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Battle of Guilford Courthouse, 15 March 1781

Battle of Guilford Courthouse, 15 March 1781

Battle of Guilford Courthouse, 15 March 1781

Background to the battle

Part of aftermath of Cornwallis's second effort to invade North Carolina during the American War of Independence. With a tiny force of 1,300 men, he left Winnsboro (South Carolina) in early January 1781. His first objective was to rendezvous with Major-General Alexander Leslie. In the previous October, Leslie had been sent from New York to the Chesapeake with 2,500 men, with the aim of destroying American supply depots on the river. His force was to provide the largest part of Cornwallis's army, but Cornwallis was to be very critical of the quality of Leslie's men.

Cornwallis was not alone in launching new attacks at the start of the year. The new American commander in the south, Nathanael Greene, reached his demoralised troops at the start of December, and set about restoring the morale and quality of his army. As Cornwallis moved north, Greene moved south. Most of his army moved to Cheraw on the Pee Dee River, just inside South Carolina, while another detachment, under Daniel Morgan, was sent west to threaten the British positions in the interior of South Carolina. This move threatened the British advance, causing Cornwallis a serious problem. When Tarleton suggested that his British Legion should catch Morgan, Cornwallis agreed. Sending Tarleton west, supported by detachments of regular infantry, Cornwallis himself headed towards his meeting with Leslie.

This plan soon went badly wrong. Tarleton managed to catch Morgan at Hannah's Cowpens on 17 January 1781, but Morgan was ready for him and in the resulting battle Tarleton's unit was destroyed, with nearly 800 taken prisoner. Tarleton himself managed to escape with 40 men, but the days of his successes were largely over. Morgan himself did not linger on the battlefield. The fighting was over by ten in the morning, and Morgan and his men were on the march by noon. News reached Cornwallis on the next day, and he set out in pursuit. However, Morgan was heading north east back towards Greene, but Cornwallis expected him to march south to threaten British posts in South Carolina, and wasted day marched north west to intercept him. News of the battle and of Cornwallis' pursuit reached Greene on 25 January and he immediately realised that Cornwallis would be vulnerable on the chase, having lost much of his cavalry. He immediately set about reassembling his army, and by the end of the first week of February the two armies faced each other across a twenty five mile gap. A pursuit across North Carolina now followed. On 13 February the American forces crossed the River Dan and entered Virginia.

Cornwallis now decided to return south. It was already becoming clear that the Loyalists were not going to rise in massive numbers, while in Virginia Continent Units were being created and the rebels could only get stronger. Rather than risking destruction, Cornwallis instead headed south to Hillsboro (North Carolina). On 20 February he made another attempt to gain Loyalist support, issuing a proclamation asking for Loyalist to join him. This gained him little, but Greene believed reports that the proclamation had been a great success, and believing that North Carolina was about to change allegiance Greene decided to march south again. As he moved into North Carolina, his army gained in strength. 600 militia from Virginia, 400 Continental Infantry and 1693 militia sent for six weeks by Steuben, and 1060 militia from North Carolina joined him. Greene now outnumbered Cornwallis.

For the first two weeks of March the two armies carefully manoeuvred in the area of the Alamance Creek and Haw River. Greene's army was still growing, and finally he decided he was ready to risk a battle. On 14 March Greene moved his army to Guilford Court House, where he prepared to offer battle

American Plans

Greene has chosen his battlefield carefully. The village and court house were clustered on a hill. The road from Salisbury ran across a largely wooded valley towards the Little Horsepen Creek, just over a quarter of a mile distant. Any army coming up the road would have to march down into the valley across open ground cleared for cultivation, then re-enter the woods, before finally coming up to the open high ground around Guilford Court House

The American plan was similar to that used by Daniel Morgan at the battle of Cowpens. The American army was to be deployed in three lines, the first at the edge of the open ground in the valley, the second in the woods, and the third on the high ground.

As at Cowpens, the bulk of the first line was formed by one thousand North Carolina militia spread across the road. This force was supported on the right by 200 Virginia riflemen, 110 Delaware Continental and 80 cavalry under Colonel William Washington, and on the left by 200 more Virginia riflemen and 150 men of Henry Lee's Legion, about half of whom were cavalry. At the centre of the line he placed two artillery pieces. To reach this line, the British would have to march down into the valley under fire, and then attack up hill. Just as at Cowpens, this first line was ordered to fire two volleys and then retire to the rear.

The second line, entirely in the woods, contained another 1,200 militia, this time from Virginia, located 300 yards behind the first line. Finally, another 500 to 600 yards back, the third line on the high ground at Guilford contained 800 Virginia Continentals and 600 Maryland Continentals.

The British Attack

Cornwallis spend the night before the battle only twelve miles from Guilford Court House. He started his troops on the twelve mile march before dawn, and at 10.00am his advance guard under Tarleton encountered American scouts from Henry Lee's troop. Despite this, the British were able to gain no idea of the American dispositions, and their first clear site of the enemy was when they reached the clear ground before the American first line.

As the British appeared, the two artillery pieces with the American first line opened fire. The British artillery returned fire while Cornwallis formed his line. The British army numbered 1,900 men in total, some of whom remained in reserve. The resulting British line was almost certainly outnumbered by the American first line alone. The British line began a staggered advance on the right, with the left wing soon following. The American commander on the left wing judged the moment to open fire perfectly, waiting until the British were only 150 yards away before firing the first volley, which tore great holes in the British line. It is a testament to the professionalism of the British troops that the line did not slow under this onslaught. Leslie, commanding on the British right ordered the pace increased. On the American right, things were going better for the British. The Americans here had fired at the same time as on the other wing, but because of the staggered start the British were out of effective range of the American guns. Here too the British advance quickened, hoping to close with the American line before the second volley.

Back on the British right, Leslie's men reached close range. At his command they stopped, fired their own volley, and then led by the Highlanders charged the American line. The Carolinian militia panicked, turned and fled, despite the best efforts of Henry Lee to hold them. On the other flank, the British reached to within 40 yards of the American line before the Americans were ready for their second volley. Both sides fired at the same time, before the British charged. Here too the militia fell back, but this time under some control.

While the militia fell back, the American supporting troops on both flanks retained their original position, allowing them to fire into the side of the British line. Lee, on the British right, forced Leslie to commit his reserves in an attempt to force him back, but all they were able to do was push Lee onto higher ground, where they were to fight an almost separate battle that lasted just as long as the main fight. On the British left, William Washington's cavalry and the Virginian riflemen also held out, forcing Lt. Colonel Webster, commanding the British left, to commit his main force to dislodging them.

