Revolutionary War Battles
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State War Records
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Following the Battle of Cowpens, Cornwallis was determined to destroy Greene's army. However, 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 and attempted to forage supplies and recruit North Carolina's Tories. However, the bedraggled state of his army and Pyle's massacre deterred Loyalists.
On March 14, 1781, while encamped in the forks of the Deep River, Cornwallis was informed that General Richard Butler was marching to attack his army. With Butler 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. They had joined the command of Greene, creating a force of some nine to ten thousand men in total. During the night of the March 15, further reports confirmed the American force was at Guilford Court House, some 12 miles (20 km) away. 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, then set off with his main force, before breakfast was able to be eaten, arriving at Guilford at midday. Meanwhile, Greene, having received the reinforcements, decided to recross the Dan and challenge Cornwallis. On March 15, the two armies met at Guilford Court House, North Carolina (within the present Greensboro, North Carolina).
On February 8, Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan and Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene's forces met at Guilford Courthouse. Greene met with his officers and asked what their next move should be. They all decided to continue the northward retreat. That retreat was known as the "Race for the Dan." The Dan River was swollen and only safe to cross at upstream fords, along the border of North Carolina and Virginia.
Greene continued to stay ahead of Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis. Cornwallis knew that his large wagon trains were slowing him down. He decided to burn all items that were not necessary for battle and left stragglers behind so that the army could move faster. Greene had detached a decoy force, commanded by Otho Williams, to lure Cornwallis in the opposite direction of the main retreating army. The decoying force succeeded in getting the British to chase them instead of Greene.
Cornwallis moved his army between the Americans and the upstream fords. Greene had collected enough boats to carry his army across the river at a point downstream from the British position. Greene knew that the British would be worn out from fast marching over 200 miles. Cornwallis arrived just in time to see the last boatload of Americans make it across the river. Since he did not have any boats, he turned his army around in disgust and headed to Hillsboro.
In early March, Greene rested and reorganize his army. He was waiting for promised reinforcements from Virginia to arrive before moving back into North Carolina to attack the British. After learning that Cornwallis was retiring south, Greene sent a detachment across the river to shadow the British and harass them, which they did for a couple of weeks. A few days later, 600 Virginia militiamen arrived. With his reinforcements, which brought his total to 2,100 men, Greene now had twice as many troops as the British. He led his army back across the Dan River and headed to Guilford Courthouse. Once back in North Carolina, Greene's force quickly increased in size. About 400 Virginia Continentals arrived with Col. Richard Campbell, about 1,000 North Carolina militiamen, and 1,700 Virginia militiamen.
By March 10, Greene's force had grown to 4,400 troops.
On March 12, Greene moved his army 20 miles to Guilford Courthouse, where he carefully chose his ground for a fight with the British.
On March 14, Cornwallis learned that evening that Greene was camped just 12 miles away at Guilford Courthouse.
On March 15, Greene had divided his force into 3 seperate lines of infantry supported by cavalry and artillery. Each line of battle was perpendicular to the New Garden Road, which ran through Greene's lines west to east before intersecting with the road from Reedy Fork behind the Americans. Guilford Courthouse sat within a T-intersection formed by the junction of these roads.
The first line, behind a rail fence with the woods to their back, was made up of about 1,000 North Carolina militia, commanded by Brig. Gen. John Butler and Col. Thomas Eaton. In the center of the line was 2 small artillery pieces on the road. They could fire on the British while they crossed the open fields. The first line's left flank was supported by Lee's Legion and Campbell's Continentals. The right flank was supported by Lt. Col. William Washington's calvary and Col. Charles Lynch's Riflemen.
The second line, about 350 yards behind and further east in the heavy woods, was made up of 1,200 Virginia militia with a mixture of previously discharged Continental veterans. Here, they would provide cover for the first line. The third line, another 500 yards further to the rear on a slight rise near the courthouse, was the main line of battle consisting of 1,400 Continentals from Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland on the west side of the road.
Cornwallis approached the American positions from the west along New Garden Road about midday. In his ranks were slightly less than 2,000 men. About 4 miles west of Guilford Courthouse, some of Greene's advance guard of cavalry, commanded by Lt. Col. Henry Lee, and dismounted infantry skirmished by using some harassing fire against the approaching British. A running battle eastward broke out.
At 1:00 P.M., the British crossed Little Horsepen Creek (1/2 mile beyond the creek was the American positions) and deployed for their attack. Cornwallis brought his artillery to the front to counter the American artillery fire. He then divided his army into 2 wings on either side of New Garden Road. The left wing was commanded by Col. James Webster and the right wing was commanded by Maj. Gen. Alexander Leslie. Tarleton's Legion was held in the rear as a reserve force.
