Many Were Sore Chased
And Some Cut Down
Fighting Cornwallis with the Rockbridge Militia
by Odell McGuire, © Oct '95
II. Marches, Skirmishes, Mass Desertions and a Massacre.
On February 9th, 1781, when General Nathanael Greene's council of war met at Guilford and approved his decision to abandon North Carolina, Dan Morgan, victor at the Cowpens, was one of the officers in attendance. He was sick, suffering from 'sciatick' and 'violently attack'd with the piles', so that he was unable to sit a horse. He was granted relief from active duty on the next day and command of his Light Infantry Corps was given to Colonel Otho Williams of the Maryland Line. Morgan left in a wagon, crossed the Dan River and headed for home in the Valley of Virginia. On the way north his thoughts stayed with the army. He visited General Robert Lawson, persuaded him to raise a brigade of militia from Prince Edward and other southside Virginia counties to send to the aid Greene. And a few days later the 'Old Wagoner' wrote his former commander a letter of advice:
Carter Harrison's 20th Feb 1781
I have been doctreing this several days thinking to be able to take the field but I find I get worse, my pains now are accompanied with a fevour every day. I expect Lord Cornwallis will push you till you are obligd to fight him on which much will depend. You'l have from what I see, a great number of militia---if they fight you'l beat Cornwallis if not he will beat you and perhaps cut your regulars to pieces, which will be losing all our hopes.
I am informed among the militia will be a number of old Soldiers. I think it would be advisable to select them from among the militia, and put them in the ranks with the regulars, select the riflemen also, and fight them on the flanks under enterprising officers who is aquainted with that kind of fighting and put the remainder of the Militia in the centre with some picked troops in the rear with orders to shoot down the first man that runs, if anything succeeds a disposition of this kind will......
I have the Honor to be Sir with esteem your oblid hble servt
This letter, coming as it did from one of the most successful commanders in the Continental Army, its acknowledged expert on the use of riflemen and militias, would have a profound influence on Greene's tactics when the time came for him to fight Cornwallis and on the lives of the riflemen from Rockbridge and Augusta Counties who would come to help him.
When the time came. Greene was still on the Virginia side of the Dan where he had been chased by Cornwallis on 14 February. There he rested, resupplied and recruited his Army while the British retired to Hillsborough, fifty miles south, for the same purposes. Since the death of General Davidson on the Catawba, some weeks earlier,enough and the desertion of his brigade of North Carolina militia, Greene had been sending out appeals for reinforcements. On the 22nd, after only a week's encampment, he had sufficient promises and reports of help on the way to recross the river into North Carolina.
Presbyter-turned-partisan General Andrew Pickens, who had commanded the non-Virginia militias for Morgan at the Cowpens, now returned from South Carolina. He brought with him perhaps 300 back-country riflemen and patched-together cavalry, some of them from Georgia. Enroute he had picked up a somewhat greater number of Salisbury district militia from North Carolina. He also had a company of Catawba Indians. A band of his horsemen gobbled up one of Cornwallis' outposts at Hart's Mill, just outside Hillsborough, on the 23rd, and the following day he joined forces with Colonel 'Light Horse Harry' Lee's Legion: 140 regular cavalry and mounted infantry.
For understanding the action which follows, it is usefulto realize that Lee's troopers were dressed in green uniforms, similar to those worn by Colonel Banastre Tarleton's British cavalry serving under Cornwallis. Also, natives of the area just west of Haw River were mostly Loyalist, and many of them were Germans who spoke and understood English only with difficulty. Pickens and Lee learned on 25 February that the much detested Tarleton was detached from the main British army, foraging fifteen or twenty miles west of Hillsborough. They set out to catch him. Pickens reported the outcome of their efforts in a letter to General Greene:
Camp Rippey's .[Dickey's] Feb
....we had intelligence of Tarleton's proceeding towards Butler's on Haw River. We immediately pursued but found they had crossed and marched for Major ONeals, seven Miles from it, whither, after the utmost dispatch in crossing, we likewise followed. So very little was the expectation of an American party, the Inhabitants seemed prodigously rejoiced, imagining we were a fresh party of British. We found them chiefly in arms and prepared to join Tarlton that Evening. Never was there a more glorious opportunity of cutting off a detachment than this, when pushing on with the utmost hope and our Men in the highest spirits, our sanguine expectations were blasted by our falling in with a body of from two to three hundred Tories, under command of Colonel Piles, under the same deception they suffered Colonel Lee's Horse to pass equal with their front. Our Men were in some measure under the same mistake, but soon found out, and nigh one hundred were killed and the greatest part of the others wounded, unfortunately the Dragoons got seperated from us and our Militia could not be kept from firing. This brought Night on us and as it could not be supposed but in that time Tarlton must have been apprized of it, Colonel Lee and myself determined to retire to some plantation and attack them by day break.... [efforts to catch Tarleton failed] .....We were joined by Colonel .[William]. Preston .[of Montgomery County, VA, a 'rifle county']. about three hours previous to our march yesterday, with about three hundred. Major's.[Joseph]. Winston and .[John]. Armstrong have about one hundred each. Colonel .[William]. Moore from Caswell joined me on Saturday with one hundred more.....Colonel Paisly .[John Peasley]. of Guildford.....came in with a few Men.... This Affair.....has knocked up Toryism altogether in this part.....
I am sir yr very hble servt.......ANDw PICKENS
Other than Preston's, all reinforcements mentioned in the report are North Carolinians. The shifting makeup of Pickens' body of North Carolina and Virginia riflemen is a matter of some importance to this history as it would finally come to be commanded by Colonel William Campbell and would fight alongside the Augusta and Rockbridge militias on the day of the main battle at Guilford Court House.
'Pyle's Massacre', so called, was a disaster for the British cause, the worst since the Cowpens. The Tories were marching to join Tarleton. Ninety of them were slaughtered outright, and over a hundred more fell wounded. Some tried to surrender with phrases like 'Ich ergebe mich', to uncomprehending, battle-happy Catawbas and crackers; others protesting in the fading light, 'we are the King's men', to Lee's looming swordsmen on great war horses, thinking they were cut down by the King's dragoons. What's more, rumors of the event, both accurate and fantastic, rushed through the area and just about ruined local enthusiam for enlistment in Cornwallis' army. As Pickens reported, Toryism, as a factor in the campaign, was 'knocked up altogether'. The patriots, according to Lee, lost but a single horse, shot by a little band of Tories that tried to fight back.
Otho Williams' Light Infantry was detached from Greene's main army and sent south to harass the British. He and his regiments of Maryland and Virginia continentals were joined enroute by Colonel Hugh Crocket and 160 mounted riflemen and, a few days later, by Major Thomas Rowland with 200 more, all from Botetourt County, Virginia. (For the uninitiated: 'Botetourt' is pronounced 'body-tot'.) When juncture was made with Pickens around the first of March, the Botetourts were placed under Colonel William Preston, enlarging his corps of riflemen from the Valley of Virginia to well over 600. Cornwallis, meanwhile, decided, on February 26th to abandon Hillsborough and march westward across the Haw and up Alamance Creek. There he hoped to find better forage and provisioning and to afford better protection for such Loyalists as remained in the region. Paralleling his movements, Greene marched west with his headquarters to High Rock Ford on the Haw, twelve miles north of the British camp. From there he sent word to Williams to 'partially attack' Cornwallis 'on the march'.
In this general situation and with these problematic orders, Colonel Williams, on March 2nd, put south across Alamance Creek Lee's Legion, Joseph Graham's company of mounted Salisbury riflemen, and Rowland's Botetourt rifle battalion, now on foot. The continental foot regiments, Preston's main body, and Pickens' militia followed in reserve. Now, reaching a tangle of thick woods thinly laced by meandering horse trails, Lee and the advance left the reserve lying on their guns and moved forward, 'with great circumspection', unable to learn anything from locals who spoke only German. But Tarleton's legion, reinforced by 200 redcoat infantry, were finally met and there was a sharp fight. Graham's North Carolinians refused to dismount and take their place with the other riflemen. Nor could Lee's cavalry do much in the thickets, but his Legion infantry and the Botetourts quickly formed and returned fire. The losses after fifteen minutes were about twenty or thirty on each side. At this point Otho Williams, instead of bringing up his much superior reserve, 'order'd a gradual retreat which was well enough effected considering the irregularity of our order.'
And Tarleton wrote: ...
The gallantry of the British troops, after a short conflict, dislodged and dispersed a corps of eight hundred men...The loss of the Americans was confined principally to the back woodsmen; the continentals retreated early, and did not wait the charge of the British dragoons, who were much impeded in their advance by a thick wood and high rails....Though the continentals suffered little in this affair, numbers of the riflemen were killed and wounded; and being abandoned by their cavalry, the rest were totally dispersed....
Tarleton means Lee's Legion infantry when he speaks of continentals. Also he exaggerates the number of Americans in the woods; he faced only Rowland's 200 and, at the beginning, Lee's Legion. That the riflemen didn't take part in the ordered retreat and that the Legion was pulled out, leaving them behind, could not have been gathered from Williams' report to his commanding General. But Nathanael Greene, not altogether without guile himself, was too shrewd a commander to let the equivocal phrase, 'considering the irregularity of our order', slip past without finding out exactly what was meant. The General, incidentally, during this hectic positional campaigning, had a raging case of pinkeye.
Pickens, who had been itching to catch up with Tarleton in just such isolation (the main British Army was three miles away), would certainly not have retreated had he been in command. He had encouraged the advance in the first place, which Lee had opposed. Also, catching Tarleton detached is probably what Greene had in mind when he gave orders to 'partially attack' the British. As it passed, however, the Botetourts had to leave their dead and some wounded behind, hit for the bushes where horses couldn't follow, and bushwhack on back to the Alamance.
This action was followed on March 6th by another Light Infantry engagement at Weitzel's Mill on Reedy Fork, five or six miles south of Greene's headquarters. Cornwallis, before daylight, suddenly marched his whole army through a dripping fog directly for Greene at High Rock Ford. On this occasion Williams: ...found it absolutely necessary ... to leave Colonel Preston with his Valley riflemen as a covering party on the south side of Reedy Fork. He and Lee then crossed to the north bank with the rest of the Light Corps, which now included Colonel William Campbell's sixty rifleman from southwest Virginia, who had joined them the day before. There they waited to see what happened to Preston.
According to Tarleton, Preston's men defended a hill south of the creek. Cornwallis, in order to overcome their steady opposition, was forced to form and commit a reinforced brigade under Colonel James Webster, about half of all his infantry. Once it advanced with bayonets fixed, the outnumbered riflemen were soon forced to run. Only a company sized remnant regathered on the north bank. By Tarleton's accounting they left behind one hundred dead, wounded and taken, as against thirty fallen British. American accounts reverse these numbers. My guess: possibly forty on the British side; fifty on the American.
As the riflemen fled, Williams started his continentals marching north, leaving Lee, Campbell, and Preston's survivors on the north bank to cover. After briefly disputing Webster's passage of the creek, the rear guard leapfrogged ahead of him in small units, forcing him to stay deployed and slowing his march. Lee lost two dead and three wounded. Greene's main army, headquarters and wagon trains, meanwhile, fled northeastward across the upper Haw.
Light Horse Harry Lee, in later years, recalled that on Reedy Fork he had posted twenty five of Campbell's sharpshooters in an old log schoolhouse with chinking gone. These men could split an apple held on the point of a ramrod by a comrade 150 yards away. They were to fire on 'particular objects'. An important looking officer, later found to be Colonel Webster, was spotted on a fat horse, making slow progress in deep water. All the marksmen had a shot at him, seriatim, some reloading for a second try, all seeing, not believing, as horse and rider passed the stream unhurt.
That evening, after the British halted their advance, Lee wrote General Greene outlining the Army's options if Cornwallis pressed the pursuit next day: retreat back to Virginia, stand and fight, etc. Then referring to them all, he said:
'...Do what you will, I pray you to organize your army on the principles mentioned by you the other day...'
He had first learned of Greene's reorganization plan just after the fiasco on the Alamance. It proposed disbanding the Light Infantry and sending Williams with his continentals back to the main army. But as events fell out, the expiration of the Light Corps was already well underway.
