Daily Archives: March 20, 2009

A battlefield you shouldn’t miss

My apologies to those of you who are sick of hearing me talk about the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, but I’m afraid you’ll have to indulge me a little more. 

As I said in my last post, I’m going to start offering some informal reviews of historic sites and museums that I visit.  I made Guilford the centerpiece of my trip to North Carolina this week, having been forced to cancel my plans to attend the anniversary festivities.  I’d been a couple of times before, but hadn’t been been able to devote as much time to walking the ground as I did on this visit.

Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro, NC was the site of a genuinely pivotal battle of the American Revolution.  After splitting his army (part of which won an impressive victory at Cowpens in January 1781), Nathanael Greene successfully reunited his forces and evaded a determined pursuit by Lord Cornwallis across North Carolina, finally reaching safety across the Dan River in Virginia.  Greene then returned to North Carolina, his army substantially reinforced, and offered battle to Cornwallis at the small crossroads village of Guilford Courthouse on March 15.  Greene posted his men in three successive lines, militia composing the first two lines and regulars his third, with riflemen and cavalry on his flanks.  The British drove Greene from the field after prolonged and savage fighting, but at a staggering cost.  Cornwallis marched to Wilmington to refit his shattered army, and finally decided that he’d had enough of the Carolinas.  He took his bloodied force to Virginia, only to lose it at Yorktown in October.  Guilford was thus an essential step along the road to final American victory.

In many ways, Guilford isn’t your typical southern Rev War site.  King’s Mountain, Cowpens, and Ninety-Six are all in rural areas, but the city of Greensboro has GCH surrounded.  Furthermore, the woods on the preserved areas of the field are much more extensive than they were in 1781.  Throw in the fact that this was a particularly confused and sprawling battle, and you’ve got quite a challenge facing the National Park Service interpreters.  They’ve overcome these challenges admirably.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the park’s Visitor Center.  I’m not sure you can appreciate what the NPS has accomplished with its exhibit at Guilford unless you’ve actually faced the propsect of telling a complicated story using artifacts in a small space.  I’ve tried to do so, but I’ve never come close to succeeding to the degree that the designers of the Guilford exhibit have. 

The visitor center is a small building, and just a portion of it is devoted to the exhibit gallery.  Within that confined area, the NPS tells the story of the coming of the Revolution to the backcountry, the strategic situation that preceded the battle, eighteenth-century military life, the engagement itself, the aftermath, and the way the battle has been remembered.  And the exhibit conveys all this with perfect clarity, without sacrificng substance.  Managing all this within such severe space limitations is a remarkable accomplishment, and rarely have I seen it done so creatively.  For instance, when the exhibit turns to the fighting of the battle itself, you’ll step over to a large window wall above a row of panels on the militia who fought on the first line.  You’ll find that the designers have incorporated this window into the exhibit, describing the militia’s retreat across the very ground you’re seeing, with silhouettes of the fleeing soldiers positioned outside.  It’s an ingenious use of the building’s layout.  And there’s plenty of fascinating original material on display—officers’ personal belongings, common soldiers’ tools, musical instruments, and archaeological artifacts.

The visitor center also features a map program and film, both of which are extremely helpful in making sense of this complex engagement.  There’s a good selection of books in the gift shop, from overviews of the Revolution to more specialized military and regional studies.

One of the interesting things about Guilford is the fact that when efforts to preserve the field began, North Carolina intended to turn it into a kind of one-stop destination to commemorate the state’s role in the Revolution.  You’ll find monuments to Carolina signers of the Declaration of Independence and markers commemorating other aspects of the state’s experience in the Revolution, in addition to the usual battlefield markers.  Interpretive signage placed by the NPS covers the issue of historical memory and myth pretty extensively, and it’s a story almost as interesting as that of the battle.

The driving tour essentially circles the periphery of the park, and many of the most interesting and important spots aren’t visible from the road.  (Check out the brochure map to see what I mean.)  It’s important to strike out on the foot paths that cross the field if you want to see everything the park has to offer.  If you want, you can leave your car at each tour stop and walk to whatever points of interest are nearby before returning to the driving tour, but I’d advise you to take advantage of the walking guide offered on the park’s website. 

Another alternative is to do the driving tour, return to the visitor center to park your car, and then walk along the New Garden Road path that extends down the length of the field.  This path follows the route of the eighteenth-century road that marked the axis of the British advance.  It’ll be easier to stay oriented to the flow of the action if you follow the general direction of the British attack along this path, strolling over to points of interest on each side as necessary.  Of course, the downside is that you’ll have to walk back to the visitor center when you’re done.  However you decide to tour the park, make sure you don’t miss the foot paths that criss-cross the heart of the battlefield.

Because I’m so fixated on the 1780-81 campaigns, I’m predisposed to love this site.  Even if I weren’t obsessed with the southern war, though, I’d still heartily recommend a visit to Guilford.  The battle itself was of critical importance, the park is beautiful, and the interpretation is exemplary.  This is one historic site you definitely shouldn’t miss.


Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites