Quakers at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse

Historic painting of Quaker Meeting House with clapboard building and many people doing business or using carriages
Painting of 1869 by artist John Collins showing the Society of Friends Meeting House at New Garden, Guilford County, North Carolina. The Quakers had settled at New Garden by the 1740s.

John Collins, http://www.learnnc.org/lp/multimedia/12364

Quakers and the Revolution: New Garden Friends Meeting

The Quaker community of New Garden played a central role in the Battles of New Garden and Guilford Courthouse. The Battle of New Garden took place in their community, and the Friends were one of the groups of colonists who took care of the wounded soldiers from the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. A core belief of Quakerism is pacifism, which meant that Friends did not engage in violence. Quakers chose political neutrality yet were affected by the war nevertheless. How were they affected? What costs befell them?

Who Were the Quakers and Where Did They Come From?

In 1652, Englishman George Fox founded the Society of Friends with the hope of returning Christianity to its original simplicity. Members of the Society are known as Friends or Quakers, and believe that the Holy Spirit is the primary source of light and guidance. Instead of hired clergy, they encourage their members to speak when moved by the spirit. Members include men, women, and people of color.
During the 17th century, Quakers were known for their simple customs and dress, as well as their strict adherence to morals in order to remain pure and receptive to the inner light of God. The Society experienced religious persecution in England and in 1656 they began emigrating, settling primarily in the Pennsylvania Colony.

Quakers in the South

In 1698, Quakers began to move south to escape religious persecution in the northern colonies. Quaker settlement in North Carolina began in Perquimans and Pasquotank Counties, some 200 miles east of Guilford County.[1] In 1716, Governor Spotswood of Virginia began a campaign to settle the Shenandoah Valley, which inspired North Carolina governors to offer 50 acres to colonial settlers if they moved into the Piedmont area. Many Quakers accepted this offer and moved west.[2]
In 1748, Thomas Beals officially founded the Quaker community of New Garden. Beals came from Virginia to the Cane Creek settlement before continuing the 30 miles west to New Garden.[3] [4]Quakers settled in the area before his arrival, whose informal meetings began on fallen trees in one of the many clearings. The clearings were the result of the Saura and Keyauwee agricultural practices, and were one of the reasons settlers were attracted to the area.[5] Beals’ brought the name “New Garden” to the community from Pennsylvania, where a community was named after Newgarden in County Carlow, Ireland.
In 1752 the first official meeting for worship took place.[6] Two years later, the Friends approved a monthly meeting at New Garden in order to save them the 30-mile horseback ride.[7] Twenty-nine years later, this community found their peaceful existence interrupted by the arrival of the American and British armies.

Quakers during the Revolution

Because Quakers believe that every person possesses an inner divine light that guides them, they traditionally do not commit or support acts of violence. The Quakers opposed such activities as the declaration of American Independence, which led to the Revolutionary War (1775-1781), because they believed that “governments were divinely instituted and that they should only rebel should the government disobey the laws of God.”[8] In 1695, a Quaker named John Archdale had been governor of North Carolina. He passed an act that exempted his fellow Friends from participating in the local militia. However, the Quakers faced extra taxes for these exemptions, which were paid to the Crown.[9] Despite these additional taxes, the Quakers stood by their pacifist beliefs when the Revolution began, since violent tactics were used from the very beginning.
In 1778, the Continental Congress passed the Affirmation of Allegiance, requiring Americans to pledge their allegiance to the state where they lived. New Garden Friends refused, saying that they could not “consistently with their Principles comply with the Act of Assembly,” as the Affirmation contradicted their belief of pacifism.[10]
There were some Friends who either took the Oath of Allegiance or, “assist[ed] those with arms” and “appear[ed] in a war-like manner.”[11] In fact, seven members of the New Garden community were disowned between 1771 and 1780 for committing these and similar acts, such as attending muster, hiring men for war, and driving away a neighbor’s livestock for the use of the army.[12] Being disowned from a religious community meant much more than being unable to attend church services; the former members were forced to seek new community and way of life. If the member renounced the oath and came back to the Society, they were welcomed back to the meeting.[13]
Despite the Quakers’ desire for neutrality, they were still affected by the war. Soldiers and robbers pillaged civilian homes and stole livestock and crops. Those affected included the New Garden families of William Coffin, Nathan Hunt, and William Armfield.[14]

Did You Know Nathanael Greene Was a Quaker?

Nathanael Greene, who led the Americans in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, was born in 1742 and raised in the Rhode Island Society of Friends. During his military career, he became close to George Washington and was appointed General of the Sothern Army by him. He became interested in revolutionary efforts as a young man when he circulated petitions against raised taxes and imposed boycotts against British goods. In 1772, the colonists’ rising antagonism towards the Navigation Acts turned to action.[15] The Gaspeé, a British ship that enforced the Navigation Acts and controlled trade with the colonies, ran aground on the Rhode Island coast. Colonists burned the ship, and the Crown called for an investigation of the conspirators. Nathanael Greene was accused of conspiring against the Crown. Rejecting his pacifist upbringing, Greene “threatened to put a hole in his accuser big enough to ‘let the sun shine through.’”[16] The false accusation angered Greene and increased his ill feelings toward the British.[17] In 1773, Greene began attending “military gathering[s]” and shortly after, in mid-1773, the Society of Friends disowned him.[18] Little did Greene know that he would later call upon Friends for help in a time of great need.

