Guilford Courthouse National Military Park | PARK HISTORY

David Schenck Monument at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park

David Schenck Monument at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park

In 1886, Judge David Schenck visited the area where the Battle of Guilford Courthouse took place. He came across a lone chimney on the site, what he believed to be the last remnant of the actual Guilford Courthouse that had vanished long ago. He felt that it was his duty to save what was left of the battlefield, so he set out to purchase the land and create a memorial park. While he talked of preserving history—and probably had his heart in the right place—what he really wanted to do was create a legacy for himself. He envisioned a park for tourists, with beautifully landscaped grounds and the most modern facilities. He would decorate it with monuments to the American Revolution heroes from North Carolina, not just those who fought at Guilford Courthouse. The more encompassing the monuments, the more North Carolinians could relate to the park, and the more popular it would become.

After buying a few acres, Schenck realized he did not have the funds to purchase the land he needed, so he solicited members of North Carolina’s upper class society to join him. High society members were always looking for a way to show they were cultured people, so what better way than to form an organization that would create a park to memorialize the heroes of North Carolina. In 1887, Schenck and his supporters formed the Guilford Battle Ground Company, which was funded by public shares that sold for $25 each. Greensboro residents eagerly bought shares in the company, and 100 acres of land were purchased. However, once local farmers realized what Schenck was up to, they quickly raised the prices of the surrounding land, making it financially impossible for him to buy up all the land on which the battle took place. To this day, much of the battleground lies outside the park boundaries.

Schenck’s inability to buy all of the battlefield land, combined with his intention of creating a tourist-oriented park, led to some slight rewriting of the actual battle history, much of which has been rebuked by modern battle historians. For example, his first line of duty was to “restore” the land to the way it was in 1781, which included clearing many trees to create open fields and filling in gullies—which certainly would make the place tourist friendly—despite the fact that first-hand accounts of the battle claimed the battlefield was a wooded area with very little open spaces.

The second way in which history was rewritten is that Schenck wanted to make sure that all the important aspects of the battle took place inside the boundaries of the park, so the positions of the three American defensive lines were manipulated to meet this criteria. As a result, monuments commemorating important events were placed in positions that historians now feel are highly inaccurate. When you tour the battlefield today, the monuments are still in their original places, but park information panels and brochures point out the errors in their placement. However, while Schenck receives the ill will of the modern historians and battle purists, all his naysayers do commend the man for saving the battlefield, for if it weren’t for him, surely the entire area would be developed with homes and businesses by now.

Map showing modern interpretation of the battle lines

Map showing modern interpretation of the battle lines

From 1887 to 1905, the Guilford Battle Ground Company continued to alter the park land and place monuments for visitors to see—twenty-eight in total. Two large arches were created, one to William Davidson, whom Davidson College is named for, and one to General Francis Nash. Neither man fought at Guilford Courthouse, but both were American Revolution veterans. The arches were placed at the park entrance, straddling New Garden Road, the road that led to and through the park. Later, when the National Park Service took over in 1937, the arches were removed due to not being wide enough to accommodate modern automobile traffic. When visiting the park today, you may find stacks of bricks at various locations. These are the remains of the arches. A park Ranger told me the Davidson arch was moved to Davidson College, but I could not confirm this through any research.

Of all the monuments in the park, none were to General Nathanael Greene, the commander of the American forces in the south and the commander at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Unable to finance such a monument, the Guilford Battle Ground Company turned to the government, not only with hopes to fund the monument, but also with hopes that it would take over the park. In 1911, the Federal government put up $30,000 for construction of a Greene monument. To further enhance the importance of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and the park’s significance, the Greene monument hints that the American victory at Yorktown was somewhat influenced by the American loss at Guilford Courthouse, a view that holds true today, but a new idea at the time.

Nathanael Greene Monument at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park

Nathanael Greene Monument at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park

In 1917, the U. S. War Department finally agreed to take over the park, now calling it the Guildford Courthouse National Military Park. Its plan was to turn the area into a military training ground, but that never came about. David Schenck had died in 1903 and his son, Paul, was now involved, heading the board for the government controlled park. Unlike his predecessors, he argued that the park needed to be preserved as a battlefield and not a tourist park. Unfortunately, the War Department put very little money towards the park and it began to deteriorate.

During the years the War Department controlled the Guilford Courthouse battlefield, David Mendenhall was the man in charge of park affairs. While Schenck had run the park as a cross between a historical preservation and a tourist attraction, Mendenhall’s intentions were pure tourism. More land was cleared, existing monuments were painted or bronzed, and ornamentation was a top priority. So many local residents complained that the government finally sent someone to see what was going on. The report came back that the park was being run as a picnic area, not a historical monument. One journalist wrote,

My first impression of this historic place was one of extreme annoyance. A group of patriotic citizens…have decorated [the battleground] lavishly with granite tents, boulders, pyramids and triumphal arches until it now resembles a suburban cemetery. The patriotism that inspired the great effort involved is not questioned; the good taste is.”

In 1933, control of the park was transferred to the National Park Service. The Great Depression was being dealt with by President Roosevelt’s New Deal, which was putting money toward creating jobs for men. One way that men were being put to work was by creating and renovating public parks. Many of today’s parks and trails were built in the 1930s as a result of the New Deal. Guilford Courthouse was a beneficiary, receiving ten times the funds that the War Department had put towards its upkeep.

The goal of the National Park Service was to restore the park to its historical appearance. A lake that had been created on the property was drained, a wheat field was removed, and 10,000 trees were planted. Many of the monuments that had nothing to do with Guilford Courthouse or the American Revolution were removed, including one dedicated to the Greek god of history, one to the Battle of Cowpens, and the Davidson and Nash arches. Many monuments had historical inaccuracies inscribed on them—more myth than fact—and the National Park Service corrected these, either physically or on its park brochures.

Much of what you see at the park today is a direct result of the New Deal improvements and a more scholarly interpretation of the historical events of the battle. Of course, everything is an interpretation by modern thinkers. Mindsets change. Politics change. What today’s historians claimed happen may not be what is claimed a few generations from now. Archaeological finds may one day shed a different light on a battle. All it takes is for a large tree to fall in the park and new artifacts may be unearthed. Believe it or not, storms are the most likely way that new relics come to light, for there is no active digging in the park and no planned archaeological excavations in the near future. It would take a fallen tree to unearth something intriguing enough to bring in the archaeologists. Rumor has it that the British were buried in a mass grave, but nothing has ever been found. Who knows what may be revealed by one future storm.

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Last updated on January 24, 2022
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