These actions on the flank left the British centre exposed, and forced Cornwallis to move his reserves into the centre. The battle now entered a confused period in the woods. The American second line found itself facing the new British centre, and fought well. Despite this, the British still advanced steadily and soon came face to face with the American third line.

This third line was the strongest of the American lines. It consisted of 1400 regular troops, defending a strong hill-top position protected by broken ground. The first British troops to encounter it, from Webster's wing, appear not to have realised they were facing fresh troops and charged into the attack. The American regulars stopped them with a volley, and then ironically drove them off with a bayonet charge.

The second, more coordinated British attack met with more success. The 2nd Battalion of Guards managed to dislodge the 5th Maryland Regiment, the only inexperienced unit in the American line. William Washington's cavalry were able to plug the hole, and a vicious melee developed, which soon dragged in other British units. Although the British troops were vastly superior in more ordered melees, this chaotic scramble saw them in danger of being sucked in and destroyed by the superior American numbers.

Cornwallis now took ruthless action. He ordered two cannon to fire grapeshot into the melee, hoping to force the two sides to separate. Although this would inevitably cause losses on both sides, Cornwallis evidently felt that more experienced British troops would be able to reform quicker. This proved to be the case. The newly reformed British formations once again entered the attack, and now Greene decided to retreat. Unlike at many previous battles, the American retreat did not turn into a rout. In part this was due to the improved quality of the American soldiers, but in truth the most important element was that the British were battered.

Cornwallis had lost 532 men killed or wounded, compared to official American figures of only 263. The lower American casualty figures are perhaps not surprising, when one considers the rapid retreat of the first line and their strong defensive position at the end of the battle. Despite these casualties, the British achievement at Guilford was impressive. Outnumbered three to one and facing an enemy who had chosen their own ground and were fighting a defensive battle, Cornwallis's men were still able to force a battlefield victory. However, as happened so many times, the Americans lost the battle but won the aftermath. Cornwallis retreated to Willmington, where his badly bruised army rested while he pondered his next move. Just over one month after his victory at Guilford Court House, on 25 April, Cornwallis began his march to Virginia, and eventually to Yorktown.


See AlsoBooks on the American War of IndependenceSubject Index: American War of Independence


History Bytez

The Battle of Guilford Court House was a fought on this day in 1781, at a site which is now in Greensboro, Guilford County, North Carolina, during the American Revolutionary War. A 2,100-man British force under the command of Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis defeated Major General Nathanael Greene’s 4,500 Americans. The British Army, however, lost a considerable number of men during the battle with estimates as high as 27%. Such heavy British casualties resulted in a strategic victory for the Americans.

The battle was the “largest and most hotly contested” battle of the American Revolution’s southern campaign and led to the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. Before the battle, the British appeared to have had great success in conquering much of Georgia and South Carolina with the aid of strong Loyalist factions, and thought that North Carolina might be within their grasp. In fact, the British were in the process of heavy recruitment in North Carolina when this battle put an end to their recruiting drive. In the wake of the battle, Greene moved into South Carolina, while Cornwallis chose to march into Virginia and attempt to link up with roughly 3,500 men under British Major General Phillips and American turncoat Benedict Arnold. These decisions allowed Greene to unravel British control of the South, while leading Cornwallis to Yorktown and eventual surrender to General George Washington and Lieutenant General Comte de Rochambeau.

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I am an ex-teacher having taught Ancient and Modern History, Social Science and Computing (weird combo . hey) in the NSW (Australian) education system. I completed my degree at the same time as Maxx, but majored more in Modern History and Political Science before doing a Graduate Dip. Ed. and teaching. I have a strong interest in military history (all periods) but love reading about all aspects of history (you might call me a history junkie). I believe learning should be a life long pursuit and that the study of history is integral to the development of a mature, modern 'thinking' and 'questioning' society.


Contents

Early history Edit

At the time of European encounter, the inhabitants of the area that became Greensboro were a Siouan-speaking people called the Saura. [6] : 7 Other indigenous cultures had occupied this area for thousands of years, typically settling along the waterways, as did the early settlers.

Quaker migrants from Pennsylvania, by way of Maryland, arrived at Capefair (now Greensboro) in about 1750. The new settlers began organized religious services affiliated with the Cane Creek Friends Meeting in Snow Camp in 1751. [7] Three years later, 40 Quaker families were granted approval to establish New Garden Monthly Meeting. [7] (The action is recorded in the minutes of the Perquimans and Little River Quarterly Meeting on May 25, 1754: "To Friends at New Garden in Capefair", signed by Joseph Ratliff.) [8] The settlement grew rapidly during the next three years, adding members from as far away as Nantucket in Massachusetts. [7] It soon became the most important Quaker community in North Carolina and mother of several other Quaker meetings that were established in the state and west of the Appalachians. [7]

After the Revolutionary War, the city of Greensboro was named for Major General Nathanael Greene, commander of the rebel American forces at the Battle of Guilford Court House on March 15, 1781. [6] : 20 Although the Americans lost the battle, Greene's forces inflicted heavy casualties on the British Army of General Cornwallis. Following this battle, Cornwallis withdrew his troops to a British coastal base in Wilmington, North Carolina. [9] [10]

Greensboro was established near the geographic center of Guilford County, on land that was "an unbroken forest with thick undergrowth of huckleberry bushes, that bore a finely flavored fruit." [11] Property for the future village was purchased from the Saura for $98. Three north-south streets (Greene, Elm, Davie) were laid out intersecting with three east-west streets (Gaston, Market, Sycamore). [6] : 171–174, 21 The courthouse was built at the center of the intersection of Elm and Market streets. By 1821, the town was home to 369 residents.

In the early 1840s, Greensboro was designated by the state government as one of the stops on a new railroad line, at the request of Governor John Motley Morehead, whose house, Blandwood, was in Greensboro. Stimulated by rail traffic and improved access to markets, the city grew substantially, soon becoming known as the "Gate City" due to its role as a transportation hub for the Piedmont. [12] : 66 The railroads transported goods to and from the cotton textile mills. Many of the manufacturers developed workers' housing in mill villages near their facilities.

Textile companies and related businesses continued into the 21st century, when most went bankrupt, reorganized, and/or merged with other companies as textile manufacturing jobs moved offshore. Greensboro is still a major center of the textile industry, with the main offices of International Textile Group (Cone, Burlington Industries), Galey & Lord, Unifi, and VF Corporation (Wrangler, Lee, The North Face, and Nautica). ITG Brands, maker of Kool, Winston and Salem brand cigarettes, is the third largest tobacco company in the United States and is headquartered in Greensboro. Rail traffic continues to be important for the city's economy, as Greensboro is a major regional freight hub. In addition, four Amtrak passenger trains stop in Greensboro daily on the main Norfolk Southern line between Washington and New Orleans by way of Atlanta.

