The Battle of Guilford Courthouse
Hooves thundered in the early dawn, mud flying from iron horseshoes, men cursing as they urged their mounts on. The men’s coats, green when clean, became a mottled brown as the mud clung to the fabric. Most brandished swords, others carried pistols. Ahead, just beyond the curve in the country lane known as the Great Salisbury Road the enemy waited. Around the bend the dragoons tore, into the arms of death.
Waiting for the green-coated riders of Tarleton’s Legion were the men of Lt. Col. “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s Legion. The Americans cut loose a devastating volley, killing man and horse alike. It was the first volley of the day, the precursor of a long day of volleys, of a fight that would come to be known as the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.
Most of us have heard of and read accounts of the famous northern Revolutionary War battles—Bunker Hill, Brandywine, Monmouth, and Saratoga, to name but a few. Most historians believe, however, that it was the series of smaller battles in the southern colonies, fought during 1780-81, that led to Lord Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Critical in that series was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.
Fought on March 15, 1781, the battle pitched 2,000 British regulars under Lord Charles Cornwallis against a mixed bag of 4,000 men commanded by Major General Nathanael Greene. Cornwallis was career military, an excellent commander, and one of only five members of the British parliament that voted against the Stamp Act of 1765. Nathanael Greene began the war as a private in the militia and rose to be widely recognized as one of America’s best generals by the war’s end.
Although the two leaders shared a common military proficiency, the troops under their command were, for the most part, significantly different. Cornwallis’s army was comprised of veteran British regulars. Most of the men had served in America five or six years, some even more. Also attached to Cornwallis’s small army were two Hessian mercenary units: a company of jaegers and the Von Bose regiment. The average age of the British soldiers was 28 years old, and most had at least ten years service in the army. The line infantry were armed with the famous Brown Bess musket, a .75 caliber, smoothbore weapon. The Brown Bess was reliable and sturdy, but in the American Revolution, it’s most significant feature became the 18″ socket bayonet, which could be attached to the musket’s barrel. The American militia usually lacked such muskets and bayonets, and when faced with British steel without means of fighting back, frequently broke.
By contrast 75% of Greene’s army were militia whose terms of service varied between three and six months. These men lacked the discipline and drill experience to stand toe to toe with the British regulars, yet when properly led fought well on occasion. On the other hand, several regiments of Continental regulars also marched with Greene. These men, most notably the company from Delaware as well as the 1st Maryland, were the match of anything the British could throw at them. Additionally Lt. Col. William Washington’s Dragoons and Lee’s cavalry were far superior to their British counterparts, the American’s better mounts and years in the saddle providing a decisive edge. Finally, Greene’s Virginia rifle formations—Col. Charles Lynch and Col. William Campbell Rifles, gave him a pair a infantry formations with relatively (250 yards) long-range punch. Both sides owned a similar amount of artillery, the Americans fielding four 6-pounders, and the British boasting the same, plus a pair of 3-pounders.
The Battle Joined, Lee’s Delaying Action
The first shots were fired at approximately 7:30 in the morning as Tarleton’s British Legion advanced down the Great Salisbury Road. There they met Lee’s cavalry at a narrowing of the lane. After a sharp exchange, Tarleton’s men retreated to the New Garden Meeting house. Lee’s infantry and a company of Campbell’s riflemen pursued them, and quickly fell into a fight with the Guard’s light infantry, the Hessian jaegers, and the lead elements of the 23rd Foot. The British line rapidly lengthened, the red-coated infantry attempting to outflank Lee and his men. Seeing this, Lee ordered the infantry to pull back to a wooded ridge by a crossroads, approximately halfway between the initial encounter and the subsequent fight at the New Garden Meeting House. Lee’s cavalry covered the withdrawal.
