Painting of the Battle of Guilford Court House (March 15, 1781) from Soldiers of the American Revolution by H. Charles McBarron. “[General Nathaniel] Greene observed as the veteran First Maryland Continentals 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 Fifth Maryland who had buckled under a furious assault of British Grenadiers and Guards.”
Twelve miles to the southwest, Cornwallis, in his camp at New Garden, had begun his preparations to advance on 14 March. Late in the day he sent his sick and wounded, in the wagons that remained to him, back to Bell’s Mills on Deep River under a small escort of infantry and cavalry. Then, in the hope of catching Greene off guard, the earl had his troops fall in and start the twelve-mile march to Guilford at 5:00 A.M., without taking time for breakfast. The main body was preceded by an advance guard under Tarleton of about 450 men: his legion cavalry and infantry (272), 84 jägers, and some 100 light infantry of the guards.
About 7:15 A.M., seven miles down the road, Tarleton’s dragoons were fired on by a detachment of Lee’s legion. Greene had sent Lee, with the infantry and horse of his legion reinforced by Campbell’s riflemen, as a covering force, and it was Lieutenant Heard’s squad of the legion cavalry that had fired on the British. When Heard galloped back to inform Lee of the British approach, Lee pulled back, looking for an advantageous place to delay his enemy, and Tarleton pressed forward.
Lee found the spot he was looking for, “a long lane with high curved fences on either side of the road.” He waited until Tarleton’s dragoons poured into it, then ordered a charge that resulted in the whole of the enemy’s advance being dismounted, and many of the horses downed. Some of the British dragoons were killed and the rest made prisoner; not a single American soldier or horse was injured. Tarleton thereupon retired, and Lee’s horsemen pursued until they ran into the infantry of the enemy’s advance guard near New Garden Meetinghouse. The British infantry deployed and fired on the American cavalry, driving them back, Lee being momentarily unhorsed during the confusion. Lee’s infantry came up, and a smart little skirmish ensued in which Tarleton lost about thirty killed or wounded. Lee claimed much lighter losses. Tarleton took a musket ball in his right hand, causing him to lose his middle and index fingers.
Lee then withdrew his force and fell back toward the American defensive position. There were more exchanges of fire, which by then could be heard by Greene’s troops three miles away. Finally, when the skirmishing grew to a firefight, Lee could see that he had checked the British advance long enough. He withdrew again and warned Greene of the approach of the enemy’s main force. Lee’s men closed into their positions in the first defensive line not long before noon.
When Cornwallis rode up the new garden road and came Up the low rise on the south side of Little Horsepen Creek, he was able to observe the ground in front of the American position. Before him the road sloped downward to the creek, a small stream beyond which the terrain began to rise. There were open fields on each side, but at the top of the rise the road entered a dense wood, and in front of it, behind rail fences, the North Carolina militia waited. In order to get at them, Cornwallis’s troops would have to advance for some 500 to 600 yards uphill across a quarter-mile-wide expanse of muddy fields, exposed all the while to enemy fire.
The leading troops of the British main body emerged from the north end of the defile above Little Horsepen Creek and began deploying from column into line. Cornwallis had divided his attack force into two “wings” (provisional brigades). The right wing, under Major General Leslie, had on its right the Hessian Regiment von Bose, and on the left the 71st (Eraser’s) Highlanders. The left wing, under Lieutenant Colonel Webster, had on its right, lining up with the 71st Highlanders, the 23rd Regiment of Royal Fusiliers, and on its left the 33rd Regiment. Unlike Greene, the British commander had retained a strong reserve. The 1st Guards Battalion was behind General Leslie’s wing. Behind Webster’s wing were the jägers, the 2nd Guards Battalion, and the grenadier and light infantry companies. Also in reserve was Tarleton’s cavalry, held back in column, to the rear on the New Garden Road. The reserve was commanded by General O’Hara. The Royal Artillery detachment, three three-pounders under Lieutenant MacLeod, would first occupy positions in the center along the road.
