Part II: Battle of Guilford Courthouse: “The Americans Fought Like Demons”

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Part II: Battle of Guilford Courthouse: “The Americans Fought Like Demons”

British Attack American Militiamen at Guilford Courthouse
(Illustration courtesy of

Today in Military History: March 15, 1781

Disposition of Forces

It was a sunny, late-winter day with temperatures between 45-50° F, with the possibility of rain. British Major Banastre Tarleton ("Bloody Ban," the loser at Cowpens two months earlier) and his dragoons encountered and briefly clashed with "Light Horse Harry" Lee's dragoons about 4 miles from Guilford Courthouse at 10:00 am. As British reinforcements came forward to support Tarleton's men, Lee's troops withdrew. Two hours later, Lord Cornwallis got his first glance at the Americans opposing him.

American Gen. Nathaniel Greene has chosen his battlefield carefully, probably also having studied the battle plan used by Dan Morgan at Cowpens. The village and court house were clustered on a hill in an extensive cleared area. The road from Salisbury ran from southwest to northeast, across a largely wooded valley towards the Little Horsepen Creek, just over a quarter of a mile distant.

To his front Cornwallis 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 in depth. Any army coming up the road would have to march down into the valley across open ground cleared for cultivation, then re-enter the woods, before finally coming up to the open high ground around the court house.

The American army deployed in three lines, the first at the edge of the open ground in the valley, the second in the woods, and the third on the high ground surrounding the court house.

The bulk of the first line was formed by 1000 North Carolina militia spread across the road. This force was supported on the right by 200 Virginia riflemen, 110 Delaware Continental and 80 cavalry under Colonel William Washington, and on the left by 200 more Virginia riflemen and 150 men of Henry Lee's Legion, about half of whom were cavalry. At the centre of the line Greene placed two-6 pound artillery pieces, straddling the road. To reach this line, the British would have to march down into the valley under fire, and then attack up hill. Just as at Cowpens, this first line was ordered to fire two volleys and then retire to the rear. [One chronicler of the fight stated that the Virginia riflemen had orders to shoot any militiamen who ran before he fired his requisite two volleys.] Lee's dragoons were stationed on the left flank of the first line, while Washington's horsemen were placed on the right.

The second line, entirely in the woods, contained another 1,200 militia, this time from Virginia, located 300 yards behind the first line. These men had been sent in answer to Greene's plea to Virginia Governor Patrick Henry for more troops. Finally, another 500-600 yards back, the third line on the high ground at Guilford contained 800 Virginia Continentals and 600 Maryland Continentals. The American force outnumbered the British 4400 to 1900, but the only third line – the Virginia and Maryland Continentals – were considered "regular" troops; the rest were militia. [It is interesting to note that Lord Cornwallis, in his after-action report to London, stated that he estimated the American force opposing him to be "at least 7000 strong." Whether this was his true estimation, or whether he was inflating the enemy's numbers trying to magnify the size of his victory, is hard to say at this distance in time.]

Battle of Guilford Courthouse 15 March 1781
Battle of Guilford Courthouse 15 March 1781

Lord Cornwallis arranged his force to make maximum effect of his available troops. In his first line on the left side of the road, he placed the 23rd and 33rd Regiments of Foot. The 23rd, known as the Royal Welch Fusiliers, was (and still is) one of the oldest elite regiments in the British army. To the right of the road Cornwallis placed the 71st Fraser's Highlanders, and Bose's Hessian Regiment. Three 3-pound cannon were placed between the 23rd and 71st regiments. Backing up the first line was a composite unit of all the light infantry of Cornwallis' regiments currently present on the left, and a unit of Hessian jaegers, who were proficient with rifled muskets and had scouting and forestry skills – not unlike the American militiamen they were facing – on the right supporting Bose's Hessians.

The second line consisted of a unit of the Grenadier Guards, and two battalions of Foot Guards, culled from the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Foot Guards regiments. As a final reserve, Cornwallis posted Tarleton's dragoons – with a troop of the 17th Light Dragoons added – just to the rear.

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse

At 1:30 pm, the British cannon began firing upon the first line of the Americans. The area to the east of the road was more open, so Cornwallis opted to begin the attack with the 23rd and 33rd regiments on the west side. The two units marched forward and at a distance of 150 yards from a withering barrage of fire from the Carolina militia and the Virginia riflemen. Absorbing the punishment, the British units reformed and continued marching forward.

At fifty paces, the British halted and prepared to fire their own volley. Sergeant Lamb of the 23rd Regiment later wrote of this portion of the battle that the militiamen "had their arms presented and resting on the picket fence...they were taking aim with nice precision." The two regiments delivered their salvoes, and charged the militiamen, who unleashed their own fire. As soon as the American militia fired, they fell back to the second line as per their instructions. However, the Virginians still kept their heads and continued harassing the enemy from the flank. The British veered to their left, opening a gap in the front line.

In an attempt to keep the two flanks in contact, the grenadiers and the 2nd Guards battalion were ordered forward to plug the gap in the center. Meanwhile, with the success of the British left flank, the Highlanders, the Bose's Hessians and the 1st Guards battalion advanced against the American left. These Americans – with the exception of the Virginians and Lee's Legion – only fired one volley and promptly fell back towards the second line. The Virginians and Lee's men began a secondary conflict to the main battle, attempting to hold off the advancing Hessians and Scots. The Americans steadily fell back, until their fight merged with the second line.

