Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina

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Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina

GUILFORD COURTHOUSE, NORTH CAROLINA. The southern campaigns of Major General Nathanael Greene began when he divided his Continental southern army in the face of a larger British army, an unorthodox splitting of the less numerous American force in the face of the larger British army under the command of General Charles Earl Cornwallis. Driven by the logistical necessity of obtaining food and forage, the two double American advances into South Carolina clearly indicated that the British did not totally control the state by the end of 1780. Brigadier General Daniel Morgan's victory at Cowpens (in January 1781) precipitated a British pursuit as Cornwallis tried to recover over 600 prisoners and brought on the "race to the Dan River."

When Greene's army escaped across the river, Cornwallis moved to Hillsborough, North Carolina, to raise troops and refit his men. Greene immediately sent cavalry and light infantry back across the river to harass the British, disrupt recruiting, and prevent foraging. The pressure, and a lack of supplies or recruits, forced Cornwallis to evacuate Hillsborough and move westward. After maneuvering in a circular fashion just east of Cornwallis's base, and avoiding any major engagement, Greene moved from his camp at High Rock Ford to the Guilford Courthouse. Apprised of the movement, Cornwallis began a 12 mile march to the battlefield early on morning of 15 March 1781.

Greene was ready to fight, because he had been receiving reinforcements since 1 March that raised his strength to approximately 4,300. These men could be supplied for less than ten days without overextending his logistical network. Cornwallis knew of the reinforcements, but overestimated their numbers, rating the American force at about 10,000 men against his 1,900 veterans. Half of Greene's troops had not yet seen any heavy action, but they had been drilling intensely for at least a week, ensuring that the militia had a fair grasp of tactical maneuvering and understood linear fighting with volley firing. From about 10 March, Greene's men also received more than adequate supplies of meat and bread, brought in by North Carolina militia and Continental foragers.


Greene had carefully studied the area in early February, when he considered fighting Cornwallis before retreating into Virginia. The courthouse stood in an extensive clearing on higher ground along the New Garden Road. To the west, the ground dropped off after less than 150 yards into a creek bottom with overgrown fields. Less than a mile west of the courthouse, the New Garden Road emerged from the woods and went downhill, crossing a cleared area that may have recently been plowed. The road continued across a small, marshy stream and left the valley heading west through a defile.

Greene posted three lines across the New Garden Road. The first line was manned by two North Carolina militia brigades numbering about 500 men each. Brigadier General John Butler was south of the road, while Brigadier General Thomas Eaton was on the north side. These militiamen were Greene's least reliable troops. Many were posted behind a fence with a clear, 500-yard field of fire. Between the two brigades, Captain Anthony Singleton placed two six-pounder guns. The outer flanks were strengthened by Continental infantry and riflemen echeloned forward to fire across the militia's front. Cavalry units were posted with these flankers. Lieutenant Colonel William Washington's Third Continental Light Dragoons were on the northern flank, supporting Delaware Captain Robert. Kirkwood's 60 veteran Continentals, Virginia Captain Philip Hoffman's approximately 60 Continentals, and Colonel Charles Lynch's 200 Virginia riflemen. After they completed their morning's delaying action, Lee's Legion of 75 horse and 82 infantry, and Colonel William Campbell's 200 Virginia riflemen, took positions on the southern flank.

The second line had two Virginia militia brigades about 300 yards behind the first. Brigadier Generals Edward Stevens and Robert Lawson had approximately 600 men, with four regiments in each brigade. Stevens was south of the road in a very dense forest, whereas Lawson held the north side in slightly thinner woods. Until the flanking parties from the first line withdrew, the Virginia brigades' flanks were unprotected.

The third line was on high ground, more than 500 yards behind the Virginia militia and posted north of the road. Lieutenant Samuel Finley's two six-pound cannons were posted between the Maryland and Virginia troops of Colonel Otho Holland Williams and Brigadier General Isaac Huger. On the southern end of this line, the Second Maryland Regiment was partially bent back to face open fields south of the courthouse. After pulling back from the second line, Singleton's two six-pound cannons would be placed adjacent to the road in the middle of the Second Maryland. As the line went north, away from the New Garden Road, the next regiment was the First Maryland, then Finley's artillery pieces, and Colonel John Green's Virginia Continental Regiment. The northern end of the third line was manned by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Hawe's Virginians. Neither Virginia regiment was numbered at this time but Green's would be designated the First Virginia and Hawe's the Second Virginia by mid-April 1781.

