Guilford Courthouse
Administrative History
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Early Preservation Efforts

Shortly past noon on Thursday, March 15, 1781, a fierce two-hour battle broke out around the hamlet called Guilford Court House, seat of government for eighteenth-century Guilford County, North Carolina. [1] The keystone of the Revolutionary War's decisive Southern Campaign and the only engagement in which the campaign's principal antagonists, American Major General Nathanael Greene and British commander Lord Charles, Second Earl Cornwallis, were present and directing events, Guilford Courthouse was a Pyhrric victory for the redcoats. So costly was this "triumph" that Cornwallis's troops could neither pursue the defeated rebels nor remain in North Carolina as an army of occupation. After two days spent caring for the wounded and burying the dead, the nominal victors turned their backs on the doleful field of Guilford Courthouse and marched away on the first leg of the journey that would lead them to final defeat at Yorktown, an outcome fore-shadowed by the serious loss of British manpower suffered seven months earlier at Guilford Courthouse. [2]

For a brief period following the battle local residents left the area, complaining of foul odors and the presence of spirits moving about the battlefield. They gradually returned and began the process of expanding their subsistence farms by clearing the virgin forest that covered three-quarters of the battlefield's one thousand acres. [3] Technically the village of Guilford Courthouse ceased to exist in 1785 when the North Carolina General Assembly chartered the new community called "Martinville" at the old county seat. To the disappointment of Guilford County's first generation of land developers, Martinville failed to thrive. When the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions was moved to newly chartered Greensboro in 1809, Martinville began a half-century slide to extinction. [4]

The first local effort to commemorate the battle of Guilford Courthouse was initiated in 1857 when a group called the Greene Monument Association was organized and began fund-raising activities to erect a memorial to the American general in his namesake city. The Association's work was interrupted by the outbreak of civil war and interest in commemorating the glories of the Revolutionary generation was effectively deflected until the end of the Reconstruction period. [5]

1876 was a watershed year in that it combined the centennial of the Declaration of Independence with the tainted presidential election of Rutherford B. Hayes. The withdrawal of the last Federal occupation troops from the South the following year inaugurated an era of national reconciliation. Patriotism and nationalism were on the ascendant in this period and widespread public support developed for the establishment of memorials to George Washington, the Revolutionary War generation and the principles for which they fought; principles that were the common heritage of both North and South.

First fruit of this impulse included centennial year Congressional appropriations of $244,000 to erect monuments at Yorktown, Bennington, Saratoga, Newburg, Cowpens, Monmouth, Groton, and Oriskany. Similar bills were introduced but not acted upon for Brandywine, Bemis Heights, King's Mountain, and Guilford Courthouse.

Further evidence of the nation's interest in commemorating the founding generation's struggles was manifested by the action of the House of Representatives' Committee on the Library in commissioning historian Benson J. Lossing to make recommendations regarding Revolutionary War sites that were deserving of monumentation. His report, submitted 2 February 1884, identified fifteen battlefields "of considerable note" that should receive funding for "substantial monuments." Guilford Courthouse was identified as one of these sites. A bill, H.R. 2475, to erect the recommended monuments was introduced but not acted upon. [6]

It was in this period of resurgent nationalism and reflection on America's past glories that business brought David Schenck to Greensboro. Born in Lincoln County, North Carolina in 1835, Schenck was a successful attorney and Superior Court judge. In 1881 he accepted the post of General Counsel of the Richmond and Danville Railroad. The demands of this position led him to remove his family to more centrally located Greensboro in May, 1882. Greensboro was described at this time as "awakening from a sleepy village to a more progressive town." Schenck aligned himself with progressive elements in his new hometown by actively campaigning for a successful 1887 bond issue that provided $100,000 for municipal improvements and winning election to the Board of Town Commissioners. [7] At about this time Schenck became interested in the battle of Guilford Courthouse.

Judge Schenck later wrote that when he came to town in 1882:

Out of a population of 3000 people in Greensboro he could not find a half dozen persons who could point out to him the scene of the battle.

