court House National Military Park

31 Jan


The site of the largest battle in the American Revolution’s Southern campaign is one of the smaller National Park Service military parks interpreting the war. Nestled within the city limits of Greensboro, North Carolina (Guilford County), Guilford Court House National Military Park has the look and feel of a well-manicured city park. A busy road actually bisects the park and separates the visitor’s center from the primary tour route. Owing to its location, well-traveled heritage tourists will notice many more hikers, bikers, and dog-walkers than they might encounter on other Revolutionary War battlefields in the South while touring this decidedly more urban battlefield park. Nonetheless the park is scenic, well-interpreted, protected from the urban sprawl a short distance beyond its borders, and the trail route easy to follow and the flow of the battle consequently easy to comprehend. The park also features creative and compelling exhibits in its modest visitor center.




Depiction of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, by Don Troiani





Nathanael Greene monument




Exhibits at the Visitor’s Center




A large window in the Visitor’s Center offers a stunning view of the battlefield


The battle pitted a British army of just over 2,000 men under Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis against Major Nathanael Greene’s rather large but more haphazardly trained and equipped army of about 4,500 troops. These forces clashed on March 15, 1781 in a frenzied, chaotic fight in dense forests which prevented orderly formation and carefully organized movement. At the end of the fight the British could technically claim victory—indeed they had come close to devastating the disorganized Americans and forced their withdrawal—but owing to casualties in excess of 25% and their inability to take the offensive the Americans viewed it as a strategic triumph. The armies went their separate ways in the aftermath of the affair; Greene into South Carolina to regroup and continue to harass smaller British forces scattered over the region, Cornwallis north into Virginia to link up with other forces and plan for his next move. By the fall, the British would find themselves besieged at Yorktown and the war coming to a sudden close. Anyone with an interest in following the sequence of events which led to that watershed moment would enjoy a visit to this park.




Touring Cowpens National Battlefield

24 Jan

Cowpens National Battlefield is one of those off-the-beaten path historic spots that only those who know where they are going will find. Located in a rural area along a country road in upstate South Carolina, the bucolic park appears at first blush little similar to what one would expect from a National Park Service facility interpreting a major battle. The scenic, rolling meadows and open woodlands of this peaceful location, however, were once the site of one of the most consequential engagements of the Revolutionary War. On January 17, 1781, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan soundly defeated Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton here in a fight remembered as much for the resolve of the American troops as the brilliant strategy of its commander.



The visitor’s center and monument at Cowpens National Battlefield



Daniel Morgan, from a painting by Charles Wilson Peale




Banastre Tarleton, from a painting by Joshua Reynolds

In one of the more original deployments on a battlefield during the war, Morgan arranged his troops in three lines and instructed the first and second to fire a few shots and retreat. The unsuspecting British took the bait, and rushed headlong to their doom once the Americans assumed the offensive against Tarleton—perhaps the most hated, and most feared, British commander in the war at the time owing to his relentlessness and brutality. At a cost of only 25 killed, the Americans captured an entire British army. It was a stunning defeat for the British and a landmark victory in American efforts to recover South Carolina after the disastrous loss of Charleston the previous year.




Depiction of the Battle of Cowpens, by Don Troiani






The heart of the battlefield as it appears today

The unusual name of the park stems from the lands’ use in the 1700s as a cattle grazing area. The height of the battle actually raged in this pastureland, within an area of about 500 square yards. Visitors to the site today can walk to the locations of the positions of the American lines and visit some of the very spots where individuals stood along a trail just over a mile in length. An outstanding visitor’s center with well-designed exhibits and a good overview film complements the experience. Anyone interested in learning about the importance of the Revolutionary War in the South in securing American independence should pay this beautiful park a visit.



Touring King’s Mountain National Battlefield

17 Jan

If Americans truly understood their history, the Battle of King’s Mountain would be rightfully heralded as one of the more remarkable iconic moments in our national drama. The out-of-the-way contest which took place on the North Carolina-South Carolina border in the fall of 1780 was certainly not large by even Revolutionary War standards—the contending armies had about a thousand or so men each—but its consequences were truly monumental. This Patriot victory in the Carolina forest helped turn the tide of the American War for Independence by boosting morale after a string of devastating defeats, forced a change of plans in Britain’s Southern Strategy, rallied untold numbers of men to action in the Patriot cause, and simultaneously deprived the British of potential Loyalist support in the Southern backcountry.


Typical of the numerous, deadly, smaller encounters in the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War, virtually every participant in the Battle of King’s Mountain was an American. The Patriot force, composed of several small backwoods militia groups under various commanders, had been raised defiantly in the wake of Major Patrick Ferguson’s ultimatum for such groups to lay down arms and disband. The British force, commanded by Ferguson, was comprised of Tories from the region who had cast their lot with the Royal Army. They met on a modest hill in the dense woods of the Carolina backcountry on October 7, 1780. It was one of the most lopsided defeats of the war for the British, who suffered over 450 killed and wounded and over 650 captured while the Patriot victors lost less than 100 men.



