ON JUNE 2, 1791, AN IMPRESSIVE AMERICAN ARRIVED in Martinville, North Carolina, site of one of the Revolutionary War’s most important battles. President George Washington was nearing the end of a three-month southern-states tour, during which he met veterans and visited sites where British and Americans had clashed. Slightly more than a decade earlier there had been a small administrative settlement in the area that gave this battle its name—Guilford Courthouse. Here, British troops had fought Americans led by Major General Nathanael Greene. M Washington was taken to a ridgeline overlooking fields cleared as they had been when the British had initially advanced. Despite enjoying a hindsight view of the battle’s short- and long-term results, Washington had to admit, as he gazed across that natural killing field, that he would have fought the battle in a very different way.
For three months in early 1781 a high-stakes military campaign played out in the Carolinas. Nathanael Greene’s Department of the South army and a British one under Lieutenant General Charles, 2nd Earl Cornwallis engaged in a series of marches and maneuvers with Georgia and the Carolinas as prize. Cornwallis needed a decisive victory that would sweep the Americans from the field and animate loyalist elements to flock to his standard. Greene had to maintain a firm American military presence to suppress royalist sentiment and encourage the patriots. Above all, he had been charged by Washington to preserve his core professional army, something his two predecessors had failed to do.
The 38-year-old Greene, manager of a family forge in prewar Rhode Island, had been Washington’s pick for this challenging assignment. Starting out in 1775 as the Continental Army’s youngest brigadier general, he had earned Washington’s respect both as a man of arms and as a military administrator. By the time Greene was tapped for the Carolinas assignment he had acquired a remarkable skillset. He knew how an army operated, how it moved, how it lived from day to day, and how it fought. He understood the troublesome necessity of melding a small cadre of trained regulars with often prickly local militias. He had a knack for planning ahead and accepted the challenge of managing subordinates and allies whose commitment to the cause was often secondary to personal ambitions or regional animosities. Perhaps most important, he had found within himself the ability to analyze a situation and to generate a flexible plan of action firmly guided by strategic objectives but always open to short-term opportunities.
Cornwallis’s military experience in North America tracked back to 1776. He was 41 years old in early 1780 when he assumed command of British and loyalist forces in the Carolinas, where he was charged with solidifying Royal control over a region that the Crown had essentially ignored until France allied with the Americans. Cornwallis got off to a great start when he smashed the American southern army at Camden, South Carolina, on August 16, 1780. (Its predecessor had surrendered en masse when Charleston fell in May 1780.) But two serious setbacks followed: a substantial loss of loyalist troops in October at King’s Mountain, on the border with North Carolina, and on January 17, 1781, the near obliteration of a column of his regulars at Cowpens. Coincident with the latter defeat was the appearance of yet another American southern army under Greene’s leadership. The two reverses sucked the wind out of loyalist activism, and Cornwallis believed that the British could never reset their rule on firm ground as long as Greene’s army operated freely, so he aimed to destroy it.
There followed a stern chase that took the British around and about the Carolinas, on hard marches through difficult terrain, never close enough to grapple with Greene’s men. Cornwallis stripped his army to the bare essentials so it could move faster, but Greene remained a step ahead and foraged food and supplies as he passed, leaving only crumbs for the trailing British. Their chase carried them into central North Carolina, near the Virginia border. By March Cornwallis’s army was, according to one of his senior officers, “completely worn out.” Despairing of ever catching the Amercans, Cornwallis entertained the faint hope that the enemy might attack him. Then everything changed on the evening of March 14, 1781, when scouts reported that Greene’s army was encamped a short march away at Guilford Courthouse. The battle Cornwallis had been earnestly seeking beckoned. His weary soldiers were roused and prepped for combat.
“I know the People have been in anxious suspence waiting the event of a general action,” Nathanael Greene acknowledged, but he continued to evade Cornwallis until three conditions were met. He wanted the British soldiers to be very tired and hungry, he needed his small Continental core reinforced by enough militia to enjoy numerical superiority, and he desired ground over which he could fight his kind of battle. It all came together in early March, and after spending two days assembling his force, Greene brought his 4,000-man army to Guilford Courthouse to fight.
Cornwallis’s column (some 2,000 strong) began moving at 5:30 a.m., following the Great Salisbury Road (today’s New Garden Road). It was a heavily forested route ideal for ambuscades, so Cornwallis kept his columns tight. This didn’t prevent his mounted screening force, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, from tangling with American cavalry and light infantry soon after 7 a.m. There were three distinct encounters as the Americans under Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee successfully probed and skirmished. Both sides took losses but the British pressed on.
