A Battle Study by Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 26
Written by: Sergeant Christopher J. Borghese, Sergeant Ryan A. Curtis, Sergeant Timothy K. Olmsted, Sergeant Brandon C. Paasch, Sergeant John C. Shaffer, Corporal Jeffrey A. Damron, Corporal Nathaniel A. Hamman, Corporal Connor L. Hollern, Corporal Marielene L. Jones, Corporal Stephan P. Kenneavy, Corporal Connor J. Levison, Corporal Michael J. O’Rourke, Corporal Ethan I. Ragland, Corporal Charles R. Ramph, Jr., Corporal Nicholas S. Sykes, Corporal Trakel D. Ward, Corporal Kimberley R. Winingham, Lance Corporal Michael B. Cain, Lance Corporal Brandon S. Canipe, Lance Corporal Johnathan A. Galeas, Lance Corporal Kristen A. Gemes, Lance Corporal Richard J. Pearson, Lance Corporal Charles D. Rogers III, Lance Corporal Daniel S. Sharp, Lance Corporal Patrick S. Smith, Lance Corporal Jared T. Truman, and Lance Corporal Christopher R. Walsh. Edited by: Lieutenant Colonel Edward H. Carpenter.
In March of 1781, a British army numbering around 2000 men attacked the defensive position of a Continental force over twice that size. The American general had never won a battle; the British general had never lost one. Who would emerge the tactical and strategic victors? What can today’s Marines learn from studying the Revolutionary War? What would Marines observe about tactics, leadership, and other aspects of our profession of arms?
|Marines got to see military history brought to life.|
The Battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina, on March 15, 1781, proved pivotal to the American victory in the American Revolutionary War. (Corporal Ramph). The battle was “the largest and most hotly contested action” in the American Revolution’s southern campaign and ultimately led to the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. (Lance Corporal Pearson)
The road to Guilford Courthouse began in 1778, when the British, unable to decisively defeat General Washington’s force in the Northern Colonies, shifted the focus of their operations to the South, where a force led by General Cornwallis succeeded, from 1778 to 1780, in defeating American rebel forces and garrisons in Savannah and Charleston.
General Cornwallis was an interesting character. Before the war started in 1775, he was serving in Parliament, where he openly opposed the Stamp Act which charged American colonists a tax on every printed piece of paper they used. Though he may have sympathized with the colonists on this matter, he also had a great sense of duty and loyalty to his country. His American opponent, General Greene, was actually born into a family of Quakers, who were extreme pacifists and sought to avoid confrontation. (Sergeant Shaffer)
The tide began to turn for the Americans in the fall of 1780, when in October a Patriot militia defeated a Loyalist militia at the Battle of Kings Mountain, near present-day Blacksburg, South Carolina. Additionally, in late 1780’s General George Washington appointed Major General Greene to head the Continental army in the southern colonies. Greene decided to divide his troops in the Carolinas in order to force the larger British army under Lieutenant General Cornwallis to fight them on multiple fronts (Major General Greene also wanted to buy time to rebuild his army for an all-out battle with the more experienced British army). This strategy paid off on 17 January 1781, when Brigadier General Daniel Morgan and his troops decisively defeated a British force commanded by Colonel Banastre Tarleton at Cowpens, South Carolina.
Following the Battle of Cowpens, Lieutenant General Cornwallis pursued the Continental army across North Carolina before halting his tired and hungry British troops at the Dan River. The Continental troops fled into Virginia, where Major General Greene continued to build up his forces in preparation to face off against the more experienced British troops. By 14 March 1781, the Continental troops had returned to North Carolina and were camped around Guilford Courthouse, near the present-day city of Greensboro (Which is named in honor of General Greene). Once General Cornwallis learned that the Continental army had set up camp at Guilford Courthouse he decided to advance toward them with hostile intent.
"I never saw such fighting since God made me. The Americans fought like demons."
|A sketch of the battlefield...|
General Cornwallis began his ten mile march through the thick North Carolina backwoods toward the Continental army while his troops were suffering from scarce rations, low supplies, and little rest. General Greene had tasked “Light Horse” Harry Lee to organize an advanced guard outpost of militia men about four miles away from the first line of defense at New Garden meeting house. These troops were responsible for quickly engaging the British Dragoons who rode ahead of Cornwallis’s main body of troops as scouts for the enemy and the terrain ahead. Around mid-day, a skirmish broke out at the New Garden meeting house between Lee’s mounted militia men and Tarleton’s Dragoons. This immediately alerted the encamped Continental army that the British troops were on their way and were ready to fight. After the quick skirmish, the men stationed at the New Garden meeting house retreated back to the first line of defense and prepared for battle. Around 13:30 the British troops were in view of Greene’s first line and Continental cannons began to fire on the redcoats. Once close enough, the British began to fire volleys at the North Carolina militia and steady charging forward. After inflicting as much damage as they could, the North Carolina militia retreated back to the second line of defense with the Virginia troops. (Lance Corporal Canipe)
Corporal Levison also chose to use an analogy to describe the battle, writing “There were four main ‘units’ that were identified; the men on line in a formation, snipers, cavalry, and artillery. It was one big game of chess. Men in formation were the ‘Pawns’, providing basic fire to fix the enemy ahead. Artillery personnel were the ‘Bishops’ who attacked from the diagonal with a massive amount of damage. Cavalrymen, the ‘Knights’ who moved spontaneously and in all directions. Finally the snipers were considered the ‘Queen(s)’ of the battlefield, being able to fire in all directions with deadly accuracy.
