Guilford Courthouse
Administrative History
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The War Department Years

My first impression of this historic spot was one of extreme annoyance. A group of patriotic citizens, animated by the very best intentions, acquired the battleground some years ago. They have since decorated it lavishly with granite tents, boulders, pyramids, and triumphal arches until it now resembles a suburban cemetery. The patriotism that inspired the great effort involved is not questioned; the good taste is. Bronze figures of Clio and statues of former presidents of the Battle Ground Company--no matter how public spirited these citizens may have been--seem sadly out of place upon this historic field. I wish to except from this criticism the great equestrian statue of Nathanael Greene that has recently been unveiled. Had it stood alone dominating the landscape, the impression would have been noble and effective. [1]

Judgments in matter of taste are clearly subjective. This acerbic analysis, unusual in that it was written by a disinterested observer, suggests that newly-minted Guilford Courthouse National Military Park was not the model of historic preservation that the gentlemen of the Guilford Battle Ground Company believed it to be.

It was certainly unlike the other national military parks. At one hundred twenty-five acres it was much smaller than the great and growing Civil War sites. As Peixotto observed, it also had plenty of monuments, and some like the bronze figure of Clio, the muse of history, were of questionable taste. Of course the Civil War parks also had plenty of monuments; and none of them had a history quite like Guilford's, which at various times was considered North Carolina's general purpose Revolutionary War memorial and in some quarters was looked upon as the state's Revolutionary War cemetery. Little wonder, then, that some monuments did not relate specifically to the battle of Guilford Courthouse. At least twenty-five of the twenty-eight did relate to some phase of the Revolutionary War in North Carolina.

One of the things that set this place apart was the fact that its founders had no sense of restoring the site to its historic appearance. At about the same time the Guilford Battle Ground Company was creating Lake Wilfong, the Gettysburg National Military Park Commission was replanting forests that had been cut since 1863, restoring stone fences that had figured in the fighting, and signing leases with tenants to occupy and cultivate battlefield farms. They were also diligently marking the battlefield with cast-iron signs that interpreted the battle with almost scientific precision. Gettysburg was being prepared to fulfill one of its most important mandates: to serve as a place of instruction for the professional military. Guilford shared a similar legislative warrant. What Guilford needed was a complete break with the Guilford Battle Ground Company's philosophy of historic preservation.

The 1917 act that created Guilford Courthouse National Military Park gave the Secretary of War responsibility for preserving the site "for historical and professional military study." Immediate direction was entrusted to three commissioners. The commission's chairman would be a resident of Guilford County. He would be assisted by one commissioner each from Maryland and Delaware, states whose Continental regiments had figured prominently in the fighting at Guilford. The commission was charged with ascertaining and marking, "with historical tablets or otherwise," all lines of battle and points of historical interest "within the park or its vicinity." They were likewise directed to permit any state whose troops fought at Guilford Courthouse to permanently mark the positions of its troops "with monuments, tablets, or otherwise." To make such sites accessible they were to open or repair roads as necessary. [2]

The first resident commissioner was Paul Schenck, youngest son of founder David Schenck and last president of the Guilford Battle Ground Company. Five years would elapse before a Maryland commissioner, Professor John C. Daves, was appointed. The Delaware slot was never filled. Not that this oversight mattered; there is no evidence that the commission ever met. Mr. Schenck was very much in charge, and the park was managed in much the same way that it had been under the Battle Ground Company's proprietorship.

It should come as no surprise that Judge Schenck's son managed the park essentially as his father had. But Paul Schenck differed from his father in at least one significant sense: he believed that Guilford Courthouse should be preserved as "a Battle Field rather than a Park." This simple statement neatly summarized the historic preservation problem at Guilford, while at the same time offering hope that at last the park had a manager who would reshape the facility in a manner that was consistent with its new designation as a National Military Park. This was a critical juncture in the history of Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. Never again would this park have a manager who combined the "park as battlefield" philosophy, with the tremendous local credibility borne of his family's long-term interest and involvement with the site. This would have been the perfect opportunity to reshape this site and to transform the growing local perception of it as a recreational facility. Unfortunately the opportunity was allowed to pass unexploited.

There is evidence that Paul Schenck did attempt to bring about the park-to-battlefield metamorphosis. To this end he engaged a landscaper to assist him in preparing a plan for road-building and general park development. There is no evidence that this development plan was completed or submitted to the Quartermaster General for review, so no judgment can be rendered as to its merit. But neither did the Quartermaster General offer suggestions for site improvement or dispatch engineers or other specialists to Greensboro to prepare more professional proposals. Lacking meaningful guidance, park operations gravitated toward the simple preservation of the status quo. [3]

The only notable change in this period was the completion of four new monuments, bringing the park's total to thirty-two. None were of the sort prescribed to mark battlelines, although two were dedicated to American officers who fell in action. Three were financed by patriotic organizations, and the fourth by a descendant. [4]

