Shattered, Exhausted, and Ragged: The Guards Recuperate in Wilmington

As part eight 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 following the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 15. 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.

The engagement at Guilford had devastated Cornwallis' army and the Guards in particular. And for both the wounded and healthy alike, the days immediately following were dire. As Guards commander Brigadier General Charles O'Hara recounted the next month:
I never did, and hope I never shall, experience two such days and Nights, as these immediately after the Battle, we remained on the very ground on which it had been fought cover'd with Dead, with Dying and with Hundreds of Wounded, Rebels, as well as our own - A Violent and constant Rain that lasted above Forty Hours made it equally impracticable to remove or administer the smallest comfort to many of the Wounded, In this situation we expected every moment to be attacked, there could be no doubt, that the Enemy must be very well informed of our loss, and whatever their loss might be, their numbers were still so great, as to make them very formidable...(Letter to the Duke of Grafton, 20 April 1781)
Indeed, from a strength of 816 rank and file fit for duty in December 1780, the Guards were now down to only 379 with six company level officers. To compensate for this reduced strength, O'Hara re-organized the Brigade into a single battalion consisting of:
  • a Grenadier Company, under Captains Napier Christie and Augustus Maitland
  • the 1st ("battalion") Company, under Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Lovelace
  • the 2nd ("battalion") Company, under Captain Charles Horneck
  • a Light Infantry Company, under Captains Francis Dundas and Francis Richardson.
Cornwallis had decided to march southeast to the Atlantic coast and to resupply at Wilmington, a small town near the Atlantic Coast that had been taken two months earlier by Lieutenant-Colonel Nesbit Balfour of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. After securing 17 wagons of more than 400 sick and wounded, the Army marched down the west side of the Cape Fear River.

The route from Cross Creek to Wilmington, North Carolina in 1770. Detail from "A Compleat map of North-Carolina from an actual survey" by John Collet. Courtesy of the University of North Carolina.

Along the way, the Army hoped to resupply at Cross Creek (now Fayettville), which was located approximately 100 miles upstream from Wilmington. However, the residents there were unwilling to provide assistance, and the British found themselves continuing to forage as they made their way southward. Again, O'Hara provides the sentiment of defeatism:
we fell back by easy marches upon Cross Creek, a very large settlement at the Head of Cape Fear River, chiefly inhabited by Scotch, who were said to a Man would join us, but that has proved like the other Government Dreams...these favorable reports we found were false in every particular, for our advanced Guard were fired upon when we enter'd Cross Creek, and both Shores of the Cape Fear River proved so very hostile...  (Letter to the Duke of Grafton, 20 April 1781)
They arrived in Wilmington on April 7 (although O'Hara claims it was the 12th), and would wait there for more than two weeks they resupplied and recuperated.

The Burgwin-Wright House in Wilmington, NC, which was built in 1770 and served as Cornwallis' headquarters when he arrived in April 1781.
Yet it is perhaps O'Hara's own words that reflect just how devastated the British Army had been by Guilford and the weeks that followed, as they arrived in Wilmington and:
have remained every since, endeavoring to recruit and repair, our very Shatter'd, exausted, ragged Troops (Letter to the Duke of Grafton, 20 April 1781)