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Visitors walk through the leafy, serene roads of Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, six miles north of downtown Greensboro, N.C. It is the site of one of the last battles of the Revolutionary War. The troops of Major Generals Nathanael Greene (American) and Charles Cornwallis (British) both suffered considerable losses here in March 1781, but just a few months later, British troops surrendered at Yorktown, Va. Photo by Jerry Ondash
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A war heroine in the family tree

Big wars hold small stories. Thousands of them. One, and sometimes several, for each soldier, each family, each community. 

We have come to the heavily wooded Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, six miles north of downtown Greensboro, N.C., in search of one of those stories.

It belongs to a woman named Kerenhappuch Norman Turner, a widow, mother of seven, farmer, hunter, expert rider and Revolutionary War hero. (Her unusual first name derives from the Bible, one of Job’s daughters.)

She also is our seventh great aunt, and we, her grandnephews and -nieces, are gathered to honor her and her deeds of bravery at this Revolutionary War battlefield. It was here, in March 1781 during the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, that the troops of America’s Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene met those of Britain’s Maj. Gen. Charles Cornwallis. 

The outcome of this battle has been called both indecisive and a defeat for Americans. It did, however, significantly weaken Cornwallis’ army. He eventually moved north to Yorktown, Va., where the British surrendered six months later.  

History books say that Turner, whose relationship to me comes through my paternal grandmother, was in her 60s and a widow when she carried Revolutionary War dispatches for the patriots, sometimes “through the lines of unsuspecting British.”

Kerenhappuch Norman Turner is considered a heroine of the Revolutionary War. This statue of the patriot grandmother was erected in Guilford Courthouse National Military Park to honor her service as a dispatcher who carried messages through British lines and her nursing skills that saved American soldiers’ lives. Photo by Jerry Ondash

Her son, James Turner, and seven grandsons enlisted to fight the British, and when Turner learned that James was gravely injured during the battle of Guilford Courthouse, she rode straight through from Maryland to North Carolina to care for him. 

James’ thigh had been shattered and doctors wanted to amputate his leg. James refused. When his mother arrived, she rigged a system in which large wooden tubs with holes were mounted to the rafters above her son. The tubs were kept full of cold water that dripped continuously on her son’s wounds. That kept the wounds free from infection. Outcome: James kept his leg, and Turner remained to care for other wounded soldiers.

For this, she received the title of Heroine of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and is memorialized with a bronze-and-marble statue that stands near the park’s visitor center. 

Turner lived almost another three decades and died at the age of 90 after being thrown from her horse while hunting with her grandsons in North Carolina. 

I think of the chutzpah it took this mother and grandmother to make that treacherous ride through a dark and hostile countryside to care for her son; the courage it took to care for strangers and possibly be the sole woman among so many men; and the ingenuity it took to create the crude-but-effective medical device that saved her son and so many others.

All of these images do not mesh with the rather demure countenance of the bronze figure standing upon a marble base, but only artist J. Segesman knows why he chose to portray her this way. 

It’s also difficult to imagine bloody bodies, the smell of gunpowder and the sound of gunfire saturating these now-serene acres, host to only woodland creatures and visitors. 

Connecting with these four cousins was pure serendipity. I initially met David Norman of Winston-Salem when he contacted me after I wrote an October 2018 feature about an old Norman family farm in central Ohio. David brought in some first and second cousins from Michigan, Colorado and Alabama who share interests in history and ancestry.

After meeting once in central Ohio, where many Normans farmed and had businesses for several generations, David persuaded us to visit North Carolina. He dubbed the meetup the Second Norman Invasion and developed a busy and interesting four-day itinerary. 

We spend the rest of our time at the military park walking a leafy route that takes us past markers, monuments and signage that tells the story of the Revolutionary War and those who fought it. Cousin Bill Norman speculates that there remain unmarked graves throughout the landscape, a stark reminder of perhaps even more stories that may never come to light. 

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