Carolina revolution

On March 15, 1781, at Guilford Courthouse near present-day Greensboro, Lord Charles Cornwallis's army of British regulars and German mercenaries defeated an American force of Continentals and militia commanded by General Nathanael Greene -- for whom the modern city is named. The victory proved costly for the British. After Guilford Courthouse, Cornwallis marched his depleted army north to its ultimate defeat at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781.

"Long, Obstinate, and Bloody" is the first book-length account of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Based on extensive research in military records, official and private correspondence, memoirs, pension applications, and other sources, Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard situate the battle in the larger context of the Southern Campaign, the final phase of the War of Independence.

The war that began so famously with skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, Mass., in April 1775 was fought to a stalemate in the North. By late 1778, British commanders had decided to invade the South, where they hoped for support from discontented slaves and white loyalists. Early victories at Savannah, Ga., and Charleston and Camden, S.C., seemed to vindicate that strategy -- until the British suffered losses at Kings Mountain and Cowpens in early 1781.

Babits and Howard's story covers the eight weeks or so from Cowpens through Guilford Courthouse, the war's next major battle. For nearly two months, Cornwallis pursued Greene north to the Dan River in Virginia and then back into North Carolina. This trek across woods, waterways, and pastures left the British force of about 2,000 troops just 12 miles away from Greene's army of more than 4,000. Cornwallis began his advance at night on March 14, 1781. Babits and Howard devote four chapters to the ensuing battle, which began about noon the next day and lasted about 2 hours.

Greene deployed his men in three lines across the Great Salisbury Road. The first line of North Carolina militia did significant damage to the advancing enemy before collapsing. The second line of Virginia militia fought for more than an hour, inflicting still heavier losses before retreating. The third line, manned by more seasoned Continentals, featured the heaviest fighting, including bayonet warfare. Viewed from the perspective of soldiers on the ground, these brutal encounters are the most powerful part of the authors' battlefield narrative.

When the battle was over, Cornwallis' army held its ground but suffered heavy casualties. The authors make two general points. The first, that Greene's strategy of "keeping his army alive and moving had worked," despite his frequent battle losses, is common among military historians. The second, that Greene's army deserved "no lesser laurels" than Washington's victorious forces at Yorktown, is probably an overstatement.

Like Babits' earlier "A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens," this one is an extraordinarily detailed narrative. It also fills a gap in literature on the war by showcasing a consequential but comparatively understudied Carolina battle.

Military history buffs and re-enactors will enjoy the extremely detailed account of troop positioning and movements and the long enumerations of the officers and regiments who participated in the battle. Others may not. Readers of all sorts will appreciate Mark A. Moore's excellent maps, which show troop movements on both sides in the battle's sectors. (In this instance, a picture really is worth a thousand words.)

Detail is both a strength and a weakness of the book, depending on one's perspective. On the one hand, the authors' account of the battle is well-informed, complete and probably definitive. On the other, readers who are tempted to skim over so many long descriptions will miss some juicy tidbits. Who knew, for instance, that "Hessian muskets may have been almost as old as the men carrying them" or that one of Cornwallis's senior subordinates, Brig. Gen. Charles O'Hara, was the son of writer Horace Walpole's "Portuguese woman Donna Anna"?

Babits and Howard's approach to topics beyond the battlefield is generally cautious and narrow. The chapter titled "Greene's Army" focuses mainly on officers, and in the case of both officers and common soldiers, the authors mostly limit their discussion of the men's background to their prior military experience. Elsewhere, they raise potentially intriguing or important points only in passing, without much elaboration. Their assertion that as many as 110 free African-Americans were among the Virginia militia at Guilford Courthouse raises many questions. Were these soldiers armed or did they do mainly menial work? Did their presence cause dissension among the ranks or conflict with local civilians? Babits and Howard also acknowledge that large numbers of women, children, and other noncombatants typically accompanied 18th-century armies. Yet these people, who performed essential services for the troops, play no role in their account.

The authors' narrow focus becomes a greater liability in their final chapters. They begin their assessment of the battle's aftermath by surveying the armies' most pressing needs: finding and treating the wounded, burying the dead, securing or exchanging prisoners, and acquiring food and other supplies. Unfortunately, they quickly dispense with these topics -- which are central to a more capacious approach to military history -- to continue their chronicle of Greene's and Cornwallis's battlefield exploits.

"Long, Bloody, and Obstinate" is a conscientious and capable history of a narrowly defined topic. The authors have done well what they chose to do. But a better, more engaging and consequential book would have done much more.