About 11 a.m. Cornwallis reached the edge of a tree line bordering upward-sloping cultivated farmland. Perhaps 400 yards in front he could see a line of battle stretching across the road. Sections in the center were on open ground, but both flanks disappeared into the woods. It appeared that the Americans were indeed making a stand. Cornwallis knew little of the terrain, but his fear that the militiamen (no uniformed Continentals were visible) would scatter before engaging made him anxious to close on them right away. He would rely on a frontal assault, trusting to British discipline and bayonets.
Two regiments of foot (the 33rd and 23rd under the well-regarded Lieutenant Colonel James Webster, some 580 men) came forward and filed off to the left (north), while another 565 soldiers (71st Foot and the German mercenary Von Bose Regiment under Major General Alexander Leslie) moved right (south), going from column into line. The instant the various sections hove into the enemy’s view, they were pecked with solid shot by a pair of patriot 6-pounder cannons. Three British guns galloped up to engage the American gunners (who remained steadfast until the enemy infantry reached musket range). Behind them Cornwallis placed his reserves. All was ready by noon, when Webster and Leslie advanced.
The troops facing Cornwallis were predominantly North Carolina militia, a designation implying a uniformity that did not exist. The 1,200 men (in two brigades) hailed from 17 counties and were grouped into 14 sub-units. They varied in everything important this day: training, weapons, leadership. Greene had considered them the most expendable, not expecting them to stand before British bayonets. He had ridden along the almost three-quarter-mile line, reminding them that their mission was to “fire two volleys and then retire.” Now they waited in a position that angled out onto the hill’s forward slope following a fence line.
To add spine and support to their position, Greene had posted some of his more reliable elements (cavalry and infantry) on either flank. Once the militia line collapsed, these troops were to hook up with the first of two surprises awaiting Cornwallis this day. Greene was long gone before the British appeared, leaving the civilian-soldiers to their thoughts and fears. “It is scarcely possible to paint the agitations of my mind,” wrote a militia officer to his pregnant wife, “struggling with two of the greatest events that are in nature at the same time: the fate of my Nancy and my country.”
The center pair of advancing British regiments encountered fields mushy from recent rains and sturdy fences that bedeviled formations. At the same time, their flanking partners strained to keep pace, struggling through undergrowth and around trees. The Americans were armed with a collection of short-range muskets (firing a mix of buckshot and musket balls) as well as longer-range rifles. The riflemen drew first blood, followed by the musket men, some of whom fired early, wasting their shot.
Like a levee breached by a swollen river, sections of the North Carolina line collapsed while others held, but eventually all the militiamen were retreating, some running. Although Greene’s report faulted these troops for failing to deliver the requested two volleys, more reliable evidence indicates that some did what was asked, a few even more—clubbing their muskets to fight hand to hand.
Several British units were hard hit. “What showers of mortal hail!” declared a participant, while another likened the clumps of bodies in their wake to “the scattering stalks of a wheat field when the harvest man has passed over it with his cradle.” When the advance of the 23rd Foot stalled before an ominous line of leveled rifles, Colonel Webster reanimated the movement, yelling, “Come on my brave fusiliers!” As Cornwallis’s men surged through the first American position, some wounded colonials were bayoneted by British veterans not wishing a shot in the back. A thousand yards to the rear, Greene followed the fighting by ear and occasional reports, taking no action.
The story on the flanks was different. The Americans posted there remained unseen until they fired on the enemy’s exposed line. The targeted British formations quickly reoriented to confront the threat. On Cornwallis’s left, Colonel Webster called up some German Jägers and British light infantry, who combined with elements of the 33rd Foot to combat the pesky Americans. After the North Carolinians broke, these units pulled back to the next defensive position, allowing the British to claim they had “attacked and routed” them.
On the southern end some of the German mercenaries reinforced by a battalion of the elite Brigade of Guards took on the American flankers, here consisting of Virginia riflemen and Henry Lee’s mounted legion. The thick woods limited Lee’s troopers to the only available access road, which herded the fighting south, away from the principal combat. While this prevented those Americans from rejoining the main battle, it also siphoned off the opposing units engaged.
