The Southern Revolution:
The Battle of Guilford Courthouse
by J. M. Pressley
First published: February 9, 2009
The Battle of Guilford Courthouse proved a victory that Lord Cornwallis could not afford and ultimately led to his abandonment of the Carolinas.
Following the American victory at Cowpens, an enraged General Cornwallis gave orders for his soldiers to burn anything that would slow them down and set off in hot pursuit of Nathanael Greene's retreating army. The ensuing cat-and-mouse chase through the Carolinas became known as the "Race to the Dan," as Greene hoped to cross the flooded Dan River into Virginia before Cornwallis could catch him. Using small detachments of light infantry and cavalry, Greene distracted and slowed Cornwallis at every opportunity through a damp, cold winter.
Greene's main force crossed the Dan on February 13; by nightfall, the last of his rear guard slipped across the river mere hours ahead of the British. The British could hear the cheers of the Americans on the north bank. Frustrated and low on supplies, Cornwallis directed his men back south toward Hillsboro. There they could rest and replenish their strength. Greene, however, had other ideas.
Greene spent little more than a week encamped in Virginia. There, while his scouts and spies told him of British movements, Greene rested, reorganized, and welcomed news of reinforcements. By March, Greene traveled back into North Carolina with a force of over 4,000 men. He camped north of Cornwallis near Guilford Courthouse, a carefully chosen terrain of gently rolling farmlands, and essentially baited the British general into attacking him. For Greene, it was one more calculated risk; the lessons of Daniel Morgan at Cowpens had been most instructive to him, if not to Cornwallis.
Following the advice of Morgan, Greene deployed his troops in three ranks using the high ground to his advantage. First, the British would have to advance uphill to face a line of militia. Then they would face a second line of militia stationed among thickets. The Continental regulars, the anchor of Greene's army, would be deployed to the rear, shielded from view until ready for action. Like Morgan at Cowpens, Greene told his militia front line that all he asked of them were a few steady volleys before falling back.
On the afternoon of March 15, Cornwallis marched his men up New Garden Road and approached the American position. The soldiers had been on a hard march since dawn; Cornwallis might have fed and rested his troops before launching his assault. Instead, he immediately deployed his army into two wings and ordered them to attack.
The British expected the militia to break and run at the first sign of bayonets, as they had so frequently in the past. Instead, the front line calmly leveled their muskets and fired off a pair of volleys, ripping through the British advance. With cavalry support on their flanks, the first line fell back and let the British advance toward the second line of Virginia militia awaiting them.
The battle with the second line became confused early on amongst the trees. Both forces became entangled, and detachments became less cohesive, fighting in pockets. Uneven advances on the left and right further muddled formations. After hard fighting, the British collapsed the line and broke into the open to find Greene's Continentals awaiting them.
Had Cornwallis or his subordinates taken some time to reorganize, the results may have been different. However, Colonel James Webster took his left wing on an aggressive, ill-advised charge uphill that was quickly and bloodily repulsed. Webster himself was mortally wounded in this charge. On the right, General Charles O'Hara had more success, overrunning part of Greene's line. The ensuing melee that erupted became a morass of tight, hand-to-hand fighting between the British and Americans. Cornwallis made a coldly calculated decision to loose his artillery onto the scene to gain separation and get his men back into formation. His cannon fire wreaked casualties on both sides, but it worked. The two forces pulled apart.
At this point, with the sun beginning to set, Greene gave the orders to withdraw. Although an all-out charge might have driven the British into a retreat—the Americans still had the advantage in sheer numbers—Greene was smart enough to realize that it was more important to keep his army intact. They had inflicted roughly two casualties on the British for every one they suffered, and Cornwallis had already lost more men than he could afford. The Americans fell back under fire in an orderly retreat to the northwest. Cornwallis could not pursue.
The action at Guilford Courthouse marked the beginning of the end for Cornwallis. Although the British held the field at the end of the day, Greene had once more scored a logistical victory in the face of a tactical defeat. The British had lost nearly a quarter of their army and still not put the Continental army out of commission. Cornwallis had few options after Guilford; he needed supplies and access to the sea. He trudged toward Wilmington to lick his wounds.
Guilford was also the beginning of divergent paths for Greene and Cornwallis. While Cornwallis was eventually destined for Yorktown and a bitter surrender, Greene would pursue his course back into South Carolina to help Marion, Pickens, and Sumter pin down the remaining British troops in the region. In the end, battles such as Guilford Courthouse proved that the patriots could win a war of attrition so long as they were able to maintain an army in the field.
Lancaster, Bruce. The American Revolution (American Heritage Library). New York, NY: American Heritage Pub. Co., 1971.
Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Savas, Theodore P. and J. David Dameron. Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution. New York, NY: Savas Beatie LLC, 2006.
The Southern Revolution Timeline
- The Battle of Moores Creek Bridge
- The Charleston Campaigns
- The Battle of Camden
- The Battle of King's Mountain
- The Battle of Cowpens
- The Battle of Guilford Courthouse
- The Battle of Yorktown
Did You Know?
Raised as a Quaker and lacking formal education, Nathanael Greene was as unlikely—and successful—a general as any under Washington's command.