He persevered, however, and located the battlefield six miles north of Greensboro on the road to Madison. At that time it consisted of "a few wooded areas surrounded by abandoned and eroded fields covered with broom sedge and field pines." [8]

Schenck spent many weekends walking across the "abandoned and eroded fields" with a copy of his favorite reference on the battle of Guilford Courthouse, Reverend Eli Caruther's Interesting Revolutionary Incidents: And Sketches Of Character, Chiefly In The "Old North State" (Philadelphia: 1856). Carefully studying the maps in this volume Schenck was perfectly confident that he could identify all the major scenes of action in the battle. [9]

In October 1886, almost three years after Benson J. Lossing's report to Congress categorizing Guilford Courthouse as a Revolutionary War site "of considerable note", Judge Schenck had the flash of insight that would perpetually link his name with the effort to preserve this battlefield. He later described this event in his journal.

Last fall, I visited Mr. Hoskins, who lives on part of the Battle Ground, and as I drove over the sacred spot on my return home, I suddenly conceived the idea of purchasing it and endeavoring to persuade the United States or the state, or wealthy individuals to erect suitable monuments thereon to preserve the memory of the men who here crippled Cornwallis, so that he began the race of escape which ended in his capture at Yorktown. [10]

Resolving to act on this idea Schenck bought the first thirty acres of battlefield property at ten dollars per acre from farmer Emsley Sikes who, in Schenck's words, "owned all that part of the battle field south of the Salisbury or New Garden Road." Shortly thereafter he obtained an additional twenty acres north of the road from the "Dennis heirs" for twenty dollars per acre. With these purchases Schenck believed he controlled the position occupied by the American third line of battle, site of the heaviest fighting at Guilford Courthouse. Pleased though he was by these acquisitions, Schenck clearly felt victimized by the prices he was forced to pay for this land.

No consideration was extended to the sentiment which underlaid the object of the purchase. The land was taxed at two dollars per acre but he was compelled to give the enormous prices above mentioned simply because the owners had the power to require it. [11]

Although his railroad salary of $5000 per year, supplemented by occasional private retainers, provided comfortably for his growing family, Schenck clearly saw that he could not single handedly carry out his purpose to "redeem the battlefield from oblivion." [12] He then approached several Greensboro businessmen with the idea of establishing a non-profit corporation to preserve the battleground. Assured of their support, Schenck drew up a charter and with its approval by the North Carolina General Assembly in March 1887, the Guilford Battle Ground Company was born. At the company's organizational meeting held 6 May 1887, Schenck was elected president [13]

The company's charter authorized the issuance of one thousand shares of capital stock at twenty-five dollars per share to finance the purchase of as much as two hundred acres of the battlefield property. Advertisements that were distributed across the nation included a remarkably conservative estimate of two thousand dollars to purchase and restore the battlefield. [14]

The Guilford Battle Ground Company quickly went to work, in its first year spending almost three thousand dollars to acquire sixty-two acres of land (including Schenck's original fifty acres bought at his cost of seven hundred dollars) to erect a caretaker's cottage with reception room and museum, and to begin the long process of "beautification" of the grounds. [15] That year also saw the construction of the first monument erected on the battlefield, a granite marker donated by an area stoneworks to memorialize Captain Arthur Forbis, the most prominent local casualty of the battle of Guilford Courthouse. [16]

The Guilford Battle Ground Company's charter defined the organization's purpose as "preserving and adorning the grounds on and over which the battle of Guilford Court House was fought...." [17] In 1893 Judge Schenck reflected that at time of purchase, "[The battlefield] was a tangled wilderness of briars, old field pines, broom sedge and every species of wild growth which comes up on old worn out fields." The company undertook the task of site redemption by hiring a foreman and six laborers to cut the scrub pines, remove brush, plough the fields and plant a "luxuriant crop of oats." [18]