Painting by Don Troiani depicting the battle


The battlefield today is preserved as the King’s Mountain National Battlefield, a unit of the National Park Service. Easily accessible just off of I-85 near Charlotte, the surprisingly compact park features well-interpreted walking trails allowing visitors to follow the progress of the battle and a stunning visitor’s center. King’s Mountain is not a typical battlefield with a large open area where contending armies maneuvered; it is a serene wilderness location where monuments and markers incongruently rise from the wooded landscape. For many, it will require some imagination to appreciate the vicious, guerilla-style warfare which briefly raged here. But King’s Mountain is the very epitome of the unconventional fighting which characterized the war in the South, and we are fortunate that this special place can still be viewed much as it stood on that fateful day in 1780. If you have an interest in America’s War of Independence, you owe it to yourself to visit.



Looking up the slope of King’s Mountain





Monument at the Battlefield












Review of Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, by John Ferling

10 Jan

Epic!! That word not only describes the American Revolution itself, but John Ferling’s mammoth tome Almost a Miracle, The American Victory in the War of Independence. This nearly 600 page work must be the most comprehensive account of the military history of the American Revolution in existence. It is certainly among the best-written. Having taken a few months to conquer, we both feel like we have fought the war ourselves and are left rethinking many of our previous assumptions of the war.


From the war’s beginnings at Lexington and Concord to the Treaty of Paris eight years later, readers of this book are marched through the conflict with analysis interpreting battles, campaigns, and diplomacy from both the Patriot and British perspectives. The amount of material is overwhelming as Ferling traces the war in detail but surprisingly, does not get bogged down in any area. He moves quickly and deftly through even the most complex topics, keeping his narrative lively and compelling. It is hard to avoid repetition and keep a reader engaged throughout the course of a book of this length, but Ferling is a master at conveying the sights, sounds, and emotions of individual moments in time. He brings both a balance and a polish to the story that makes the book easily among the best resources on the subject available. But, this is not a quick read and anyone who wants a concise overview of the war should look elsewhere.

Ferling recounts all the key battles and important events that occurred during the war on battlefields, in camps, on the seas, and in the halls of Parliament and Congress. Many points in the book spark especially in-depth discussion by Ferling and are a defining aspect of the book, such as the leadership of George Washington. While it is axiomatic in many studies that Washington was the visionary that saw the Revolution to completion, readers here are left questioning the infallibility of the “Father of our Country.” Although Ferling praises his determination, courage, and virtue, he demonstrates he was not without faults. He seemed infatuated with recapturing New York after its abandonment early in the war and never fully comprehended the strategic importance of the war in the South. Many of us seem to forget that after 1778, Washington and his army were basically silent until Yorktown. And French leadership was instrumental in making even that bold stroke. Ferling heaps perhaps more praise than might be expected on Nathaneal Greene and his exploits in the South, saying no other commander played a larger role in securing victory and leaves little doubt that the Southern campaigns were pivotal in determining the war’s outcome.

The at times glaring British ineptitude in the conduct of the war also comes in for examination by Ferling. He points out that there were numerous times when a bold and energetic leader could have won a decisive victory. William Howe had several opportunities to eliminate Washington and his army in 1776 during the New York campaign and failed to seize the moment. Lord Cornwallis abandoning the Carolinas only to get trapped at Yorktown was a monumental mistake, but then again, Henry Clinton simply sat in New York and did nothing to help his subordinate.

Ferling gives careful consideration to the role of the French in securing American independence, as well. Economically, France loaned funds that propped up the country so it could survive. These loans of course led France to economic ruin and toward a revolution of their own. Militarily, the French provided critical manpower and naval forces that swung the balance of the war.

Ferling uses his last chapter of his book to evaluate just how the “miracle” of American victory occurred. Indeed, it was a long shot and at several key moments stood on the verge of faltering. It is easily the strongest part of the book. He discusses the British difficulties with a divided government and populace unsure of the value of waging war in the first place, logistical and supply difficulties, and failures of military leaders during the war. On the American side, a weak national government was the biggest hindrance to victory as the Continental army was woefully ill supplied and fed and the economic situation was in ruins—troops went for months and often years with no pay. Ferling claims point blank that American independence depended primarily on our allies from Europe. “French help was the single most important factor in determining the outcome of the War of Independence.”(564)  Few Americans today truly realize how close the United States was to never happening! Besides serving as an epic narrative of the conflict, this book serves as a reminder of how fortunate we are to have become a nation in the first place.