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Battle of Guilford Courthouse

The losses suffered by the British on March 15, 1781 ultimately led to the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.


Following the defeat of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781, Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis decided to pursue Major General Nathanael Greene's army (which had been harassing the British in the Carolinas with skirmishes, ambushes, and tactical retreats) across North Carolina. Greene managed to get his army across the swollen Dan River into Virginia before the British could catch up, however, and Cornwallis was forced to end his pursuit. Greene's army was subsequently reinforced by fresh troops from North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland, and by the time it recrossed the Dan River (on February 22) it numbered about 4,400 men.

On March 15, Cornwallis received reports that the Americans were near Guilford Court House (near present-day Greensboro, North Carolina). Despite only having 1,900 men on hand, Cornwallis resolved to take the offensive and began marching that morning.

While Cornwallis marched, Greene formed his army into three lines. The first line was comprised of ~800 North Carolina militia and rifleman arranged along a fence on the edge of a field, while the second consisted of ~850 Virginia militia situated in a thick forest. Greene's final and strongest line was comprised of his Continental regulars and artillery from Maryland and Virginia. On the right and left flanks of the first line, Greene posted veteran Virginia and North Carolina riflemen, as well as Continental dragoons and infantry led by William Washington and Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee. He also posted artillery at both the first and third lines, with those along the first having orders to fall back after the fighting began.

map of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse
map of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse


The fighting opened approximately four miles from the Court House when Tarleton's Light Dragoons encountered Lee's men near Quaker New Garden Meeting House. After a brief but sharp fight, Lee withdrew back to the main American lines.

Surveying Greene's lines, Cornwallis began advancing his men along the west side of the road. Moving forward, British troops began taking heavy fire from the North Carolina militia, which was now supported by Lee's men. Despite taking casualties, the British officers urged their men forward, ultimately compelling the militia to break and flee into the nearby woods.

Pursuing the North Carolina militia 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 an hour and a half of bloody fighting, Cornwallis' men were able to flank the Virginians and force them to retreat.

As the British emerged from the woods they encountered 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 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 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 a desperate attempt to save itself, the British artillery fired grapeshot into the melee. Although the move killed as many British as Americans, it halted Greene's counterattack. Concerned about the gap in his lines, Greene ordered a general retreat up Reedy Creek Road. Cornwallis attempted a pursuit, but his casualties were so high that it was quickly abandoned.

Nathanael Greene commanding his army at Guilford Courthouse
Nathanael Greene commanding his army at Guilford Courthouse


The Battle of Guilford Court House cost Greene 79 killed and 185 wounded (about six percent of his force), while Cornwallis suffered 93 dead and 413 wounded (over a quarter of his force). While a tactical victory for the British, Guilford Court House left Cornwallis dangerously low on supplies and men and he retired to Wilmington, North Carolina 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 at Yorktown.

British Battles
History Channel
North Carolina Encyclopedia

Nathanael Greene
Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> The Revolution, 1775-1783 >> Campaigns and Battles

This page was last updated on March 15, 2018.