Pickens, who had not been at Weitzel's Mill, said that when he went to his militia camps the night following the battle he was told by his officers that 'their men were determined to stay no longer.' He was scheduled to leave in 'a few days' anyway, so he was able to get orders from Greene and head south on the eighth with his Georgians, South Carolinians and Indians. His Salisbury North Carolinians had been deserting in droves for a week and had already gone home.
As for Preston's men, pension applicant James Gilmour of Christian County, Kentucky, swore in 1832 that he:
'was drafted from Montgomery County in 1781 under Col. Preston to go a tour against Cornwallis. They marched to North Carolina where they had a skirmish with the British Army on Haw River. About eight days before the battle of Guilford, Col. Preston's regiment got so dispersed that he could not get them collected in time to join the American army before the battle of Guilford. Col. Preston had eight killed in that engagement..'. And John Tate of Botetourt, who had already fought with Major Rowland on the Alamance, swore also in 1832, that on the morning after Col. Campbell's arrival: '....there was a battle on Reedy Fork, when Capt. Mays and all his men except applicant and thirteen others left the battlefield and went home. A day later, Captains Tate and Smith, from Augusta, joined the army at Speedwell Iron Works. They wanted applicant to join them, but he declined and went home...'
James Gilmour was no close relation to James Gilmore of Rockbridge, but John Tate had once served under Captain James Tate of Augusta in a frontier campaign and was probably his brother.
Charles Magill, Governor Thomas Jefferson's liason officer at Greene's headquarters, who was usually kept better uninformed by Greene's staff, wrote to his chief:
Head Quarters near the High Rock ford March 10th
Sir....On the late Skirmishe of which an account was given in my last, the Riflemen complained that the burthen, and heat, of the Day was entirely thrown upon them, and that they were to be made a sacrifice by the Regular Officers to screen their own Troops. Full of this Idea, the greater number left the Light Troops. Some rejoin'd their Regiments with the main Body and others thought it a plausible excuse for their return home....
I have the Hon Your Excellencys Most Obedient Humble Servt,
Preston and Crocket soon despaired of finding and convincing any sizeable number of their Virginia riflemen to remain for the impending battle and left the army. Colonel Preston wrote to Governor Jefferson over a month later on April 13th:
....we did hard duty, under Genl. Pickens, twelve or fourteen days, on the Enemy's lines, greatly straitened for provisions. Part of the men were in one action and the whole in a second; in both overpowered by numbers, and in the last broken and dispersed with the loss of their blankets. After which no arguments that could be made use of by myself, or the other officers, could induce the remaining few to remain another week; the time Genl. Green requested. After staying a few days at the Moravian Town, to have the wounded taken care of, Colo. Crocket and myself came home, accompanied by only two or three young men.....
No blankets? They would have been piled for Williams' forward wagons when Preston's men disencumbered themselves for rear guard action; lost somehow in the general retreat. Straitened provisions? Overpowered by numbers? Preston scrupulously avoids theories. Better to let the wise one of Monticello have convincingly bare facts. With them he would discover the truth for himself.
So the the Light Infantry died by mass desertion. This should have posed General Greene a life-threatening dilemma. He had lost a magnificent corps of riflemen. He had no chance against Cornwallis without replacements for them and, if the reasons given for the defection in Magill's letter became generally known and believed, he wouldn't have any. But Williams' action on the Reedy, however much resented by the riflemen, had thwarted Cornwallis' main objective: to closely engage the continentals and force Greene to come to their rescue. It was a quick, accurate decision and could not be censured in any way.
So Greene could do nothing directly and overtly to resolve his predicament, and in any case it was not in his nature to overtly and directly do things. The Fighting Quaker was at his paradoxical best, however, in situations of great subtlety Whether by prescience, happenstance or godsend, his reorganization plan was at hand. Putting it into effect did three necessary things: it laid out the corpse of the Light Infantry Corps to look as though it had died of natural causes; it got the riflemen out from under Williams who, deservedly or no, had a reputation for throwing them as sops to Cornwallis' war dogs; it found better employment for them of the kind Dan Morgan had recommended: fighting on the flanks under officers 'who is acquainted with that kind of fighting.' Like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, Greene published orders for the reorganization on March 10th.
