For anyone who’s seen the opening scene of Poldark then (spoiler alert) you’ll know it takes place in Virginia during America’s War of Independence.
Ross and others in his company (I assume company, cause there doesn’t appear to be enough British regulars sprinkled around the Virginia trees in that opening scene to deem it a battalion or beyond) are bored, gambling, and quickly ambushed by what looks to be American militia (likely under Wayne, Lafayette, and Nelson).
That scene has stayed with me. Not because of Ross. Well. Not just because of Ross.
It reminded me that the British died here. Sounds so obvious, but we spend so much time remembering the victorious American (and French, and Spanish) dead that we forget the so-called “enemy,” many of whom probably had a cousin, brother, mother, sister, wife, or some friend or business partner fighting for American liberty on the other side.
America’s War of Independence was America’s first civil war. It was brutal.
I never saw such fighting as God made me. The Americans fought like demons.Lieutenant General Charles, Earl Cornwallis
As much as Americans died in our fight for independence, how many British (and French, and Spanish) never walked away from our battlefields, and lie unmarked beneath them now?
I was at Guilford Courthouse National Battleground in North Carolina. And there’s a spot where it’s estimated 500 men died.
If my understanding is correct (apologies if it isn’t), a vast portion of these 500 or so men died for Britain.
That made me pause.
I looked up, looked around, examining the trees around me.
It was noted that Guilford Courthouse was a heavily wooded area in North Carolina on March 15, 1781. The day 500 or so men died in a few hours, in the service of King and Country.
When they, this so-called “enemy,” were dying, could they have seen what I saw now?
The battle happened in March, so the leaves wouldn’t have been changing, but this could have been a similar scene, certainly the same area where around 500 British (and German, actually, from Ansbach-Beyreuth, Hesse-Cassel), those men, lay because they would not survive the hour, could not pick themselves up, though perhaps only to crawl maybe stumble as they attempted a run for cover, hand over their gushing wound because they were bleeding out, screaming, crying, gasping, writhing, dying.
Instead of home, they were trapped on a foreign battlefield. Did they just give up, lay back, and watch the tops of the pines above them? Was there a March breeze that swayed the pines back and forth? Did a breeze bring them comfort? Were they the only ones to see a bird shoot across the tops of the pines, as it fled the noise of the battle below? Did they look around them to see young and old trees barring their way to a shelter, or to a friend they could die with? Could they see anything through the powder smoke?
They died here. And what memory is left of them, beyond the land?
And these men who died, they likely knew someone (or knew someone who knew someone, six degrees and all that) fighting for the American side! Why did they have to be sent to die in a war where the enemy was their cousin, or best friend’s brother, or whatever, and in a land where some of them may even have been born? General Sir Henry Clinton grew up in New York, for heaven’s sake!
And the British troops dying and buried at Guilford Courthouse (with varying degrees of grace and ceremony, I’m guessing)…
Where in Britain were they from? Wales? England? There’s the 71st Regiment of Foot, or Frazier’s Highlanders, so we know there were definitely some Scots in North Carolina that day (I mean, obvi. It’s North Carolina. You’re always gonna find somebody with a connection to Scotland).
General Charles O’Hara (the officer who was charged with the surrender of Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown in October 1781) was of Irish and Portugese descent. Augustus O’Hara (who I believe was Charles O’Hara’s nephew and a British artilleryman) was killed at Guilford Courthouse. He was young. Or young enough.
Who did they leave behind? Did every “Ross” have a “Francis,” an “Aunt Agatha,” an “Elizabeth” waiting for their return? A “Trenwith” or “Nampara” that they were crying out for, wishing they could die in the comfort of a familiar place rather than on a brutal alien soil? Did every “Ross” who lay dying in North Carolina, have a “Demelza” back in England who they would never meet? Did they have kids waiting for their Dad to come home?
Americans fought like demons. We killed like demons, too. And not every British or German soldier was quite the demon that centuries-old propaganda (I absolutely love Jason Isaacs, but *cough* The Patriot *cough*) has made them out to be (Tarleton is however, excluded from my reprieve).
How many people were waiting in Bristol? In Liverpool? In London (I know of at least one family who was split between Virginia, and Kensington and Knightsbridge because of this conflict), in Ripon, in Peebles, or Dublin, or Cardiff? I mean, just pick one. But how many people were left waiting in Britain (or France, or Spain, or any of the German principalities) for soldiers now buried in an undiscovered, unmarked mass grave that’s now a parking lot?
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