The Battle of Guilford Court House
By Robert Rasmussen
Minnesota Society SAR
There was often a fine line between victory and defeat during battles of the Revolutionary War. In some cases, victory was so muddled it took weeks to sort out the real winner.
Need Evidence? Consider the Battle of Guilford Court House where American forces retreated and left the British with a battlefield and apparent victory. In the months that followed, the results became more clear and the battle is remembered as one of the most decisive of the revolution.
The Revolutionary War began in Lexington, Massachusetts in 1775 and for three years, most of the fighting occurred in the northern colonies. In 1778, the British turned their attention to the south and claimed major victories in Savannah and Charleston. eager to gain control of the south, British General Charles Cornwallis sought a Climactic battle which would deliver a knockout punch.
American fortunes were in the hands of General Nathanael Greene, who was determined to avoid a battle until his army had reached peak strength. Having surrendered large areas of land to buy time, Greene was finally ready for the confrontation with Cornwallis and prepared for battle at Guilford Court House inside the present-day city of Greensboro, North Carolina. Greene commanded a force of 4,400, which included 1,700 Continentals and 2,700 militia. Although outnumbered with an army of 1,900, Cornwallis was certain the British would overcome the rebels just as they'd done on scores of other battlefields.
On the morning of March 15, 1781, Green deployed his men for three lines of battle. The fighting began about noon when the British approached the first line, a group of North Carolina militia deployed behind a rail fence. Although the line quickly collapsed, the militia used a barrage of musket fire to inflict heavy casualties before retreating.
As the British advanced, they faced a greater obstacle in the second line, which was comprised of Virginia militia. The one-hour skirmish resulted in more losses for the Redcoats, who were finally able to break through and advance toward the final line. The heaviest fighting took place on the third line, where Greene had stationed his Continentals. After an exchange of musket fire and a barrage by British cannons, the Americans broke off and retreated from the field.
The entire battle lasted just 90 minutes. Although the British had technically defeated the Americans, they lost 25 percent of their men and were spread across a large area without food or shelter. The serious losses of manpower left the British too weak to pursue Greene's "defeated" army and unable to occupy the outposts of North Carolina. As a result, Cornwallis made the fatal decision to lead his army to Virginia, where seven months later he was defeated at Yorktown. Conversely, the American force marched south and fought battles that liberated South Carolina and Georgia.
The Battle of Guilford Court House was an important event in the Revolutionary War and showed how victories aren't always what they appear. For the British, an apparent victory set in motion the consequences of ultimate defeat. For the patriots, it showed how a short-lived retreat didn't diminish the resolve and spirit of the American people -- attributes which served the colonies well during the revolution and have kept our country strong for future generations.
Smith, C. Carter, The American Revolution. Millbrook Press, Brookfield, Conn. 1991
Blackwood, Paul E., The American Revolution. Grosset and Dunlap, New York, N.Y. 1963