Guilford Courthouse National Military Park | THE BATTLE OF GUILFORD COURTHOUSE

Guilford Courthouse National Military Park

Guilford Courthouse National Military Park

To understand the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, or any American Revolution battle that took place in the southern colonies for that matter, you cannot think in terms of the Civil War, World War I, or World War II. You cannot think of massive armies and battles with casualties numbering in the tens of thousands, or even the thousands. You cannot think of any type of war with a distinct front line, where what is behind you is yours and what is in front of you still belongs to the enemy. Battles fought at Guilford Courthouse, Cowpens, and Kings Mountain were fought at these places simply because that’s where the two sides just happened to meet up. They had no long term strategic implications. The victor did not leave men behind to guard these places. If anything, in contemporary terms, the southern battles were most similar to those of the Vietnam War, which was a revolution itself.

In the southern colonies, the British forces were commanded by General Charles Cornwallis, whose claim to fame would ultimately be that he was the one to surrender to the Americans at Yorktown just seven months after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. The American forces were commanded by Nathanael Greene. Cornwallis’ army numbered approximately 1,900 men, while Greene had about 1,700 Continental soldiers—trained professional fighters—though he had the luxury of rounding up militiamen to beef up his numbers. Militiamen were untrained fighters, just average men from the area who wanted to fight the British. While there were garrisons of British troops stationed at strategic points in South Carolina and Georgia, and there were local Patriot militias constantly harassing them, the crux of the southern conflict was nothing more than these two armies chasing each other around the south—two armies that didn’t amount to more than the size of the student body at a high school in a middle-size American city today. Victory could only be obtained by killing the enemy until there were no more men to fight, and the rest of the population would submit to whoever won.

If you really want to visualize the situation, imagine two bullies fighting it out for the control of the high school. They happen to run into each other out on the playground and they start to fight. The one who is beaten badly, but not killed, runs off and hides, waiting to recuperate until he can fight again. The other bully runs around the school grounds looking for him. Once the beaten boy gets his strength back, he prepares for another fight. He hears the other kid is playing basketball and sets out to find him. On the basketball court they meet again for another brawl, with the loser again retreating. This goes on and on and will never stop until one kid no longer gets up to fight again. At that point, the school is run by the victor. That’s the southern conflict of the American Revolution in layman’s terms.

In December of 1780, Greene arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, to take command of the southern army. By this time, Cornwallis had control of Georgia and South Carolina and was ready to start northward through North Carolina and on to Virginia. After a loss at King’s Mountain, Cornwallis was regrouping at Winnsboro, South Carolina, which is about 60 miles south of Charlotte. Greene’s army was too small to stop Cornwallis head on, so he decided to split his men into two groups with hopes that Cornwallis would also split his army and set off in pursuit. The main group under Greene’s command moved southeast to Cheraw, South Carolina, to the right of Cornwallis, and 600 men under General Daniel Morgan set off southwest of Charlotte, left of Cornwallis.

Cornwallis’ reaction was to split his forces into three groups: one to stick with Greene, one, under Banastre Tarelton, to follow Morgan, and one, under his command, to proceed north as planned into North Carolina. As it turned out, Tarelton and his men were wiped out at Cowpens in January, 1781. Cornwallis was now determined to finish off both Morgan and Greene before continuing his plans for a northward thrust into Virginia.

Greene and Morgan regrouped and headed north into Virginia with Cornwallis in pursuit. When they got to the Dan River, which runs east to west and roughly follows the North Carolina / Virginia border, they crossed and took all the boats with them. When Cornwallis arrived, there was no way to get across, plus he knew there was strong Patriot support in Virginia, so he chose not to follow, instead turning back toward Hillsborough, North Carolina, to try and raise a Loyalist militia to fight with him, though he did not have much success. Greene, on the other hand, was able to round up 2,700 militiamen from Virginia and North Carolina, and feeling that this was sufficient to now confront Cornwallis, he moved back into North Carolina to go on the offense. Guilford Courthouse, a well-known landmark, was to be the meeting place for all the men. Like Cowpens, the spot had no strategic importance; it was just a place everyone knew about.