There was a pause in the center as the British ranks were dressed and reserves brought forward to close gaps caused by the attenuated formations. Cornwallis was now all in, with no assets remaining, and he had yet to face the Continentals. He promptly ordered this new line forward, harder to do now because all of his units were operating in rough, forested ground that made holding formation impossible. It was in this claustrophobic environment that the British troops came up against Greene’s second battle line, some 400 yards distant from the first and nearly as long.
Perhaps 1,350 Virginia riflemen stood waiting, posted along a slight rise. The right wing (north) was under Brigadier General Robert Lawson and the left (south) commanded by Brigadier General Edward Stevens. Helping their right were the separate flanking units, while their left was in the air—the flankers supposed to be there were fighting elsewhere. Their entire position was in an old-growth forest, so the Virginians had tracked the action by sounds, glimpses of fleeing North Carolinians, and the occasional bounding round shot.
As a British line of battle materialized through the wooded gloom, General Lawson spotted an opportunity. The left flank of the approaching 23rd Regiment of Foot was unprotected, so Lawson ordered two of his regiments to swing out to enfilade it. The problem was that there was support on hand in the form of late arriving British reserves who caught the Virginians with their flank exposed. The surprised militiamen fought in confusion for a few minutes before they “dispersed like a flock of sheep frightened by dogs,” according to Lawson’s brigade major.
Even though a substantial portion of the American line was wrecked and rolled up, scattered groups of Virginians continued to resist, forcing the British to deal with them. An American officer standing farther back thought that the “roar of musquetry and cracking of rifles were…as heavy as any I ever heard.” According to one of the redcoats, it was a time when “battalion maneuvering and excellency of exercise were found of little value.” What tipped the balance in most cases was the sight of British steel, since few of the militia had bayonets. The Americans off the northern flank stubbornly held their ground for a while before peeling off to join Greene’s final defensive position.
Cornwallis’s horse was shot out from under him as he rode into the chaos to revivify his attack (still no Continental sightings!). He went blundering on toward an enemy party on a new horse, until a friendly infantryman grabbed the reins from him and led him to safety. Cornwallis’s work was cut out for him as the hitherto victorious British line of battle was in terrible shape—greatly disordered, low on ammunition, few officers still standing, and lots of wounded and killed. The routines of discipline exerted themselves as units were re-formed, reoriented, and once again ordered forward.
Awaiting them some 600 yards distant was Nathanael Greene’s final surprise for Cornwallis this day—a phalanx of his best troops, fresh and ready. On wooded high ground fronted by open slopes near the Great Salisbury Road, the general had placed most of his Continental units—two Maryland regiments, two Virginia units, joined by a miscellany of small bands from the northern flanking force, and handfuls of regrouped militia from the first two lines. Also present were the cannons that had opened the engagement. There were some 1,400 men all told, facing a much diminished and exhausted enemy.
ALTHOUGH HIS DEFENSE-IN-DEPTH SCHEME had seriously weakened the British, Nathanael Greene still anticipated retreating. Speaking afterward to Colonel Daniel Morgan, who had executed the earlier American victory at Cowpens, Greene admitted that he was “content at the flogging at Guilford” and had always “consider[e]d victory as doubtful.” Yet at first it seemed his plan had exceeded expectations when the British attacked his powerful third line piecemeal instead of as a whole.
First on the scene was the 33rd Regiment of Foot led by Colonel Webster. The relatively quick collapse of the Virginia line’s right wing gave the 33rd a fairly unimpeded passage, and these troops arrived alone at Greene’s final position. The foliage along the ridge concealed the Continentals, so when Colonel Webster sighted the American cannons near the road, they seemed ripe for the taking. His regulars charged across the open field and were halfway to their goal when they were staggered from front and flank by massed musketry and case shot that forced Webster, who was mortally wounded in the encounter, to retreat.
Next to arrive were the 300 muskets of the elite 2nd Guards Battalion, led by Brigadier General Charles O’Hara (already once wounded, soon to be hit again). They too charged the cannons, which were supported by Greene’s newest Continental regiment, the 400-strong 2nd Maryland. These infantrymen, to the amazement of all, dissolved before the British attack. Their original officers had been recently replaced; the unit’s right angle position induced great confusion when everyone had to face in the same direction, and the men had endured a nerve-racking wait while the unseen conflict roiled in their front. The sight of the disciplined scarlet lines, bayonets leveled, was the proverbial last straw.