The British advanced and when they approached within killing range, the Americans fired on them. The British continued their advanced, fired a volley, and then made a bayonet charge. The Americans leveled their muskets on the fence and fired a second volley. This volley was noted as one of the most effective single volley of the war. The British troops were surprised that the militia did not run away from the bayonet charge. This is what the American militia usually did before. The British steadied their line and continued their advance. The first line of militia melted away, along with the cavalry and infantry on the flanks. This was able to siphon the British strength from the main battle.
The British moved toward the American second line. With the Americans deployed on wooded and hilly terrain, groups of them were able to surprise parts of the British line. Fighting an uphill battle confused the British, which began to lose their cohesion. The fight at the second line was a much harder and deadlier than the first line. The British were able to overlap the American right, bend it back, and soon made it collapse.
Without much time to reorganize, Cornwallis ordered his troops forward where they soon ran into the last American line, which was its strongest. Webster launched a quick uphill attack on the American left. It was quickly repulsed and Webster was mortally wounded. On the British right wing, a bayonet charge was ordered to attack the American left. The British temporarily overran part of the American line and captured two artillery pieces. Greene saw this and ordered Washington's cavalry and infantry to seal the breach in the line. They engaged in a hand-to-hand fight with the British, recaptured the artillery, and sealed the breach.
Cornwallis made a controversial call, deciding to bring up his artillery and fire over his own troops into the American line. This desperate move killed as many British troops as it did Americans, but it did halt the American counterattack. Tarleton was ordered to take his cavalry and engage the Americans.
Thinking that his men were about to be driven from the field and accomplishing all that was possible, Greene decided to withdraw his force from the battlefield in an orderly retreat northwest on the Reedy Road. This allowed Cornwallis to claim a victory. Greene's decision to retreat proved to be a cautious but wise decision. Tarleton's cavalry, along with several Hessian units, swept what was left of the Amnerican force from the field. Cornwallis claimed a victory, but his forces suffered great losses. In London, when the battle reports came in, Charles J. Fox, a member of Parliament, remarked that "Another such victory would ruin the British army."
The battle had lasted only ninety minutes, and although the British technically defeated the American force, they lost over a quarter of their own men. The British casualties consisted of 5 officers and 88 other ranks killed and 24 officers and 389 other ranks wounded, with a further 26 men missing in action. Webster was wounded during the battle, and he died a fortnight later.
The British, by taking ground with their accustomed tenacity when engaged with superior numbers, were tactically victors. 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!".
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 [Greene's accounts put this closer to 4,400].... 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 further went on to comment 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. 50 of the wounded died before sunrise. Had the British followed the retreating Americans they may have come across their baggage and supply wagons, which had been camped up to the west of the Salisbury road in some old fields prior to the battle.
Greene, cautiously avoiding another Camden, retreated with his forces intact. With his small army, less than 2000 strong, Cornwallis declined to follow Greene into the back country, and 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, the solution of which, upon his own responsibility, unexpectedly led to the close of the war within seven months. Instead of remaining in Carolina, he determined to march into Virginia, justifying the move on the ground that until Virginia was reduced he could not firmly hold the more southern states he had just overrun. This decision was subsequently sharply criticized by General Clinton 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 he raided every farm or plantation he came across, from whom he took hundreds of horses for his Dragoons. He also converted another 700 infantry to mounted duties. During these raids he freed thousands of slaves, of which 12,000 joined his own force.
The danger lay in the suddenly changed situation in that direction; as General Greene, instead of following Cornwallis to the coast, 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 beaten, and fight again," were his words.
BRITISH FORCES AT GUILFORD COURT HOUSE
Lieut. Gen. Charles Lord Cornwallis; Maj. Gen. Alexander Leslie, second in command
Brig. Gen. Howard, serving as a volunteer
Baker gives the combined rank and file strength of the 2/71st Regt. and von Bose as 565 officers and men, Lumpkin gives the 2/71st strength as 530, and von Bose’s as 313.
According to the “Leslie” Orderly Book, Cornwallis had 4 six-pounders and 2 three-pounders while in North Carolina. Whether he had all of these at Guilford is not clear. Lumpkin gives his artillery at Guilford as 3 three-pounders. What would seem likely is that he had with him at the battle 2 three-pounders and 1 (possibly 2) six-pounders), while the remaining six-pounders were kept with the baggage due to lack of men to man them.
TOTAL STRENGTH OF CORNWALLIS’ ARMY
In a return made on the morning of 15 March gave his rank and file strength as 1,638, and his total effectives strength as 1,924.
His rank and file losses since 1 February were listed as 11 killed, 86 wounded and 97 missing, or 194 total. His losses for officers were 1 killed, 2 wounded, 3 missing. The combined total losses for both rank and file, and officers then was 200.
On the other hand in the return for 1 February, Cornwallis gave his rank and file strength as 2,440, though this of course includes Hamilton and the 20 dragoons assigned to the baggage. Bryan’s N.C. Volunteers were not included in Cornwallis’ official returns. If we subtract the losses since 1 February given in this morning of 15 March return, he would have had 2,246. If we allow Hamilton a strength of 200, this would then have made Cornwallis’s Guilford army 2,220 rank and file.