Looking southward across the stubble fields, the North Carolina militiamen were no doubt impressed by the display, as intended, of the British forming into line of battle. Companies came up from the defile in compact columns, turned at right angles to the road, and wheeled smartly into long scarlet lines. Polished musket barrels glittered in the noonday sun, while the roll of the drums and the keening of the fifes were carried to the Americans in the clear March air.
When the first body of British infantry came within range, Captain Singleton opened up with his two six-pounders. Within minutes Lieutenant MacLeod’s Royal Artillery guns were answering the American fire. The cannonade lasted for less than half an hour, with negligible effect on either side. About 1:30 P.M. the British attack came on, straight ahead across the quarter mile of open fields. When the first British ranks were within about 150 yards, the thousand muskets and rifles of the Americans opened fire. It was not a crashing volley like the Continentals would have delivered; instead it was a rolling fire, at too great a range for maximum effect. Nevertheless, gaps were opened in the red-coated line, which continued to come on steadily. When the British line came within its own musket range, it snapped to a halt and fired its first volley. At Colonel Webster’s command, his lines advanced with muskets lowered at charge bayonet. About 40 yards from the rail fence the advance came to an abrupt halt. British Sergeant Lamb, of the 23rd Regiment (Royal Welsh Fusiliers), recounted in his journal that “their whole force had their arms presented and resting on a rail fence . . . they were taking aim with nice precision. . . . At this awful period a general pause took place; both parties surveyed each other for a moment with the most awful suspense. Colonel Webster then rode forward in front of the 23rd Regiment and said, with more than his usual commanding voice . . . ‘Come on, my brave Fusiliers.’ These words operated like an inspiring voice. Dreadful was the havoc on both sides. At last the Americans gave way.”
With the exception of the flank units of Lee and Washington, the American line broke across its whole length. The militia, having delivered its fires per Greene’s instructions, turned and fled, disappearing into the woods. According to Lee, “Every effort was made by the Generals Butler and Eaton . . . with many officers of every grade to stop this unaccountable panic for not a man of the corps had been killed or even wounded.” (It appears that Lee was unaware of Greene’s permission for the Carolinians to leave the field.) At this point there appears to have been a great deal of difference between Lee’s observations and Sergeant Lamb’s picture of dreadful havoc in front of and behind the rail fence. Lee goes on to say that he “joined in the attempt to rally the fugitives, threatening to fall upon them with his cavalry. All was vain, so thoroughly confounded were these unhappy men, that throwing away arms, knapsacks, and even canteens, they rushed like a torrent headlong through the woods” (Memoirs).
The action in the first American line was not over when the militia had taken off into the woods. Although Webster’s and Leslie’s line had reached the fences on the north end of the clearings, both the British and Hessian regiments were suffering severe casualties from enfilading fire on both flanks. On the British left the deadly fire was coming from Kirkwood’s Delaware company and Lynch’s riflemen; on the right the same deadly fire was being thrown at them by Campbell’s riflemen and Lee’s legion infantry. Before the British could advance upon the line of Virginians waiting 300 yards back in the woods, these twin threats would have to be dealt with.
The problem was handled on the British left when Webster directed the 33rd Regiment to divert its attack obliquely against Kirkwood and Lynch, while jägers and light infantry available on the left were brought up to augment the 33rd. At the same time General Leslie, in similar fashion, swung the Regiment von Bose and the 71st to face Campbell’s and Lee’s units. These maneuvers on both flanks of the British line left a wide gap in the center, which O’Hara plugged by bringing up the 2nd Guard Battalion and the grenadiers. The line was also extended in Leslie’s wing by advancing the 1st Guard Battalion to the extreme right.
When the British attack was resumed, the first heavy fighting took place on the flanks. Washington, on the American right, kept Kirkwood’s and Lynch’s infantry forward as long as he could, but soon they were thrown back by the weight of the British 33rd, reinforced by the light infantry and jägers. Seeing that his infantry’s position was becoming untenable, Washington covered their withdrawal with his cavalry until Kirkwood and Lynch could take up new positions on the right of the second line.
