Photo Essay: Reliving the Revolution
photograph by Jerry Wolford

The trees and parks and lawns are verdant and plentiful; the citizens are conscientious recyclers. But neither fact pertains to Greensboro’s name. Because in 1781, Greensboro wasn’t Greensboro. It was a backcountry farming community of less than 100 people. Rebels battling the British weren’t known as Americans, but as Continentals. (Some of us were Loyalists, colonists who chose to fight for the British.) And, as passionate, devoted — some might say obsessed — reenactors will firmly tell you, the “Revolutionary War” was no revolt, but rather a War of Independence. And one of its most pivotal battles, historians agree, took place on a cold March 15th in 1781, during a battle whose legacy is yearly re-created, and whose general gave Greensboro its name.

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At the war’s outset in April 1775, the British concentrate on the North. But once the French join forces with the Continentals in 1778, the British turn their focus to the South. By 1780, having seized Savannah and Charleston, they have a Southern stronghold. When, later the same year, George Washington appoints Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene to head the Continental Army in the South, the commander decides to divide his troops in the Carolinas and force the larger British contingent under Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis to fight on multiple fronts. After a Continental January victory in Cowpens, South Carolina, Cornwallis chases them to Virginia, where they rest and build up forces. By March 14, Greene and his soldiers have returned to camp at Guilford Courthouse.

Photo Essay: Reliving the Revolution

Each March, reenactors from around the country come to Greensboro to take a walk, so to speak, in the leather-soled shoes of the soldiers who shivered in the same spring air, whose shouts echoed through the same trees, who fought for their lives and country on the same field, more than 200 years before. photograph by Jerry Wolford

Cornwallis’s soldiers number only 1,900, but his confidence is high; Greene’s forces include 1,700 Continentals (three-year enlistees in the regular army) and 2,700 militia (farmers and tradesmen who became temporary soldiers in an emergency). That mid-March morning, Greene deploys his men in three lines across the Great Salisbury Wagon Road that leads southwest — toward the British camp. The battle begins around noon. Greene’s first line, consisting largely of North Carolina militiamen, faces cleared farm fields, and collapses when the center gives way. Still, the rebels inflict heavy casualties, and one volley of 1,500 muskets later causes a British officer to remember that “one half of the Highlanders dropped on that spot.”

The second line — Virginia militia stationed in heavy forest — fights in bloody skirmishes for an hour before the redcoats break it as well. But the heaviest fighting takes place on the third line — where the Continentals from Maryland and Virginia are stationed. Though some of these experienced soldiers retreat, more battle on furiously in hand-to-hand combat. General Cornwallis orders his artillery to fire on an advancing American cavalry, killing men on both sides in the process. In the melee and smoke cover, Greene orders his men to retreat. Cornwallis claims the day.

Photo Essay: Reliving the Revolution

Some units will allow slightly younger boys of 12 to 14 to portray drummers or flag bearers, such as Andrew Lawson, who carries his regiment’s flag as Continental troops march to battle. Boys under 16 generally wouldn’t have been on the battlefield, but modern-day reenactments often include them if parents are involved. photograph by Jerry Wolford

And although the battle is over, and tactical victory goes to the British, Greene’s army remains mostly intact while more than 25 percent of Cornwallis’s men have been killed. “I never saw such fighting since God made me. The Americans fought like demons,” Cornwallis famously states. He abandons his Carolina campaign, heads for Virginia, and in October, surrenders at the Battle of Yorktown, the last major land battle of the Revolutionary War. On September 9, 1783, Great Britain formally recognizes the independence of the United States with the Treaty of Paris.

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Today, history recognizes the hotly contested Battle of Guilford Courthouse as decisive, a bloody day that ensured our country’s freedom. Every March, devoted reenactors bring the battle to life again at the country’s first national park established at a Revolutionary War site, in Greensboro, the city named for Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene. Here you’ll find the infantry, cavalry, artillery, grenadiers, and dragoons, some of whose uniform buttons are cast with the insignia of their regiment. Here, too, are the militia in their plain, sackcloth-like farmers’ clothing; the sutlers — tradesmen who accompany the troops, selling provisions — such as the glassblower whose family has been blowing glass literally since the Revolutionary War, or the man who makes scabbards for bayonets; here is the child who visited Williamsburg, fell in love with living history, talked her family into reenactment, and now stirs a cast-iron pot of onions and potatoes over a fire. You’ll find the woman whose father was a single parent raising five children on a teacher’s salary, who is here because reenacting was “something we could afford to do on weekends,” and 45 years later, she’s still doing it. You’ll find the Order of the Founders and Patriots of America, the Sons of the American Revolution, the Heridatary Order of the Descendants of Loyalists and Patriots of the American Revolution, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, whose leader “keeps them on the straight and 1781 narrow,” she says, right down to “illegal” bobby pins.

Photo Essay: Reliving the Revolution

Hessian mercenaries, such as the one portrayed by Tom Pickrel of the Regiment von Bose, were German troops hired to fight by the British. Pickrel, a former Foreign Service Officer, was drawn to reenacting with the Hessians after a four-year tour in Germany. Seventeen years later, he has no plans to quit. “History, for me, has always been a sort of romantic undertaking,” he says. photograph by Jerry Wolford

Because reenactment is nothing if not precisely and absolutely authentic. Wig to shoe soles, historical standards are observed as much as possible. The children play with skittles, or hoops and sticks. On a tape loom with thread, the women weave ribbons for apron strings. A soldier consults what looks like a cell phone but is actually a tiny portable sundial, the size of a stack of quarters, with a prong that you lift to cast a shadow. (The battle begins at 2 p.m.) Each participant outfits him or herself, and costs can run into the thousands, with a musket generally the largest single expense, at around $1,000. Why, annually on the second or third weekend in March, do anywhere from 300 to 500 people show up to participate in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse? “Many of us have an affinity for history, or majored in history,” explains Mitchell Hunt, a Greensboro financial adviser and captain in the Delaware regiment of the Continental Army. “We put ourselves into a role to bring history alive.”


