Battle of Guilford Court House

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Battle of Guilford Court House
Part of the American Revolutionary War
Battle of Guiliford Courthouse 15 March 1781.jpg
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.
DateMarch 15, 1781
Location
present day Greensboro, North Carolina, U.S.
Result

Pyrrhic British tactical victory
American strategic victory

Contents

Belligerents
Flag of the United States (1777-1795).svg  United States Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors).svg  Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
Nathanael Greene Lord Cornwallis
Strength
4,500 [2] 2,100 [2]
Casualties and losses
79 or 94 killed [3]
185 wounded
1,046 missing (mostly militia who left after the battle) [4] [5] [6] [7]
93 killed
408 wounded
25 missing or captured [8] [9]

The Battle of Guilford Court House was fought on March 15, 1781, during the American Revolutionary War, at a site which is now in Greensboro, the seat of Guilford County, North Carolina. 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, lost a considerable number of men during the battle (with estimates as high as 27%). [10] Such heavy British casualties resulted in a strategic victory for the Americans.

American Revolutionary War 1775–1783 war between Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies, which won independence as the United States of America

The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), also known as the American War of Independence, was an 18th-century war between Great Britain and its Thirteen Colonies which declared independence as the United States of America.

Greensboro, North Carolina City in North Carolina, United States

Greensboro is a city in the U.S. state of North Carolina. It is the 3rd-most populous city in North Carolina, the 68th-most populous city in the United States, and the county seat and largest city in Guilford County and the surrounding Piedmont Triad metropolitan region. As of the 2010 census, the city population was 269,666, and in 2015 the estimated population was 285,342. Three major interstate highways in the Piedmont region of central North Carolina were built to intersect at this city.

Guilford County, North Carolina County in the United States

Guilford County is a county located in the U.S. state of North Carolina. As of the 2010 census, the population was 488,406, making it the third-most populous county in North Carolina. Its seat is Greensboro. Since 1938, an additional county court has been located in High Point, North Carolina. The county was formed in 1771.

The battle was "the largest and most hotly contested action" [11] in the American Revolution's southern theater, and led to the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. Before the battle, the British had great success in conquering much of Georgia and South Carolina with the aid of strong Loyalist factions, and thought that North Carolina might be within their grasp. In fact, the British were in the process of heavy recruitment in North Carolina when this battle put an end to their recruiting drive. In the wake of the battle, Greene moved into South Carolina, while Cornwallis chose to march into Virginia and attempt to link up with roughly 3,500 men under British Major General Phillips and American turncoat Benedict Arnold. These decisions allowed Greene to unravel British control of the South, while leading Cornwallis to Yorktown and eventual surrender to General George Washington and Lieutenant General Comte de Rochambeau.

Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War

The Southern theatre of the American Revolutionary War was the central area of operations in North America in the second half of the American Revolutionary War. During the first three years of the conflict, the largest military encounters were in the north, focused on campaigns around the cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. After the failure of the Saratoga campaign, the British largely abandoned operations in the Middle Colonies and pursued peace through subjugation in the Southern Colonies.

Province of Georgia British possession in North America between 1732 and 1776

The Province of Georgia was one of the Southern colonies in British America. It was the last of the thirteen original American colonies established by Great Britain in what later became the United States. In the original grant, a narrow strip of the province extended to the Pacific Ocean.

Province of South Carolina UK possession in North America

The Province of South Carolina was originally part of the Province of Carolina in British America, which was chartered by eight Lords Proprietor in 1663. The province later became the U.S. state of South Carolina.

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

Guilford Courthouse National Military Park

Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, at 2332 New Garden Road in Greensboro, Guilford County, North Carolina, commemorates the Battle of Guilford Court House, fought on March 15, 1781. This battle opened the campaign that led to American victory in the Revolutionary War. The losses by the British in this battle contributed to their surrender at Yorktown seven months later. The battlefield is preserved as a National Military Park and operated by the National Park Service (NPS). Based on research of historical evidence, the interpretation of the battle has changed since the late 20th century, which will affect the placement of monuments and markers.

Hoskins House Historic District

Hoskins House Historic District, also known as Tannenbaum Park, is a historic log cabin and national historic district located at Greensboro, Guilford County, North Carolina. The Hoskins House is a late-18th or early-19th century chestnut log dwelling house measuring 24 feet by 18 feet. It has an interior enclosed stair and exterior stone chimney. The house was restored in 1986-1987. Also on the property is the contributing Coble Barn. It is a large double-pen log barn of hewn V-notched logs under a long wood-shingled gable roof. The barn was moved to and restored at its current location in 1987. The Hoskins House site was the focal point of the British attack during the Battle of Guilford Court House on March 15, 1781. The Hoskins property survives today as an important satellite to the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park.

Prelude

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. Both the bedraggled state of his army and Pyle's massacre, however, 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.

Battle of Cowpens 1781 battle during the American Revolutionary War

The Battle of Cowpens was an engagement during the American Revolutionary War fought on January 17, 1781, between American Colonial forces under Brigadier General Daniel Morgan and British forces under Lieutenant Colonel Sir Banastre Tarleton, as part of the campaign in the Carolinas. The battle was a turning point in the American reconquest of South Carolina from the British.

Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis British general, colonial official, diplomat

Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis KG, PC, styled Viscount Brome between 1753 and 1762 and known as The Earl Cornwallis between 1762 and 1792, was a British Army general and official. In the United States and the United Kingdom he is best remembered as one of the leading British generals in the American War of Independence. His surrender in 1781 to a combined American and French force at the Siege of Yorktown ended significant hostilities in North America. He also served as a civil and military governor in Ireland and India; in both places he brought about significant changes, including the Act of Union in Ireland, and the Cornwallis Code and the Permanent Settlement in India.

Dan River river in the U.S. states of North Carolina and Virginia

The Dan River flows 214 miles (344 km) in the U.S. states of North Carolina and Virginia. It rises in Patrick County, Virginia, and crosses the state border into Stokes County, North Carolina. It then flows into Rockingham County. From there it goes back into Virginia. It reenters North Carolina near the border between Caswell County and Rockingham County. It flows into northern Caswell County and then back into southern Virginia and finally into Kerr Reservoir on the Roanoke River.

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.

Deep River (North Carolina) river in the United States of America

Deep River is a tributary of the Cape Fear River, approximately 125 miles (200 km) long, in north central North Carolina in the United States. Deep River is a translation of the Indian name sapponah, "deep river".

Militia generally refers to an army or other fighting force that is composed of non-professional fighters

A militia is generally an army or some other fighting organization of non-professional soldiers, citizens of a nation, or subjects of a state, who can be called upon for military service during a time of need, as opposed to a professional force of regular, full-time military personnel, or historically, members of a warrior nobility class. Generally unable to hold ground against regular forces, it is common for militias to be used for aiding regular troops by skirmishing, holding fortifications, or irregular warfare, instead of being used in offensive campaigns by themselves. Militia are often limited by local civilian laws to serve only in their home region, and to serve only for a limited time; this further reduces their use in long military campaigns.

Virginia State of the United States of America

Virginia, officially the Commonwealth of Virginia, is a state in the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States located between the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachian Mountains. Virginia is nicknamed the "Old Dominion" due to its status as the first English colonial possession established in mainland North America and "Mother of Presidents" because eight U.S. presidents were born there, more than any other state. The geography and climate of the Commonwealth are shaped by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Chesapeake Bay, which provide habitat for much of its flora and fauna. The capital of the Commonwealth is Richmond; Virginia Beach is the most populous city, and Fairfax County is the most populous political subdivision. The Commonwealth's estimated population as of 2018 is over 8.5 million.

Order of Battle

Battle

Map of the Guilford Court House Battleground, based on c. 2006 National Park Service map Battle of Guilford Courthouse 15 March 1781 (DWR).jpg
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 (6.4 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.

Banastre Tarleton British Army general

Sir Banastre Tarleton, 1st Baronet, GCB was a British soldier and politician. Tarleton was eventually ranked as a general years after his service in the colonies during the American Revolutionary War, and afterwards did not lead troops into battle.

British Legion (American Revolution)

The British Legion was the name of a British provincial regiment established during the American Revolutionary War, composed of British Loyalist American infantry and dragoons. It was colloquially known as Tarleton's Raiders, the Green Horse, and the Green Dragoons, after the British officer who led most of its day-to-day activities, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, and the green uniform coats of its officers. "Legion" was an 18th-century term for a military unit the size of a regiment, but consisting of infantry and cavalry, or infantry, cavalry, and artillery, all under one command, to make it more flexible for scouting or irregular operations than a regiment, which consisted of infantry or cavalry alone.

Henry Lee III American politician, governor and representative

Major-General Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee III was an early American Patriot and politician. He served as the ninth Governor of Virginia and as the Virginia Representative to the United States Congress. Lee's service during the American Revolution as a cavalry officer in the Continental Army earned him the nickname by which he is best known, "Light-Horse Harry". He was the father of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate armies in the American Civil War.

Cornwallis found the Americans in position on rising ground about one and a half miles (2.4 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 militia formed the first line, with backwoods riflemen on the left and right flanks to snipe advancing British. In the second line, he placed the Virginia militia. Two more six-pound cannons were sited on the center of the line. His third and strongest line consisting of his regulars, included the Virginian regiment, Delaware infantry, and the 1st and 2nd Maryland regiments were 400 yards further on, though placed at an angle to the west of the road. While superficially resembling the deployment successfully used by 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 Map Battle of Guilford Court House.png
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 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 onward by Lieutenant Colonel James Webster of the 33rd Regiment of Foot, the British continued to advance. Though the North Carolina militia, to the west of the road, had been instructed to fire two to three volleys, they fired their muskets, then turned and fled back through the woods, some reported to have discarded their personal equipment as they ran. Before they retreated, the militia inflicted heavy casualties on the British. One officer of the 71st Regiment claimed that "one half of the Highlanders dropped on that spot." [12] 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 British army forced its way through the first two lines with significant losses, but the woodland was too dense to allow practical use of the bayonets.