The three battle lines bore a superficial resemblance to the deployment of American troops at the Cowpens, in South Carolina, on 17 January 1781. Daniel Morgan, who was present at the Cowpens action, did write to Greene suggesting this formation. There were significant differences, however, because Greene left himself no reserve and the three lines were beyond effective supporting distance. No line could see the other, but this might have proved advantageous for the relatively inexperienced militia. The American positions were dictated by the terrain, and the landscape would impact the battle in dramatic ways. On the east end of the battleground, the ridge above open fields was a logical place for the main line, because it provided open fields of fire for both muskets and artillery. A tree line on the western edge of the battleground also fronted open fields, making the position suitable for longer range firing by riflemen and artillery. In the dense woods between the first and third lines, there was a low ridge that provided a point for the middle line to form. While Greene did not have a reserve, he may have envisioned using withdrawing militia if they could be rallied behind the Continentals on the third line.


Cornwallis broke camp about dawn and began moving eastward without breakfast. The 12-mile march from New Garden Meeting House toward Guilford would take some time because of American resistance along the route. About 7:15 a.m., Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton's advance guard clashed with Lieutenant Colonel Henry ("Light Horse Harry") Lee's Partisan Legion, Captain Andrew Wallace's Virginia Continental company, and Colonel William Campbell's Virginia riflemen four miles west of Guilford Courthouse. Both sides claimed the better of this engagement, but Tarleton received a wound that cost him two fingers and Wallace was killed. At about noon the British emerged from the woods onto the battlefield's western end and started deploying. They knew a fight was imminent because Captain Singleton's six-pounders opened fire. Lieutenant John Macleod of the Royal Artillery replied with two three-pounders (he would employ these cannons admirably during the engagement), and Cornwallis made immediate preparations to attack. The British were outgunned in this exchange by the bigger American guns, and MacLeod's assistant, Lieutenant Augustus O'Hara, son of the Guards' General Charles O'Hara, was killed.

The British commander learned nothing of the terrain; his guides "were extremely inaccurate in their description," and prisoners taken that morning "could give me no account of the enemy's order or position." Cornwallis was told that the woods on both sides of the clearing were impracticable for cannon, but apparently was not told that there were other roads heading generally eastward north and south of the battlefield. As a result, the New Garden (or Salisbury) Road became the battle's central axis.

The British deployed with Brigadier General Alexander Leslie south of the road with the Seventy-first Foot (Fraser's Highlanders) and the Hessian Regiment von Bose. North of the road, Cornwallis placed Brigadier General James Webster's brigade, composed of the Twenty-third Foot and the Thirty-third Foot. The rest of his forces were in reserve. The First Battalion of the Guards was behind Leslie. The Second Battalion of Guards and Grenadiers, all under Brigadier General Charles O'Hara, were behind Webster's brigade. A small body of Jägers (marksmen), the Guards Light Infantry, and Tarleton's 155-man British Legion Dragoons were also in reserve.


The battle at Guilford Courthouse can be broken down into a series of phases as the British moved forward and engaged each line. In some ways, each regiment almost literally fought its own separate battle, because terrain and ground cover so obstructed passage of the linear formations and because there was no long range view between the first and third American lines.

Phase I: The North Carolina militia fires and retreats Approximately 20 minutes after the artillery opened fire, Webster and Leslie started toward the first American line, which stood almost 500 yards away. American flanking riflemen opened fire when the British came within 150 yards, and it is possible some North Carolina militiamen did likewise. The British advance came to a spontaneous halt about 40 yards from the fence. The North Carolinians were crouched down, resting their muskets on the fence, taking a good aim. The British infantry hesitated, knowing a volley of buckshot and ball inside 40 yards would be devastating. Webster rode to the front and ordered them forward as he led the way. The halt was broken and the Twenty-third Regiment rushed on the militiamen, taking a volley as they did so.

The North Carolina militiamen immediately broke and headed for the rear. The rout was so complete that an outraged Greene later asked the North Carolina legislature to call the men back into service for a year as punishment for running away. Lee also thought the rout was mortifying, but he did point out that Forbis's Guilford County company stayed with his legion and fought on.

Lee, on the southern flank, was unaware that some of Eaton's northern flank militiamen also continued the fight by joining William Washington's forces. The additional men were important, because the British could not move against the second American line until they dealt with the American flankers. Since the American flanks held their ground even after the militia fled, Cornwallis was forced to commit all his infantry reserves to extend the battle line before advancing. The troops in von Bose's regiment adjusted their direction, inclining to the southeast against Lee and Campbell, while the Thirty-third Regiment executed a corresponding maneuver against the north flank. When the Light Infantry and Jägers moved with Webster, the Grenadiers and the two Guards battalions advanced to maintain the original line and fill gaps.

O'Hara's Brigade moved into the battle line with the Grenadiers north of the road, the Second Guards on and south of the road. The First Guards inclined to their right, taking position between von Bose and the Seventy-first. Schematically, the line, from north to south consisted of the Light Infantry and Jäegers, the Thirty-third and Twenty-third Regiments, the Grenadiers, the Second Battalion of the Guards, the Seventy-first, the First Battalion of the Guards and von Bose. Webster personally led the attack, initially with the Twenty-third, but he soon moved to direct the Light Infantry and Thirty-third. O'Hara appears to have stayed with the Second Battalion of the Guards. Leslie is difficult to place but seems to have overseen the Seventy-first. Due to the thickness of the woods, the artillery and dragoons stayed on the road.

Phase II: The Virginia militia are hammered back. Driving through woods so thick that Cornwallis reported bayonets were almost useless, the British assaulted the second line. The two right flank regiments drove a wedge between the Virginia militia and Lee's flanking troops. The First Battalion of the Guards and von Bose then continued in a southeasterly direction, moving away from the main battle and creating their own separate battle against Lee and Campbell. Washington's flank forces still held the northern flank, extending the Virginia militia line northwards. On at least one occasion, they drove the British back.

The second American line was no pushover. The militia brigades of Stevens and Lawson fought well. Lawson's brigade fared badly because its three regiments were ordered forward, perhaps in response to the Thirty-third moving against Washington. The brigade was split as the advancing Virginians were simply rolled up from their left by the Twenty-third. In the thick woods, the Virginians were slowly driven back, in part because they were opposed by Light Infantry and Jägers. The Twenty-third possibly used a faster loading procedure for developed woods fighting, according to the Twenty-third Regiment's Sergeant Lamb (who also reported seeing Virginians behind brush breastworks). Washington counterattacked to relieve the pressure, but Lawson's brigade was no longer on line. Men from Stevens's three regiments fought individual and squad-sized engagements against the Welsh Fusileers, who pursued them eastward through the woods. Now isolated, the flank elements were eventually driven to the rear, while Lawson's one remaining regiment continued fighting on Stevens's right flank.

Stevens's Virginia militia ran away at Camden, and he had no intention of seeing that happen again. He placed men, probably sergeants, behind his battle line. These men were given orders to shoot any man who tried to run. Stevens and his men held their position until he was shot in the thigh. He was evacuated as part of a general withdrawal because the British were already beyond his position on both the north and south. The two regiments on the British far right continued their struggle with Lee and Campbell, but all American forces were pushed eastward. Washington's flankers retired to the third line, conducting a fighting withdrawal.

Phase III: Webster attacks the Continental line. Lieutenant Colonel James Webster advanced more rapidly with the Thirty-third, driving the American flankers and militia back to the main line. Thinner woods, good leadership, and a solid infantry regiment meant that Webster's men reached the American third line first. They came out of the woods, went down a steep slope, and found Greene's best soldiers waiting for them across the little valley. Aligned from north to south were Captain Robert Kirkwood's Delawares, arguably one of the best company formations the Continentals produced during the war. To their south was Huger's Virginia Brigade, then Finley's two guns and the First Maryland. The Americans watched from good defensive terrain as the aggressive Webster came down the opposite slope, formed to their front, and charged. At close range, the Continentals delivered a murderous fire of musketry and artillery, then followed up with a bayonet attack. The First Maryland inclined to the right and struck Webster's right flank elements. Although severely wounded, and with his command badly hurt and disorganized, Webster withdrew northwestward onto steep, high ground and then repulsed his pursuers. Webster's command was stunned and temporarily out of action.

Phase IV: Cornwallis masses against the third line. As the Virginians filtered back through the dense woods, the British right also came on. O'Hara moved forward with the Second Battalion of the Guards. The Grenadiers lagged slightly behind, hampered by the thick woods. The Twenty-third was disorganized and was also slowed by the dense woods and sporadic militia resistance. The Seventy-first, further south, continued forward but also trailed well behind O'Hara's Guards. Lieutenant Macleod continued moving his three-pounders up the road, partially supported by the Grenadiers, and backed up by the dragoons.

