The dust has not settled at the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park.
With thousands of patriot soldiers marching across farm land on March 15, 1781, to face the British Army, names were hard to track.
Before the computer age, if a military park visitor wanted to know if an ancestor had participated in the battle, a park employee would look for the name in a card index file. The card file, kept by the National Park Service, had been updated over the years with simple notes written on the cards.
For decades, the quality of evidence for potential battle participants varied greatly. Some were documented by Revolutionary War pension application files. Some referred to well-accepted sources, such as books based on evidence from pensions. However, many of the names were supported through family history with substandard documentation or were not documented at all.
Park personnel recognized the value of a historically accurate database to park visitors and historians and wanted their records to be brought up to today’s standards. Today a new list awaits visitors.
Working with Park Ranger Nancy Stewart, two local Daughters of the American Revolution chapters — Guilford Battle Chapter and Rachel Caldwell Chapter — joined forces to update the park’s records.
A team of 25 DAR members volunteered over 1,100 hours to generate a list of more than 2,300 people whose pension applications show they participated in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. The names, pension application numbers and relevant phrases from the pension files were combined into both a digital and a hard-copy database as a service to Guilford Courthouse National Military Park.
Discovery and preservation of the names of these individuals are important because the results provide a generational bridge for park visitors, descendants and students for whom the connection can instantly make the battle more real and the park’s preservation mission more important.
The words of the patriots, included in the database, preserve the history of the battle in a unique way.
Many historians point to the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, fought on March 15, 1781, near present-day Greensboro, as a turning point in the Revolutionary War because it led to a weakened British Army. British troops under Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis achieved a tactical victory over an American army of almost 4,500 men led by Major Gen. Nathanael Greene.
Greene successfully retreated after the battle to preserve much of the strength of his army. However, the victory cost Cornwallis more than 25 percent of his army of about 1,900 men. After the battle, Cornwallis abandoned the campaign for the southern states and moved into Virginia. Seven months later, he surrendered in Yorktown, Va.
Guilford Battle Chapter DAR, founded in 1902, was the first chapter in the area. Since these early years, Daughters have taken an active role in the preservation of the battleground and the history of the battle.
The organizing regent, Addie Van Noppen, was truly a force for the park. She served as state historian and encouraged DAR members at a state conference to support Judge David Schenck’s passion for the creation of the first National Military Park, rescuing the Guilford battlefield from oblivion by establishing the Guilford Battle Ground Company in 1887.
The passion seems to have continued as present chapter regent Lisa Bauman, a DAR team leader for the project, presented to the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park a finished project bound with years of documentation. The book was formally presented to the park in March at a ceremony beneath the equestrian statue of Gen. Greene.
Plans are being made to add the database of names to a website through the national park.
Reading thousands of pension applications also provided the opportunity to preserve other information unrelated to this battle.
Stories told by the applicants and witnesses, often moving and sometimes humorous, reflected the personality of the tellers and provided insight into life as an American soldier or militiaman. As work progressed, the value of these stories was recognized, and they were collected in a separate database regardless of their relevance to the battle.
Women also played a role in the war, which is difficult to document. Their declarations in pension applications, given as widows or as supportive witnesses, sometimes included a description of their own roles and represent some of the best documentation that exists. These stories were also collected.
Congratulations to Bauman and the 25 women who brought history alive. Guilford Battle Chapter’s Battle Participant Project was the 2017 Historic Preservation Project Contest winner of the NC Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Thank you to Guilford Battle Chapter for sharing this data. Check with your local library for information on finding the Revolutionary War Pension Records.
I look forward to these eager volunteers stirring up more dust so we may enjoy more American history discoveries.