Colonel Charles Lynch had brought 360 men down from the mountain fastness of Bedford County, Virginia, all but 60 armed with rifles. (He is the same Lynch for whom lynch law is named, from his habit of executing Tories after somewhat accelerated trials and courts martial.) According to Greene's new plan of organization, these were combined, in a so called 'corps of observation' with William Washington's cavalry and Robert Kirkwood's famous company of Delaware Continentals, regulars who had fought at the Cowpens.
The makeup of the other corps is less certain. The rifle component was commanded by Colonel William Campbell, victor of King's Mountain. It included the sixty frontiersmen he had brought with him from the ridges and hollows of southwest Virginia. Major Joseph Winston's and Capt. John [or Martin] Armstrong's North Carolinian stayed for the battle and possibly a few with Colonel John Peasley of Guilford and Colonel Joseph Williams of Surry: perhaps 150 in all. A few of Major Rowland's Botetourts remained. Of the riflemen from Augusta County, Virginia, who had recently come to the army, the companies of Thomas Smith, James Tate, and David Gwin to a total of about 130 men, all under Colonel George Moffett, were assigned to Campbell's command. Campbell was originally from the Tinkling Spring district of Augusta and still well known in the region. He and Tate had attended Liberty Hall together and, with Smith and Moffett, they had all served in the Augusta militia, fighting Indians on the frontier. Now with 350 or 400 rifles altogether, Campbell was assigned to cooperate with Lee's Legion in a second 'corps of observation' on the left flank of Greene's army.
Finally, on March 9th, too late to figure in the reorganization but in good time for the impending battle, Colonel Samuel McDowell sent a letter from the Dan to General Greene reporting his arrival there with 150 militiamen, most of whom carried rifles, from Rockbridge County, Virginia. He requested guides to be sent, 'as I am Intirely unacquainted with the Country'.
McDowell was one of the two or three oldest surnames in Rockbridge County. The Colonel was son, by her midmost marriage, of the well-to-do, influential and redoubtable Magdelena Woods Borden McDowell Bowyer. His father, Captain John McDowell, was killed in 1742 commanding militia in a fight with Iroquois near Balcony Falls on the James in southeast Rockbridge. His stepfather, Colonel John Bowyer, was Rockbridge County Lieutenant, chief administrator of the Militia. All of which is to say that McDowell's rank and position derived in some part from wealth and influence. He had, however, captained a company of rangers on the Ohio in 1774 and served as Major and Colonel in western Virginia campaigns of '76 and '78. He was seconded by Major Alexander Stuart, an experienced soldier.
McDowell's company commanders were Captains Alexander Tedford, John Paxton, David Cloyd, and an officer named Gilmore. This is quite possibly Captain James Gilmore who fought at the Cowpens. Cloyd's wife was Elizabeth Woods, Magdelena's sister, so that he was his Colonel's collateral uncle. McDowell, Stuart and Tedford were Liberty Hall graduates. Tedford's brother John was ensign in his company. Among the private soldiers was one named Sam Houston. Sam and his more famous namesake of the next generation were the sons of first cousins. The Sam of our story, at the time of these events, was 22 years old, either a student or very recent graduate of Liberty Hall, and in preparation for the Presbyterian ministry. He marched to Guilford with Archibald Stuart as messmate. Archie was also a Liberty Hall man, now studying law at William and Mary, son of Major Alexander Stuart, and, coincidentally, grandfather-to-be of JEB Stuart, the Confederate cavalry leader. Archie carried a commission to serve as aide to Gen. Greene, but, according to tradition, chose to fight in the ranks with Sam at Guilford. The two were probably in the company of Captain Tedford.
The story can now be turned over to Private Houston, who kept a terse diary of the campaign on a folded sheet of foolscap:
Monday Feb 26th--We marched from Lexington to Grigsby's
Tuesday 27th--Marched fifteen miles and encamped at Purgatory. I saw the cave.
Wednesday 28th--Marched from Purgatory to Lunies' Creek .[Botetourt County], twelve miles.
Thursday March 1--Marched from Lunies' Creek to a mile beyond Howard's; total seventeen miles. Drew liquor in the morning. I paid fifteen dollars for beer to Mrs Brackenridge.
Friday 2d--Marched from near Howard's to past Rag Hall, governed by President Slovenly; three or four of our men got drunk in the evening. Our march continued fifteen miles; encamped at Little Otter, Bedford.
