The Battle of Guilford Courthouse was an important battle in the Revolutionary War. Although the British won the battle and forced the Americans to retreat, they lost so many soldiers that the battle eventually led to their defeat in the war.
When and where did it take place?
The battle took place on March 15, 1781 at Guilford Courthouse in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was one of the largest battles in the South during the Revolutionary War.
Who were the commanders?
The overall commander of the 4,400 American soldiers was General Nathanael Greene. Greene had been recently appointed commander of the Continental Army in the South by George Washington.
The leader of the 1,900 British soldiers was General Charles Cornwallis. Cornwallis knew he was badly outnumbered by the Americans, but had confidence in his highly trained and experienced troops.
Battle of Guilford Court House (March 15, 1781) by H. Charles McBarron
Before the Battle
The American Army under Nathanael Greene had recently retreated from the British into Virginia. After gathering new troops and fresh supplies, Greene decided to go back on the attack. He crossed the border back into North Carolina and marched toward the British under General Cornwallis.
When Greene reached Guilford Courthouse he set up his defense. He knew that the British would soon attack. He used a similar defensive strategy to that used by Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens. As the British advanced, he would have lines of troops that would fire at the British and then retreat.
When the British attacked, they first encountered a line of inexperienced militiamen. These soldiers each fired two rounds at the British with their muskets and then retreated. As the British advanced, they then encountered a second line of soldiers. These soldiers once again, fired at the British and then retreated. Finally, the British approached the main force of the Americans. After a short fight, Greene ordered the Americans to retreat.
Although the British won the battle and forced the Americans to retreat, they suffered heavy losses. Around 500 of the 1,900 British soldiers were killed or wounded. Cornwallis was forced to march his weakened army to Yorktown, Virginia in hopes of gaining new troops. He would eventually surrender at Yorktown.
Nathanael Greene's overall strategy in the South was one of attrition. He hoped to wear down the British a bit at a time. He said that "We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again."
Guilford Courthouse National Military Park Source: National Park Service
Interesting Facts about the Battle of Guilford Courthouse
One member of the British Parliament said of the battle that "Another such victory would ruin the British army."
British General Cornwallis had his horse shot from under him during the battle.
Many of the American militiamen in the first line just kept running after they fired their shots. A lot of them, around 1,000, never returned to the army at all.
This type of victory by the British (where the battle is won, but with such heavy losses it can cost the war), is called a Pyrrhic Victory.