The Battles of New Garden and Guilford Courthouse: Where Were the Quakers?

In 1778, the British launched the Southern Campaign in an attempt to gather support from the supposed Loyalist population in the Southern states. In the six months leading up to the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, the American and British forces met at the battles of Cowpens and King’s Mountain in northern South Carolina.[19]
Before the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, a small battle took place between Colonel Banastre Tarleton and Colonel Henry Lee. In the early morning on March 15, 1781, Tarleton led an advance party of British forces and were met by Lee on what is now New Garden Road. The two parties fought at the New Garden Community for as long as three hours. Forty minutes of the battle occurred directly on the property of the Meeting House.[20]
After the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, there were hundreds of wounded American and British soldiers. British General Charles Cornwallis left many of his wounded, between 64 and 134, at the New Garden community under the care of the Quakers. [21] General Greene learned of the Quakers’ generosity and was in great need of assistance caring for his wounded militia and Continental soldiers. Greene wrote a letter to the Friends requesting they provide “relief of the suffering wounded at Guilford Court House.” [22] The Meeting responded that they would “do all that lies in [their] power” to assist the wounded, despite the recent theft of resources by both British and American soldiers. [23]
The Quakers belief that every human contained the inner light of God allowed the Friends to put aside any personal grievances and help those in need. Following this belief, the New Garden Friends cared for 250 wounded British and American soldiers in the Meeting House and in individual homes. Their actions brought personal sacrifice. Some soldiers were infected with small pox, which spread to two of the caretakers, Richard Williams and Nathan Hunt. Williams died from the disease, but Hunt survived the illness. After attempting to mend and assist the wounded, the Friends buried both British and American soldiers who did not survive in the New Garden cemetery.[24] [25]

Who Else Helped the Wounded?

The Quakers of New Garden were not alone in caring for the wounded. All homes, barns, and other structures in the community of Guilford Courthouse and the surrounding area were used as makeshift hospitals for the hundreds of wounded soldiers. Some were taken as far as Saura Town, north of Greensboro on the banks of the Dan River.[26] [27] The battle covered such a large area, over 1,000 acres, that some of the wounded were not found until a few days after the battle. For example, Arthur Forbis, a Captain in the local militia, lay on the battlefield for over 24 hours before a local woman found him. Unfortunately, his wounds were fatal and he died a few days later.[28]

Where Are They Now? The New Garden Community After the Battle

The Meeting House where Friends cared for many of the wounded soldiers burned in 1784. Construction for a new Meeting House began in 1791, and in 1884 yet another Meeting House was built.[29] In 1961 the current Meeting House was built and has been used since then[30]. In 1837 the New Garden Boarding School was founded for educating the sons and daughters of North Carolina Quaker families.[31] In 1888 the school officially became Guilford College, which now serves Quaker and non-Quaker students from all over the state, country, and world.[32] The community of New Garden evolved over the years. In 1888, the town was renamed Guilford College, and remained so until 1972 when it was incorporated into the city of Greensboro.

[1] Hiram H. Hilty, New Garden Friends Meeting: The Christian People Called Quakers, Greensboro, NC, 2001, p. 4.
[2] Hilty, New Garden Friends Meeting: The Christian People Called Quakers, p. 1-2.
[3]ibid. 3
[4] The Cane Creek community is still an active Quaker community in the town of Snow Camp. It is the oldest Quaker settlement in the Piedmont.
[5] ibid. 2-3
[6] ibid. 4
[7] ibid. 5
[8] “The Quakers of New Garden”, p. 1.
[9]Hilty, New Garden Friends Meeting, p. 21.
[10] “Records of Minutes of New Garden Monthly Meeting of Friends in Guilford County N.C. From 1775-1782”, p. 1.
[11] “The Quakers of New Garden”, p. 2.
[12] Ibid.
[13] “”Records of Minutes” p 4
[14] “New Garden Friends” p. 1.
[15] The Navigation Acts impeded American imports and exports, by imposing British regulations
[16] ASV, 23
[17] Thomas E. Baker, Another Such Victory: The Story of the American Defeat at Guilford Courthouse That Helped Win the War for Independence, Eastern National, 2005, p. 23.
[18] Baker, Another Such Victory, p. 24.
[19] Ibid. p. 21, 27.
[20] Hilty, “New Garden Friends Meeting”, p. 23.
[21] Ibid., p. 23-24.
[22] Nathaniel Greene letter. If you wish to read the letter in its entirety, please see link at the bottom of the article.
[23] Letter to Greene. If you wish to read the letter in its entirety, please see link at the bottom of the article.
[24] Ibid. p. 23
[25] The cemetery is located behind the New Garden Friends Meeting on New Garden Road. The mass grave in which the soldiers are buried is marked with bricks in the earth.
[26] St. George Tucker (Saura Town, March 18, 1781), to “My ever dear Fanny”.
[27] Saura Town is located at 36.3750° N, 80.3716° W
[28] Rev. E.W. Caruthers, A Sketch of the Life and Character of the Rev. David Caldwell, D.D., Swaim and Sherwood, Greensborough, NC, 1842. p 238.
[29] ibid. p. 24, 51.
[30] Located about 3.5 miles from the park, on New Garden Road
[31] Ibid. p 44
[32] ibid. p. 47.

Last updated: September 28, 2023

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