On the American left, things took a different turn. Although Lee’s infantry had been augmented by Captain Forbes’s company of North Carolina militia, which had stayed to fight on, Campbell’s riflemen were assailed by the British 1st Guard Battalion. This action, along with a coordinated attack by the Regiment von Bose, prevented Lee from falling back to the second line, as Washington had done on the other flank. As Lee was driven back, he found his infantry being pushed farther and farther toward the left, separating them completely from the American main body. Lee’s force thus had to fight its own separate battle, engaged continuously with the guards and von Bose. This private affair was to be continued throughout the battle, with the result that both Cornwallis and Greene were deprived of troops that were sorely needed in the main actions.
The British now advanced through the woods to attack the American line, only to find that the real battle had just begun. No longer could the redcoats advance in firm lines and deliver controlled volleys against their enemy. That enemy was now shielded by trees and undergrowth that broke up the battle into a series of small-unit actions. Stedman, who was at the battle, reported that the Americans were “posted in the woods and covering themselves with trees, [from which] they kept up for a considerable time a galling fire, which did great execution.” All across the second line the Virginians, fighting to hold their positions, were beginning to feel the whole force of Cornwallis’s attack. The heavier weight of Webster’s and O’Hara’s troops was thrown against Stevens’s brigade on the American right: the 33rd, the grenadiers, the guards’ 2nd Battalion, the jägers, the light infantry were all directing their main effort against Stevens. The pressure was too much, and the brigade was forced back on its right. Like the opening of a huge door, the left of the brigade held like the hinges while its right was swung back, until it finally broke. The rest of the Virginia line fought on stubbornly, fighting off three bayonet attacks and holding up for a time the advance of the 23rd, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and the 71st.
While the British 23rd and 71st Highlanders were being held up by the left of the American line, Colonel Webster took stock of the situation. With the driving off of the American right, the way was open to him to continue the advance and attack Greene’s third line. He led forward the 33rd Regiment, the light infantry, and the jägers. Emerging from the woods, they came up against the best of Greene’s troops, the Continentals of the 1st Maryland and the 5th Virginia, supported by Captain Finley’s two six-pounders. Waiting along the forward slope of the high ground south of the Reedy Fork Road, the Continentals had been listening to the growing sounds of battle in the woods ahead: the banging of muskets and the crack of rifles swelled to a continuous roll. As the firing below them seemed to diminish, they began to see little groups of Virginians trotting out of the woods headed toward the rear. Then the groups grew to a steady stream, and the Continentals could be sure that the second line had broken. Over on the right, two columns were coming back, one in Continental uniforms, the other, larger column in brown hunting shirts and gray homespun. They were Kirkwood’s Delaware Continentals and Lynch’s Virginia riflemen, filing back to fall in on the right of Colonel Green’s 4th Virginia.
In a few minutes groups of redcoats appeared on the near edge of the woods and began to form into line. Then the British line came on, led by Webster: on the right the 33rd was headed directly toward the 1st Maryland; on the left the light infantry and jägers were coming on toward Hawes’s 5th Virginia. The Continentals stood, rock-firm, awaiting the command to fire. Their officers held back until the British line was within thirty paces, then the command came: “Fire!” The volley crashed into the red-coated formations, which disintegrated under the blow. Falling back in disorder, the British infantry left a swathe of dead and wounded. But the Continentals were not through. Colonel John Gunby of the 1st Maryland called for a bayonet attack. The Maryland and Virginia regulars slashed through the knots of their disorganized enemy and drove the fugitives down into a ravine and up its other side. With that the British fled into the woods. Webster was carried back with them, his knee shattered by a musket ball.
Now victory seemed held in balance for either side. On the British far right the guards and Hessians were out of the main battle, held up by Lee’s men on a wooded height far to the south. In the center, the left of the American second line was still entangled with the British 23rd and 71st regiments. And the center of the third line had just repulsed and shattered Webster’s too-bold attack.
