A Bit of History
The battles fought in the northern colonies of Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are familiar to most people. However, the majority of people are unaware that the British, beginning in 1778, began a campaign to subdue and conquer the Americans in the southern colonies. Several battles were fought in these southern regions which had major implications for the outcome of the war. I have included an excellent 14-minute video below that explains the strategic objectives of this campaign and the conflicts that emerged from this campaign.
On March 15, 1781, British General Cornwallis’ army of 2,100 men engaged a Continental army under Major General Nathaniel Green at Guilford Court House, near present day Greensboro, North Carolina.
Adopting a tactic utitlized by Daniel Mogran at the Battle of Cowpens (more on that in tomorrow’s blog post) Greene formed his roughly 4,500 men into three lines. The first line was held by North Carolina militia. In the second line Greene positioned militia from Virginia. Continental Regulars composed Greene’s third and most formidable line. The concept, known as a defense in depth, was for the first two lines to exhaust the enemy’s advance and inflict as many casualties as possible in the hopes of delivering a decisive blow at the third line.
Forming his men on both sides of the Great Salisbury Road, Cornwallis sent his men forward at 1:30 p.m. When the British got within 150 yards of Greene’s men, the Americans opened fire. The British pressed on, returning fire only when they got within range. On command, the British surged forward. The North Carolinians fired one more time and then retreated into the woods to their rear, abandoning their equipment as they fled.
General Greene at Guilford Courthouse
Cornwallis then encountered stiff resistance from the Virginians, positioned about 400 yards behind the first line. North of the road, the 23rd Regiment of Foot, the 2nd Guards Battalion and the Guards Grenadiers engaged militia under Robert Lawson. Below the thoroughfare, the 2nd Battalion, 71st Regiment and elements from the 2nd Guards engaged Edward Stevens. The Virginians put up a stiff fight but with British infantry engaging their left, center and right, they were forced to retreat. Although Cornwallis had punched through two lines of American infantry, the British ranks had lost cohesion. A disjointed advance now approached some of Greene’s best units.
The first British unit to reach the third line was the 33rd Regiment. There, the regiment engaged Continentals from Virginia and Maryland and were driven back. The 2nd Guards, however, managed to turn the 2nd Maryland’s right but were stopped in a counterattack by Lt. Colonel William Washington’s Light Dragoons and the 1st Maryland. With additional British infantry finally arriving on the scene from their fight on the second line, Greene prudently disengaged and withdrew.
Battle of Guilford Courthouse
Guildford Courthouse was a pyrrhic victory for Cornwallis. Despite besting the American army, he had lost 25% of his men and was in no position to pursue Greene. Cornwallis decided to withdraw to his supply base at Wilmington to rest and refit. With his army still not in condition to engage Greene by the middle of April, Cornwallis decided to shift his operations to Virginia, a decision that would contribute to the independence of the United States.
Guilford Courthouse National Military Park
Up until now, my battlefield tour has generally followed a chronological order of events. The date of the battle of Guildford Courthouse is a bit later than the two I will be visiting tomorrow. For those of you who care about these sorts of things (I know I do), here are the dates of the following battles:
KIng’s Mountain – October 7, 1780
Cowpens – January 17, 1781
Guilford Courthouse – March 15, 1781
The thing to keep in mind is that the British had already suffered two defeats at the hands of (in their view) ragtag militia when they engaged the militia here at Guilford Courthouse. By the time of this particular battle, the strength of the British army was already sapped and moral was low.
Some cannon ball and other artillery shells from the battle. These are always so interesting, especially because historians are able to interpret the battlefield based upon where artillery shells and other fragments are discovered amass in a particular area.
Powder horns recovered from the battlefield. Every visitor center display has a collection of these. What is so admirable about them is the craftsmanship and individuality of each one. These don’t show it, but many have intricate details carved into the wood that convey something about the owner of the horn.
A statue dedicated to General Nathanael Greene, one of the most skilled and celebrated generals of the revolution. There are certain individuals in history who appear unpromising but then rise to the top when leadership decisions demand it. Greene is in that group.
Here is what Cornwallis, his opposing enemy, had to say about Greene:
Some deer gazing peacefully in the battlefield, unaware of the dramatic events that occurred here 240 years ago.