The Battle of Guilford Courthouse
March 15, 1781
Major General Greene
In March 1781, a small British army led by Lt. Gen. Charles, Lord Cornwallis won a Pyrrhic victory over an American force commanded by Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene in the North Carolina backcountry. Although Greene's troops were forced from the field, Cornwallis's redcoats suffered twenty-five percent casualties, and could not follow up their costly triumph with offensive operations.
March 2015, by John R. Maass, CMH
After Continental Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan's stunning victory over British Lt. Gen. Charles, Lord Cornwallis at the battle of Cowpens, South Carolina, on 17 January 1781, the Southern Department commander, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene knew he was too weak to face Cornwallis's pursuing army in battle. Instead he retreated northeastward from Salisbury, North Carolina toward Virginia, where he hoped to be resupplied and reinforced with more militia troops. The British gave chase, following Greene closely to the Dan River near the Virginia border, which the Patriots put between their army and the enemy. Cornwallis's weary redcoats reached the rain-swollen river on February 15, but were too late to catch Greene's army, whose troops finished crossing earlier that day. The British withdrew south to Hillsborough, North Carolina, soon thereafter.
Rested and reinforced after crossing the Dan, Greene marched his men back into North Carolina to face the British, who were at this point poorly supplied and exhausted, reduced to less than two thousand men in the ranks. After several weeks of skirmishes (particularly with Tory militiamen) and maneuvering, Greene took up a defensive position around Guilford Courthouse (north of modern Greensboro, North Carolina) on March 14, with over four thousand Continental infantrymen, cavalry, and militia. On the advice of General Morgan, Greene placed his army in three lines. In his front he deployed his North Carolina militiamen, supported on both flanks by Continentals and dragoons. His second line consisted of Virginia militia troops, which counted many veterans in their ranks. Finally, close to the court house in the rear, Greene posted his Continentals - Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia regulars, with Continental cavalry in reserve.
On March 15, 1781, Cornwallis approached Greene's position from the New Garden Quaker meeting house eight miles to the southwest. Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton's loyalist cavalry was in the British van as they advanced in column along the road. American cavalry under Lt. Col. Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee sparred with Tarleton's horsemen along the Great Salisbury Road leading to Greene's position that morning, then fell back to the rebel lines.
The first line of the American army, primarily untested militia companies, were deployed blocking the road in a line behind a rail fence, with riflemen and dragoons on each flank. Greene told the militia officers to have their men fire two volleys, then fall back through the woods to the second line once the British regulars closed in.
Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton
After thirty minutes of artillery fire, Cornwallis sent his troops forward to attack the rebel militia at around 1200. When the redcoats advanced to about forty yards from the militia line, the Carolinians let loose "a most galling and effective fire," wrote one British officer. The British regiments—and one Hessian battalion—paused to regroup after suffering casualties, returned the Americans' fire, and charged with their bayonets fixed. Soon the Carolinians retreated through the woods, some in a state of panic, "scattered in every direction," one of them later recalled. The Crown forces pressed forward toward the Virginians' line four hundred yards away.
The wooded terrain disrupted British unit alignments, so that their assault upon the Virginians was disjointed. Eventually Cornwallis's men pressed the Virginians back with bayonet charges and superior discipline. Although some of the militiamen fled in panic, almost five hundred men from the first and second lines did regroup around the courthouse to the rear of Greene's third line. Meanwhile, on the far right of Cornwallis's line, a separate battle began to develop away from the main scene of action, as British and Hessian troops pushed Virginia riflemen and Colonel Lee's mixed legion of cavalry and infantry southward through the woods. Many of Greene's soldiers in this part of the field were killed or wounded by saber wounds from pursuing British cavalrymen.
Finally, about ninety minutes after the battle opened, tired British troops approached Greene's third line, which up to that point had been unengaged in the fight. Initially the 1st Maryland and 2d Virginia regiments repulsed a British attack, but to their left the 2d Maryland broke when attacked by Brig. Gen. Charles O'Hara's 2d Battalion of Guards, which also captured two rebel 6-pounder cannons. O'Hara's successful attack put his men in the rear of the 1st Maryland, which faced about and gave "some well directed fires" in close combat. Joining the attack on the British was Lt. Col. William Washington's Continental Light Dragoons, which charged into the enemy's ranks with about eighty mounted men, who made a second pass through the enemy troop formation. In the confused action, the 1st Maryland was able to recapture the lost artillery pieces and some prisoners, and the bitter fighting was hand-to-hand. Several blasts of cannon fire from the British lines soon checked the danger from Washington's cavalry.
Letter from George Washington to
Comte de Rochambeau, 1781
With all of the British regiments now up to the third line, and having engaged in heavy fighting including the rout of the 2d Maryland, Greene concluded that a withdrawal from the field was now prudent. At about 1530, his forces withdrew in good order northward on the Reedy Fork Road to Speedwell Ironworks on Troublesome Creek, the army's pre-designated rallying point. British forces initially pursued, but were checked by Virginia Continentals as rain began to fall on the dead and wounded on the field. It was "one of the most hazardous, as well as severe battles that occurred during the war," wrote Tarleton. Greene, taking some solace in the disappointing result of the contest, wrote to Congress that the British "have met with a defeat in a victory." American losses were 79 killed, 184 wounded, and 1,046 missing, most of the latter being militiamen who fled the field and did not return to the ranks. Greene's army lost four guns to the redcoats as well. Cornwallis lost 93 killed, 413 wounded, and 26 missing, a staggering casualty rate of about 25 per cent. His army held the bloody field, but at great cost. "Another such victory would ruin the British Army," quipped Charles James Fox, a prominent member of the British Parliament who opposed the war.
Although the much of Greene's militia had left the army during the retreat to Speedwell Ironworks, he still had a force of which the British had to be wary. Given his losses, the British commander knew he had won a Pyrrhic victory. Cornwallis left about seventy of his wounded at New Garden meeting house, and began to march his men "by easy marches" to Cross Creek, given his lack of supplies and weakened army. He brought his worn down troops to Wilmington on April 7, and at the end of that month started his campaign to subdue Virginia, which eventually led to his surrender at Yorktown in October 1781.
The Battle of Guilford Courthouse reenactment
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