Guilford Courthouse was the decisive battle of the Southern Campaign in the American War of Independence.
For months, General Charles Cornwallis had led his army of British soldiers and German mercenaries through South and North Carolina in an attempt to bring the Patriot Army under General Nathaniel Greene to battle. On March 15, 1781 the two armies finally met near Guilford Courthouse (in present day Greensboro, NC).
On paper the Patriots seemed to have a large advantage. While General Cornwallis commanded 1,900 men, General Greene’s force numbered 4,400 men, including two small cavalry units and four 6-pounder cannons, known as Grasshopper Guns. But General Greene realized that numbers weren’t everything. The British and German soldiers were all professional fighting men, trained, disciplined, and tested under fire. Meanwhile the Patriot army consisted mostly of Virginia and North Carolina militia whose value in battle was dubious.
Because of this, General Greene borrowed a strategy successfully employed by Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens several months before. Greene organized his army into three lines. The first consisted of the North Carolina militia. They were given orders to fire two volleys and then fall back to the second line. Here the Virginia militia were to hold the Red Coats as long as possible before retreating to the third line. In this last line of defence, General Greene placed his best troops, members of the Continental army and his Grasshopper Guns.
The battle began as Greene planned it. Upon finding the army arrayed in front of him, Cornwallis ordered the attack. Advancing across an open field surrounded by fencing, the British suffered heavy casualties and the North Carolina militia fired from the relative safety of the woods. Still the British came on. The North Carolina men, having fired their two volleys and with the Red Coats charging down upon them, turned and fled through the woods. Unfortunately, Greene’s lack of faith in the militia was well founded. Although a few of the North Carolina men formed up in the second line, most fled from the field.
The Virginians continued to pound away at the advancing British, inflicting more casualties. Still the resolve of the British held. They forced the Virginian’s back and a general route was only prevented by a timely counter-charge by Greene’s continentals. Greene swiftly reformed his line. The British brought up fresh units and attacked again. Initially the Continentals gave ground, but then the Patriot Calvary managed to charge the attacking British Units in the rear. Seeing this, the Continentals also charged.
General Cornwallis looked on grimly as his line wavered. Fearing the line would break and his entire army be rolled up, Cornwallis made a desperate decision. He ordered his cannons, which had been hard put to keep up with the advancing infantry, to load with grapeshot. Then, over the protests of his second-in-command General Cornwallis fired the cannons into the general melee killing Americans and British alike. The American advance faltered. General Greene ordered his men to regroup, and then, fearing a flank attack from the British cavalry decided to abandon the field. He left the field and his Grasshopper guns to the enemy, but he preserved the better part of his army.
The British won the day, but at a high cost. They left 93 men dead on the field; a further 440 were wounded or missing. The Patriots lost 79 men killed and 185 wounded. They also lost most of the North Carolina militia who did not return.
At the end of the battle, Cornwallis is supposed to have said, “Another such victory and we are done for.” He knew that his losses could not be replaced, while the Patriots could and would easily replace theirs. General Cornwallis gambled that if he could catch the Continental army he would be able to wipe it out. He was wrong. Strategically, the Battle of Guilford Courthouse proved decisive in the southern campaign. Cornwallis no longer felt able to go on the offensive and would eventually retreat to Yorktown where his army would end up trapped and forced to surrender.
Today, the battlefield is well preserved with a well-maintained visitor/information centre. It sits on the outskirts of the city of Greensboro, which may be the only example of a city named after the General who lost the battle he fought there.