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The Battle of New Garden took place in the early morning of March 15, 1781. In the predawn hours, Gen. Charles Cornwallis’s British army advanced north from their camp at Deep River Meeting House, intent on closing in on Gen. Nathanael Greene’s position near Guilford Courthouse. Greene knew that Cornwallis was near, and had placed troops out in advance positions to the south and west to give him fair warning of any potential attack.
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At about 7:00 AM, the vanguard of the British army, the dragoons of the British Legion led by Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, encountered one of the advanced American positions just north of the New Garden Meeting House along the Great Salisbury Road (today New Garden Road). Led by Lt. Col. “Light Horse” Harry Lee, the American units consisted of Continental light dragoons and infantry, as well as a detachment of Virginia militia riflemen. British and American dragoons slammed into each other in a narrow lane, the sounds of sabers clanging and pistol shots echoing along with the sounds of horses and men crashing to the ground. One participant noted that it looked like a battle of Greek phalanxes engaging.
After the initial clash, the British cavalry were pushed back, across the present-day Guilford College campus, to the meeting house, where they were joined by British and Hessian infantry units. The two sides exchanged fire for roughly 20-30 minutes, before American forces fell back to a third position, halfway between the meeting house and the site of the initial contact. At this position, the Americans made another brief stand, before retiring north towards Greene’s army.
Pension accounts, as well as troop returns, show that each side lost 30-40 men in the three running skirmishes, over about two hours. Instead of pursuing Lee’s troops, the British halted for 30 minutes, refitting their ammunition and collecting the wounded and dead. They also halted to eat the breakfasts the American advance units had left still cooking on their fires. At 10:30 am, the British resumed their northward march, and within the hour would engage Greene’s main army near the courthouse in the climatic battle of the Greene-Cornwallis campaign of 1781. The effect of the New Garden skirmishes, totaling roughly 2 ½ hours, was to gain time for Greene to position his main army and prepare his men, many who were inexperienced militia, for battle.
Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department (1811)
Banastre Tarleton, Campaigns in North America (1787)
Algie I. Newlin, The Battle of New Garden (1977)
Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard, Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: Battle of Guilford Courthouse (2009)