March 15, 1781
|Guilford Courthouse Visitor's Center|
Last spring, when I was traveling in North Carolina, I was able to visit the site of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, now Greensboro. It is a battle that figures in my current work in progress so I was eager to wander through the battlefield and visitor’s center.
General Nathaniel Greene was in charge of the Continental Army’s Southern Department. After the Battle of Cowpens in January of 1781, where 300 British were killed or wounded and another 525 were taken prisoner, General Cornwallis was determined to destroy Greene's army.
Cornwallis and his troops pursued the Americans across North Carolina. Greene had already reconnoitered and led them to the area near Guilford Courthouse.
Greene waited until additional Virginia militia reinforcements arrived and then positioned them in three successive defensive lines.
The first line was made up of untested North Carolina militia that would fire at the British while they crossed the open fields.
Less than half a mile further east, Greene situated his second line, the Virginia militia in dense woods which would provide cover for them and dispel the British formations.
Green placed his third line of 1,400 Continentals 500 yards further back on top of a small ridge and behind another cleared field.
|Map of the Guilford Court House Battleground, based on c. 2006 National Park Service map|
The inexperienced North Carolina militia, who had been told they could disband, fled
woods. When the British pursued them they were met by the second line, the
Virginia militia. The fighting became splintered, much of it hand-to-hand
|The Guilford Courthouse woods in March|
The British were then met by Greene’s last line and in the open fields the advantage went back and forth between the two armies. Greene’s cavalry joined the fight.
Seeing his soldiers were being attacked from the front and flank by infantry and cavalry, Cornwallis directed that grapeshot be fired at the American horsemen, also placing his own troops in harm’s way. It halted the American cavalry charge and the infantry was also driven back. Additional British troops entered the woods and more hand-to hand combat ensued.
When Greene learned that British infantrymen were advancing from the rear, he ordered his troops to disengage and withdraw. The weather turned stormy as Greene’s exhausted and hungry men marched to a camp fifteen miles away.
In the ninety minute battle, the British though outnumbered more than two to one, defeated the American forces. However, they lost over a quarter of their men.
|Monument to General Nathaniel Greene|
Cornwallis gave up the pursuit and retreated toward Wilmington on the North Carolina Coast while Greene headed to South Carolina. Later, Cornwallis, hoping to draw Greene to follow him, headed to Virginia. The stage was being set for Cornwallis’s eventual defeat at Yorktown.