The Battle of Guilford Court House was a battle fought on March 15, 1781 inside the present-day city of Greensboro, North Carolina, during the American Revolutionary War. 1,900 British troops, under General Lord Cornwallis, fought an American force, under Rhode Island native General Nathanael Greene, numbering 4,400.
Despite the relatively small numbers of troops involved, the battle is considered decisive. Before the battle, the British appeared to have successfully reconquered Georgia and South Carolina with the aid of strong Loyalist factions, and thought that North Carolina might be within their grasp. In the wake of the battle, Greene moved into South Carolina, while Cornwallis chose to invade Virginia. These decisions allowed Greene to unravel British control of the South, while leading Cornwallis to Yorktown and surrender.
The battle is commemorated at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park.
On March 14 1781, while encamped in the forks of the Deep River, Cornwallis was informed that General Richard Butler was marching to attack his army. With Butler was a body of North Carolina militia, plus reinforcements from Virginia, consisting of 3,000 Virginia militia, a Virginia State regiment, a Corps of Virginian eighteen-month men and recruits for the Maryland Line. They had joined the command of Greene, creating a force of some nine to ten thousand men in total. During the night of the March 15, further reports confirmed the American force was at Guilford Court House, some 12 miles (20 km) away. Cornwallis decided to give battle, though he had only 1,900 men at his disposal. He detached his baggage train, 100 infantry and 20 Cavalry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton to Bell's Mills further down the Deep River, then set off with his main force, before breakfast was able to be eaten, arriving at Guilford at midday. Meanwhile, Greene, having received the reinforcements, decided to recross the Dan and challenge Cornwallis. On March 15, the two armies met at Guilford Court House, North Carolina (within the present Greensboro, North Carolina).
The advance guards met near the Quaker New Garden Meeting House. Banastre Tarleton's Light Dragoons were briefly engaged by Light Horse Harry Lee's Dragoons about 4 miles (6 km) from the Guilford Court House. The British 23rd Regiment of Foot sent reinforcements forward and Lee withdrew, ordering a retreat to Greene's main body.
Cornwallis found the Americans in position on rising ground about one and a half miles (2.5 km) from the court house. He was unable to gain much information from his prisoners or the local residents as to the American disposition. To his front he saw a plantation with a large field straddling both sides of the road, with two more further over on the left separated by 200 yards or so of woodland. To his right beyond the fields the woodland extended for several miles. On the far side of the first field was a fenced wood, 1 mile (1.6 km) in depth, through which the road passed into an extensive cleared area around the court house. Along the edge of this woodland was a fence forming the American first line of defense and a 6-pound cannon on each side of the road.
Greene had prepared his defense in three lines. North Carolina militia formed the first line, with backwoods riflemen on the left and right flanks to snipe advancing British. In the second line, he placed the Virginia militia. His regulars comprised the last line. Two more 6-pound cannon were sited in the center of the line. His third and strongest line, consisting of his Virginian Regiment, Delaware infantry, and the 1st and 5th Maryland regiments was a further 400 yards further on, though placed at an angle to the west of the road. While superficially resembling the deployment successfully used by Daniel Morgan at Cowpens, the lines were hundreds of yards apart and could not support one another.
Since the east side of the road was mostly open, Cornwallis opted to attack up the west side and, following a short barrage of cannon shot on the cannon positions of the first line, at 1:30 p.m., Cornwallis moved his men forward. When they were about 150 yards short of the fence, a volley was fired from the Americans, whose long guns had a greater range than British muskets, but the British continued until they were within musket shot then fired their own volley in return. On a command from Webster, they then charged forward, coming to a halt 50 paces from the American lines because the North Carolina Militia, as noted by Sergeant Lamb of the 23rd Regiment "had their arms presented and resting on the picket fence...they were taking aim with nice precision". Urged onwards by Lieutenant Colonel James Webster of the 33rd Regiment of Foot, the British continued to advance. The North Carolina Militia, to the west of the road, fired their muskets then turned and fled back through the woods, discarding their personal equipment as they ran. The British advanced on the second line. Heavy resistance was shown, but Webster pushed around the flank and on to the American 3rd line. The woodland was too dense to allow practical use of the bayonets. The British army forced its way through the first two lines with significant losses.
The 71st Regiment, Grenadiers and 2nd Guards moved up the center, following the musket shots from the 33rd and 23rd Regiments to their left. To the right, the 1st Guards and Hessians were being harried by Lee's Legion. The British guns and Tarleton’s Light Dragoons moved forward along the road keeping pace. The 2nd Guards in the centre found themselves coming out into open ground around the court house to the left of the Salisbury road. They spotted a large force of Continental Infantry and immediately attacked them and captured two 6-pounders. They then pursued the Continentals into the wood and were repulsed by Colonel Washington’s Dragoons, and the 1st Maryland Regiment, abandoning the two guns they had just captured. Lieutenant Macleod, in command of two British 3-pounders, had just arrived and was directed to fire on the Dragoons.
