World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Battle of Guilford Court House

Battle of Guilford Court House
Part of the American Revolutionary War

Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene observed as the veteran 1st Maryland Regiment threw back a British attack and countered with a bayonet charge. As they reformed their line, William Washington's light dragoons raced by to rescue raw troops of the 5th Maryland Regiment who had buckled under a furious assault of British grenadiers and guards.
Date March 15, 1781
Location present day Greensboro, North Carolina, U.S.
Result Pyrrhic British victory
 United States  Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
Nathanael Greene Charles Cornwallis
4,500[1] 2,100[1]
Casualties and losses
70 or 79 killed
185 wounded
1,046 missing (mostly militia who left after the battle)[2][3][4][5]
93 killed
413 wounded
26 missing or captured

The Battle of Guilford Court House was a battle fought on March 15, 1781, at a site which is now in Greensboro, the county seat of Guilford County, North Carolina, during the American Revolutionary War. A 2,100-man British force under the command of Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis defeated Major General Nathanael Greene's 4,500 Americans. The British Army, however, sustained such heavy casualties that the result was a strategic victory for the Americans.

Despite the relatively small numbers of troops involved, the battle is considered pivotal to the American victory in the Revolution. Before the battle, the British appeared to have had great success in conquering much of Comte de Rochambeau.

The battle is commemorated at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park and associated Hoskins House Historic District.


  • Prelude 1
  • Battle 2
  • Aftermath 3
  • Legacy 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


Following the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina, Lt. General Charles Cornwallis was determined to destroy Greene's army. But the loss of his light infantry at Cowpens led him to burn his supplies so that his army would be nimble enough for pursuit. He chased Greene in the "Race to the Dan", but Greene escaped across the flooded Dan River to safety in Virginia. Cornwallis established camp at Hillsborough, foraged for supplies and recruited North Carolina Tories. However, the bedraggled state of his army and Pyle's massacre deterred Loyalists from turning out. Due to the fighting, thousands of slaves had escaped from plantations in South Carolina and other southern states, many joining the British to fight for their personal freedom. In the waning months of the war, the British evacuated more than 3,000 freedmen to Nova Scotia, with others going to London and Jamaica. Northern slaves escaped to the British lines in occupied cities such as New York.

On March 14, 1781, while encamped in the forks of the Deep River, Cornwallis was informed that Greene was encamped at the Guilford Court House. With him was a body of North Carolina militia, plus reinforcements from Virginia, consisting of 3,000 Virginia militia, a Virginia State regiment, a corps of Virginian eighteen-month men and recruits for the Maryland Line, totaling between 4,000-5,000 men. Cornwallis decided to give battle, though he had only 1,900 men at his disposal. He detached his baggage train, 100 infantry and 20 cavalry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton, to Bell's Mills further down the Deep River. Before breakfast could be eaten, Cornwallis set off with his main force, arriving at Guilford at midday.


Map of the Guilford Court House Battleground, based on c. 2006 National Park Service map

The advance guard met near the Quaker New Garden Meeting House. Dragoons from Banastre Tarleton's British Legion were briefly engaged by Light Horse Harry Lee's Dragoons about 4 miles (6 km) from the Guilford Court House. The British 23rd Regiment of Foot sent reinforcements forward and Lee withdrew, ordering a retreat to Greene's main body.

Cornwallis found the Americans in position on rising ground about one and a half miles (2.5 km) from the court house. He was unable to gain much information from his prisoners or the local residents as to the American disposition. To his front he saw a plantation with a large field straddling both sides of the road, with two more further over on the left separated by 200 yards or so of woodland. To his right beyond the fields the woodland extended for several miles. On the far side of the first field was a fenced wood, 1 mile (1.6 km) in depth, through which the road passed into an extensive cleared area around the court house. Along the edge of this woodland was a fence forming the American first line of defense and a six-pound cannon on each side of the road.

Greene had prepared his defense in three lines. North Carolina Daniel Morgan at Cowpens, the lines were hundreds of yards apart and could not support one another.

1893 Map of the battlefield, Guilford Courthouse Battleground Company

Since the east side of the road was mostly open, Cornwallis opted to attack up the west side and, following a short barrage of cannon shot on the cannon positions of the first line, at 1:30 p.m., Cornwallis moved his men forward. When they were about 150 yards short of the fence, a volley was fired from the Americans, but the British continued until they were within musket shot then fired their own volley in return. On a command from Webster, they then charged forward, coming to a halt 50 paces from the American lines because the North Carolina militia, as noted by Sergeant Lamb of the 23rd Regiment "had their arms presented and resting on the picket fence...they were taking aim with nice precision". Urged onwards by Lieutenant Colonel James Webster of the 33rd Regiment of Foot, the British continued to advance. The North Carolina Militia, to the west of the road, fired their muskets then turned and fled back through the woods, discarding their personal equipment as they ran. The British advanced on the second line. Heavy resistance was shown, but Webster pushed around the flank and on to the American 3rd line. The woodland was too dense to allow practical use of the bayonets. The British army forced its way through the first two lines with significant losses.

The 71st Regiment, grenadiers and 2nd Guards moved up the center, following the musket shots from the 33rd and 23rd regiments to their left. To the right, the 1st Guards and Hessians were being harried by Lee's Legion. The British guns and Tarleton’s light dragoons moved forward along the road, keeping pace. The 2nd Guards in the center found themselves coming out into open ground around the court house to the left of the Salisbury road. They spotted a large force of Continental infantry, and immediately attacked them and captured two six-pounders. They then pursued the Continentals into the wood and were repulsed by Lt. Col. William Washington's light dragoons, and the 1st Maryland Regiment, abandoning the two guns they had just captured. Lieutenant John Macleod, in command of two British three-pounders, had just arrived and was directed by Cornwallis to fire on the Dragoons and the British alike.

While many British soldiers were killed from friendly fire, the Americans broke off and retreated from the field. Cornwallis ordered the 23rd and 71st regiments, with part of the cavalry, to pursue the Americans, though not for any great distance. Tarleton and the remainder of the dragoons were sent off to the right flank to join Bose and put an end to the action from Washington.

During the battle, Cornwallis had a horse shot from under him. American colonel Benjamin Williams was later decorated for his personal bravery at Guilford Courthouse.


Non-standard American flag believed to have been carried in battle, although its validity is questioned.

The battle lasted only ninety minutes. The British were outnumbered more than two to one, yet defeated the American force; however, in doing so they lost over a quarter of their men.

The British, by taking ground with their accustomed tenacity when engaged with superior numbers, were tactically victorious. Seeing this as a classic Pyrrhic victory, British Whig Party leader and war critic Charles James Fox echoed Plutarch's famous words by saying, "Another such victory would ruin the British Army!"[6]

In a letter to

He went on to comment further on the British force: "The conduct and actions of the officers and soldiers that composed this little army will do more justice to their merit than I can by words. Their persevering intrepidity in action, their invincible patience in the hardships and fatigues of a march of above 600 miles, in which they have forded several large rivers and numberless creeks, many of which would be reckoned large rivers in any other country in the world, without tents or covering against the climate, and often without provisions, will sufficiently manifest their ardent zeal for the honour and interests of their Sovereign and their country."

After the battle, the British were spread across a large expanse of woodland without food and shelter, and during the night torrential rains started. Fifty of the wounded died before sunrise. Had the British followed the retreating Americans they might have come across their baggage and supply wagons which had been left where the Americans had camped on the west of the Salisbury road prior to the battle.

On March 17, two days after the battle, Cornwallis reported his casualties as 5 officers and 88 of other ranks killed, and 24 officers and 389 of other ranks wounded, with a further 26 men missing in action.[7] Webster was wounded during the battle and he died a fortnight later. Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton, commander of the loyalist provincial British Legion was another notable wounded officer, losing two fingers after taking a bullet in his right hand.[8]

Greene reported his casualties as 57 killed, 111 wounded and 161 missing for the Continental troops and 22 killed, 74 wounded and 885 missing for the militia, a total of 79 killed, 185 wounded and 1,046 missing.[4] Of those reported missing, 75 were wounded men who were captured by the British.[9] When Cornwallis resumed his march, these 75 wounded prisoners were left behind at Cross Creek,[5] Cornwallis having earlier left 70 of his own most severely wounded men at the Quaker settlement of New Garden[10] near Snow Camp.

To avoid another Wilmington, North Carolina, to recruit and refit his command.

At Wilmington the British general faced a serious problem. Instead of remaining in North Carolina, he determined to march into Virginia, justifying the move on the ground that until Virginia was reduced, he could not firmly hold the more southerly states he had just overrun. General Clinton sharply criticized the decision as unmilitary, and as having been made contrary to his instructions. To Cornwallis he wrote in May: "Had you intimated the probability of your intention, I should certainly have endeavoured to stop you, as I did then as well as now consider such a move likely to be dangerous to our interests in the Southern Colonies." For three months, Cornwallis raided every farm or plantation he came across, from which he took hundreds of horses for his Dragoons. He converted another 700 infantry to mounted duties. During these raids, he freed thousands of slaves, of whom 12,000 joined his own force.

General Greene boldly pushed down towards Camden and Charleston, South Carolina, with a view to drawing his antagonist after him to the points where he was the year before, as well as to driving back Lord Rawdon, whom Cornwallis had left in that field. In his main object—the recovery of the southern states—Greene succeeded by the close of the year, but not without hard fighting and repeated reverses. "We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again," were his words.


Smoke fills the air at an annual re-enactment

Every year, on or about March 15, re-enactors in period uniforms present a tactical demonstration of Revolutionary War fighting techniques on or near the battle site, major portions of which are preserved in the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, established in 1917. Recent research has shown that the battlefield extended into the area now within the boundaries of the adjacent Greensboro Country Park to the east.

Three current Army National Guard units (116th IN,[11] 175th IN[12] and 198th SIG[13]) are derived from American units that participated in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. There are only thirty Army National Guard and active Regular Army units with lineages that go back to the colonial era.

See also


  1. ^ a b Savas, Theodore P. and J. David Dameron. A Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution. New York: Savas, Beattie LLC, 2010. ISBN 978-1-932714-94-4. p. 286.
  2. ^ a b Savas, 2010. p. 291.
  3. ^ Savas, 2010, p. 291 points out that most of the missing were North Carolina militiamen who simply left and went home after the battle was over.
  4. ^ a b a National Park Service Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson planGuilford Courthouse: A Pivotal Battle in the War for Independence, gives 79 killed, 185 wounded. The difference between Savas with 70 and NPS with 79 could be a typo in one of the sources.
  5. ^ a b Conrad, The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, Volume VII, page 441 gives 75 wounded prisoners and 971 missing, totaling the same 1,046 missing shown by Savas
  6. ^ Thomas E. Baker, Another Such Victory, Eastern Acorn Press, 1981, ISBN 0-915992-06-X
  7. ^ Guilford Courthouse: A Pivotal Battle in the War for Independence
  8. ^ [2] Essay by Janie B. Cheaney.
  9. ^ Conrad, The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, Volume VII, page 441, referring to a letter sent by Major Charles Magill to Governor Thomas Jefferson of Virginia on March 19, 1781
  10. ^ Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse, page 382
  11. ^ Department of the Army, Lineage and Honors, 116th Infantry. Reproduced in Sawicki 1981, pp. 227–229.
  12. ^ Department of the Army, Lineage and Honors, 175th Infantry. Reproduced in Sawicki 1982, pp. 343–345.
  13. ^ Department of the Army, Lineage and Honors, 198th Signal Battalion.

Further reading

Letter from Comte de Rochambeau (31 March 1781), in which Washington reports he is hearing first reports from the Battle of Guilford Court House
  • Agniel, Lucien. The late affair has almost broke my heart;: The American Revolution in the South, 1780-1781 Chatham Press, 1972, ISBN 0-85699-036-1.
  • Babits, Lawrence E. and Howard, Joshua B. Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse University of North Carolina Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8078-3266-0
  • Baker, Thomas E. Another Such Victory: The Story of the American Defeat at Guilford Courthouse that Helped Win the War for Independence Eastern National, 1999, ISBN 0-915992-06-X.
  • Buchanan, John. The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas Wiley, 1999, ISBN 0-471-32716-6.
  • Chidsey, Donald Barr. The war in the South: The Carolinas and Georgia in the American Revolution Crown Publishers, 1971.
  • Conrad, Dennis M. (ed.), The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, Volume VII: 26 December 1780 – 29 March 1781, 1994, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, ISBN 978-0-8078-2094-0.
  • Davis, Burke. The Cowpens-Guilford Courthouse Campaign University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002, ISBN 0-8122-1832-9.
  • Hairr, John. Guilford Courthouse Da Capo Press, 2002, ISBN 0-306-81171-5.
  • Konstam, Angus. Guilford Courthouse 1781: Lord Cornwallis's Ruinous Victory Osprey Publishing, 2002, ISBN 1-84176-411-6.
  • Lumpkin, Henry. From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South Paragon House, 1987, ISBN 0-595-00097-5.
  • Sawicki, James A. Infantry Regiments of the US Army. Dumfries, VA: Wyvern Publications, 1981. ISBN 978-0-9602404-3-2.
  • Trevelyan, Sir George O. "George the Third and Charles Fox: The Concluding Part of The American Revolution". New York and elsewhere: Longmans, Green and Co., 1914
  • Ward, Christopher. War of the Revolution (two volumes), MacMillan, New York, 1952

External links

  • Guilford Courthouse National Military Park website
  • Animation of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from World Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.