Guilford Courthouseby Jim Daniel

The battle of Guilford Court House was perhaps the key event of Greene’s campaign against Cornwallis. Greene had taken over command of a dispirited Southern department after their resounding defeat at Camden under the command of General Gates. He took over an army of less than 1500 regulars and fewer than two weeks’ supplies on hand and no hopes of finding more in the immediate vicinity.

Greene immediately showed his mastery of strategy and tactics by violating one of the principal rules of warfare: He divided his command in the face of a numerically superior enemy, sending part under General Morgan into the South Carolina upcountry. Greene’s plan was that by breaking his army into smaller segments that could be supported in the areas around Cheraw and in the South Carolina upcountry, pinning (he hoped) Cornwallis in between at Winnsboro. If Cornwallis moved in either direction, it would leave the other component without opposition and British posts would fall.

Cornwallis, unlike his predecessors, wasn’t one to sit and ponder. He ordered Tarleton with his British Legion along with one battalion of the 71st Foot, the 7th Foot, and some of the 17th Light Dragoons out after Morgan. Cornwallis planned to move north into North Carolina, cutting off Morgan’s expected retreat. They’d catch Morgan between them and destroy his force. However, Morgan roundly defeated Tarleton at the Cowpens in January, 1781. Morgan retreated north with his prisoners; but not into the waiting arms of Cornwallis. His Lordship had been delayed. Sure that, nonetheless, Cornwallis would come after him, Morgan continued his retreat northward, hoping to get his troops and prisoners out of reach.

Hearing of Morgan’s victory, Greene ordered his army north to a junction with Morgan’s men. It seems to have been Greene’s intention to lure Cornwallis into the backcountry, then pick him apart as Gates and Morgan had done with Burgoyne in 1777. Greene successfully lured His Lordship and his army to the banks of the Dan, 125 miles from his nearest point of supply.

In March of 1781, having enlarged his number with Virginia and North Carolina militia, Greene posted himself at Guilford Courthouse, awaiting the attack that Cornwallis must make. Greene’s battle plan was essentially the same as Morgan’s at Cowpens but lacking the support between the lines of troops. In front were two battalions of raw NC militia. Greene asked only two volleys from these men, then they could fall back. Behind them in the woods were two battalions of Virginia militia, many of whom had fled without a shot from the battlefield at Camden. Behind these men, their officers had posted sentries with instructions to shoot any who chose to flee. Posted further down Pleasant Garden Road near the Court House were Greene’s regulars. Two Maryland regiments and two Virginia regiments. Supporting them on the American left was William Washington’s cavalry.

After some early morning cavalry skirmishing, Cornwallis’ troops formed on McIntyre’s farm. Across the fields they could see the lines of militia. But regular troops didn’t fear militia. The crown forces advanced. At first there were scattered gunshots, then substantial gunfire. A sergeant of the 71st commented that so many of his fellows were cut down that he knew there would be a tumulus where they were buried. The redcoats marched on. As they neared the fence, they faced militia who had reloaded. The British ranks slowed and even halted. They were driven forward by their officer as another round of gunfire serried their ranks. But with the second round, the NC militia turned and fled back through the Virginians. On the British left the Virginians quickly disintegrated. St. George Tucker, one of their officers, said they ran like “sheep chased by dogs.” On the British right the Virginians put up stiffer resistance. The British troops were broken into smaller segments by the underbrush. It was more like Indian-style fighting and more to the militia’s liking.

Meanwhile, on the British left, the 33rd Foot had pushed through to the slope below the Continentals. They quickly formed their ranks and headed uphill to be hit by a crashing volley from the Marylanders and driven at bayonet point back into the ravine. Soon the Guards Battalion came up and like the 33rd, they formed and pushed uphill . They found easier picking. Ford’s 2nd Maryland struck the flank of the Guards Battalion. In the midst of this severe combat, Washington’s dragoons charged into the Guards’ other flank, rode through, then turned and rode through again, hacking and slashing around them. In the meantime, the remainder of the Crown forces were coming up. Cornwallis ordered his artillery to fire grapeshot into the melee to break it up. Knowing the casualties it would cause among his men, Brigadier O’Hara of the Guards begged Cornwallis not to, but the order was given. Sure enough, the two forces separated.

With additional troops on hand, Cornwallis began to reform for a final assault. At that time, Greene, realizing that he could lose his army if he persisted, gave orders for retreat. Greene’s army was able to leave the field with little pressure and far fewer casualties, although the exact count was never determined due to the NC militia’s failure to return to camp after their flight. There were many subplots within the battle: The stand of Campbell’s riflemen on the American left, the role of Kirkwood’s intrepid Delawares, etc.

The end result was that Cornwallis could claim a victory even though he had lost 25% of an army that he had called the finest small army that ever was. With his men desperate for supplies and his wounded abandoned to the care of the Americans, Cornwallis struck out for Wilmington with Greene in pursuit. Greene would turn and move into South Carolina and begin rolling up the exposed British posts. Cornwallis would decide that if Virginia could be taken, Carolina would fall. He marched to Virginia, then Yorktown, then into our history books with his surrender.