British regulars advance under fire of American first line
British regulars advance under fire of American first line
(Illustration courtesy of )

The British push now struck the second American line. The Virginia militia were mainly untrained and inexperienced. However, there were a few veterans of previous fighting, and many of the officers were also experienced men. The Virginians gave a good accounting of themselves, holding up the British advance at one point with tough hand-to-hand fighting (see the illustration at the top of this post) and inflicting further casualties. The British light infantry unit and the Hessian jaegers were thrown in the fight on the American right, adding their weight to the contest. In the end, superior British discipline, organization, and experience were too much. The Virginians fell back, but with more discipline than the rout of the first line.

Withdrawal of the second line opened the way for the advance against the third. This last line was entirely north of the road and was opposed by the British left wing. Heavy woods and several gullies of considerable size served to slow up the advance, particularly that of the Welch Fusiliers. The 2nd Guards Battalion made contact with the left flank of the American line almost simultaneously with the attack on the American right by the Jaegers, the light infantry, and the 33rd Regiment. A general engagement resulted in which the contest was more nearly equal than any which had preceded it. At about this point in the battle, it began to rain, impeding the progress of the entire British line as it sought to climb the slope to engage the final line of Americans.

American militiamen firing on advancing British
American militiamen firing on advancing British

In their attack on the American line, the 2nd Guards had been repulsed by the 1st Maryland. The Maryland regulars counterattacked. advancing to engage with the bayonet. At precisely the same time, Washington led his saber-wielding dragoons through the broken ranks of the 2nd Guards and left them to the mercies of the Marylanders. The infantry closed in a fierce but brief hand-to-hand conflict.

It was at this point that Lord Cornwallis took a gamble that would be controversial to this day. Seeing the deadly struggle between his guards and the Maryland Line, he ordered his artillery to fire grapeshot into the melee. After two salvoes of grapeshot, the Marylanders retreated.

On the extreme left the Jaegers, the Light Infantry, and the 33d Regiment had been driven back to a position of safety by the steady fire of the Americans. They were not pursued, the defenders in that quarter remaining steadfast in their own position.

By this time the Welch Fusiliers had succeeded in passing the woods and gullies, which had impeded their progress, and were in position to attack. The Highlanders to the east of the road threatened to turn Greene's left flank. The Guards, extricated from their conflict with the Marylanders by the grape-shot, were hastily reorganized, while the latter returned to their position in the American line. Tarleton had been dispatched with the cavalry to recall the 1st Guards battalion from the detached contest on the far right of the British line with Lee's troops and to conduct that unit to the scene of the major engagement.

Thus, all was ready for a final assault in force upon the one remaining line of American troops. That assault was never to be made, for the American commander decided not to risk a final test of strength which might result in the complete destruction of his army.

Nathaniel Greene was a practical man. He knew that the majority of his Continental Regulars were relatively fresh and unhurt. If he put up stiff resistance, he had a chance to break the British army. However, he still needed to have sufficient forces to challenge British mastery in the South, and he still might lose this fight. Therefore, he made the strategic decision and ordered a retreat from the field. After a fight which lasted between 1 ½ and 3 hours, the battle of Guilford Courthouse had ended.


General Greene reported his casualties as 79 killed, 185 wounded, and 1046 missing (many of the missing were among the North Carolina and Virginia militias). On the other hand, British casualties amounted to 93 killed, 413 wounded, and 26 missing. Realizing he had achieved a Pyrrhic victory, Lord Cornwallis withdrew southeastward to Wilmington. Within a few weeks, he began a march into Virginia which would eventually end at Yorktown.

Footnote #1:Lord Cornwallis, after surrendering his army at Yorktown in October of 1781, he returned to England. He was an ambassador to Prussia, governor-general of India, and Master-General of the Ordnance. He died in 1805.

Footnote #2: Nathaniel Greene nearly went into debt for guaranteeing payment for supplies during the southern campaign. He was forced to sell estates given to him. He died of sunstroke in 1786 on the grounds of "Mulberry Grove," his estate in Georgia. He is buried in Savannah, GA.

Footnote #3: Among the Maryland troops at Guilford Courthouse was the 5th Maryland Regiment of the Continental Line. This unit is now represented in today's Maryland Army National Guard by the 175th Infantry Regiment. It is one of only 29 National Guard units and 1 Regular Army unit that can trace their lineage to at least the American Revolution, or earlier.

Coat of Arms, 175th Infantry Regiment (
Coat of Arms, 175th Infantry Regiment
("Fifth Maryland")

In addition, the 198th Signal Battalion of the Delaware Army National Guard is the successor to the 1st Delaware, which was also present at Guilford Courthouse.

Unit Insignia of 198th Signal Battalion, Delaware Army National Guard
Unit Insignia of 198th Signal Battalion,
Delaware Army National Guard

Footnote #4: The final scenes in the 2000 film "The Patriot" combine various aspects of the battles of Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse.

Footnote #5: A re-enactment of the battle of Guilford Courthouse will take place in North Carolina this weekend, March 17-18.

Re-enactment of battle of Guilford Courthouse, ca. 1990
Re-enactment of battle of Guilford Courthouse, ca. 1990

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