When Cornwallis got word that Greene was at Guilford Courthouse, not far from where his men where, he decided to attack despite having only 1,900 men to the Greene’s 4,400. Once Greene knew Cornwallis was coming, his plan for an offensive movement turned to one of defense. He decided to stagger his men in three lines, each a quarter mile or so from each other, centered along the New Garden Road. The first line would be the North Carolina militia, with instructions to get off three shots and then retreat back to the second line. The hope was that three shots from 1,500 men would kill quite a few Redcoats. In addition to the men, two cannon straddled the road. The second line would be the 1,200-strong Virginia militia, and if that didn’t stop the British, his final defense was 1,700 highly trained Continentals stationed near the Guilford Courthouse. On March 15, 1781, the two sides finally met in battle.

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse is an easy one to understand. If you know the game of football, just imagine that instead of the defensive side having one defensive line, it has three. When the ball is snapped, the quarterback hands off the ball to the best running back in the league, who then proceeds to run through all three lines to score a touchdown. That’s what happened at Guilford Courthouse, with the British being the league’s top running back.

When I visited Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, I didn’t know a thing about the battle. However, once seeing the park film, going through the museum, and touring the battlefield, the first thing I thought was, “Why didn’t Greene just take his 4,400 men and throw them all at once against the British, simply overwhelming them.” It turns out that I’m not the only one to think of this, as many military historians have asked the same question. The decision to split the force into three lines, in my and many other opinions, is why Greene lost the battle. If you think about it, with the lines too far apart to support each other, the British weren’t really outnumbered. The fighting at the first American line would have pitted 1,900 British against 1,500 untrained North Carolina militiamen, who, by the way, fired one shot and ran, not the three Greene hoped they would.

The British ultimately lost 500 men to death and injury, and if all 500 were put out of commission at the very first engagement (which they weren’t, but let’s just pretend), they would have attacked the second line with 1,400 trained soldiers against 1,200 Virginia militia men. And finally, if all 500 men were lost at this point, the final battle would have been 1,400 trained British soldiers against 1,700 trained Continentals, again, not a large disparity considering that they could have been outnumbered 4,400 to 1,900.

There were plenty of sub-battles between units that were separated and chased, and you can learn about these during your visit to the battlefield. However, the basic recap of the battle was simply that three American lines were routed by the British. Like the beaten bully in my previous analogy, Greene retreated, yet hoped to recuperate to fight another day.

In the aftermath, the British were left in charge of all the wounded and the dead, both theirs and the Americans. They took the men to a nearby Quaker village, and the residents did the best they could to care for them. Supposedly, the British dead were buried in a mass grave that has never been found. There is a local rumor that when Battleground Road—the main road through the area—was being built that construction workers found bodies but quickly paved over the area so construction wouldn’t be halted.

The question that many may now ask is why commemorate a battle that the Americans lost? Do the math. If the British had only 1,900 men to begin with, putting 500 or so out of commission was a huge loss. Charles James Fox, leader of the Whig Party in England and a critic of the war, said, “Another such victory will ruin the British Army.” The loss of over 25% of Cornwallis’s army was a devastating blow to the British chances of success in the south.

After the Guilford Courthouse battle, Cornwallis took his army to rest at Wilmington, North Carolina, and gave up his pursuit of Greene. Once rested, he decided to push on to Virginia, feeling that a victory there would put an end to the southern rebellion. Greene decided to try and retake Georgia and South Carolina, which the British controlled. Seven month later, Cornwallis was defeated at Yorktown, Virginia, surrendering to George Washington and French commander Jean-Baptiste Ponton de Rochambeau on October 18, 1781. Though the war was not officially over for another two years, Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown effectively ended fighting in the colonies.

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Last updated on January 24, 2022
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