Lee: 2,400, both officers and rank and file. "Lord Cornwallis' army engaged is put down at one thousand four hundred and forty-nine infantry; the cavalry has generally been estimated at three hundred. Allowing the artillery to make two hundred, it will bring the British force nearly to two thousand, probably the real number at Guilford Court-House. Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton, with his own regiment, one hundred infantry of the line, and twenty dragoons, was left with the baggage sent off on the evening of the 14th to Bell's mill. The British force in toto may be put down as two thousand four hundred: one hundred less than it was when Cornwallis destroyed his baggage at Ramsour's mill, notwithstanding the companies of infantry raised while he lay at Hillsborough, and other small accessions.”
Johnson: 2,000 rank and file. Cornwallis initially claimed 1,360 rank and file as his strength at Guilford. . However, as Johnson points out, he admits a loss of 500 killed and wounded at that battle, yet in his return of 1 April gives a total of 1723. "Deduct from this number, Hamilton's loyal regiment, which does not appear to have been in the action, and there will remain more than 2000, exclusive of the artillery. It is also observable, that Colonel Tarleton admits his cavalry to have amounted to 200, and yet the whole legionary corps is set down, in Cornwallis' account, at 174. By the returns of the 1st of March, it appears that his total was 2213, which will leave 2000 after deducting Hamilton's regiment."
Lumpkin: The British force is not known with certainty, but estimated between 1,981 and 2,253, both officers and rank and file.
Hugh Rankin: 2,192 rank and file. Cornwallis claimed his strength at time of battle was 1,360, but his return of April 1, 1781 gives 1,723 rank and file fit for duty, while his casualties at Guilford were listed as 469 killed and wounded. Rankin estimates his force at "around" 2,192 exclusive of officers and non-commissioned officers.
Thomas Baker: 1,924 troops (rank and file.)
AMERICAN FORCES AT GUILFORD COURT HOUSE
Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene; Brig. Gen. Isaac Huger, second in command
Although not mentioned in reports, Col. Charles Harrison was evidently with the army at this time, and so would have been in overall command of the artillery. He’s mentioned by Greene as having arrived at camp on March 4th, though does not come up again in Greene’s extent correspondence till March 30th. Even so, Harrison was probably not present with either of the batteries themselves., unless briefly.
NORTH CAROLINA MILITIA
Johnson gives the total for the North Carolina militia as 1,060.
TOTAL for all the Virginia militia combined, says Johnson, was 1,693.
TOTAL STRENGTH OF GREENE’S ARMY
CASUALTIES AND CAPTURES
Cornwallis' return of losses suffered, contained in his dispatch to Lord German, of March 17, 1781, gives the total British casualties, both officers and rank and file as 93 killed (75 rank and file), 413 wounded (369 rank and file), 26 missing (25 rank and file.)
Taken from Otho Williams' return:
Continentals (Key: rank and file/total effectives)
Total Continental losses: 290/330 casualties.
Total casualties for the Virginia militia: 361/415.
North Carolina Militia:
Total casualties for North Carolina militia: 561/574.
Johnson: “The American killed and wounded could never be ascertained with any degree of precision. The returns of the day could furnish no correct ideas on the subject; for one half of the North Carolina militia, and a large number of the Virginians, never halted after separating from their officers, but pushed on to their own homes. Neither do those returns exhibit a correct view of the loss sustained by the regular troops, for they are dated on the 17th; and in a number of those who are marked missing, afterward rejoined their corps. This inference is drawn from a return now before us, made two days after, in which the Virginia brigade is set down at 752, and the Maryland brigade at 660. Admitting that those two corps went into battle with 1490 men, this will reduce their loss to 188, instead of 261, as represented in the returns of the 17th. This error was to be expected from the confusion in which the 2d Maryland regiment abandoned the field. Reducing the whole loss in the same proportion, it will barely exceed 200…The loss of the militia brigades and rifle corps, were surprisingly small, not exceeding in the whole eighty men, killed and wounded…But, these corps were reduced by desertion to one half the numbers they reckoned before the battle. The Virginians now amounted to only 1021, including Lynch’s riflemen – and the North Carolinians to 556. The whole army, including men of all arms, amounted on the 19th to 3115.”
On 19 March, Maj. Charles Magill reported to Gov. Jefferson that Cornwallis had taken custody of 75 wounded Americans.
“Return of ordnance, ammunition, and arms, taken at the battle of Guildford, March 15, 1781.
Brass Ordnance: Mounted on travelling carriages, with limbers and boxes complete, 4 six-pounders. Shot, round, fixed with powder, 160 six-pounders. Case, fixed with ditto, 50 six-pounders; 2 ammunition waggons, 1300 stands of arms distributed among the militia, and destroyed in the field.”