Back on the Chase: The Guards' Light Company Leads the Way Before Guilford

As part six in our series on the Brigade of Guards' 1781 "Road to Yorktown", this article continues the narrative of their Spring 1781 North Carolina campaign with the Guards' actions in the days leading up to the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. As in previous entries, it is adapted heavily from research by Linnea M. Bass and William M. Burke available on the 4th Company's website as well as the excellent book Long Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse by Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard.

Having moved west from Hillsborough in late February, Lord Cornwallis continued to seek an advantageous moment to engage and destroy Nathaniel Greene's larger force of Continental regulars and Whig militia. Greene, for his part - and despite having crossed back into North Carolina - was intent on delaying a general action until he received more than 1,000 promised reinforcements from Virginia. He therefore once again dispatched his light troops under Colonel Otho Williams to screen his army, sending them southward to patrol the Alamance Creek not far from where Cornwallis was encamped. The scene was set for the Brigade of Guards' Light Company (into which the 4th Company had been re-organized in 1779) to play a lead role in engaging the enemy.

Detail of "A compleat map of North-Carolina from an actual survey", published in London by Samuel Hooper in 1770. Library of Congress Control Number 83693769.

On March 2, 1781, while out foraging near Clapp's Mill on the Alamance, Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton's British Legion spotted Continental light troops led by Lieutenant-Colonel Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee. Tarleton promptly advanced a force led by the Guards' Light Company (under the command of Captain Francis Dundas) and comprising a portion of his Legion as well as 150 men from the 33rd and 23rd Regiments of Foot. Unbeknownst to him, the Rebel forces had set an ambush: Lee's dragoons were hiding behind a nearby barn while riflemen and militia concealed themselves in the dense underbrush and slowly advanced toward the British column. Three rounds from the Americans managed to inflict several casualties before a bayonet charge by the 33rd Foot forced the riflemen's retreat. As Tarleton would later narrate in his account of the war:
The light company of the guards, commanded by Captain Dundass, led the column...When the British drew near to the plantations which were to furnish the forage, a heavy fire from some thickets on each side of the road discovered the situation of the enemy. The guards formed with their usual alacrity...[and] the gallantry of the British troops, after a short conflict, dislodged and dispersed a corps of eight hundred men...The loss of the British amounted to one officer wounded, and twenty men killed or wounded, which fell principally upon the guards. (Tarleton, pp. 235-236)

Francis Dundas, commanding officer of the Guards' Light Company in Spring 1781. Painted later in life, along with his wife, by Sir Henry Raeburn.

Four days later, the Guards' Light Company saw more action, as Cornwallis discovered Greene's forces were near Guilford Courthouse to the northwest and took the initiative to "disturb the enemy's communications and derange their projects" by attacking a Rebel post at Weitzel's Mill near Reedy Fork. He also very well may have thought this would lure Greene toward a major action.

On March 6, he sent his vanguard under Tarleton and Lieutenant-Colonel James Webster of the 33rd Foot toward the Mill. The Continental light forces and accompanying Whig militia who had remained on the south bank of Reedy Fork after engaging the British at Clapp's Mill now found themselves in danger of being cut off. They promptly raced to cross at a ford near the Mill, and reached it just in time before mounting a resistance as the 33rd Foot and the Guards' Light Company pursued them across the water. As Tarleton narrates:
[He] discovered the enemy to be in force [at the ford], and reported the circumstance to Earl Cornwallis, who directed Colonel Webster to form his brigade into line with the light company of the guards and the yagers. This disposition being made, the front line advanced, the rest of the King's troops remaining in column...the ardent bravery of the 33d and the light company of the guards soon dislodged them from their strong position. The infantry mounted the hill above the creek, and dispersed the Americans so effectually, that the cavalry could only collect a few stragglers from the woods in front. The militia who guarded this pass had upwards of one hundred men killed, wounded, and taken. The killed and wounded of the British amounted to about thirty. (Tarleton, pp. 237-238)
Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, painted in 1782 by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Courtesy of The National Gallery.

The British soon broke off the pursuit, however, and Cornwallis elected to keep his forces to the south and west of Reedy Fork, and to allow Greene's forces to remain unmolested to the north and east. The Continental light forces had lived to fight another day, while the British suffered a second day of double-digit casualties without hope of replenishment. A major action was only nine days away, and it would happen nearby at Guilford Courthouse.


Babits, Lawrence Edward and Joshua B. Howard (2009), Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press)

Tarleton, Lieutenant-Colonel (1787), A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America (London: T. Cadell)