Before they reached the slope leading down to the valley, the Guards had drifted across the road because the terrain sloped in a southerly direction. The Second Guards Battalion commenced their attack without waiting for any assistance. As soon as the Guards came down into the cleared valley west of the courthouse, they attacked. Maryland Colonel Otho Holland Williams, behind the First Maryland, saw the charging Guards and rode out to help direct the Second Maryland, a unit with only six months' service behind it. Without combat experience and with their original officers being replaced by veteran supernumerary Maryland officers, the Second Maryland was about to face elite British infantry. Williams ordered its left flank to wheel right and face the oncoming Guards, then he ordered the entire regiment to charge. After a few steps, the unit was halted. Under fire, the regiment broke as Lieutenant Colonel James Stuart led his Guards into their ranks.

The Guards swarmed through the gap, taking Singleton's two guns, and pushed forward until they were hit by two vicious counterattacks. Washington's dragoons had moved from the right flank along a road and were the first to crash into the Guardsmen. They rode through, wheeled, and came back again, hacking away as they went. At almost the same time, the First Maryland, which Fortescue called "the finest battalion in the American Army" trotted uphill, opened fire, and then charged into the Guards The Marylanders were led by Lieutenant Colonel John Eager Howard who assumed command when Colonel John Gunby's horse went down, pinning him under it. Militiamen at the courthouse reported that the two regiments were so close their muzzle flashes overlapped as volleys were fired.

Struck in front, flank and rear, the Guards drifted westward, fighting hand to hand in a melee back across the little valley. Stuart was killed in a celebrated "duel" with Maryland Captain John Smith, but his men fought valiantly to avoid annihilation. Some idea of the ferocity of the bayonet fight can be seen in an account provided by Smith's post-war partner, Samuel Mathis:

In the heat & mist of the Battle at Guilford while the Americans & British Troops were intermixed with a charge of Bayonets, Smith & his men were in the throng killing guards & Grenadiers…. Colonel Stewart [sic] seeing the mischief Smith was doing made up to him through the crowd, dust and smoke unperceived & made a violent lunge at him with his small Sword, the first that Smith saw was the shining Metal … he only had time to lean a little to the right, & lift up his left Arm so as to let the polished steel pass under it when the hilt struck his breast, it would have been through his Body but for the haste of the Col & happening to set his foot on the arm of a Man Smith had just cut down. His unsteady Step, the violent lunge & missing his aim brought him with one knee upon the dead man, the Guards came rushing up very throng [sic], Smith had no alternative but to wheel round to the right & give Stewart a back handed Blow over or across the head on which he fell; his orderly sergeant attacked Smith, but Smith's Sergeant dispatched him; a 2d attacked him Smith hewed him down, a 3rd behind him threw down a cartridge & shot him in the back of the head, Smith now fell among the slain but was taken up by his men & brot [sic] off, it was found to be only a Buck Shot lodged against the Skull & had only stunned him.

As the infantry slugged it out, Washington's dragoons began riding across the valley toward a British officer and his aides. By this time, MacLeod had arrived and placed his two guns on a little knoll above the valley's western edge. Cornwallis ordered MacLeod's guns to fire on Washington's dragoons, but made no mention of the infantry melee behind them, where the Guards and Marylanders were still fighting. Despite the wounded O'Hara's protests, Cornwallis persisted in his decision. Even if Macleod directed his fire so as to spare the British infantry as much as possible, the normal dispersal of grape shot made it inevitable that casualties were inflicted on both sides. Rumors later circulated that Cornwallis had ordered the artillery on his own men to break up the melee between the Marylanders and the Guards, but the fire was meant to halt Washington's dragoons. After the artillery fire, the Guards retired to the western slope, and the Marylanders moved back toward the courthouse.

Final phase: Cornwallis renews attack, Greene retreats. After Washington was driven back, the Second Guards retired to the west slope and reformed. The Grenadiers, who had come up with McLeod, joined the Guards as the Seventy-first Regiment came into the valley south of the guards. O'Hara, despite his wounds, rallied the Guards and went back across the valley. About this time, the Twenty-third Regiment finally reached the third line vicinity as well, and there it linked with the Thirty-third. The British infantry finally took possession of the third line positions.

Since Greene's men were already withdrawing, the British had no trouble retaking Singleton's guns, and Finley's as well. The four American guns were left on the field because their horses had been killed and Greene did not want to risk men dragging them away by hand. Contrary to later mythology, none of the American guns (six-pounders) had been captured at Cowpens, whereas the British had lost two three-pounders.

Tarleton's dragoons were finally in open ground. About half of them, along with the Seventy-first and Twenty-third, followed after the Americans in a very careful pursuit. The other half rode south, down into the valley, and fell upon the Virginia militiamen who were still conducting a fighting withdrawal.