Judging by Schenck's words and the actions of the company under his leadership, beautification, or adornment, to use the term that appeared in the company's charter, was preservation. This view of preservation did not countenance the restoration of the battlefield to its rugged, largely wooded appearance of 1781. Rather it envisioned the transformation of the doleful field of battle into a lovely sort of "pleasuring ground", with monuments to the heroic dead, where grateful Americans could contemplate the glories of the nation's past amidst beautiful surroundings. Most notable of these battlefield beautification projects was the 1892 damming of a Hunting Creek tributary to form artificial Lake Wilfong between the American second and third lines "to improve the attractiveness of the grounds." Similar enhancement efforts led to the construction of two spring houses and a restaurant to accommodate the thousands of visitors who came to the site by train from nearby Greensboro to attend annual commemorations of the organization of the Guilford Battleground Company. [19]

It appears that no thought was given to the idea of preserving the whole battlefield. The Guilford Battle Ground Company charter, written by Schenck, countenanced the purchase of no more than two hundred acres of battlefield land. Whether this self-imposed limitation was a reflection of Schenck's preservation philosophy or was born of the disillusioning experience of negotiating with shrewd landowners, this policy essentially foreshadowed the Antietam Plan dictum of preservation by purchase of key sites. With limited financial resources and lacking the power of eminent domain, this was perhaps the best the Battle Ground Company could do. It had an unfortunate consequence, however, in that the interpretation of the battle was made to fit the company's land holdings rather than an objective test of historical accuracy. Specifically the location of the American third battleline was shifted almost a quarter-mile west from its true location within sight of the courthouse to a site that was encompassed within Schenck's original fifty-acre land purchase. This misrepresentation affects interpretation of the final stage of the battle of Guilford Courthouse to this day. [20]

At about this time Schenck proposed that the Guilford Battle Ground should be designated as North Carolina's official Revolutionary War cemetery. The General Assembly never acted upon this proposal, but Schenck was able to convince the descendents of several of North Carolina's notable revolutionaries to remove their ancestors' remains to the Battle Ground. Among those reinterred were the remains of North Carolina signers of the Declaration of Independence William Hooper and John Penn, and Continental Brigadier General Jethro Sumner. None of these luminaries had served at Guilford Courthouse. In this way an unfortunate precedent was set whereby the park was viewed as an acceptable venue for the commemoration of a variety of individuals and events having no discernible connection to the battle of Guilford Courthouse. [21]

By the early 1890s the Battle Ground Company had expended most of its capital. Although the company's charter called for the sale of one thousand shares of capital stock, less than twenty per cent of this total was actually sold. [22] Clearly some other revenue source was required. To this end Schenck lobbied the General Assembly for a bond issue to support the park. Instead the first of a series of annual appropriations in the amount of two hundred dollars, restricted to "improvement and preservation of the grounds," was enacted. Sixty per cent of this sum was expended as salary for a grounds keeper, leaving only the eighty dollar balance for improvements. Shortfalls were generally eliminated by appeals to the stockholders, but it was clear that the Guilford Battle Ground Company could not perpetually preserve the battlefield without governmental assistance. [23]

Judge Schenck had apparently foreseen this eventuality. As early as July 1887 he had noted in his journal that the battlefield should be offered to the United States Government after it had been restored and marked. [24] In making this judgment he anticipated by three years the creation of the first National Military Park, Chickamauga-Chattanooga, in 1890.

The process of federalization of the Guilford Courthouse battlefield was lengthy, requiring thirty years from the date Schenck broached the idea in his journal. Initial delay resulted from the local determination to first mark the site. Schenck and Company made no effort to mark the field with anything like the cast-iron interpretive signs that typified the early National Military Parks. Clearly monuments were the order of the day. By the time of Judge Schenck's death in 1902 sixteen monuments, most funded by private donations, had been raised on the battlefield.

