Volume II - No. 5
THE PARK AT OLD GUILFORD COURTHOUSE
By William P. Brandon,
Quite apart from its particular page in the story of the American Revolution, Guilford Courthouse National Military Park has an interesting history of its own. The story is well worth telling for its own sake, representing as it does the desires of a few individuals to do in their own locality and for one episode of history, what the National Park Service is attempting to do in historical conservation for the nation as a whole. It is interesting, too, because this area is the first of the Revolutionary battlefields to be set apart for national use.
The park exists as a living memorial to the enthusiasm, the energy, and the devotion of one man---the late Judge David Schenck of Greensboro. In the early eighties of the last century he began to visit the area and to study the battle which took place there. His visits were frequent and his studies valuable. Within a few years the idea of the park was born. In his own words, it was
Within a short time after Judge Schenck's initial activity he had drawn some of his intimate friends into the enterprise, and it was decided to place the movement upon a firm base. The state legislature met early the following year and request to that body resulted in the chartering of the Guilford Battle Ground Company. The act of incorporation passed by the legislature and ratified on March 7, 1887, set forth:
In May of the same year the stockholders mentioned by the charter held their first meeting, organized the company and elected Judge Schenck to the presidency, a position he held for a number of years. The company set to work vigorously to carry out the purposes for which it had been formed. Stock was sold at $25 a share and, as money came in from the sale of stock, land was purchased. It appears to have been an accepted indication of good citizenship in the community to own one or more shares of stock in the company. By 1893 an even 100 individuals and corporations were listed as stockholders.
As it obtained land the company proceeded with the "adorning" thereof. Clearing of woodlands was begun and the policy of erecting monuments to commemorate individuals or events inaugurated. During the 30 years of the company's existence some 20 or 30 monuments were erected in the area, some by the company itself, some by individuals and some by governmental units, including the United States and the State of North Carolina.
The company also erected a small museum and acquired a number of eighteenth and early ninteenth century items for exhibit therein. Part of the museum collection is now on display in the park, but the larger number of items, including probably the most interesting ones, have been removed.
The company likewise inaugurated the policy of obtaining, where possible, the remains of distinguished individuals for reinterment on its property. As a result of that policy there now are in the park the graves of two signers of the Declaration of Independence, a distinguished North Carolina senator, and a governor of the state. Of those mentioned, only the governor, so far as is known, had any connection with the battle of Guilford Courthouse, or with this immediate section of the state during his lifetime. The others were reinterred in the park in accordance with the plan of making it an historical shrine, their remains, in some cases, having been brought from distant parts of the state.
Under the auspices of the company annual celebrations were held on the "Battle Ground" as the park still is known locally. These usually were held on July 4, and were notable occasions on which the community turned out almost en masse. Special trains were run to the park, there was the parade with the orator, the poet or poetess of the day, the marshalls, the distinguished guests in carriages, brass bands, military companies and the citizens generally. The day witnessed a "feast of reason and flow of soul" in the grand manner followed by bicycle races, ball games, balloon ascensions, or other forms of general entertainment.
One of the most notable of these celebrations appears to have been that of 1893 during which one of the monuments was unveiled. Delivered that day ware ten addresses, not including the invocation, itself no mean oration, and the poem. The printed record of the day's proceedings requires 62 pages. These formal celebrations continued to be held until 1931 at which time there was a re-enactment of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse by the local National Guard troops in commemoration of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the battle. There remains the tradition of visiting the park on the Fourth, a large number of local citizens making the pilgrimage annually.
Even before the days of the Guilford Battle Ground Company there is evidence of occasional celebrations of one kind or another in what is now the park. Local tradition ascribes, leadership in the first celebration to Andrew Jackson who almost certainly was living in the neighborhood in 1787 or 1788. The tradition says that this celebration included "speaking", "horse racing, and gander pulling". These amusements, particularly the two last, are in keeping with the "Old Hickory" of later fame. There are vague traditions of other meetings in the area, including a celebration in honor of Jackson's victory at New Orleans. There also was a great celebration with an estimated attendance of 5,000 held in 1856. This seems to have been primarily a political rally, and was possibly the dying gasp of the "Old Line Whigs" in North Carolina.
An effort to have its property declared a national preserve was inaugurated by the Battle Ground Company in the years succeeding 1910. Several bills to effect this transfer were introduced into Congress, but it was not until 1917 that the final act creating Guilford Courthouse National Military Park was passed. Promptly after passage of the act, the Battle Ground Company deeded its lands to the United States, wound up its affairs, and went out of existence.
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