When 15 March 1781
Strength British - 4,400
Americans – 1,900
Following the battle of Cowpens, Major General Charles Lord Cornwallis was determined to defeat the Continental army led by Major General Nathaniel Greene. Before setting off from Charleston, he burned his supplies so that his army could move more quickly through the Carolinas and catch up to the Americans.
Greene decided to head for Virginia to force Cornwallis to stretch his supply lines and tire out his redcoats as he gave chase. The pursuit across North Carolina became known as the “Race to the Dan” which Greene won when he crossed the Dan River and took all the available boats with him. Unable to cross the river, Cornwallis turned back to Hillsborough to search for supplies. The two armies then stalked each other while skirmishing periodically. Once militia units arrived to reinforce his army, Greene decided to meet the British at Guilford forming his army up in front of the courthouse.
The road to Guildford Courthouse initially passed through thick woodlands before reaching an open field beyond which the woodland continued until reaching another clearing in front of the courthouse. Greene lined his men up in three rows; North Carolina militia formed the first line with riflemen on the flanks across the northern edge of the first clearing, Virginia militia formed the second line within the woods, and the third line composed of Greene’s best troops – soldiers from the Continental army.
Cornwallis rushed to attack the Americans, but his men were hungry and tired after several days of hard marching on short rations. The British marched across the first clearing and came under heavy musket fire but when they crossed a fence dividing the clearing, they charged at the militia who then broke and ran back into the woods. Redcoats continued to come under fire from riflemen within the woods and so they split their force to deal with this threat. The British continued on their advance by attacking the American second line. They managed to force the American right flank back and carried on with their attack by assaulting the American third line. The Continentals delivered a volley and then charged at the British before returning to their position. In the meantime, British units returning from the attack on the riflemen reinforced their line. American cavalry charged the British force from behind and as the fighting descended into savage hand-to-hand conflict, Cornwallis ordered his cannons to open fire on the melee. Soldiers from both sides were cut down where upon Greene ordered a full retreat.
Although Cornwallis won the battle, he lost as much as 27% of his fighting force. Initially, the British withdrew to Wilmington, NC to rest and resupply. In doing so they held on to Georgia and the Carolinas, but Cornwallis knew that until he conquered Virginia, the British could not hold onto or control the Southern states. Therefore, Cornwallis set off for Virginia raiding every farm and plantation along the way to supply his army. Meanwhile, Nathaniel Greene marched into South Carolina and Georgia and attacked the chain of British forts which exerted control over those colonies. By the end of 1781, Georgia and the Carolinas were firmly back in Patriot hands.
British – 93 killed / 408 wounded / 25 captured Americans – 94 killed / 185 wounded
Placing the Guards by Pamela Patrick White.