Guilford Courthouse • National Military Park
2332 New Garden Road, Greensboro, NC 27410
(336) 288-1776 or nps.gov/guco

The Anniversary Commemoration of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse will take place March 18-19. There will be living history demonstrations and military encampments open throughout the weekend at the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, and the battle will take place at Greensboro’s Country Park at 2 p.m., both days.



Photo Essay: Reliving the Revolution

A Journey to the Battlefield — Charging the field can be an arduous process. Cpl. Jeff Dworek (far right) of the Kingsbury’s North Carolina Artillery Company receives some help moving his unit’s cannon into position. The 2nd North Carolina Regiment pulls the carriage of the “light 3-pounder,” which weighs about 500 pounds total and can need as many as 12 men to move and operate it. photograph by Jerry Wolford

Photo Essay: Reliving the Revolution

Behind Enemy Lines — “I love the rush of fighting in large battles,” says Nick Cirocco (second from the left), who has been a reenactor with the 64th Regiment of Foot for more than 40 years. So why fight alongside the redcoats? When he first joined the regiment, Cirocco loved seeing things from the British point of view. “The realities of the war were very different from everything we were taught in school,” he says. “This experience has given me a better understanding, and more admiration, for the Americans who fought this war.” photograph by Jerry Wolford

Photo Essay: Reliving the Revolution

A Mess of Food — “An army travels on its stomach,” says Nancy Stewart, the eastern national museum store manager at the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. The official daily ration per soldier was about one pound of flour or bread, one pound of beef or pork, and, when available, rice or peas. In the Continental Army, six soldiers formed a “mess,” an eating unit that would receive, and usually cook, their rations together. Militiamen, like those pictured, had to provide their own food until they reached the main army. Often, wives who marched with their husbands would join the mess. A makeshift stew, made by soaking meat with available vegetables, would have been a common meal. photograph by Jerry Wolford

Photo Essay: Reliving the Revolution

A Family Affair — Eight-year-old Mattie Carter of the 6th North Carolina Regiment plays The Game of Graces, a popular activity for young girls during the early 1800s. “She loves to be outside, and yes, she gets to play dress-up,” says Mattie’s father, Scott Carter (right). A physician at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center by day, he’s been bringing Mattie to reenactments for nearly two years, along with his wife, Melissa, their 3-year-old daughter, Audrey, and 12-year-old son, Nathaniel. “You’re disconnected from screens, there’s camaraderie, and it’s a great family activity that intersects with history,” Carter says. For Mattie, a love of the Revolutionary War might as well run in her blood: Two of her North Carolina-born ancestors were soldiers. photograph by Jerry Wolford

Photo Essay: Reliving the Revolution

All in the Details — Reproductions of Revolutionary War-era guns, like the Short Land Pattern musket above, are rarely totally free of historical inaccuracies, but every effort is made to get as close to the real thing as possible. Details matter, whether it’s a Hessian soldier’s leather cartridge pouch (left) or a company accounting book. The one held by Jason Melius (right) of the 7th Regiment of Foot shows the rates paid to soldiers for extra duty during battle. (One night in the trenches earned an extra 8 pence.) From a gold insignia to an ink-blotted page, these mini exercises in precision help bring the past back to life. photograph by Jerry Wolford

Photo Essay: Reliving the Revolution

What’s in a Hat? — Sgt. Kevin Webster is a 20-year veteran of reenactments. Portraying a soldier in the New Jersey Light Infantry, he holds up his hat, constructed with a real cow-hair tail. By General Washington’s regulation, light infantries’ plumes were black with a red tip. Unlike the Continental regiments, which were provided uniforms, the militiamen (right) wore their own clothes in battle. Sometimes, they would stick a bit of white paper, or a sprig of greenery, in their hats to differentiate themselves from the enemy on the battlefield. photograph by Jerry Wolford

Photo Essay: Reliving the Revolution

The Longest March — Capt. David Snyder and his wife, Karen, joined the 64th Regiment of Foot 41 years ago. “All of our history books at the time were written by the winners,” he says. “I love history, but I wanted to explore it from the viewpoint of the opposition.” While living a lifestyle with 200-year-old technology can be a challenge, Snyder, who makes most of his own reenactor clothes by hand, notes that the hardest part is maintaining accuracy through the years. “Research keeps revealing newly discovered information,” he says. “We frequently find that the way we have done things, or the uniforms we wear, have been wrong.” photograph by Jerry Wolford

Photo Essay: Reliving the Revolution

The Calm After the Storm — Chuck Pemberton of the 7th Virginia Regiment uses a beeswax candle to light candle lanterns at his unit’s camp. Pemberton, 67, has been making history come alive for more than half his life. He’s been taking part in reenactments for 40 years, and he annually attends between 10 and 20, usually bringing along his wife, Dolly, too. “I don’t see myself stopping,” he says with a chuckle. “I keep going because of my love of history, and the companionship.” photograph by Jerry Wolford

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Kelly is a contributing editor at Our State. She is the author of By Accident and the novels Now You Know, The Last of Something, Even Now, and How Close We Come, winner of the Carolina Novel Award and an alternate selection of Book-of-the-Month Club. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lives in Greensboro.