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 woods, but 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.

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

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.

Aftermath

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

Letter from George Washington to the Comte de Rochambeau (31 March 1781), in which Washington reports he is hearing first reports from the Battle of Guilford Court House George Washington Comte de Rochambeau 1781.jpg
Letter from George Washington to the Comte de Rochambeau (31 March 1781), in which Washington reports he is hearing first reports from the Battle of Guilford Court House

The British, by taking ground with their accustomed tenacity when engaged with superior numbers, were victorious. However, Cornwallis had suffered unsustainable casualties and subsequently withdrew to the coast to re-group, leaving the Americans with the strategic advantage [ citation needed ]. [1] 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!" [13]

In a letter to Lord George Germain delivered by his aide-de-camp Captain Broderick, Cornwallis commented: "From our observation, and the best accounts we could procure, we did not doubt but the strength of the enemy exceeded 7,000 men...I cannot ascertain the loss of the enemy, but it must have been considerable; between 200 and 300 dead were left on the field of battle...many of their wounded escaped...Our forage parties have reported to me that houses in a circle six to eight miles around us are full of others...We took few prisoners".

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 3 officers and 88 men of other ranks killed, and 24 officers and 384 men of other ranks wounded, with a further 25 men missing in action. [14] Webster was wounded during the battle and died two weeks later. Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton, commander of the loyalist provincial British Legion, was another notable officer who was wounded, having lost two fingers after taking a bullet in his right hand. [15]

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. [6] Of those reported missing, 75 were wounded men who were captured by the British. [16] When Cornwallis resumed his march, these 75 wounded prisoners were left behind at Cross Creek, [7] Cornwallis having earlier left 70 of his own most severely wounded men at the Quaker settlement of New Garden [17] near Snow Camp.

To avoid another Camden, Greene retreated with his forces intact. With his small army, less than 2,000 strong, Cornwallis declined to follow Greene into the back country. Retiring to Hillsborough, he raised the royal standard, offered protection to the inhabitants, and for the moment appeared to be master of Georgia and the two Carolinas. In a few weeks, however, he abandoned the heart of the state and marched to the coast at 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 was 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.

Legacy

Battle reenactment 2019 Battle of Guiliford Courthouse 1781 reenactment 13.jpg
Battle reenactment 2019
Battle reenactment 2019 Battle of Guiliford Courthouse 1781 reenactment 11.jpg
Battle reenactment 2019

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, [18] 175th IN [19] and 198th SIG [20] ) 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.

On Sunday, March 13, 2016, a Crown Forces Monument was opened at the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in honor of the officers and men of Cornwallis's army. [21] [22]

See also

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References

  1. 1 2 McGrath, Nick. "Battle of Guilford Courthouse". George Washington’s Mount Vernon: Digital Encyclopedia. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Retrieved January 26, 2017. In three hours, Cornwallis’s army took possession of the field, but it was a Pyrrhic victory.... Cornwallis could not afford the casualties his army sustained, and withdrew to Wilmington. By doing so, Cornwallis ceded control of the countryside to the Continentals.
  2. 1 2 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.
  3. Lawrence and Babits 2009 page 175
  4. Savas, 2010. p. 291.
  5. 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.
  6. 1 2 Guilford Courthouse: A Pivotal Battle in the War for Independence, a National Park Service Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson plan gives 79 killed, 185 wounded. The difference between Savas with 70 and NPS with 79 could be a typo in one of the sources.
  7. 1 2 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
  8. Babits and Howard 2009 page 172
  9. Rodgers, 1977. p. 224.
  10. Babits, Lawrence E.; Howard, Joshua B. (2009). Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse. The University of North Carolina Press. p. 122.
  11. "Guilford Courthouse National Military Park". Museum Management Program. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Retrieved January 26, 2017.
  12. "The American Revolution - (The Battle of Guilford Courthouse)". www.theamericanrevolution.org. Archived from the original on 2015-11-15. Retrieved 2015-11-02.
  13. Baker, Thomas E. Another Such Victory, Eastern Acorn Press, 1981, ISBN   0-915992-06-X
  14. The British Army of the 18th Century, pg.224
  15. Tarleton; essay by Janie B. Cheaney; retrieved;[ISBN unspecified]
  16. 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
  17. Buchanan, John. The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas Wiley, 1999, pp. 382, ISBN   0-471-32716-6
  18. Department of the Army, Lineage and Honors, 116th Infantry. Reproduced in Sawicki 1981, pp. 227229.
  19. Department of the Army, Lineage and Honors, 175th Infantry. Reproduced in Sawicki 1982, pp. 343345.
  20. Department of the Army, Lineage and Honors, 198th Signal Battalion.
  21. Crown Forces Monument, guilfordbattlegroundcompany, retrieved 2015-11-02
  22. Crown Forces Monument, wfmynews2, retrieved 2015-11-02

Further reading

Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, ISBN   978-0-8078-2094-0.

Coordinates: 36°07′55″N79°50′38″W / 36.132°N 79.844°W / 36.132; -79.844