Funding was tight in this period as the country became embroiled in World War I at about the same time Guilford Courthouse became a national park. In the resident commissioner period annual appropriations for Guilford Courthouse National Military Park never exceeded $9200, of which $2480 was consumed by salaries. Schenck's largest budget request was for $18,885 in fiscal year 1922 for operating expenses and repairs to two rapidly deteriorating spring houses and a speaker's pavilion, all artifacts of the Guilford Battle Ground Company. As these structures were considered incongruous, funding for these projects was denied. [5]

In March 1922 the official association of the Schenck family with the Guilford Courthouse battlefield ended when Democrat Paul Schenck was replaced as resident commissioner by an appointee of the Harding administration, Edward E. Mendenhall. Mendenhall's background included stints as a traveling salesman and as a wholesale grocer. More to the point, he had a long history of involvement in local and state Republican Party politics, a fairly distinctive credential in the Solid South of the 1920s. What he lacked was a history of association with the Guilford Battle Ground Company. [6] This appointment did not look promising; and indeed, it immediately produced unfortunate consequences for the park.

When Resident Commissioner Paul Schenck left office he removed most of the artifacts from the park museum. Claiming these items as the property of his late father, Schenck contended that they had been on loan to the Guilford Battle Ground Company. As such they had not been included in the transfer of property to the United States and were now returned to their rightful owners, the Schenck heirs.

In fact, Judge Schenck had been an inveterate collector of historical memorabilia. A Greensboro newspaper, The Workman of 11 November 1885, carried an article describing Schenck's collection of "Indian relics of curious manufacture," including "Tecumseh's Pipe." Schenck made use of his collecting instincts as president of the Guilford Battle Ground Company, as he informed the stockholders in his Annual Report of 15 March 1888: "I have been able to collect quite a number of relics from the battlefield which lend much interest to our museum. . . ." In its heyday the Battle Ground Company Museum contained some of Schenck's native American curiosities, but also included the sword of British Lieutenant Colonel James Stuart of the Brigade of Guards found near the spot where he was killed, "USA" buttons from the grave of three Continental soldiers who were reinterred under the Delaware Monument, and many other battle-related weapons and accouterments.

Mendenhall did not attempt to recover these items because the park had no documentation of ownership. Many of the artifacts were subsequently donated to the Greensboro Historical Museum where they were on display with legible "Guilford Battle Ground Company" tags as late as 1975. [7]

Unpropitious as this beginning certainly was, the situation degenerated still further. Commissioner Mendenhall continued some of the Battle Ground Company's ill-advised resource management practices such as removing undergrowth from the floor of the remaining forested areas. He went further by ordering the extirpation of all wild plants and shrubs from the park. Mendenhall reserved his most creative treatments for cultural resources. He gilded the park's five bronze statues and had a number of stone monuments painted, some in alternating white and black stripes. [8]

Letters of complaint with "Greensboro" postmarks began to arrive at the Quartermaster General's Washington office. Army inspectors soon appeared in Greensboro and poisonous evaluations followed.

The tendency of the present Resident Commissioner has been to do too much in the way of ornamentation and too little in the way of marking historical sites of the park, outlining the points of battle, et cetera. Close supervision is required or he is apt to destroy features of the landscape connected with the battle, with a view of attempting to turn the park into a beautiful site, in other words he is inclined to look upon the park as a picnic ground, not as a historical monument. [9]

The high point of the Mendenhall administration was the 1931 sesquicentennial commemoration of the battle of Guilford Courthouse. Arranged by a committee of civic leaders, the centerpiece of this observance was a battle reenactment staged by North Carolina National Guard units. A crowd of 25,000 attended on a blazing hot July 4. [10]

The Democratic landslide in the 1932 elections signalled the end of Resident Commissioner Mendenhall's term at Guilford Courthouse. He survived by a few months the transfer of Guilford Courthouse and all the other national military parks and cemeteries to the National Park Service, but on 14 October 1933 he was replaced by James H. Roane, a Greensboro stockbroker with strong ties to Sixth District Democratic Congressman William B. Umstead. [11]

The Mendenhall years had produced their share of controversy and occasionally aberrant management decisions, but little in the way of permanent damage or change. The loss of the museum collection was a stunning blow that was occasioned by Mendenhall's appointment, but for which Mendenhall can not be blamed. It is regettable that Mendenhall did not attempt to recover this material but the virtual lack of archival documentation almost certainly would have doomed any such attempt. As a result it would be almost a half century before the park could mount respectable museum exhibits. Beyond this the harshest criticism of Mendenhall would be that his administration had adhered to the policies of the Guilford Battle Ground Company that seemed to prefer picnic grounds to battlefield preservation. The Army inspector's 1930 report that criticized Mendenhall's inclination to turn the park into a "beautiful site" or "picnic ground" was eerily similar in spirit and tone to Peixotto's 1917 characterization of the battlefield as a "suburban cemetery." This is supremely ironic, given that the appointment of Mendenhall, the outsider, had certainly been an affront to long-term park supporters. His view of the park was too much like theirs.

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Last Updated: 10-Feb-2003