The Battle of Guilford Courthouse
The American Revolution was far from a unified affair. Fierce partisan warfare between Loyalist (Tory) and Patriot sympathizers ravaged the fragile sociopolitical climates of the colonies, especially those in the South. Georgia and the Carolinas were particularly volatile, as they harbored numerous loyalist strongholds with diffuse Patriot resistance. Britain sought to exploit this divisiveness in their “Southern Strategy” by capturing the sympathies of the Tory population and raising Loyalist militias to squander the South’s sporadic rebellious forces. Control of the southern colonies, in Britain’s eyes, was the key to political and military success. Between 1778 and 1780, the British Army launched a series of offensives across the South that captured crucial port cities such as Charleston and Savannah and devastated the disjointed Continentals, forcing their remnants to flee into the backcountry wilderness.
In October 1780, General George Washington placed Nathanael Greene in charge of the Continental Army’s Southern Department, relieving General Horatio Gates of his command in the process. Greene realized that his beleaguered army could not withstand a direct attack from British forces, so he decided to split his army in two—one contingent under himself and the other under General Daniel Morgan—and use guerrilla warfare to harass the Redcoats on multiple fronts. The tactic worked as factions of Patriot militia skirmished frequently against columns of red, inflicting casualties and disrupting supply lines.
After the surprising British defeat at Cowpens in January 1781, General Charles Cornwallis, commander of the British southern forces, assembled his troops and pursued the Continentals as they retreated through North Carolina towards the Dan River in Virginia. He knew that if Greene escaped into Virginia, he would be able to strengthen and resupply his ragged forces. During this ‘Race to the Dan,’ Cornwallis “was so intent on overtaking the rebels that he burned his army’s baggage wagons to speed up the pursuit.” However, despite these extreme measures, Greene managed to outmaneuver Cornwallis and cross the Dan through diversionary tactics and calculated deception. Cornwallis knew a decisive engagement had slipped through his grasp as he returned his 2,400-man army to Hillsborough, North Carolina.
The Continental Army received ample supplies and militia support while in Virginia. As his army recuperated, Greene sent Brigadier General William Lee Davidson and a detachment of nine hundred soldiers into North Carolina to delay British movements across the Catawba River. Davidson and his men encountered the Redcoats at Cowan’s Ford on February 1, 1781. The river had swollen due to the recent snow melt and rain which impeded the British crossing and left them in a vulnerable position to Patriot rifle fire. The militia were initially successful in harassing the Redcoats, but were forced to retreat as elements of British infantry and cavalry managed to cross the ford and fire volleys into their ranks. Davidson, himself, was shot dead from his horse during the assault.
By late February, Greene’s army had grown to over 4,000 men while Cornwallis’s force had dwindled to less than 2,000. Greene led his troops back across the Dan River on February 22, 1781, and pursued the British south into Guildford County. On March 14, the Continental Army made camp at New Garden—a small farming community inhabited by members of the Quaker faith known as the Society of Friends—located only twelve miles north of the main British encampments. British intelligence relayed Greene’s position to Cornwallis later that same evening. Even though his force was outnumbered 2:1, Cornwallis was anxious to capture the decisive victory that had so eluded him in months prior. He sent Lieutenant Colonel Banastre “Bloody Ban” Tarleton’s cavalry ahead as advancement guard and prepared his troops to march toward the Americans at daybreak.
Greene anticipated that Cornwallis would launch an offensive, but had little confidence that his untrained and undisciplined militias would stand against the seasoned British regulars, even with their strength in numbers. In preparation for the assault, Greene devised a defensive strategy that would inflict numerous British casualties and descend the usually-regimented Redcoats into disorder and chaos. He set up three defensive lines along the terrain of New Garden Road. The first line contained 1,500 North Carolina militiamen commanded by Brigadier General John Butler and Colonel Thomas Eaton. They were flanked by Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s Legion and Colonel William Campbell’s infantry to the left and Lieutenant Colonel William Washington’s cavalry and Colonel Charles Lynch’s Rifles to the right. The militias were instructed to fire one or two destructive rifle volleys into the advancing British ranks before withdrawing to the second line four hundred yards behind them. The second line was composed of 1,200 Virginia militia who were ordered to inflict as much damage as possible before the third and final line of 1,700 Continental veterans delivered a crushing blow to the weakened enemy.
Shortly before dawn on March 15th, elements of Tarleton’s Legion encountered American pickets outside of the New Garden Meetinghouse. A skirmish ensued and the pickets retreated towards the Continental Army’s left flank, which alerted Light Horse Harry Lee’s cavalry. Lee mobilized his troops and engaged Tarleton in the preliminary Battle of New Garden. The fighting began when the Continental cavalry ambushed the vulnerable British Advance Guard on New Garden Road. Tarleton, himself, was shot in the hand during the melee and ordered his troops to retreat into the woods. Lee advanced to cut off Tarleton’s escape, but fell back with the arrival of British reinforcements. Colonel William Campbell’s infantry arrived to support Lee in battle and a sharp firefight ensues. The Americans stood strong until 11 a.m. when Cornwallis’s full force came within sight. Lee ordered a withdrawal back to the main American lines at Guilford Courthouse and warned Greene of the imminent British advance.
Cornwallis’s Regulars encountered the first American line at 12:30 p.m., having marched twelve miles since 5:30 that morning. Both armies exchanged intense artillery fire for thirty minutes before Cornwallis ordered his regiments to advance uphill. When the British were within 150 yards of the line, the Americans unleashed a devastating round of musket fire that tore through their ranks. The Redcoats staggered, regrouped, and continued their advance with fixed bayonets. The North Carolina militia fled as the British charged and returned fire. Light Horse Harry tried to organize the retreat, but his troops became disoriented in the haziness of the gun smoke and withdrew too far south of the second line’s left flank. They were pursued by the 1st Guards Battalion and Hessian Regiment von Bose and were unable to rejoin Greene’s army for the rest of the battle.