Saturday 3d--Marched from Little Otter to within two miles of New London; nineteen miles.
Sabbath 4th--Marched two miles beyond New London to Mr. Ward's; in which march we pressed a hog, which was served without scraping. On this day I kept guard No. 16. The day's march was twenty miles.
Monday 5th--Marched from Major Ward's; crossed Staunton river into Pittsylvania. I was on fatigue to drive steers, but happly they had broken out of the pasture. Our march was eight miles, and encamped.
Tuesday 6th--Marched from Ward's about fourteen miles. We were searched and Mr Ward's goods found with James Berry and John Harris, who were whipped. The same were condemned to ten lashes for disobeying the officer of the day on Monday.
Wednesday 7th--Marched from near Shelton's to Col Williams' mill, about twelve miles; crossed Bannister, into which James McElroy fell; John Harris deserted, and James Berry was taken and sent to prison.
Thursday 8th--Marched from Col Williams' to near three miles from Dan River. Some of the boys set the woods on fire, which the Major put out. Our day's journey nineteen miles.
Friday 9th--Marched from beyond Dan to borders of N.C., six miles; we crossed Dan where Gilmore's wagon had nearly sunk by the chain of the flat breaking. At this river some mean cowards threatened to return. This morning Lyle, Hays, and Lusk went to Gen. Green .[to carry McDoowell's message]. and returned. The same day deserted at Dan, Geo. Calwell.
Saturday 10th--Marched from near three miles of Dan to head quarters, which we entered at twelve o'clock at night. In the evening we encamped six miles from H. Q. Soon after we decamped. Thirty miles.
Sabbath 11th--Lay in camp. In the evening we were ordered to prepare for a march; after we were ordered to stay; after our orders for the future were read out, we cooked two days' provisions.
Monday 12th--Marched first S. W. to the end of camp, then turned directly back, and stood some hours; at last we left camp at the High Rock, and marched near six miles. Again we turn back about a mile, and encamp near Haw river.
Tuesday 13th--We paraded several times, and at last fired in platoons and battallions; in doing which one of the North Carolina militia was shot through the head; a bullet glancing from a tree struck Geo. Moore on the head--of our battalion. In the evening we marched from Haw river about three miles, and encamped.
Wednesday 14th--Decamped at Reedy Creek, and marched to Guilford Courthouse, ten miles.
Thursday 15th--Was rainy in the morning. We often paraded, and about ten o'clock, lying about our fires, we heard our light infantry and cavalry, who were down near the English lines, begin firing with the enemy...
What they heard was vicious skirmishing between the Campbell/Lee observation corps and the van of Cornwallis' army led by Tarleton. The British were by now less than four miles west, marching hard up the Moravian Towns-Hillsborough Road which ran west to east through the middle of Greene's army.
General Greene, feeling that his army was as strong as it would ever be, had invited the fight by moving to Guilford Court House the day before, no more than twelve miles from Cornwallis. He had well over 4500 men, around 1700 of them continentals and perhaps 1100 or so militia riflemen in units with experienced officers and sergeants; most of these were assigned to the two corps of observation under Lynch and Campbell. There was a section of 'butterflies', six pounder brass cannons, manned by gunners from the Virginia Artillery Regiment. The rest were green Virginia and North Carolina militia of uncertain quality. And Greene had already inspected the heavily wooded, hilly ground around Guilford Courthouse in February. He pronounced it an ideal place to stand against the British. He had picked his own battlefield.
Cornwallis also wanted the fight. His recruiting and provisioning were not going well at all, and if he was going to stay in North Carolina much longer, he would have to chase Greene out again. He was outnumbered more than two to one, having less than 2200 men altogether and, after telling off the sick and a wagon guard, something over 2000 to put on the battlefield. But almost all of them were regulars, organized in some of the fiercest regiments of professional killers anywhere. And wet weather favored British arms. The 'brown bess', a fast-loading smoothbore musket fitted with a 14 inch bayonet, was the redcoat's standard weapon. It was a wretched work for accuracy, but was unequalled for rapid, point-blank, massed fire or close-in shock action. The American rifleman fought best at a marksman's distance and, like the Indians who had taught him how, in loose order and preferably from cover. The wet morning would slow and diminish rifle fire, giving greater play for Cornwallis' bayonets. He was camped in Quaker country at Deep River Meeting House when he heard of Greene's march to Guilford. He sent his wagons south to Bell's Mill on Deep River before daylight and, in the welcome rain, had his Army on the march by 5 o'clock.
