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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 British advance began at about 1:30 P.M. and 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, and while the British regrouped and prepared to attack again, General Greene ordered a retreat.

Turning Point at Guildford by Dale Gallon. (Photo Credit:

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, and as one British statesman told Parliament, “Another such victory would ruin the British Army.” As Nathanael Greene believed, the “Enemy got the ground… but we the victory,” and 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, admitting, “I never saw such fighting since God made me. The Americans fought like demons.”

Following the costly struggle, Cornwallis moved his army 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. Seven months after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, the world would turn upside down for Lord Cornwallis and the British Crown at Yorktown, Virginia.


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.