Battle of Guilford Courthouse; British Earn Pyrrhic Victory Against Continentals and Militia

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Battle of Guilford Courthouse; British Earn Pyrrhic Victory Against Continentals and Militia

"Battle of Guilford Courthouse, 15 March, 1781" 1st Maryland Regiment Reforms

Today in Military History: March 15, 1781

Today's romp in military history deals with a British victory which was far more costly to the victor than the vanquished. In fact, many historians regard this fight as the turning point in the American colonies' final victory in the American War of Independence.


The year 1780, the sixth year of the American Revolution, began with a final resolution still very much in doubt. This situation was complicated by British victory at Camden, South Carolina, where the only major American army in the southern colonies was destroyed. A large number of Loyalists inhabited Georgia and South Carolina, greatly complicating American plans to unite and defeat the British.

However, the British defeat at the battle of Kings Mountain in October, followed by the American win at Cowpens in January of 1781, saw a dramatic reversal of fortune for the "lobsterbacks." [For more on the battle of Cowpens, please see my two posts from January of 2011, "Battle of Cowpens: American Forces Rout Tarleton's ‘British Legion'" and "Battle of Cowpens: ‘Our Success was Complete.'"] Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis, the British southern commander, became distraught over the loss of most of his light infantry at Cowpens. These light infantrymen were highly useful in the terrain of the southern colonies. Consequently, Cornwallis burned most of his supplies and began to pursue the American Army commanded by General Nathaniel Greene.

Profile: Charles, the Earl of Cornwallis

Lt. General Charles, the 2nd Earl of Cornwallis (1738-1805)
Lt. General Charles, the 2nd Earl of Cornwallis (1738-1805)
Painting by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1783

Charles Cornwallis was born in London to an aristocratic family whose estates were in the county of Kent. He entered the military 1757, buying a commission as an ensign in the Grenadier Guards. Traveling abroad for further military study, he learned that Britain was sending troops to Europe. He managed to rejoin his regiment, and participated in several battle of the Seven Years War (1756-1763). He became the 2nd Earl of Cornwallis in 1760, eventually serving in both the House of Commons and later the House of Lords. [While he was a member of Parliament, Cornwallis sympathized with the American colonists, voting against the Stamp Act of 1765.]

When war between England and her American possessions finally materialized, Lord Cornwallis sought active service. He was eventually promoted to lieutenant general, and served under General William Howe's New York campaign. In 1778, Cornwallis was in command of the British rear guard of the British forces which abandoned Philadelphia. He managed to hold off American forces that threatened the British at Monmouth on June 28, 1778. Cornwallis was then sent south to initiate the "southern strategy" which almost won the war for the British crown.

Profile: Nathaniel Greene, "The Fighting Quaker"

General Nathaniel Greene (1742-1786)
General Nathaniel Greene (1742-1786)
Portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, c. 1783

Nathaniel Greene was born in Rhode Island in 1742 to a prominent Quaker family. Although his faith discouraged "literary accomplishments," he trained himself in mathematics and law. He eventually took over his father's foundry business. In 1774 he formed a local militia unit. At this time Greene began to acquire many expensive volumes on military tactics and began to teach himself the art of war. In December 1774, he was on a committee appointed by the Rhode Island assembly to revise the militia laws. It has been speculated that his zeal in attending to military duty led to his expulsion from the Quakers in 1773.

With the start of the American Revolution, Greene was quickly promoted. By June of 1775, he was appointed a brigadier general in the Continental Army. George Washington appointed him to command the American encirclement of Boston. Over the next five years, Greene participated in many of the major battles of the Revolution, including Trenton, Brandywine, and Monmouth. From March of 1778 to June of 1780, he was Quartermaster General of the Continental Army. During the summer of 1780, Greene was appointed to command the important post of West Point after its near-betrayal to the British. He presided over the trial which condemned captured British spy John André to death.

Shortly afterward, Congress asked Gen. Washington to appoint a new commander of American forces in the South. Only one day after receiving the letter, Washington recommended Nathaniel Greene, which Congress accepted. Greene's command was for all American troops from Delaware south to Georgia, making him essentially second-in-command of the Continental Army.

Prelude to Battle

The American southern army was weak, badly equipped, and opposed by a superior force under Cornwallis. Greene decided to divide his own troops, thus forcing the division of the British as well, and creating the possibility of some strategic interplay of forces. After the overwhelming victory at Cowpens, Greene began a strategic retreat which forced Cornwallis to divide his forces and begin a pursuit. The American forces made their way north into North Carolina.

Cornwallis and his British and Loyalist forces followed, with headquarters established in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Cornwallis' men then began foraging for supplies as their leader issued proclamations seeking to recruit North Carolina Loyalist militia. His "call to arms" yielded few militiamen; however, large numbers of slaves deserted their plantations and joined the British to fight for their freedom. Most of the freedmen were sent to either Nova Scotia, London, or Jamaica.

Greene's army crossed into Virginia temporarily, allowing him to fire off a quick letter to Virginia governor Patrick Henry [yes, the "give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death" guy] asking for militia reinforcements. The American army then returned to North Carolina, making camp at Guilford Courthouse. On March 14, Cornwallis received intelligence of the American army's location. He immediately ordered his baggage train detached with a minimal guard. The British army began marching before breakfast on the 15th, arriving at Guilford by noon.

The Southern Campaign, January – April, 1781
The Southern Campaign, January – April, 1781

Tomorrow: Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Part II

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