The Battle of New Garden is often overshadowed by the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, but it was a crucial conflict in its own right, featuring a brief skirmish, a swirling cavalry clash and two general engagements. According to historian Lindley S. Butler, New Garden “inflicted a number of casualties on the British, led to a significant delay and contributed to the fatigue of an already weary army that had set out on a predawn advance without breakfast.” New Garden features in my research, though, because it was the only Revolutionary War battle that involved my Quaker ancestors, the founders of the New Garden Meeting House in Guilford, North Carolina.
Thomas and Sarah (Antrim) Beals, both prominent ministers in the Quaker church, left Chester County, Pennsylvania in 1748 to establish a new Society of Friends in North Carolina. Within a few years, the Meeting House at New Garden had become the “focal point of Quakerism in North Carolina and in the South,” and dozens of Quakers from the North, from eastern Carolina and from England were traveling to attend meetings there each year. This trend ceased, though, with the start of the Revolutionary War, and on March 15, 1781, the War showed up on New Garden’s doorstep.
Thomas and his sons, as well as the other members of the Meeting House, took no part in the actual fighting, pleading their pacifist principals to advocate for the end of the Revolutionary War. On the morning of March 15, just after sunrise, British General Charles Cornwallis’ force of 2,100 soldiers discovered an American army of riflemen and militiamen under the command of General Nathanael Greene. The Americans were holding a defensible position on elevated ground about six miles from the Guilford Courthouse, near New Garden. The hostilities opened with a brief skirmish at the Meeting House; the British were forced to retreat until they were joined by German reinforcements. The battle continued down the road toward the Guilford Courthouse:
At 1:30 P.M., after an initial artillery barrage, Cornwallis launched his attack up the western side of the road. When the British got to within 150 yards of Greene’s men, the Americans opened fire. The British pressed on, returning fire only when they got within range. On command, they surged forward, only to be scattered by elements of the North Carolina militia posted along a picket fence. Still the British advance continued, spearheaded by the 33rd Regiment of Foot. The North Carolinians fired one more time and then retreated into the woods to their rear, abandoning their equipment as they fled.
The British believed their enemy was routing, only to run into resistance when they came up against Greene’s second line. The 33rd nonetheless moved around the American flank and hit Greene’s third and final line. In breaking through the first two lines the British had sustained heavy casualties. Advancing up the center, however, were the 71st Regiment of Foot and the 2nd Guards Battalion. Luckily for Greene, the 1st Guards Battalion and a contingent of Hessians were prevented from attacking the American rights thanks to the efforts of Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s cavalry.
The British 2nd Guards soon found themselves on open ground near the court house. Facing the Redcoats was a large contingent of Continentals. The British attacked, capturing two six-pound artillery pieces. As the Americans were forced back, Lt. Colonel William Washington’s Light Dragoons and the 1st Maryland Regiment counterattacked, blunting the British advance. Cornwallis ordered forward his own artillery forward, directing his officers to fire on the Dragoons as well as his own men. While friendly fire killed many of those in the British ranks, Greene ordered his forces to break off the counterattack and leave the field.
Beals and his family likely fled during the battles at New Garden and Guilford Courthouse, returning to open the Meeting House as a hospital and to aid in caring for the wounded (both British and American soldiers). I can only imagine how torn my ancestors must have felt in that moment, between wanting to protect their home and family and wanting to refrain from fighting and engaging in warfare. Each Beals ancestor stuck to their principles, though, and continued to serve the war effort and protect their neighbors by maintaining a hospital in the Meeting House until the war’s end; I’m very proud to be among their thousands of descendants today.