While many British soldiers were killed from friendly fire, the Americans broke off and retreated from the field. Cornwallis ordered the 23rd and 71st Regiments with part of the Cavalry to pursue the Americans, though not for any great distance. Tarleton and the remainder of the Dragoons were sent off to the right flank to join Bose and put an end to the action from Washington.
During the battle, Cornwallis had a horse shot from under him. American Colonel Benjamin Williams was later decorated for his personal bravery at Guilford Courthouse.
The battle had lasted only ninety minutes, and although the British technically defeated the American force, they lost over a quarter of their own men. On March 17, two days after the Battle, Cornwallis reported his casualties as 5 officers and 88 other ranks killed and 24 officers and 389 other ranks wounded, with a further 26 men missing in action. Webster was wounded during the battle, and he died a fortnight later.
The British, by taking ground with their accustomed tenacity when engaged with superior numbers, were tactically victors. Seeing this as a classic Pyrrhic victory, British Whig Party leader and war critic Charles James Fox echoed Plutarch's famous words by saying, "Another such victory would ruin the British Army!" .
In a letter to Lord George Germain, delivered by his aide-de-camp, Captain Broderick, Cornwallis commented:"From our observation, and the best accounts we could procure, we did not doubt but the strength of the enemy exceeded 7,000 men [Greene's accounts put this closer to 4,400].... I cannot ascertain the loss of the enemy, but it must have been considerable; between 200 and 300 dead were left on the field of battle.... many of their wounded escaped.... Our forage parties have reported to me that houses in a circle six to eight miles around us are full of others.... We took few prisoners".
He further went on to comment on the British force:"The conduct and actions of the officers and soldiers that composed this little army will do more justice to their merit than I can by words. Their persevering intrepidity in action, their invincible patience in the hardships and fatigues of a march of above 600 miles, in which they have forded several large rivers and numberless creeks, many of which would be reckoned large rivers in any other country in the world, without tents or covering against the climate, and often without provisions, will sufficiently manifest their ardent zeal for the honour and interests of their Sovereign and their country."
After the battle, the British were spread across a large expanse of woodland without food and shelter, and during the night torrential rains started. 50 of the wounded died before sunrise. Had the British followed the retreating Americans they might have come across their baggage and supply wagons, which had been camped up to the west of the Salisbury road in some old fields prior to the battle.
Greene reported his casualties as 57 killed, 111 wounded and 161 missing for the Continental troops and 22 killed, 74 wounded and 885 missing for the Militia: a total of 79 killed, 185 wounded and 1,046 missing. 75 of those reported as “missing” were wounded men who were captured by the British. When Cornwallis resumed his march, these 75 wounded prisoners were left behind at Cross Creek, Cornwallis having earlier left 70 of his own most severely wounded men at the Quaker settlement of New Garden near Snow Camp.
Greene, cautiously avoiding another Camden, retreated with his forces intact. With his small army, less than 2000 strong, Cornwallis declined to follow Greene into the back country. Retiring to Hillsborough, he raised the royal standard, offered protection to the inhabitants, and for the moment appeared to be master of Georgia and the two Carolinas. In a few weeks, however, he abandoned the heart of the state and marched to the coast at Wilmington, North Carolina, to recruit and refit his command.
At Wilmington, the British general faced a serious problem, the solution of which, upon his own responsibility, unexpectedly led to the close of the war within seven months. Instead of remaining in Carolina, he determined to march into Virginia, justifying the move on the ground that until Virginia was reduced he could not firmly hold the more southern states he had just overrun. This decision was subsequently sharply criticized by General Clinton as unmilitary, and as having been made contrary to his instructions. To Cornwallis, he wrote in May: "Had you intimated the probability of your intention, I should certainly have endeavoured to stop you, as I did then as well as now consider such a move likely to be dangerous to our interests in the Southern Colonies." For three months he raided every farm or plantation he came across, from which he took hundreds of horses for his Dragoons. He also converted another 700 infantry to mounted duties. During these raids he freed thousands of slaves, of whom 12,000 joined his own force.
The danger lay in the suddenly changed situation in that direction; as General Greene, instead of following Cornwallis to the coast, boldly pushed down towards Camden and Charleston, South Carolina, with a view to drawing his antagonist after him to the points where he was the year before, as well as to driving back Lord Rawdon, whom Cornwallis had left in that field. In his main object—the recovery of the southern states—Greene succeeded by the close of the year, but not without hard fighting and repeated reverses. "We fight, get beat,rise, and fight again," were his words.
Every year, on or about March 15, re-enactors in period costumes present a tactical demonstration of Revolutionary War fighting techniques on or near the battle site.