Both Tarleton and Lee reported that the First Battalion of Guards and von Bose had difficulties with the Americans who swarmed through the woods. Men from von Bose reported their regiment had to fight to their front and rear at one time, and that at another time, the Guards rallied behind them. The Americans were at their best in the thick woods, using trees and brush for cover and concealment, letting the British and Germans advance beyond them and then hitting their rear. It was not an easy fight; one American later reported that they thought the Hessians were Continentals and rushed up shouting, "Liberty! Liberty!," only to be fired upon by the exasperated Germans. After Lee moved his Legion toward the rear, the Virginia flankers got the worst of it because they were on open ground.

By the time Tarleton arrived to charge the Americans on the southern flank, Lee's dragoons, and probably his infantry too, were covering the army's retreat, and Campbell's men were moving toward the courthouse. Tarleton's account suggests his men broke up an organized line, rather than that they were punishing a straggling rear guard. Those Virginians who did encounter Tarleton at this stage were badly hacked up, and Campbell never forgave Lee for abandoning him. This was the dragoons' only effort on the battlefield, because the heavily wooded landscape around Guilford Courthouse was not cavalry country, and Greene's orderly retreat ruled out any effective pursuit.

Greene made his decision to withdraw his army about the time the Second Maryland collapsed. As the army moved north, Greene halted three miles from the battlefield to collect stragglers and check a pursuit that was halfhearted at best. The British were simply worn out by their exertions that day. Greene withdrew to a former camp at Speedwell Iron Works on Troublesome Creek. Cornwallis remained on the field until 18 March, when he began moving toward Wilmington, North Carolina.


A few days before the battle, Greene's army numbered 4,449, of whom 1,670 were Continentals and the rest militia. Lee reported the Continentals lost 14 officers and 312 men killed, wounded, and missing. The figures for the militia were never adequately reported. Greene claimed the militia lost 22 killed, 73 wounded, and 885 missing, whereas the Continentals reportedly lost 57 killed, 111 wounded, and 161 missing. The American figures are almost guesswork for the militia, but Continental losses were miniscule when compared with the losses suffered by the British.

Cornwallis's forces numbered approximately 1,900 men. The British lost 532 officers and men, of whom 93 were killed and another 50 were mortally wounded and died within a few days. The Guards also suffered badly, 11 of their 19 officers and 206 out of 462 men were casualties. A total of 41 British officers and men were counted among the dead. These experienced men could not be replaced by local recruiting, even if the Tories had turned out to volunteer. Cornwallis's force was virtually crippled by their casualties.

The British infantry clearly demonstrated outstanding bravery. After short rations over the preceding month, and faced with constant marches, they fought at Guilford Courthouse after a twelve-mile, contested march on empty stomachs. The quality and courage of Cornwallis's troops was certainly borne out by their performance on this day,

In the context of his southern campaigns, and ever since he so perplexingly divided his army at Charlotte in December 1780, Greene had now mastered Charles Cornwallis as a general, in part because of his astute management of his logistics. In some ways, Cornwallis beat himself with his aggressiveness, and with his reliance on magnificent subordinate leaders and troops. In his eagerness to engage Greene, Cornwallis did not conduct an adequate reconnaissance. Once the battle began, he lost effective control of his battalions, leaving their direction to commanders who drifted away from the main axis and lost contact with supporting units. Greene had a similar cadre of outstanding assistants and a hard core of veteran infantrymen who had also fought well. The slighted North Carolina militia performed much better than the Continentals wished to admit. Their initial volley and some flank fighting had contributed to British casualties, perhaps even more than the Virginians, but they were scorned for running away. In September, however, after much more training and led by battle-hardened officers they knew, these same men would fight well at Eutaw Springs.

SEE ALSO Camden, South Carolina; Cowpens, South Carolina; Southern Campaigns of Nathanael Greene.


Baker, Thomas. Another Such Victory. Philadelphia: Eastern Acorn Press, 1981.

Lamb, Roger. An Original and Authentic Journal of Occurrences during the Late American War from Its Commencement to the Year 1783. Dublin, 1809. Reprint. New York, 1968.

Lee, Henry. Memoirs of the War in the southern Department of the United States. 2 vols. New York, 1822. Reprint. New York, 1970.

Mathis, Samuel. Letter from Samuel Mathis to William R. Davie, dated 26 June 1819. Historic Camden: Camden, South Carolina.

Showman, Richard K., ed. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, volume 7. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Tarleton, Banastre. A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America. Spartanburg: Reprint Company, 1967.

                    revised by Lawrence E. Babits

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Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina

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