Though the city developed slowly, early wealth generated in the 18th and 19th centuries from cotton trade and merchandising resulted in owners' constructing several notable buildings. The earliest, later named Blandwood Mansion and Gardens, was built by a farmer in 1795. Additions to this residence in 1846, designed by Alexander Jackson Davis of New York City, made the house influential as America's earliest Tuscan-style villa. It has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. [13] Other significant houses and estates were developed, including "Dunleith", designed by Samuel Sloan Bellemeade and the Bumpass-Troy House. Since the late 20th century, the latter has been adapted and operates as a private inn.

Civil War and last days of the Confederacy Edit

In the mid-19th century, many of the residents of the Piedmont and western areas of the state were Unionist, and Guilford County did not vote for secession. But, once North Carolina joined the Confederacy, some citizens joined the Confederate cause, forming such infantry units as the Guilford Grays to fight in the Civil War. From 1861 to March 1865 the city was relatively untouched by the war, although residents had to deal with the regional shortages of clothing, medicines, and other items caused by the US naval blockade of the South.

In the final weeks of the war, Greensboro played a unique role in the last days of the Confederate government. In April 1865 General P. G. T. Beauregard was instructed by the commanding officer of the Army of Tennessee, General Joseph E. Johnston, to prepare for a defense of the city. During this time, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the remaining members of the Confederate cabinet had evacuated the Confederate Capital in Richmond, Virginia, and moved south to Danville, Virginia.

When Union cavalry threatened Danville, Davis and his cabinet managed to escape by train and reassembled in Greensboro on April 11, 1865. While in the city, Davis and his cabinet decided to try to escape overseas in order to avoid capture by the victorious Union forces they left Greensboro and separated. Greensboro is notable as the last place where the entire Confederate government met as a group: it is considered by some the "final" capital city of the Confederacy. [14] : 101

At nearly the same time, Governor Zebulon B. Vance fled Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina, before the forces of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman swept the city. [15] For a brief period beginning April 16, 1865, he and other officials maintained the state capital in Greensboro. [6] : 395 [16] : 177 Governor Vance proclaimed the North Carolina Surrender Declaration on April 28, 1865. [16] : 182 Later, Vance surrendered to Union officials in the parlor of Blandwood Mansion. Historian Blackwell Robinson wrote, "Greensboro witnessed not only the demise of the Confederacy but also that of the old civil government of the state." [14] : 101

Once surrender negotiations were completed at Bennett Place (in present-day Durham) between General Johnston and General Sherman on April 26, 1865, Confederate soldiers in Greensboro stacked their arms and received their paroles, and headed for home.

Industrialization and growth Edit

After the war, investors worked to restore the textile mills and related industry. In the 1890s, the city continued to attract attention from northern industrialists, including Moses and Caesar Cone of Baltimore, Maryland. [6] : 171–174 The Cone brothers established large-scale textile plants, changing Greensboro from a village to a city within a decade. By 1900, Greensboro was considered a center of the Southern textile industry, with large-scale factories producing denim, flannel, and overalls. [12] : 59 The resulting prosperity was expressed in the construction of notable twentieth-century civic architecture, including the Guilford County Courthouse, West Market Street United Methodist Church by S. W. Faulk, several buildings designed by Frank A. Weston, and the Julius I. Foust Building of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, designed by Orlo Epps.

During the twentieth century, Greensboro continued to increase in population and wealth. Grand commercial and civic buildings, many of which still stand today, were designed by local architects Charles Hartmann and Harry Barton. Other notable industries became established in the city, including Vicks Chemical Co. (famous for over-the-counter cold remedies such as VapoRub and NyQuil), Carolina Steel Corporation, and Pomona Terra Cotta Works. [14] : 220 During the first three decades, Greensboro grew so rapidly that there was an acute worker housing shortage. Builders set a construction goal of 80 to 100 affordable housing units per year to provide homes for workers. [14] : 209 Greensboro's real estate was considered "the wonder of the state" during the 1920s. Growth continued even through the Great Depression, as Greensboro attracted an estimated 200 new families per year to its population. [14] : 210 The city earned a reputation as a well-planned community, with a strong emphasis on education, parks, and a profitable employment base.

It has two major public research universities, North Carolina A&T State University, a historically black college established in the late 19th century, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. During the height of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, students from A&T were the major force in protests to achieve racial justice, desegregation of public facilities, and fair employment, beginning with the Greensboro Four, who sat in at the segregated lunch counter at Woolworth's in 1960 to gain service. The largest civil rights protests in North Carolina history took place in Greensboro in May and June 1963. In the 21st century, the universities are leaders in new areas of research in high tech and science, on which the city hopes to build a new economy.

Wartime and postwar prosperity brought development, and designs commissioned from nationally and internationally known architects. For instance, Walter Gropius, a leader of the German Bauhaus movement in the United States, designed a factory building in the city in 1944. [17] Greensboro-based Ed Loewenstein designed projects throughout the region. Eduardo Catalano and George Matsumoto were hired for projects whose designs have challenged North Carolinians with modernist architectural concepts and forms.

Civil Rights Movement Edit

In 1960, the Census Bureau reported Greensboro's population as 74.0% white and 25.8% black. [18] As in the rest of the state, most blacks were still disenfranchised under state laws, Jim Crow laws and customs were in effect, and public facilities, including schools, were racially segregated by law. This was after the US Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Facilities reserved for blacks were generally underfunded by the state and city governments, which were dominated by conservative white Democrats.

In the postwar period, blacks pushed in North Carolina and across the South to regain the ability to exercise their constitutional rights as citizens. College students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (A&T), a historically black college, made Greensboro a center of protests and change. On February 1, 1960, four black college students sat down at an "all-white" Woolworth's lunch counter, and refused to leave after they were denied service. They had already purchased items in other parts of the store and kept their receipts. After being denied lunch service, they brought out the receipts, asking why their money was good everywhere else in the store but not at the lunch counter. [19] Hundreds of supporters soon joined in this sit-in, which lasted several months. Such protests quickly spread across the South, ultimately leading to the desegregation of lunch counters and other facilities at Woolworth's and other chains.