The collapse of the 2nd Maryland was not necessarily a fatal blow. The officer commanding the 1st Maryland (next on the right) promptly reoriented his Continentals to charge into the guards’ open flank with their bayonets leveled. The impact of this counterattack was amplified when, roughly simultaneously, the guardsmen were hit on their other flank by American cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel William Washington. Washington’s men had fought with the northern flankers until reaching the third line, when they providentially swung around to strike the guards after their breakthrough. It was combat up close and personal, with Continental infantry stabbing in from the north and cavalry slashing up from the south.
All of this occurred under the direct observation of Cornwallis, and until recently, the traditional story told was that the desperate officer ordered his artillery to fire indiscriminately into the mass of men and horses. That description of the
incident, supplied by an American participant not on this part of the field, is supplanted by eyewitness testimony indicating that Cornwallis’s mounted command group was targeted by American cavalry at the fringe of the fighting, and in ordering his cannons to fire on those riders (with imprecise grapeshot), infantry in the melee became collateral damage.
What ultimately snatched defeat from the jaws of victory was Greene’s perception of where matters stood. After trying to rally the panicked 2nd Marylanders (and nearly being captured himself), he believed that the regiment’s collapse signaled that his final line had been turned and that his irreplaceable Continentals were about to be overrun, so he acted to save his core force. Organizing a withdrawal was something he did well and had anticipated in his planning. As the Continentals retreated, some wounded British were bayoneted by Americans; this time they were the ones not wanting to be shot in the back.
By the time Cornwallis advanced his hastily re-formed army for a final push, it encountered only American rear guards. Once again the great prize had escaped him. A pursuit was ordered, but his exhausted and combat-drained men had little left to give, so it was called off after a face-saving distance had been logged.
This was not the end, for well to the southwest the combat continued as American left-wing flankers entangled with the British. For most of the engagement the honors had been about even, but as the main fight was ending, Colonel Lee abruptly took his mounted legion over to the final line, leaving the American infantrymen to fend for themselves. Shortly after Lee left, a British cavalry detachment under Colonel Tarleton (sent by Cornwallis) arrived to savage the American foot soldiers.
The Battle of Guilford Courthouse was over. It had lasted some two hours, and Cornwallis held the battlefield—a traditional measure of victory. But the ground itself meant nothing in the overall picture. For the critical spoils of war were the American cannons, 1,300 muskets, and hundreds of wounded from both sides. As rain and temperatures fell, Greene’s army gathered at the prepared rally point. They had some shelter and some food, while the British had little of either.
The loss to Cornwallis’s army—and to his ambitions—was substantial, with 28 percent of his men killed, wounded, or missing. Included were several key officers, headlined by Colonel Webster, who lingered for two weeks before he died. Greene’s army was noticeably diminished, though many of the absent were the fleet-footed militia who would fight another day. In terms of battlefield deaths, Nathanael Greene lost 7 percent of his force. Equally significant, his army remained operational.
After dealing with the wounded (which often meant parking them with sympathetic civilians), Cornwallis marched east to his Wilmington supply base. There he rethought the strategy to solidify British control over the region and convinced himself that his next best move was to take his army into Virginia, where he could interrupt Greene’s supply line and link up with friendly units to isolate the American South. In time this campaign led his army to Yorktown and the defeat that convinced Britain the American war was unwinnable.
Cornwallis hoped that his opponent would follow him, but Greene stayed true to his primary mission by remaining in the Carolinas. There followed a campaign with a familiar refrain: no decisive American victories but the gradual erosion of British presence and control. In Nathanael Greene, the nation-to-be had a leader dedicated to a future that looked beyond the war’s divisiveness to a time of shared aspirations. Time and again Greene intervened when vengeance-seeking patriots sought to even the score with neutrals and loyalists through property confiscations and corporal punishment. Greene did not heal all the partisan wounds during his southern tenure, but his efforts helped ensure that an American nation would emerge from the conflict. This may well be the most important legacy of Guilford Courthouse.
WHEN PRESIDENT WASHINGTON VISITED the Guilford Courthouse battlefield, he never forgot the view down that cleared slope from the first line. While Greene had undertaken the battle to make a point, Washington would have fought it to win. He would have put his best troops and most powerful weapons in that opening position, confident that the attacking British “must have been torn all to pieces.” Had he been in command, Washington told Thomas Jefferson, he “would have hardly let a single man get through that field.”
Noah Andre Trudeau, a producer and writer, is currently working on a book about Abraham Lincoln’s visit to the war front in March–April 1865 and developing a multimedia work about Lincoln’s life.