The main British advance reached the second line at 1:30 p.m. The dense forests and rough terrain preceding the line broke up the British assault formations and made impractical the use of bayonets. The Virginia militia inflicted significant casualties against the disorderly British attacks before falling back to the third line at 2:30 p.m.
The third line was organized in a ‘V’ formation and consisted of brigades from Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware—some of the finest Continental soldiers in the army. They dealt destructive exchanges with the British and engaged in bloody hand-to-hand combat. The Redcoats momentarily breached the American line and captured two artillery pieces but were repulsed during a counterattack by William Washington’s cavalry.
Washington’s men wreaked havoc on the hapless Redcoats and threatened to destroy the bulk of Cornwallis’s army. Realizing he was on the verge of defeat, Cornwallis ordered his artillery to launch grapeshot into the American cavalry, even if it meant exposing his own troops to indiscriminate fire. The barrage killed as many British as it did Patriots, but was successful in driving the Continentals back. Cornwallis then directed a flanking maneuver to the American left, which prompted Greene to disengage his troops and withdraw north towards Virginia, leaving the British in control of the field.
The Battle of Guilford Courthouse lasted just under three hours and was recorded as a tactical British victory, but at a terrible cost. Cornwallis lost one-quarter of his army and nearly one-third of his officer corps with 91 killed and 408 wounded, 29 of those casualties being officers. Greene, on the other hand, lost only 6% of his men with 79 killed and 185 wounded. He did have 1,046 listed as missing, but they were mostly members of the North Carolina militia who deserted the army shortly after the battle.
Hundreds of dead and dying British and Continental soldiers were left strewn across 1,000+ acres of battlefield following the engagement. A torrential rain fell immediately after the battle which complicated transportation and medical care for the wounded. The British Army recruited the neighboring Quaker population to assist with post-battle care and commandeered all family homes within an eight-mile radius as hospitals.
Back in England, Cornwallis’s Pyrrhic victory received great disapproval and public discontent with the war’s continuance reached an all-time high. Parliamentarian Charles James Fox remarked, “Another such victory would ruin the British Army!” Facing insurmountable political pressure and limited resources, Cornwallis withdrew his army to British supply bases in Wilmington nearly two hundred miles away. Greene shadowed Cornwallis’s movements in the weeks following Guilford Courthouse and eventually advanced south to liberate South Carolina and Georgia from the residual Tory garrisons. Cornwallis was wary of Greene’s intentions, but erroneously believed the Loyalist militias could handle the American forces. He abandoned his campaign in the Carolinas and sought to combine his army with Major General William Phillips and Brigadier General Benedict Arnold’s 3,500 men in Virginia. This misguided maneuver set the stage for Cornwallis’s eventual surrender at Yorktown.
George Washington visited Guilford Courthouse on June 2, 1791, during his 83-day tour of the South, but the battlefield was largely forgotten in the years following the Revolution. It wasn’t until 1886 when David Schenck, a Greensboro lawyer and Revolutionary War enthusiast, created the Guilford Battle Ground Company to preserve the battlefield. Through private donations and support from the local government, Schenck acquired parcels of the old Guilford Courthouse grounds and created an ornamental community park, fit with monuments and interpretive trails. In March 1917, Guilford Courthouse was established as a National Military Park, the first Revolutionary battlefield preserved by the National Parks Service.
A trip to Guilford Courthouse begins at the Visitor Center. Here, tourists can observe an extensive collection of artifacts recovered from the battlefield and read the comprehensive, first-hand accounts of the events leading up to and after the battle. Visitors can also view two interpretive films: “Fighting the Battle of Guilford Courthouse,” a ten-minute animated battle map showing the progression of the engagement, and “Another Such Victory,” a thirty-minute live-action representation of the battle.
From the Visitor Center, guests can embark on an eight-stop, self-guided driving tour of the battlefield. The tour route takes visitors to each American defensive line where informational plaques detail the combat scenes, soldiers, and civilians involved in the conflict. There are also pedestrian trials at various stops that will lead curious visitors into the park’s interior where 28 historic monuments are on display.
About a quarter-mile away from the Military Park is Tannenbaum Historic Park—a living history depiction of Joseph and Hannah Hoskins’ 150-acre farmstead at the time of the battle. It is also where Cornwallis organized his troops into battle lines and prepared to march on the awaiting Continental Army. Unfortunately, Tannenbaum’s visitor center has been permanently closed and its structures stand essentially deserted today.
The Battle of Guilford Courthouse was undoubtedly a major turning point during the American Revolution. It was the largest battle of the Southern Campaign and the “high water mark” of British occupation in the southern colonies. Its significance in the timeline of American history cannot be understated and the National Military Park does a great job of communicating its importance to public. However, the site’s layout is more like a municipal park than a historical park. I’ve used this assessment before when I visited Valley Forge, but Guilford Courthouse takes that critique to a higher degree. When Schenck first created the park, he intended on making it decorative instead of authentic to the battlefield’s original appearance. No reconstructed buildings, earthworks, or materialized representations of the Colonial Era exist on the property and aside from the monuments and Visitor Center, there is not much to see. The park’s recreational role in the Greensboro community isn’t necessarily bad, but far from its full potential.
Check out this video from C-SPAN about the Battle of Guilford Courthouse!
Be sure to read these resources from Google Books:
Babits, Lawrence Edward, and Joshua B. Howard. Long, obstinate, and bloody: the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Davis, Burke. The Cowpens-Guilford Courthouse Campaign. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962.
Konstam, Angus. Guilford Courthouse 1781: Lord Cornwallis's Ruinous Victory. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013.