Accordingly, at this critical moment, historical “what ifs” begin to pop up: What if Greene had thrown his cavalry against the disorganized British? What if Greene had attacked the British center with the whole of his Continental line? Yet Greene could not have known that a critical moment had arrived, for the simple reason that he could not see the battlefield that involved his first and second lines, nor Lee’s separate, faraway battle. Also, Greene had no reserve to commit, and in any event he would not have thrown his third line into the fray, because he had entered into this battle—indeed into the whole campaign after Cowpens—with the firm resolve not to risk the hard core of his army in any way that might hazard its destruction. The loss of his veterans, he was certain, would surely leave the South in British hands.
While Webster was moving through the woods and delivering his disastrous attack against Greene’s third line, the resistance of the Virginians in the second line was weakening. When General Leslie became aware of the fact, he disengaged the 23rd and 71st regiments and sent them to take part in the attack against the American third line. During the lull that followed, Cornwallis was restoring his forward line to launch his main attack against Greene’s Continentals. As part of this reorganization of force, General O’Hara, who had been wounded, turned over command of the 2nd Guard Battalion and the grenadiers to Lieutenant Colonel James Stuart. That officer didn’t wait for the other three units—the 23rd, 71st, and grenadiers—to come up into line. He led the 2nd Guards, “glowing with impatience to signalize themselves,” toward that part of the American line to their front, Ford’s 5th Maryland Continentals and Captain Singleton’s two six-pounders.
The 5th Maryland was not made of the stuff that had enabled Continentals to stand and exchange volleys with British regulars. Mostly recruits in a newly reorganized unit that was facing battle for the first time, the raw Marylanders gaped at the hedge of British steel coming up the hill directly at them. They got off a ragged volley, and to a man turned and ran. The guards dashed ahead and seized Singleton’s two guns. Then, as Stuart continued to drive on through the penetration his guards had made, his battalion was struck on both flanks by two charging counterattacks, both made on the initiative of local commanders. The close-in combat that followed was out of Greene’s control; he was already considering saving his invaluable Continentals, having observed that it would soon be “most advisable to order a retreat,” and had ordered Colonel Green to pull back his 4th Virginia to cover a general disengagement.
William Washington, observing from the American left on the hill, saw the 5th Maryland collapse and the subsequent British breakthrough. Seizing the chance to restore the situation, he led his entire cavalry force in a pell-mell charge that smashed into the right rear of Stuart’s guards, sabering right and left as they broke through the British formation. Among Washington’s troopers was the famed Sergeant Peter Francisco, a six-foot-eight giant who wielded an awesome five-foot sword said to have been given him by General Washington. It was said, too, that he had the reputation of being the strongest man in Virginia. According to his comrades, Francisco cut down eleven British soldiers “with his brawny arms and terrible broadsword.” Not only did Francisco ride through the guards, he wheeled around and went back through them, sabering as he went.
In the meantime Colonel Gunby, having returned the 1st Maryland to its original position, was informed by his second in command, Lieutenant Colonel John Eager Howard, that the guards had broken through the 5th Maryland and were pushing on through the breached American line. At once Gunby wheeled the 1st Maryland and charged into the guards; when the Americans continued to drive into the British, the encounter turned into a melee. During the hand-to-hand fighting that followed, Stuart himself was killed, cut down by a sword blow from Captain Smith of the Marylanders when he and the British leader engaged in personal combat. In Franklin and Mary Wickwire’s account of the close combat:
Even the Guards’ experience and discipline could not forever stand proof against such an onslaught. They had plainly begun to get the worst of it and had begun to fall back when Cornwallis . . . resorted to a desperate measure . . . Lieutenant MacLeod had brought two 3-pounders along the road to a small eminence just beside it on the south side . . . Cornwallis ordered MacLeod to load his guns with grapeshot and direct his fire into the middle of the human melange. O’Hara who lay bleeding nearby in the road, supposedly ‘demonstrated and begged’ his commander to spare the Guards, but Cornwallis repeated the order. . . . The carnage upon friend and foe alike was frightening, but it did serve the purpose. When the smoke cleared away, the surviving Guards had regained the safety of their own guns [lines?] and those of Washington’s and Howard’s men [Howard having relieved Gunby when the latter was pinned down by his wounded horse] who could still move had abandoned their pursuit and retired to their own lines. (Cornwallis: The American Adventure)
With both sides retiring, there was a new lull in the action during which Cornwallis again restored his front line, this time in preparation for a final assault by the 23rd and 71st regiments. Webster had reorganized his former attacking force, and returned to renew the attack against the American right.