This fight at the crossroads was more of an infantry fight, as the woods surrounding the house prohibited effective cavalry maneuver. Here the two sides battled for about thirty minutes before Lee withdrew to the main American lines, approximately three miles north. Because of these initial screening skirmishes, Greene had about two and one half hours to deploy his lines and make ready for the British attack.
Greene’s plan and deployment owed much to Daniel Morgan’s victory at Cowpens, South Carolina. There, Morgan had placed his militia in a line well ahead of his Continentals. The militia fired, attriting the British regulars, and then retired, allowing the Continentals to do the heavy lifting.
In a similar manner, Greene deployed his troops in three lines. In the first line were the North Carolina militia—Brig. Gen. Thomas Eaton’s brigade to the north of the Great Salisbury Road, and Brig. Gen. John Butler’s brigade to the south. The flanks of these militia brigades were bolstered with Lee’s Legion, Washington’s cavalry, the Virginia Rifles, and small contingents of Delaware and Virginia Continentals. In the center sat a pair of Singleton’s 6-pounders. The militia had moderate cover behind a rail fence, and good fields of fire through overgrown crop fields.
Virginia militia comprised the second line—Brig. Gen Robert Lawson’s troops north of the road and Brig. Gen Edward Stevens troops to the south. These troops were in the woods, which provided more cover but also hindered line of sight. Again, the plan was to fire a couple of volleys and then retire.
Greene’s Continentals formed the third line. This was the cream of the army, including two regiments of Virginia Continentals, a battery of 6-pounders, the 2nd Maryland, and the tough-as-nails 1st Maryland Regiment. Greene hoped to break Cornwallis’s army against these men, but would not allow his regulars to be destroyed in a prolonged battle. He knew that without the Continentals the army would cease to exist.
The Fight at the First Line
Twenty minutes of ineffectual artillery dueling precursed the British attack of the first line. The actual assault stepped off at approximately noon. On the north side of the road the 33rd Foot and 23rdFoot, led by Lt. Col. James Webster, marched across the rough fields towards Eaton’s militia. On the southern flank the 71st Foot and Von Bose Regiment, directed by Maj. Gen. Alexander Leslie, approached Butler’s Brigade across similar, recently ploughed, ground. The Guards Grenadiers, and the 2nd Guards Battalion formed in the center behind the 23rd and 71st Foot, whereas further to the south, the 1st Guards Battalion supported the Von Bose Regiment. In reserve were the jaegers, Guards light infantry, Tarleton’s British Legion, and the 17th Light Dragoons.
After crossing a second wood rail fence approximately 100–150 yards from the militia’s line, the British began receiving fire. The range was well in excess of effective musket fire, so historians attribute this fire to Lynch and Cambell’s riflemen stationed on both flanks of the Americans line. Despite men dropping from the ranks, the British infantry pressed on, bayonets gleaming in the winter sun.
At 40 yards the North Carolina militia fired, the buck and ball loaded in their muskets scything through the British lines. At this point many of the British halted and fired. Most of this firing was by companies. By some accounts, the British fired as many as three times; their fire, although less effective than the Yank Militia, still exacted a deadly toll. It was after this exchange of fire that the British lowered their bayonets, charged, and the militia took flight.
How many took flight, and whether the ordered second volley was ever fired, has been hotly debated. Suffice to say that much of the North Carolina militia ran, but some did indeed fire the second shot, and others, such as the Surrey County militia refused to fold, attaching themselves to Lee’s Legion and fighting hard during the entire battle. In the final telling, the first line disintegrated. The regulars on the flanks fell back in good order, but the militia, by and large, were routed.
The Second Line
In the second line the Virginians waited. The woods were too thick to allow them to see the battle for the first line, but they no doubt heard the roar of the muskets and then saw the North Carolina militia as they streamed back through the Virginian’s lines, their faces dirty, their comrades wounded. Finally the British appeared. The 33rd Foot were the first to be seen, and Lawson ordered a regiment to advance to meet them. Unfortunately, while doing so the American brigade was caught in the flank by the Guard Grenadiers, who rolled up the regiment north to south.
