“The Americans fought like demons”
The tour road and trails at Guilford Courthouse are currently closed due to debris from Hurricane Michael. Please check conditions by clicking here before visiting.
The Battle of Guilford Courthouse was one of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution. Lord Charles, Earl Cornwallis, the British commander, lost one-quarter of his army in less than three hours. “The Americans,” he wrote, “fought like demons.”
The engagement took place on March 15, 1781 at a small country courthouse at today’s Greensboro, North Carolina. Key areas of the battleground are preserved at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park.
The Battle of Guilford Courthouse culminated a campaign waged across North and South Carolina and into Virginia in January through March 1781. It began when American general Nathaniel Greene defied military convention and divided his army in the face of the much larger British force of Lord Charles, Earl Cornwallis. Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan took one wing of Greene’s force and smashed part of the British army at the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina.
The victory by Morgan’s command ignited a chase across North Carolina that is remembered today as the “Race to the Dan.” Greene reunited his forces and retreated across North Carolina with Cornwallis hot on his heels. The Americans – and the prisoners they took at Cowpens – made it to safety behind the natural barrier of the Dan River in Virginia just in time to see the British appear on the opposite shore. Greene saved his own army and fell back on his sources of supply and reinforcement while Cornwallis extended his supply line to the breaking point.
Greene received strong reinforcements at his camps north of the Dan and after waiting 30 days decided to take the battle to the British. He crossed the river and formed his army in a strong position at Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781. He waited there for Cornwallis to attack. The British general was happy to oblige.
The American tactics at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse were strongly influenced by Morgan’s plan of action at Cowpens. A loose adaptation of the two battles, in fact, forms the basis for the climactic fight in Mel Gibson’s acclaimed film, The Patriot.
Greene took advantage of woods, low rises and fence rows facing open fields to form his men in three parallel lines. The first of these, one-half mile wide, was comprised of North Carolina militia and Delaware regulars. The Patriots were protected by a split rail “worm” fence that zigzagged along the edge of a farm. The agricultural land gave them a clear field of fire and their line was strengthened by experienced cavalry on the flanks and two 6-pounder cannon near the center. The guns were positioned to fire down the Great Salisbury Wagon Road by which the British were advancing.
In the woods several hundred yards behind this first position, Greene formed a line of Virginia militia. He expected the thick woods to break up British formations and cause chaos as Cornwallis and his officers tried to communicate with and coordinate their troops.
The final American line was 500 yards behind the position in the woods. Seasoned Virginia and North Carolina Continentals formed a V-shaped line around the little wooden Guilford Courthouse. Two more cannon were placed in the center to add extra strength to the formation.
The general’s plan called for the first line to fall back when pressed – much as Morgan’s first line had done at Cowpens – drawing the British to within range of the muskets of the second line. When things got too hot along this front, these soldiers also would retreat. Cornwallis would follow, sending his men forward directly into the muzzles of the cannon and muskets waiting in Greene’s third and strongest line.
The British advanced up the Great Salisbury Wagon Road exactly as expected. Cornwallis encountered resistance at the Joseph Hoskins farm, the site of which is now preserved as Tannenbaum Historical Park and the Colonial Heritage Center adjoining the national miltiary park.
The battle began with a furious exchange of cannon fire as the British columns wheeled into line of battle. The American militia watched and waited behind the protection of their rail fence as the Redcoats stepped off to the sound of drums and bagpipes. They came directly across the open fields into the killing zone prepared by Gen. Greene.
The militia waited until the British were 150 yards out before opening fire. A storm of lead cut down the advancing soldiers in lines, but they closed ranks and kept coming. As they neared the fence, the Redcoats halted, delivered a well-timed volley of their own, and then went at the Americans with a loud “huzza” and a bayonet charge. Panic rippled down Greene’s first line and the men holding it began to scatter. Some retreated wildly through the woods behind them while others linked up with more experienced men under Light-Horse Harry Lee and William Campbell.
Lee and Campbell withdrew to the southeast, pulling away two full British regiments. They engaged in a separate fight that lasted longer than the main battle.
The main British advance continued straight forward into the woods. As Greene had anticipated, it was impossible for Cornwallis to maintain the formation of his army in the thick trees and brush that separated the first American line from the second. The woods also prevented the British from using their bayonets to advantage.
The British refused to stop their attacks despite the terrain and fierce resistance of Greene’s militia. The woods were drenched with blood as they fought the Virginians on the American second line.
Cornwallis broke through after suffering severe casualties and his men surged forward in pursuit of the retreating American militia. They soon ran head on into Greene’s third line. The Virginia and North Carolina Continentals fought it out with the British in a firefight that surged back and forth. Gen. Greene ordered his cavalry to attack on the flanks and Cornwallis found himself facing heavy Patriot fire from the front, left and right.
Fearing a double envelopment like the one that had broken Tarleton’s army at the Battle of Cowpens, the British commander ordered his artillery to open fire on the swirling mass of fighting men. The guns killed and maimed friend and foe alike. It was a desperate move but had Cornwallis not given the order his army likely would have been destroyed.
British units now poured in from all parts of the fields and the tide of the battle shifted. Greene achieved all that he could reasonably expect and gave the order for the American army to withdraw. The British were so bloodied that they let the Patriots slip away in “leisurely” style.
The army of Lord Charles, Earl Cornwallis, won the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, but the cost of victory was frightful. British casualties were 93 killed and 413 wounded. The Americans lost 79 killed and 260 wounded. Many of the wounded on each side died in the days and weeks that followed.
The American army retreated intact and encouraged, having gone toe to toe with the finest British troops in the field. Well-supplied for a change, they were ready to fight again. For Cornwallis, however, it was a different story. He left behind or destroyed most of his supplies for the sake of speed during the “Race to the Dan” and now his men were forced to raid and pillage or starve. Within weeks he turned back to the coast, marching down and occupying Wilmington.
The withdrawal put the British commander on the road to the Battle of Yorktown where he would surrender to Gen. George Washington. Greene, meanwhile, turned south and soon re-established American control over most of the Carolinas and Georgia. He continued to fight, get beat, and fight again until the United States achieved its independence.
Guilford Courthouse National Military Park is at 2332 New Garden Road, Greensboro, North Carolina. Please see the map at the bottom of this page for directions. The park is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is free to visit. It features a Visitor Center, tour road, trails, interpretive stations and monuments.
Next door to the national military park is the Colonial Heritage Center at Tannenbaum Historic Park. The address is 2200 New Garden Road, Greensboro, North Carolina. There you will find displays, a scale model of the entire battle and the recreated farm of Joseph Hoskins where the Battle of Guilford Courthouse began.
To learn more about the battle, please enjoy this free video: