American Revolution: Battle of Guilford Court House

Greene at Guilford Court House
The 1st Maryland turns back the British at Guilford Court House. US Army

Battle of Guilford Courthouse - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Guilford Court House occurred on March 15, 1781, and was part of the southern campaign of the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Armies & Commanders:



Battle of Guilford Court House - Background:

In the wake of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton's defeat at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781, Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis turned his attention to pursuing Major General Nathanael Greene's small army. Racing through North Carolina, Greene was able to escape over the swollen Dan River before the British could bring him to battle. Making camp, Greene was reinforced by fresh troops and militia from North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. Pausing at Hillsborough, Cornwallis attempted to forage for supplies with little success before moving on to the forks of Deep River.  He also endeavored to recruit Loyalist troops from the region.

While there on March 14, Cornwallis was informed that General Richard Butler was moving to assault his troops. In actuality, Butler had led the reinforcements that had joined Greene. The following night, he received reports that the Americans were near Guilford Court House. Despite only having 1,900 men on hand, Cornwallis resolved to take the offensive.  Detaching his baggage train, his army began marching that morning. Greene, having re-crossed the Dan, had established a position near Guilford Court House. Forming his 4,400 men in three lines, he loosely replicated the alignment used by Brigadier General Daniel Morgan at Cowpens.

Battle of Guilford Court House - Greene's Plan:

Unlike the previous battle, Greene's lines were several hundred yards apart and were unable to support each other. The first line was comprised of North Carolina militia and rifleman, while the second consisted of Virginia militia situated in a thick forest. Greene's final and strongest line was comprised of his Continental regulars and artillery. A road ran through the center of the American position. The fighting opened approximately four miles from the Court House when Tarleton's Light Dragoons encountered Lieutenant Colonel Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee's men near Quaker New Garden Meeting House.

Battle of Guilford Court House - Fighting Begins:

After a sharp fight which led the 23rd Regiment of Foot advancing to aid Tarleton, Lee withdrew back to the main American lines. Surveying Greene's lines, which were on rising ground, Cornwallis began advancing his men along the west side of the road around 1:30 PM. Moving forward, British troops began taking heavy fire from the North Carolina militia which was positioned behind a fence. The militia was supported by Lee's men who had taken a position on their left flank. Taking casualties, the British officers urged their men forward, ultimately compelling the militia to break and flee into the nearby woods (Map).

Battle of Guilford Court House - Cornwallis Bloodied:

Advancing into the woods, the British quickly encountered the Virginia militia. On their right, a Hessian regiment pursued Lee's men and Colonel William Campbell's riflemen away from the main battle. In the woods, the Virginians offered stiff resistance and fighting often became hand-to-hand. After half and hour of bloody fighting which saw a number of disjointed British attacks, Cornwallis' men were able to flank the Virginians and force them to retreat. Having fought two battles, the British emerged from the wood to find Greene's third line on high ground across an open field.

Charging forward, British troops on the left, led by Lieutenant Colonel James Webster, received a disciplined volley from Greene's Continentals. Thrown back, with heavy casualties, including Webster, they regrouped for another attack. To the east of the road, British troops, led by Brigadier General Charles O'Hara, succeeded in breaking through the 2nd Maryland and turning Greene's left flank. To avert disaster, the 1st Maryland turned and counterattacked, while Lieutenant Colonel William Washington's dragoons struck the British in the rear. In an effort to save his men, Cornwallis ordered his artillery to fire grapeshot into the melee.

This desperate move killed as many of his own men as Americans, however it halted Greene's counterattack. Though the outcome was still in doubt, Greene was concerned about the gap in his lines. Judging it prudent to depart the field, he ordered a withdrawal up Reedy Creek Road towards Speedwell Ironworks on Troublesome Creek. Cornwallis attempted a pursuit, however his casualties were so high that it was quickly abandoned when Greene's Virginia Continentals offered resistance.

Battle of Guilford Court House - Aftermath:

The Battle of Guilford Court House cost Greene 79 killed and 185 wounded. For Cornwallis, the affair was much bloodier with losses numbering 93 dead and 413 wounded. These amounted to over a quarter of his force. While a tactical victory for the British, Guilford Court House cost the British losses they could ill-afford.  Though unhappy with the result of the engagement, Greene wrote to the Continental Congress and stated that the British "have met with a defeat in a victory." Low on supplies and men, Cornwallis retired to Wilmington, NC to rest and refit. Shortly thereafter, he embarked on an invasion of Virginia. Freed from facing Cornwallis, Greene set about liberating much of South Carolina and Georgia from the British. Cornwallis' campaign in Virginia would end that October with his surrender following the Battle of Yorktown.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Guilford Court House." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Revolution: Battle of Guilford Court House. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Guilford Court House." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).

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