The fight north of the road quickly broke into numerous platoon and company-sized engagements, as those Virginians who had not run exchanged fire with the British troops among the trees. The volleys lasted a good while, and some regiments claimed to have fired up to twenty rounds a man. Finally, the British gained the upper hand, and Lawson’s Virginians were routed.
South of the road, Stevens’ brigade fought valiantly. Cocke and Moffet’s regiments battled hard with the 71st Foot, trading volleys six or seven times with the Scots. When Stevens was wounded near the road at the center of the road, resistance at this part of the line collapsed. Fighting continued, however, in the southern portion of Stevens’ line. There the men of Samuel McDowell stood fast for several more minutes before retreating.
Meanwhile a separate battle developed south of the second line. There Maj. Gen Alexander Stuart’s Virginia militia, Col. William Campbell’s riflemen, Lt. Col. Henry Lee’s Legion, and Capt. Andrew Wallace’s Continentals battled against the 1st Battalion of the Guards, the Von Bose Regiment, and Tarleton’s Cavalry. Their private battle would rage until the conclusion of the main fight, drifting as far as one mile from the main British army.
The Third Line
It was now 1:30 in the afternoon, and the climax of the battle was about to begin. Greene’s Continentals had been waiting for nearly an hour, listening to the thunder of the fighting as it came ever closer. They had seen the survivors of the first two lines stream by and knew the British infantry wouldn’t be far behind. They were correct.
The first British infantry to arrive at the third line was the 33rd Foot, led by Lt. Col. James Webster. They immediately charged the Continental’s line. Halfway to the cannon the 33rd was hit by fire from the 1st Maryland, Finley’s cannons, and both regiments of Virginia Continentals, who were partially hidden behind the crest of the hill. The fire shook the British regulars and they retreated to a powerful position on the ridge opposite the Continentals.
The 2nd Battalion of the Guards arrived next and, like the 33rd, they immediately charged. The result, however, was different. The 2nd Guards moved directly up the road toward Finley’s battery and the 2nd Maryland. The Marylanders attempted to pivot, became confused, and then broke when the Guards struck them. The Guards pursued and might have won the day if not for the 1st Maryland, a veteran unit as good as any in the British army. Upon discovering the Guards were behind them, they faced about, and fired a devastating volley into the Guards.
The Guards were shocked but didn’t panic. They wheeled to face the Continentals and returned effective fire. But then Lt. Col. William Washington and his cavalry fell on the Guard’s rear. The redcoats retreated toward their lines and a swirling melee ensued, drawing ever closer to the British lines. Cornwallis ordered a nearby battery of three-pounders to fire shot at the advancing Americans, even if it meant some of the Guards would also be struck. The shot was fired, the melee broke, and the 1st Maryland and Washington’s cavalry pulled back to the American lines.
At this point the 71st Foot and other regiments of Cornwallis’s army began arriving at the third line. Greene, feeling there was nothing more to be gained this day, ordered the army’s retreat. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse was over.
In retrospect the engagement ended as a tactical British victory, but it was a victory the British could not savor. Low on supplies and with nearly 25% casualties, Cornwallis was forced to retreat to Wilmington, North Carolina, to await reinforcements, following a road that would eventually take the British to their destiny at Yorktown, Virginia.
This is the first of four articles about Southern battles of the American Revolution written exclusively for ArmchairGeneral.com by Mark H. Walker. Click here to read Cowpens, Camden and Kings Mountain.
About the Author
Mark H. Walker is a former US Naval Officer, the author of 41 nonfiction books and three novels. He is a games editor for Armchair General magazine. He founded the award-winning game company Lock ‘n’ Load Publishing; among its publications is Flintlock, Black Powder, Cold Steel—Vol. 1: Carolina Rebels, reviewed by ArmchairGeneral.com in October 2009.