Greene was now faced with a restored British line which was about to launch an all-out attack. At 3:30 P.M. he decided on a general retreat. The only fighting units left intact to confront the enemy were the 1st Maryland, Hawes’s 5th Virginia, and Washington’s cavalry; the 4th Virginia had already been pulled back to aid in covering the retreat. Howard retired the 1st Maryland in good order, while Washington and Green’s 4th Virginia got in position to cover the withdrawal. On the left, Hawes’s 5th Virginia repulsed Webster’s new attack with enough volleys to end the battle.
The retreat was “conducted with order and regularity,” even though Greene’s four guns all had to be abandoned because most of the artillery horses had been killed. For a short time Cornwallis pushed a pursuit, using the 23rd, the 71st, and a part of Tarleton’s cavalry, but those worn-out men were too fatigued to be effective and the earl had to call it off.
Greene’s retreating force moved out in a driving rain and crossed Reedy Fork, about three miles west of Guilford Courthouse, where he halted long enough to close up his column and collect stragglers. He then pushed on, making an all-night march to his former camp at the Ironworks on Troublesome Creek.
As for Lee’s semi-independent battle, he and Campbell had fought the Hessians and the 1st Guards through the woods and over hills, trying to hold their enemy while maneuvering to get back to Greene’s third line. When Lieutenant Colonel Norton, commanding the 1st Guards, disengaged to take his battalion and link up with the 71st, Lee and Campbell seized the opportunity to force the Hessians back. Lee then left Campbell to hold the enemy while he took his infantry back to rejoin his legion cavalry near the courthouse. A charge by Tarleton’s cavalry finally released the pressure on the Hessians, and with that Campbell got his men clear and away.
Guilford Courthouse proved to be one of the bloodiest battles of the war, and most of the blood that was shed was British. Greene’s casualty count was 78 killed and 183 wounded out of a force of 4,444. Out of a force of 1,900, Cornwallis lost 532 officers and men, 93 of whom were killed and 50 dead of wounds before they could be evacuated. The guards took the heaviest casualties: 11 of 19 officers and 206 of 462 men.
Shortly after Greene had broken off the battle, a continuing rain set in. It was an unusually black night, and it was still cold there in late winter. The search for the British wounded had to go on all night over a large area, much of it wooded. The last time Cornwallis’s soldiers had eaten was at supper on the evening of 14 March. They then had been forced to march twelve miles the next day, fight one of the fiercest battles of the war, and sink down on wet ground that night, hungry and without tents. After forty-eight hours they were finally rewarded with a repast of four ounces of flour and four ounces of lean beef.
Cornwallis had won the battle, but he had lost his campaign. Greene had withdrawn intact, and as events were to show conclusively, his fighting force would be capable of moving and fighting almost anywhere in the Carolinas. Cornwallis could not. As Page Smith observed: “For Cornwallis, the possession of the Guilford Courthouse battlefield had no meaning if Greene’s army survived to fight another day.” After the battle had been fought, it was impossible for the British general to resume his pursuit of Greene. In Smith’s words, “His shattered army could not sustain another battle. Instead of following Greene he issued a proclamation, claiming a glorious victory for British arms and urging all loyalists to come to his support. Then he turned toward Wilmington, North Carolina, the country of the Scottish Highlanders, where he hoped to rest and equip his battered army” (A New Age Now Begins).