After a hard fought battle with much bloodshed and intense bayonet charges Lord Cornwallis managed to break General Greene’s lines and push them back. The battle ended when Lord Cornwallis did the unthinkable and ordered his artillery to fire into a brawl of both combatants. This resulted in many casualties for both sides and caused the Americans to retreat from the battle. Lord Cornwallis had won the tactical battle and seized Greene’s cannons. However, in doing so he lost over 25 percent of his forces and crushed his own army’s morale. (Corporal Kenneavy)
The aftermath of the battle left 79 Americans killed and 185 wounded. For the British, the costs were heavier, with 93 dead and 413 wounded. In spite of the fact that Cornwallis' army held the field, the Americans had rebuffed them brutally. English Parliamentarian Charles James Fox told the House of Commons, "Another such victory would ruin the English army."
Sergeant Paasch had a great metaphor for General Greene’s “strategic victory”, likening it to a small axehead hitting a large tree. Initially, each strike may seem minute, leaving only insignificant gashes, but eventually the tree will come crashing down. Greene was the axe and the British were that tree.
Sergeant Olmsted observed that “The Battle of Guilford Courthouse is seen as a tactical victory for the British, but came at a cost. General Cornwallis was left with the remains of dead and wounded on the battlefield after General Greene and the Continental Army tactically retreated. Collecting the remaining supplies, wounded, and deceased troops General Cornwallis and the British Colonial Army began the long march towards the nearest British-controlled port of Wilmington, NC, over 200 miles away.”
Historians concur, marking Guilford Courthouse as the high-water mark of the British Southern Campaign; Cornwallis would not fight another major battle in the Carolinas, but would instead push north into the Virginias, where he would be forced to surrender at Yorktown seven months later. Greene, meanwhile, refused to be drawn north, and instead maneuvered around Cornwallis and marched south through the Carolinas, retaking the garrisons that Cornwallis had worked so hard to conquer three years earlier.
Tactics and Leadership
|A salvo is exchanged...|
Several Marines were critical of various aspect of both General Greene’s tactics and General Cornwallis’ troop-leading approach. Corporal Damron observed that “things might have gone different if General Greene had kept his men together.” His perspective was that by breaking his troops into three lines, Greene allowed the British to meet and defeat small groups rather than face a single massive formation.
Lance Corporal Rogers believed that the veteran Continentals should have gone into the front line, rather than being held in the third. Corporal O’Rourke would have maintained the “three lines“ tactic, but changed the troop mixture in the forward lines, writing “I would have recommended that more veteran rifleman were in their ranks to boost morale and have a strong foundation.” Sergeant Paasch agreed that “leaving the weakest line in front to take the initial blow from the British seemed too costly.” This was echoed by Corporal Sykes, who would have put the least experienced troops in the second line to face British attackers already worn down by the first line.
Corporal Winingham believed that Cornwallis pushed his troops too hard, and that had he ensured they were rested and fed prior to major battles, they might have been able to capitalize on their advantage against Greene’s retreating forces.
|State-of-the Art Revolutionary War weaponry.|
Sergeant Curtis went into more detail, writing “the main thing that I took away was how much the weapon systems have changed over the years to fight wars. Speaking with one of the reenactors, they explained how muskets and rifles of that time worked. The fastest of them could be reloaded in about fifteen seconds. These weapons were also incredibly sensitive to several conditions. Powder had to be poured into a pan next to a pin-sized hole on the side of the musket. The idea being the powder in the pan would ignite and burn into the rear of the barrel making the main charge go off. The term ‘flash in the pan’ comes from when the powder on the side lights but, no shot is fired. The same system stood up to weather poorly. If it was raining, windy, or especially humid troops could not use muskets.”
Lance Corporal Cain observed that “The Revolutionary War is a great example of how the winners write the history books. If the British had won we might have learned about this war as the civil war and this battle as a great victory for the British… learning from history is important but how we interpret what we learn is more so.”
Lance Corporal Truman wrote that “The main similarity I see between the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and the war in Afghanistan today is that one side knew the terrain better than the other.” Lance Corporal Smith concurred, noting that “Going to a foreign land is something an army must adapt to. If not, the war will be lost. The weather, terrain, and travel must all be thought about before going to war… the colonists had the advantage knowing the land and picking their battles.”
Additionally, Corporal Hamman was struck by the impact of “civil affairs” in the outcomes of campaigns. “When in foreign territory with neutral civilians they can become a hostile force if you push them enough. This doesn’t even need to be an order sent from the top that causes the locals to become an enemy. It could just be a small unit decision to obtain a local water or food source, causing the local populace to become resentful and pick up arms against the foreign force.”
Corporal Ward noted that “The fact that the warfighters of that time had to hike so many miles before the battle even began was astounding… it truly put the hardships that many of the soldiers experienced into perspective for me.”
|A re-enactor highlights the impact of Hessian riflemen...|
According to Lance Corporal Sharp, a battle study is a good PME event, “because it gets you outside, face-to-face with the past. I really enjoyed listening to the role-players talk about the history” and Corporal Jones noted that a battle study “was an excellent way to encourage critical thinking in junior Marines and NCO’s who usually don’t get exposed to this type of in-depth information where they are expected to elaborate and critically think about tactics, history, and the real-life applications of the lessons learned.”
It also exposed Marines to a bit of local history, causing Lance Corporal Walsh to write that “it is crazy to think that I have lived in North Carolina my whole life and knew very little about the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. I’m glad I took part in this to extend my knowledge on this historic event.”
In closing, our squadron was in agreement – battle studies, especially when paired with reenactments that make history come alive, are a great way to learn from the past and prepare ourselves mentally for the challenges of the future, and leaders at all levels are encouraged to look for opportunities to walk the ground and think through the historical lessons of our profession of arms.