Lee's troopers, around 9 o'clock, ambushed a section of Tarleton's cavalry where the roads passed through a woods three miles west of Guilford Court House. Neither side had infantry up. There was saber fighting on horseback and pistols were fired but there wasn't much bloodshed. Several of the British dragoons were knocked off their 'small weak horses' and made prisoner. Their leader ordered a retreat. He took a parallel fork of the road after a short canter, but Lee, hoping to cut him off a mile west at New Garden Meeting where he knew the routes would rejoin, kept to the main road. He beat his quarry to the meeting house, but there ran head on into the Guards light infantry and that of Tarleton's Legion who, in Lee's words:
....displaying in a moment, gave the American cavalry a close
and general fire. The sun had just risen above the trees and shining
bright, the refulgence from the British muskets, as the soldiers presented,
frightened Lee's horse so as to compel him to throw himself off. Instantly
remounting another, he ordered a retreat. This manoeuvre was speedily
executed; and while the cavalry were retiring, the Legion infantry came running
up with trailed arms, and opened a well aimed fire on the Guards, which was
followed in a few minutes by a volley from the riflemen under Colonel Campbell,
who had taken post on the left of the infantry. The action became very sharp
and was bravely maintained on both sides. The cavalry having formed again in
column, and Lee being convinced, from the appearance of the guards, that
Cornwallis was not far in the rear, drew off his infantry; and covering them
from any attempt from the British horse, retired toward the American army.
[..and in an accompanying note, Lee again, redescribing the action from the time his horsemen first reached New Garden..].. [The enemy's] fire was innocent, overshooting the cavalry entirely; whose caps and accoutrements were all struck with green twigs, cut by the British ball out of the large oaks in the meeting house yard, under which the cavalry received the volley of the Guards. Some of the infantry and riflemen were killed and more wounded; among them was Lieutenant Snowden, of the Legion infantry, who, with most of the wounded, was necessarily left on the field.
Lee does not refer to sunrise, as others have said; it was 9:30 or 10 o'clock, and the sun had just come out after the rain.
Tarleton's account says that the guards light infantry 'made impression upon their center' before the arrival of the 23rd Regiment of Foot, also called the Royal Welch Fuzileers. Then:
'Colonel Lee's dragoons retreated with precipitation along the main road and Colonel Campbell's mountaineers were dispersed with considerable loss.
Also Tarleton notes that among his own dead and wounded were 'between twenty and thirty guards, dragoons and yagers [Hessian light infantry].' Strangely, Tarleton does not mention the well known fact that he, himself, was shot through the hand during the fight, lost two fingers.
Among those wounded whom Lee's retreat 'necessarily left on the field' were James Tate and several of his Augusta riflemen. Tate's thigh bone was broken by a musket ball. He died at New Garden before the Americans returned a few days later. He may have lived and kept consciousness for some time after the Quaker women came out to comfort the wounded and dying. His name was remembered by them and he was buried in a single, marked grave under the meeting house oaks. Some of the rest were under unmarked mounds, and many were in a mass grave. Tate's remains were taken to Guilford Battlefield and reinterred over a hundred years later.
Captain Tate and many of his men were from Bethel Church on the old Borden Tract, just north of the Rockbridge County line near the modern hamlet of Middlebrook. Men from that place had also been in the thick of the fight at The Cowpens, and survivors of the New Garden action would, again that day, fight other Guards and other Hessians and be chased once more by dragoons. John Wasson, one of the survivors, remembered in 1832:
...that Tate's Company was discharged generally some short time after that battle [of Guilford CH], in consequence as was supposed of its having suffered excessively in bringing on the genl. engagement at that place--not more than 20 or 25 men having survived...
Down into modern times, a local tradition holds that in the 1780s, standing on Old Pine Hill near Middlebrook, one might see smoke rise from the cook fires of seven widows of the Carolina wars.