The following year Guilford received its first infusion of Federal funds when Congress appropriated ten thousand dollars to erect a pair of Romanesque arches in memory of slain North Carolina generals Francis Nash and William Lee Davidson. It is tempting to interpret this action as a sort of tacit Federal recognition of the legitimacy of the Battle Ground Company's efforts. It was nothing of the kind. Congress appropriated the funds but left the task of site selection to Governor Charles B. Aycock. A spirited lobbying campaign followed with several communities making bids for one or both monuments. In the end, Governor Aycock designated Guilford Battle Ground as the site for both structures even though at least two other cities offered more plausible thematic rationales, and in spite of the fact that both Nash and Davidson were killed prior to Guilford Courthouse. Aycock's decision indicates how clearly the Guilford Battle Ground Company had succeeded in establishing their park's claim as the state's single Revolutionary War shrine. Emboldened by this success, in 1904 the Company launched its effort to make Guilford Battle Ground a National Military Park. [25]

In 1901 Joseph Morehead, vice president of the Guilford Battle Ground Company, noted that a group of Pennsylvania residents were meeting resistance in their efforts to have the United States take possession of the Valley Forge encampment site because Congress was unwilling to provide necessary funding. Perhaps a bit smugly Morehead reflected that such difficulties would not arise out of the transfer of Guilford Battle Ground because the North Carolina site would be "freely tendered the general government upon the sole condition that it shall be preserved as a National Park forever." [26] Morehead, who succeeded to the presidency of the Battle Ground Company on Judge Schenck's death in 1902, was overly optimistic.

Between 1901 and 1904 Congress was inundated with thirty-four bills to create twenty-three national parks in nine states and the District of Columbia. Concern about the ultimate cost of these proposals led the House Committee on Military Affairs to hold hearings in April 1902. One outcome of these hearings was the promulgation of the "Antietam Plan," the notion that fragments of historic sites could be preserved to successfully interpret battles and other memorable places and events at minimal costs. The other significant outgrowth of these hearings was the introduction of H.R. 14351 to create a "national military park commission. . . to restore, preserve, mark and maintain. . . such battlefields, forts, cemeteries, or parts thereof. . ." from all of America's wars, "and to establish military parks thereon." This bill proved to be controversial and was never acted upon; but it was introduced in 1902, and reintroduced in 1903, 1904, 1905, 1906 and 1910. With Congressional attention focused on this proposal for almost a decade, followed shortly by America's entry into World War I, special acts to establish national military parks were essentially suspended. [27]

The first attempt to transform the Guilford Battle Ground into a national park came in the first year of this interregnum. In 1904, North Carolina Congressman W.W. Kitchin, at Joseph Morehead's behest, introduced a bill to establish Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. It was not acted upon, nor were similar bills introduced in 1905 and 1907. [28]

Stymied, the Battle Ground Company and its legislative advocates decided to assume another line of attack. Between 1888 and 1908 thirteen bills were introduced in Congress to erect a monument to Major General Nathanael Greene at the Guilford Battle Ground. None were enacted. In 1910 Joseph Morehead prevailed upon Senator Lee S. Overman to introduce another Greene monument bill. This bill passed and was signed into law 13 February 1911. This act provided thirty thousand dollars to erect a suitable monument at the Guilford Battle Ground, provided the Battle Ground Company would deed to the United States sufficient land on which to erect the memorial. This was done and on 3 July 1915 the Nathanael Greene Monument was dedicated. [29]

National Park Service Historian Ronald F. Lee, in his seminal work The Origin and Evolution of the National Military Park Idea (p.45), identifies the passage of the Greene Monument bill as the first step in the creation of Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. The third of an acre donated for this heroic equestrian memorial provided a Federal toehold and perhaps inclined Congress to respond favorably when Representative Charles M. Stedman introduced another bill to establish Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. Signed into law 2 March 1917, this act provided:

That in order to preserve for historical and professional military study one of the most memorable battles of the Revolutionary War, the battlefield of Guilford Courthouse, in the State of North Carolina, is hereby declared to be a national military park. . . . [30]

Guilford Courthouse, by this time grown to one hundred twenty five acres marked with twenty-eight monuments and graves, was the first Revolutionary War battlefield preserved as a national park. It was the only national military park created in the period 1900-1925. It was apparently the only site offered to the Government at no cost. It took longer than either expected, but at last David Schenck's dream and Joseph Morehead's prediction had come true.

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Last Updated: 10-Feb-2003