Woolworth's went out of business due to changes in 20th-century retail practices, but the original Woolworth's lunch counter and stools are still in their original location. The former Woolworth's building has been adapted as the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which opened on February 1, 2010, the 50th anniversary of the sit-ins. [20] (A section of the counter is on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. to mark the courage of the civil rights protesters.) [21]

The white business community acceded to the desegregation of Woolworth's and made other minor concessions, but the civil rights movement had additional goals, holding protests in 1962 and 1963. In May and June 1963, the largest civil rights protest in North Carolina history took place in Greensboro. Protesters sought desegregation of public accommodations, and economic and social justice, such as hiring policies based on merit rather than race. They also worked for the overdue integration of public schools, as the US Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Each night more than 2,000 protesters marched through Greensboro's segregated central business district. William Thomas and A. Knighton Stanley, coordinators of Greensboro's local CORE chapter, invited Jesse Jackson, then an activist student at A&T, to join the protests. Jackson quickly rose to prominence as a student leader, becoming the public spokesman of the non-violent protest movement. Seeking to overwhelm city jails, as was done in protests led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, Alabama, the protesters invited arrest by violating segregation rules of local businesses they were charged with trespassing and other non-violent actions. College and high school students constituted most of the protesters, and at one point approximately 1,400 blacks were jailed in the city of Greensboro. The scale of protests disrupted the business community and challenged the leadership of the mayor and Governor Terry Sanford.

Finally, the city and business community responded with further desegregation of public facilities, reformed hiring policies in city government, and commitments to progress by both Greensboro's mayor and Governor Sanford. Sanford declared, "Anyone who hasn't received this message doesn't understand human nature." Significant changes in race relations still came at a painfully slow pace, and the verbal commitments from white leadership in 1963 were not implemented in substantial ways. [22]

Dudley High School/A&T protests Edit

In May 1969, students of James B. Dudley High School were outraged when the administration refused to let a popular candidate named Claude Barnes run for student union class president, allegedly due to his membership in Youth for the Unity of Black Society. [23] After their appeals to the school were rejected, the students asked activists at North Carolina A&T State University for support in a protest. [24] [25] [26] Protests escalated and after students at A&T had thrown rocks at police, they returned on May 21 armed with tear gas canisters, using this against the crowds. The uprising grew larger, and the governor ordered the National Guard to back up local police. After there were exchanges of gunfire, the governor ordered the National Guard into the A&T campus, in what was described at the time as "the most massive armed assault ever made against an American university." [27] The National Guard swept the college dormitories, taking hundreds of students into "protective custody". The demonstrations were suppressed. The disturbances were investigated by the North Carolina State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights its 1970 report concluded that the National Guard invasion was a reckless action as it was disproportionate to the danger posed by student protests. It criticized local community leaders for failing to respond adequately to the Dudley High School students when the issues first arose. They declared it "a sad commentary that the only group in the community who would take the Dudley students seriously were the students at A&T State University." [26]

Greensboro Massacre Edit

While making progress, African Americans in Greensboro continued to suffer acts of prejudice. On November 3, 1979, members of what would become the Communist Workers Party (CWP) held an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally in the black Morningside Homes public housing project. [28] It was covered by four local TV news stations. During the protest, two cars containing Klansmen and neo-Nazis arrived. [29] After a confrontation, the KKK and CWP groups exchanged gunfire. Five CWP members were killed. Eleven CWP members and one Klansman were injured. [30] Television footage of the actions was shown nationwide and around the world, and the event became known as the Greensboro Massacre. In November 1980, six KKK defendants were each acquitted in a state criminal trial by an all-white jury after a week of deliberations. Families of those killed and injured in the attack filed a civil suit against the city and police department for failure to protect the black citizens. In 1985, a jury in this case found five police officers and two other individuals liable for $350,000 in damages the monies were to be paid to the Greensboro Justice Fund, established to advance civil rights.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 131.8 square miles (341.4 km 2 ), of which 126.5 square miles (327.7 km 2 ) is land and 5.3 square miles (13.7 km 2 ), or 4.01%, is water. [3]

Greensboro is located among the rolling hills of North Carolina's Piedmont, situated midway between the state's Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains to the west and the Atlantic beaches and Outer Banks to the east. The view of the city from its highest building—the Lincoln Financial tower (commonly known as the Jefferson-Pilot Building after its previous owner)—shows an expanse of shade trees in the city. Interstates 40, 85, and 73 intersect at the city.

Downtown area Edit

Downtown Greensboro has attracted development investment in recent years with such new construction as First National Bank Field, residential construction, and offices. The Southside neighborhood downtown exemplifies central-city reinvestment. The formerly economically depressed neighborhood has been redeveloped as an award-winning neotraditional-style neighborhood featuring walkability, compact blocks and local amenities and services. [31] Downtown Greensboro has an active nightlife with numerous nightclubs, bars and restaurants.

The redevelopment of the downtown was stimulated by the 2006 opening of the Elon University School of Law. The law school is credited with attracting student dollars to the downtown both day and night. [32]


Battle of Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina 15 March 1781

The early part of the American Revolutionary War was fought mostly in the North of the colonies, but after a series of defeats, the British decided to focus on the southern colonies in their persistent belief that Loyalist sympathies ran deeper there than the North. The British had built up a string of victories in the south by early 1781 by chasing down southern militias and defeating them one by one. General Washington sent one of his best Generals, Nathaniel Greene south to revive the Patriot effort. Greene had tried to separate his forces and hoped to catch the British off guard by making them attack him piecemeal. This had had some success, namely at Cowpens two months earlier, but it was getting harder and harder to avoid a major showdown with the British main force. After strategically retreating across South and North Carolina and preserving his force, Greene decided to turn and face his pursuer, Redcoat General Lord Cornwallis. Cornwallis was sure that if he could corner Greene’s force and inflict a decisive defeat on the Rebels, he could soon claim the American south for the British cause. The field for this critical battle was in the small hamlet of Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina.

Battle of Guildford Courthouse

On the cold morning of 15 March 1781, Greene deployed his mixed militia and Continental Army force of approximately 4,500 in three lines in depth. The first line was North Carolina militia, the second Virginia militia and the final line was mainly Continentals. Cornwallis took his 1,900 British and German professional soldiers and attacked head on, breaking through the first line quickly, but with serious losses that he could ill afford. The second line held longer and bled the British further. However, the British broke through and finally reached the Continentals where a fierce give and take erupted with attacks and counter-attacks. The resulting mass of fighting men confused the situation to the point that Cornwallis felt that he needed to break up the two armies with grape shot fired into the middle of it. The artillery killed indiscriminately, but had the intended effect of separating the armies. At this point, Greene decided to pull away and save his force. Cornwallis stood victorious on the field, but strategically hamstrung.

From this victory, Cornwallis headed for the coast for re-supply for his depleted force. The condition of his army led him to begin his doomed Virginia campaign which would end later in the year with his surrender at Yorktown.


Battle of Guilford Courthouse

Visit the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park and Battlefield Visitor Center, maintained by the National Park Service.

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse was the turning point of the Southern Campaign of 1780-1781. Though the British could claim victory, they paid a high price for nothing more than command of the field. Following the battle, the British Army in North Carolina was so depleted that General Charles Cornwallis was forced to abandon his hard-won gains and regroup his army in Wilmington. While the British licked their wounds, General Nathanael Greene&rsquos army proceeded to isolate and destroy British and Loyalist garrisons in the state&rsquos interior, confining British control to the coasts.

General Nathanael Greene succeeded General Horatio Gates as commander at the request of George Washington on December 2, 1780. He assumed command of the Southern Army, which consisted of a mere 2,000 Continental regulars. Fortunately for the American cause, British atrocities in the south had incensed the local populace, and Greene had little trouble gaining support from local guerrillas who had already fought at Kings Mountain. Daniel Morgan's venerable rifle corps was also attached to the southern army much to Greene&rsquos delight. Greene proceeded to boldly divide his army in the face of a superior enemy force hoping that it would force Cornwallis to divide his own army in hostile and unfamiliar country. Daniel Morgan took a detachment to the southwest, luring a British force under Col. Banastre &ldquoBloody Ban&rdquo Tarleton after him. Morgan&rsquos mixed army of 700 regulars supported by roughly 300 militia routed Tarleton&rsquos 1,100 man army at Cowpens on January 17, 1781, killing or capturing 800 men. 1

The humiliating defeat at Cowpens spurred Cornwallis to leave his position at Winnsboro to attack Greene. Greene&rsquos army led Cornwallis&rsquos column deep into the interior of North Carolina, which put such a strain on the British supply lines that Cornwallis ordered the destruction of all heavy baggage. What followed became known as the &ldquoRace to the Dan,&rdquo as Greene&rsquos army traveled with the utmost speed across North Carolina past the Dan River into Virginia. The British had been stretched to their limit by the chase, and their supply lines were under constant attack by American guerrillas. Cornwallis ordered his exhausted men to abandon the chase in order to march to Hillsborough to regroup and rally Loyalist elements there. 2

Once news of Cornwallis&rsquos counter march reached him, Greene reentered North Carolina to put pressure on isolated British garrisons, gather supplies, and prevent British recruitment of Loyalist militias. Throughout the second week of March in 1781, Greene continued to receive reinforcements until his army swelled to roughly 4,400 men. He made camp near Guilford Courthouse and prepared for upcoming operations against Cornwallis. The British only numbered 1,900 men, but they were all seasoned regulars. Cornwallis, eager for a decisive battle, marched within eight miles of Greene's position at Guilford Courthouse on March 14, 1781.

Greene was also eager for a fight, as he believed &ldquoif we were successful it would prove ruinous to the enemy, and if otherwise, it would prove a partial evil to us.&rdquo 3 The first British scouts were sighted by American sentries at 2 a.m. on the morning of March 15. Greene&rsquos force was mainly composed of militia from Virginia and North Carolina, with a core of Continental Regulars of varied origin. Upon sighting the British vanguard, the Southern Army was formed into three lines. The first line comprised the North Carolina Militia under Generals John Butler and Thomas Eaton. Four hundred yards behind them was the second line, which was made up of two brigades of Virginia militia under Generals Edward Stevens and Robert Lawson. The last line held the Continental regulars, mostly from Virginia and Maryland. The regulars were joined by riflemen, light infantry, and dragoons on the flanks. Greene deployed his three lines on the face of a hill, each roughly 300-400 yards apart. 4

The battle began with a twenty-minute artillery barrage from American six-pounders against the forming British troops. The British artillery answered with three six-pounders, though losses on both sides were minimal. The British advanced towards Greene&rsquos first line in two (later three) columns. They were composed of both British, Loyalist, and Hessian formations. When the British came within 140 yards of the North Carolina infantry, the Americans began to fire from behind a rail fence. However, few militiamen got off more than two shots, and most simply threw their guns down and ran. Those that did fire rarely hit their mark at the extended range. Greene reported to Samuel Huntington &ldquo[we] did all [we] could to induce the men to stand their ground, but neither the advantages of the position nor any other consideration could induce them to stay.&rdquo 5 As the British advanced, the Virginians in the second line delivered several effective volleys upon the enemy. Their success was short-lived, and the second line fell back before the weight of Cornwallis&rsquos army and numerous units regrouped with Continental regulars on the third line and in the flanks. A hotly contested battle immediately followed, and Greene recalled that the fighting was both &ldquolong and severe.&rdquo 6

As the British approached the third line, their ranks were noticeably depleted. The first two lines of militia and the irregular actions on both flanks had inflicted numerous casualties as well as diverted large detachments of British troops. The third line contained one brigade of regulars from Virginia and another brigade from Maryland. The British 2nd Battalion of Guards turned the American left flank as the 2nd Maryland Regiment prematurely broke due to poor training and confusing orders. The Guards were vigorously counterattacked by American dragoons under Lieutenant Colonel William Washington, but Cornwallis&rsquos artillery prevented the destruction of his Guards when they fired grapeshot into the melee. The British guns killed many of their own men, but the counterattack was checked. 7 Soon after, the remaining regiments of the third line began a general retreat north, abandoning their artillery as they marched.

In three hours, Cornwallis&rsquos army took possession of the field, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Official reports stated that the British lost 93 killed, 413 wounded, and 26 missing. 8 Many irreplaceable officers also lay dead on the field. Greene&rsquos Southern Army had lost a &ldquovery trifling&rdquo 300 killed, wounded, and missing. 9 Cornwallis could not afford the casualties his army sustained and withdrew to Wilmington. By doing so, Cornwallis ceded control of the countryside to the Continentals. In the coming months, isolated British garrisons and Loyalist militias were eradicated by Greene&rsquos partisans and regulars. By July 1781 the British only held the coasts of the Carolinas and Georgia. Cornwallis soon abandoned any hope of a successful campaign in the southern states. Instead, he began to focus on invading Virginia, which was viewed as a hotbed of rebel activity and the future seat of the war once substantial military aid began arriving from France. 10

Nick McGrath
The George Washington University

1. Allan R. Milley and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America, (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 75-76.

2. Stephen Brumwell, George Washington: Gentleman Warrior, (New York: Quercus, 2012), 378-379.

3. General Nathanael Greene to Samuel Huntington, 16 March 1781, in The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, Vol. VII., ed. Richard Showman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 433.

7. Richard Showman, ed., The Papers of Nathanael Greene, Vol. VII, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 440.

8. Richard Showman, ed., The Papers of Nathanael Greene, Vol. VII, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 440.

9. General Nathanael Greene to Governor Thomas Jefferson, Camp at the Iron Works, 16 March 1781, in The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, Vol. VII., ed. Richard Showman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 441.

10. Robert A. Doughty and Ira D. Gruber, Warfare in the Western World: Volume I, (Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996), 164-166.

