Battle of Guilford Courthouse: The Fight that Broke the Back of the British Crown
On Thursday, March 15, 1781, American Major General Nathanael Greene led his army of some 4,500 militia and Continental regulars against British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis’s force of approximately 1,900 veteran troops at the small North Carolina backcountry hamlet of Guilford Courthouse. Fighting on the defensive, Greene split his army into three lines, placing his militiamen in the first two, positioning his battle-hardened Continentals in the final line, and posting his riflemen and cavalry to cover the flanks. The level of ferocity that the Americans soon unleashed against the Redcoats would make the ensuing fight one of the most consequential battles of the American Revolution.
Not long before Nathanael Greene assumed command of the Southern Department of the Continental Army in December 1780, the American cause was on life support in the southern colonies. The British had marched triumphantly across the land dating back to their conquest of Savanah, Georgia in late December 1778. American fortunes in the South finally began to turn around after a band of rugged American frontiersman bested a detachment of Loyalist troops under British Major Patrick Ferguson on the border between North and South Carolina at the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780.
General Nathanael Greene. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The momentum that was earned at Kings Mountain was carried forward by Greene and his second in command, General Daniel Morgan. In January 1781, Morgan defeated a British force under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina. British General Charles Lord Cornwallis then chased the resurgent rebels across North Carolina, but could not catch Greene and his troops before they slipped across the Dan River and escaped into Virginia. After re-strengthening his army, Greene crossed back into North Carolina, thus setting in motion the pivotal clash that would pit his troops against the mighty Redcoats of General Cornwallis.
After placing his army in a strong defensive position at Guilford Courthouse, Greene and his fighters stood ready to receive the enemy on March 15. Cornwallis obliged and took the offense. The British advance began at about 1:30 P.M. Over the course of the next two and a half hours, “The slaughter was prodigious,” as reported by one participant. With the battle eventually developing into a brutal close quarters struggle, Cornwallis feared that his troops were about to be overwhelmed, and as historian John Ferling explains, the British commander “ordered his artillery to fire into the brawling mass of friend and foe alike.” This move forced both sides to disengage. While the British regrouped and prepared to attack again, General Greene ordered a retreat.
Turning Point at Guildford by Dale Gallon. (Photo Credit: Gallon.com)
American troops had inflicted catastrophic damage to the enemy and Greene managed to escape with the bulk of his army intact, losing about six percent of his force during the battle. The field belonged to Cornwallis, but it cost him over 25 percent of his army. Among those lost were many irreplaceable officers. Results like these were not sustainable. As one British statesman told Parliament, “Another such victory would ruin the British Army.” In the words of Nathanael Greene, the “Enemy got the ground… but we the victory;" his fellow Patriots and even some on the British side thought so too. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse was an ordeal that Cornwallis would not soon forget. He admitted, “I never saw such fighting since God made me. The Americans fought like demons.”
Following the bloodletting his army had suffered, Cornwallis proceeded to move his forces to Wilmington, North Carolina to recover. He eventually decided to abandon his campaign against Greene in the Carolinas and marched his army northward into Virginia, where he entrenched his troops at Yorktown and Gloucester Point on the peninsula of Virginia’s York and James Rivers. It was here that Cornwallis eventually found himself besieged and cut off from escape by the French Navy and a combined American and French army under General George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau. Seven months after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, the world turned upside down and Cornwallis was forced to surrender the 8,087 soldiers and seamen under his command at Yorktown.
The British surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Battle of Guilford Courthouse broke the back of the British Crown and produced the conditions that led to the decisive American victory of the war at Yorktown. Although the British would maintain sizable numbers of troops in the American colonies, Yorktown marked the end of major combat operations in America. Peace negotiations between the warring powers began in 1782 and resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783. After eight years of toil and struggle, the United States of America was finally recognized as an independent nation, free at last to shape her own destiny rooted in liberty.
Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the war of Independence by John Ferling.
American Battlefield Trust: Battle of Guilford Courthouse.
Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution by Benson Bobrick.
National Park Service: Guilford Courthouse.