Book Review: The Road to Guilford Courthouse

By David McKissack – 7th Virginia, Continental Line

The Road to Guilford Courthouse : The American Revolution in the Carolinas. John Buchanan. Retail Price: $30.00. Hardcover, 464 pages. Published by John Wiley & Sons. March 1, 1997.

Unlike most people, reenactors know that much of the American Revolution occurred south of Philadelphia and Boston. Some are even familiar with the major battles of Camden, King's Mountain, Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse. Most, however, have probably never read a comprehensive examination of the single year in the south which included all of these engagements. John Buchanan's book is just such an examination, and it is an excellent read.

The American Revolution in the south was a fractured story, so its no wonder that it is sometimes neglected. The cast of characters includes not only regular army generals such as Cornwallis and Greene, but guerilla leaders such as Francis Marion ("The Swamp Fox") and Thomas Sumter ("The Gamecock"). The armies sometimes combined regular troops with special "Legions" and ragged militia who were often intractable, guided more by "booty" and domestic concerns than by the goals of their respective countries. There were organized standup battles, but also myriad encounters matching small detachments in the undeveloped southern backcountry in fights more like brutal tribal free-for-alls rather than disciplined 18th century warfare.

Despite this "untidiness," Buchanan creates a cohesive and compelling story. Tracing events from the siege of Charleston in April 1780 to the battle of Guilford Courthouse almost a year later, he weaves politics, battles and personalities into one of the most fascinating tales of the American Revolution. His use of biographical sketches and quotes from primary sources is superb. Anecdotes keep the narrative interesting, e.g.: Patrick Ferguson's assertion that he had the chance to shoot Washington at Brandywine was later challenged by one of his loyalist subordinates. At military school in Turin, Italy, Charles Cornwallis took ballroom dancing twice a day, five days a week. While serving as Quartermaster General, Nathaniel Greene was accused by some in Congress of profiteering. Francis Lord Rawdon, commander of the Volunteers of Ireland, had his right hand severed at his death and preserved so that it could be interred in his widow's coffin.

Not withstanding its excellent narrative, some readers will find flaws in the book. It contains only three maps -- one of the Charleston, South Carolina area, one of the "Lower South," and one of the central North Carolina region around Guilford Courthouse. All of these maps are small and inadequate. Perhaps worse, there is not a single battlefield map in the entire book.

Likewise, some will be bothered by the author's frequent injection of his strong opinions into the narrative, e.g.: "Prima-donnish characteristics are not unknown among generals of any nation, but was a country ever cursed as Britain in the late eighteenth century with such a collection of temperamental, argumentative soldiers? And not one of them was a truly first-rate general."

Though there is a passing examination of politics and tactics, this book is primarily a campaign history. It includes the siege of a major city, several large battles, guerilla warfare, and plenty of heroism by both American and British soldiers. This is an exciting tale and Buchanan has done it justice.

Copyright © 1998 David McKissack. All rights reserved.