Bibliography:

Brumwell, Stephen. George Washington: Gentleman Warrior. New York: Quercus, 2012.

Doughty, Robert A., and Ira D. Gruber. Warfare in the Western World, Volume I. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996.

Lengel, Edward. General George Washington: A Military Life. New York: Random House, 2007.

Lengel, Edward, ed. This Glorious Struggle: George Washington&rsquos Revolutionary War Letters. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Millet, Allan R., and Peter Maslowski. For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America. New York: The Free Press, 1994.


The Battle of Guilford Courthouse

“Battle of Guilford Courthouse, 15 March 1781.” The 1st Maryland Regiment reforms its line in front of Gen. Nathanael Greene after making a bayonet charge. In the background, William Washington’s Light Dragoons hurry to the aid of the 5th Maryland Infantry Regiment. United States Army Center of Military History.

Hooves thundered in the early dawn, mud flying from iron horseshoes, men cursing as they urged their mounts on. The men’s coats, green when clean, became a mottled brown as the mud clung to the fabric. Most brandished swords, others carried pistols. Ahead, just beyond the curve in the country lane known as the Great Salisbury Road the enemy waited. Around the bend the dragoons tore, into the arms of death.

Waiting for the green-coated riders of Tarleton’s Legion were the men of Lt. Col. “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s Legion. The Americans cut loose a devastating volley, killing man and horse alike. It was the first volley of the day, the precursor of a long day of volleys, of a fight that would come to be known as the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.

The Armies
Most of us have heard of and read accounts of the famous northern Revolutionary War battles—Bunker Hill, Brandywine, Monmouth, and Saratoga, to name but a few. Most historians believe, however, that it was the series of smaller battles in the southern colonies, fought during 1780-81, that led to Lord Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Critical in that series was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.

Fought on March 15, 1781, the battle pitched 2,000 British regulars under Lord Charles Cornwallis against a mixed bag of 4,000 men commanded by Major General Nathanael Greene. Cornwallis was career military, an excellent commander, and one of only five members of the British parliament that voted against the Stamp Act of 1765. Nathanael Greene began the war as a private in the militia and rose to be widely recognized as one of America’s best generals by the war’s end.

Although the two leaders shared a common military proficiency, the troops under their command were, for the most part, significantly different. Cornwallis’s army was comprised of veteran British regulars. Most of the men had served in America five or six years, some even more. Also attached to Cornwallis’s small army were two Hessian mercenary units: a company of jaegers and the Von Bose regiment. The average age of the British soldiers was 28 years old, and most had at least ten years service in the army. The line infantry were armed with the famous Brown Bess musket, a .75 caliber, smoothbore weapon. The Brown Bess was reliable and sturdy, but in the American Revolution, it’s most significant feature became the 18″ socket bayonet, which could be attached to the musket’s barrel. The American militia usually lacked such muskets and bayonets, and when faced with British steel without means of fighting back, frequently broke.

By contrast 75% of Greene’s army were militia whose terms of service varied between three and six months. These men lacked the discipline and drill experience to stand toe to toe with the British regulars, yet when properly led fought well on occasion. On the other hand, several regiments of Continental regulars also marched with Greene. These men, most notably the company from Delaware as well as the 1 st Maryland, were the match of anything the British could throw at them. Additionally Lt. Col. William Washington’s Dragoons and Lee’s cavalry were far superior to their British counterparts, the American’s better mounts and years in the saddle providing a decisive edge. Finally, Greene’s Virginia rifle formations—Col. Charles Lynch and Col. William Campbell Rifles, gave him a pair a infantry formations with relatively (250 yards) long-range punch. Both sides owned a similar amount of artillery, the Americans fielding four 6-pounders, and the British boasting the same, plus a pair of 3-pounders.

The Battle Joined, Lee’s Delaying Action
The first shots were fired at approximately 7:30 in the morning as Tarleton’s British Legion advanced down the Great Salisbury Road. There they met Lee’s cavalry at a narrowing of the lane. After a sharp exchange, Tarleton’s men retreated to the New Garden Meeting house. Lee’s infantry and a company of Campbell’s riflemen pursued them, and quickly fell into a fight with the Guard’s light infantry, the Hessian jaegers, and the lead elements of the 23rd Foot. The British line rapidly lengthened, the red-coated infantry attempting to outflank Lee and his men. Seeing this, Lee ordered the infantry to pull back to a wooded ridge by a crossroads, approximately halfway between the initial encounter and the subsequent fight at the New Garden Meeting House. Lee’s cavalry covered the withdrawal.

This fight at the crossroads was more of an infantry fight, as the woods surrounding the house prohibited effective cavalry maneuver. Here the two sides battled for about thirty minutes before Lee withdrew to the main American lines, approximately three miles north. Because of these initial screening skirmishes, Greene had about two and one half hours to deploy his lines and make ready for the British attack.

The Plan
Greene’s plan and deployment owed much to Daniel Morgan’s victory at Cowpens, South Carolina. There, Morgan had placed his militia in a line well ahead of his Continentals. The militia fired, attriting the British regulars, and then retired, allowing the Continentals to do the heavy lifting.

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Click to enlarge.

In a similar manner, Greene deployed his troops in three lines. In the first line were the North Carolina militia—Brig. Gen. Thomas Eaton’s brigade to the north of the Great Salisbury Road, and Brig. Gen. John Butler’s brigade to the south. The flanks of these militia brigades were bolstered with Lee’s Legion, Washington’s cavalry, the Virginia Rifles, and small contingents of Delaware and Virginia Continentals. In the center sat a pair of Singleton’s 6-pounders. The militia had moderate cover behind a rail fence, and good fields of fire through overgrown crop fields.

Virginia militia comprised the second line—Brig. Gen Robert Lawson’s troops north of the road and Brig. Gen Edward Stevens troops to the south. These troops were in the woods, which provided more cover but also hindered line of sight. Again, the plan was to fire a couple of volleys and then retire.

Greene’s Continentals formed the third line. This was the cream of the army, including two regiments of Virginia Continentals, a battery of 6-pounders, the 2nd Maryland, and the tough-as-nails 1st Maryland Regiment. Greene hoped to break Cornwallis’s army against these men, but would not allow his regulars to be destroyed in a prolonged battle. He knew that without the Continentals the army would cease to exist.

The Fight at the First Line
Twenty minutes of ineffectual artillery dueling precursed the British attack of the first line. The actual assault stepped off at approximately noon. On the north side of the road the 33rd Foot and 23rdFoot, led by Lt. Col. James Webster, marched across the rough fields towards Eaton’s militia. On the southern flank the 71st Foot and Von Bose Regiment, directed by Maj. Gen. Alexander Leslie, approached Butler’s Brigade across similar, recently ploughed, ground. The Guards Grenadiers, and the 2nd Guards Battalion formed in the center behind the 23rd and 71st Foot, whereas further to the south, the 1st Guards Battalion supported the Von Bose Regiment. In reserve were the jaegers, Guards light infantry, Tarleton’s British Legion, and the 17th Light Dragoons.

After crossing a second wood rail fence approximately 100–150 yards from the militia’s line, the British began receiving fire. The range was well in excess of effective musket fire, so historians attribute this fire to Lynch and Cambell’s riflemen stationed on both flanks of the Americans line. Despite men dropping from the ranks, the British infantry pressed on, bayonets gleaming in the winter sun.

At 40 yards the North Carolina militia fired, the buck and ball loaded in their muskets scything through the British lines. At this point many of the British halted and fired. Most of this firing was by companies. By some accounts, the British fired as many as three times their fire, although less effective than the Yank Militia, still exacted a deadly toll. It was after this exchange of fire that the British lowered their bayonets, charged, and the militia took flight.

How many took flight, and whether the ordered second volley was ever fired, has been hotly debated. Suffice to say that much of the North Carolina militia ran, but some did indeed fire the second shot, and others, such as the Surrey County militia refused to fold, attaching themselves to Lee’s Legion and fighting hard during the entire battle. In the final telling, the first line disintegrated. The regulars on the flanks fell back in good order, but the militia, by and large, were routed.

The Second Line
In the second line the Virginians waited. The woods were too thick to allow them to see the battle for the first line, but they no doubt heard the roar of the muskets and then saw the North Carolina militia as they streamed back through the Virginian’s lines, their faces dirty, their comrades wounded. Finally the British appeared. The 33rd Foot were the first to be seen, and Lawson ordered a regiment to advance to meet them. Unfortunately, while doing so the American brigade was caught in the flank by the Guard Grenadiers, who rolled up the regiment north to south.

The fight north of the road quickly broke into numerous platoon and company-sized engagements, as those Virginians who had not run exchanged fire with the British troops among the trees. The volleys lasted a good while, and some regiments claimed to have fired up to twenty rounds a man. Finally, the British gained the upper hand, and Lawson’s Virginians were routed.

South of the road, Stevens’ brigade fought valiantly. Cocke and Moffet’s regiments battled hard with the 71st Foot, trading volleys six or seven times with the Scots. When Stevens was wounded near the road at the center of the road, resistance at this part of the line collapsed. Fighting continued, however, in the southern portion of Stevens’ line. There the men of Samuel McDowell stood fast for several more minutes before retreating.

Meanwhile a separate battle developed south of the second line. There Maj. Gen Alexander Stuart’s Virginia militia, Col. William Campbell’s riflemen, Lt. Col. Henry Lee’s Legion, and Capt. Andrew Wallace’s Continentals battled against the 1st Battalion of the Guards, the Von Bose Regiment, and Tarleton’s Cavalry. Their private battle would rage until the conclusion of the main fight, drifting as far as one mile from the main British army.

The Third Line
It was now 1:30 in the afternoon, and the climax of the battle was about to begin. Greene’s Continentals had been waiting for nearly an hour, listening to the thunder of the fighting as it came ever closer. They had seen the survivors of the first two lines stream by and knew the British infantry wouldn’t be far behind. They were correct.

The first British infantry to arrive at the third line was the 33rd Foot, led by Lt. Col. James Webster. They immediately charged the Continental’s line. Halfway to the cannon the 33rd was hit by fire from the 1st Maryland, Finley’s cannons, and both regiments of Virginia Continentals, who were partially hidden behind the crest of the hill. The fire shook the British regulars and they retreated to a powerful position on the ridge opposite the Continentals.

The 2nd Battalion of the Guards arrived next and, like the 33rd, they immediately charged. The result, however, was different. The 2nd Guards moved directly up the road toward Finley’s battery and the 2nd Maryland. The Marylanders attempted to pivot, became confused, and then broke when the Guards struck them. The Guards pursued and might have won the day if not for the 1st Maryland, a veteran unit as good as any in the British army. Upon discovering the Guards were behind them, they faced about, and fired a devastating volley into the Guards.

The Guards were shocked but didn’t panic. They wheeled to face the Continentals and returned effective fire. But then Lt. Col. William Washington and his cavalry fell on the Guard’s rear. The redcoats retreated toward their lines and a swirling melee ensued, drawing ever closer to the British lines. Cornwallis ordered a nearby battery of three-pounders to fire shot at the advancing Americans, even if it meant some of the Guards would also be struck. The shot was fired, the melee broke, and the 1st Maryland and Washington’s cavalry pulled back to the American lines.

At this point the 71st Foot and other regiments of Cornwallis’s army began arriving at the third line. Greene, feeling there was nothing more to be gained this day, ordered the army’s retreat. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse was over.

In retrospect the engagement ended as a tactical British victory, but it was a victory the British could not savor. Low on supplies and with nearly 25% casualties, Cornwallis was forced to retreat to Wilmington, North Carolina, to await reinforcements, following a road that would eventually take the British to their destiny at Yorktown, Virginia.


Battle of Guilford Courthouse Soldier Participant Database

The Guilford Courthouse National Military Park soldier participant list is unfinished, as you will read below, the project is a work in progress.

In 2016, a volunteer team of twenty women from the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR) set forth in the arduous task to verify the American soldiers who participated in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Their efforts are now available for your research in book format, whether it is to connect with your ancestor or learn about the experiences of over two thousand soldiers. You can look through the official participants list at the Battlefield Visitors Center to locate information about these soldiers via the pension application. The park is working diligently to make this data accessible online, but until that date, please feel free to call us at 336-288-1776 if you have questions about a particular soldier.

The Work of the Daughters of the American Revolution to Commemorate the Americans who served at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse

The information in this volume was compiled entirely through many hours of volunteer work of a team of 25 women from the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR). The project was planned and executed as a service for the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park whose mission is to preserve the battleground and history of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse fought on March 15, 1781 near present day Greensboro, NC during the American Revolutionary War. Project team members were from Guilford Battle Chapter, Rachel Caldwell Chapter, and a member-at-large. They were not professional historians or scholars. Instead, they were diligent women, familiar with current standards of documentation, who were dedicated to building a unique memorial to the patriots who came together on that fateful day near Guilford Courthouse where (as stated in pension application of Joseph Newton R7635) “the memorable battle was fought, which will never be forgotten by me, or the American people.”

Digging through Historical Records


This volume was compiled to honor the individuals for whom there is evidence that they participated in this battle. The content was limited, for the most part, to participation in the actual battle and does not generally include those who played a supportive role or who were involved in the skirmishes and events surrounding the battle. Evidence of participation in any Revolutionary War battle is not abundant. Most of the Revolutionary War records in the custody of the War Department were destroyed by fire, November 8, 1800 and additional records were lost during the War of 1812. Those that survived include muster rolls, payrolls or supply records. Although these may serve as acceptable evidence for participation in the war, they are not relevant documentation for participation in a specific battle. The most abundant surviving evidence for participation in any battle is pension applications in which an applicant or witness mentioned or described participation in any battle is pension applications in which an applicant or witness mentioned or described participation in the battle of himself or another. (Note: for the purpose of the project, Revolutionary War Bounty Land Claims were considered to be a subset of the National Archive’s collection and reference to the set of pension applications also includes these claims.)

Methodology to Uncover the Historical Record

It was recognized that early in the project that all pension application evidence was not equal. The strength of the evidence can be represented by a continuum. On the end of the continuum, the events of the battle were described in such great detail that little doubt remained that the applicant was an eye witness. In contrast, at the other end of the spectrum, there were examples of widows who gave testimony that they “thought” their departed husbands had taken part in the battle. All examples generally found within this continuum were included in this volume.

In addition, to provide insight into the credibility and strength of the evidence for each entry, the phrase or paragraph from the pension file which relates to the battle participation was noted and has been reproduced in this volume. The result, a compilation of both the names and the words of battle participants, preserve the history of the battle in a unique way. The words and phrases which tell of the battle participation also tell of pranks, camaraderie, bravery, sacrifices, joys and horrors and provide a unique perspective into the lives of these early American patriots.

For more context of the evidence of a given patriot’s contributions, or for the purpose of historical or genealogical research, the user is encourage to refer to scans or transportations of the original pension application file.


Battle of Guilford Courthouse, 15 March 1781 - History

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse was an important battle in the Revolutionary War. Although the British won the battle and forced the Americans to retreat, they lost so many soldiers that the battle eventually led to their defeat in the war.

When and where did it take place?

The battle took place on March 15, 1781 at Guilford Courthouse in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was one of the largest battles in the South during the Revolutionary War.

Who were the commanders?

The overall commander of the 4,400 American soldiers was General Nathanael Greene. Greene had been recently appointed commander of the Continental Army in the South by George Washington.

The leader of the 1,900 British soldiers was General Charles Cornwallis. Cornwallis knew he was badly outnumbered by the Americans, but had confidence in his highly trained and experienced troops.


Battle of Guilford Court House (March 15, 1781)
by H. Charles McBarron

The American Army under Nathanael Greene had recently retreated from the British into Virginia. After gathering new troops and fresh supplies, Greene decided to go back on the attack. He crossed the border back into North Carolina and marched toward the British under General Cornwallis.

When Greene reached Guilford Courthouse he set up his defense. He knew that the British would soon attack. He used a similar defensive strategy to that used by Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens. As the British advanced, he would have lines of troops that would fire at the British and then retreat.

When the British attacked, they first encountered a line of inexperienced militiamen. These soldiers each fired two rounds at the British with their muskets and then retreated. As the British advanced, they then encountered a second line of soldiers. These soldiers once again, fired at the British and then retreated. Finally, the British approached the main force of the Americans. After a short fight, Greene ordered the Americans to retreat.

Although the British won the battle and forced the Americans to retreat, they suffered heavy losses. Around 500 of the 1,900 British soldiers were killed or wounded. Cornwallis was forced to march his weakened army to Yorktown, Virginia in hopes of gaining new troops. He would eventually surrender at Yorktown.

Nathanael Greene's overall strategy in the South was one of attrition. He hoped to wear down the British a bit at a time. He said that "We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again."


Guilford Courthouse National Military Park
Source: National Park Service

Guilford Courthouse, Battle of

Guilford Courthouse, Battle of (1781).A pivotal Revolutionary War battle, the engagement at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, strategically altered the war's course and ultimately led to victory in the South and at the Battle of Yorktown.

Stymied in the North, England in 1780 initiated a “Southern strategy,” the state𠄋y‐state reinstallation of loyalist governments. Georgia and South Carolina fell, and North Carolina and Virginia awaited invasion by Gen. Charles Cornwallis. In December 1780, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene assumed command of a tiny, demoralized segment of the Continental Army in the South. Brilliant and innovative, Greene restored discipline and morale, then divided his small force and took the strategic initiative. Following the U.S. victory at the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781), Cornwallis cut communications and launched a pursuit. Greene concentrated his detachments and in a punishing, epic march led the enemy deep into North Carolina.

At Guilford Courthouse on 15 March, Greene sought battle. He copied Daniel Morgan's successful Cowpens tactics—militia backed by Continentals with cavalry in reserve𠅋ut without Morgan, who was ill. Cornwallis launched a frontal assault. The militia bolted, but Greene's staunch Maryland and Delaware Continentals held. Desperate, Cornwallis's artillery fired into the melee, killing friend and foe alike. Greene withdrew, leaving Cornwallis a hollow victory (American casualties numbered 261 British 532). Cornwallis left for Virginia, and Greene returned south. In six months, he had liberated the entire region, confining the British to two seacoast strongholds, Savannah and Charleston.
[See also Revolutionary War: Military and Diplomatic Course.]

M. L. Treacy , Prelude to Yorktown: The Southern Campaigns of Nathanael Greene, 1780� , 1963.
Franklin and and Mary Wickwire , Cornwallis: The American Adventure , 1970.
John Buchanan , The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas , 1997.

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The Battle of Guilford Courthouse—A Prelude to Yorktown

On March 15, 1781, American and British forces clashed near Guilford Courthouse. The battle was the culmination of several months of hard campaigning by the armies of Nathanael Greene and Lord Charles Cornwallis.

Early in the day, Greene deployed his army in three lines. The first and second lines were North Carolina and Virginia militiamen, with Greene’s Continental soldiers composing the third. Veteran Virginia and North Carolina riflemen and Continentals were also posted on the flanks of the first line.

After a 30-minute artillery barrage by both sides, the British broke through the first and second lines, but suffered severe casualties in the advance. Despite their losses, Cornwallis’s army pushed on to the third line, where they engaged the Continental soldiers.

Unwilling to the risk the destruction of his army and realizing that he had inflicted massive casualties on the British, Greene withdrew his army the battered British did not pursue. Twenty-seven percent of Cornwallis’s army lay dead or wounded on the field. By comparison, Greene lost only 6 percent of his force, the majority of whom were North Carolina and Virginia militiamen who had fled shortly after the battle began.

In October Cornwallis surrendered his army to George Washington at Yorktown.


Watch the video: Battle of Guilford Courthouse: March 15, 1781, North Carolina (December 2021).