This battle was a major turning point in the American Revolution, and yet few of us have ever heard of it, the anniversary of which was March 15, 1781, so let’s take a look at this epic battle.
A 2,100-man British contingent, under the command of Gen. Charles Cornwallis took on Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Green’s 4,500 Patriots outside what is now Greensboro, North Carolina.
The British had been chasing the Patriots all over hell and gone in the south and were having great success in conquering chunks of Georgia and South Carolina with the help of the Loyalists in the areas. The British strategy was to overcome the South and divide the colonies, whereby – it was thought – the North would be more easily defeated. This battle was “the largest and most hotly contested action” (wikipedia.org) in the American Revolution’s southern campaign.
While Nathaniel Greene lost the battle, the Patriots bloodied up the British so badly that Cornwallis gave up his campaign in the South and retreated with his remaining troops to – wait for it – YORKTOWN, where Gen. Washington and the French fleet were waiting for him and, after a 3-week siege, forced his eventual surrender which ended the Revolution.
So pull up your armchair and follow the story. (This is the adult version of the battle for the South; the kids’ version is next week while most of them are out of school for Spring Break.)
After Nathaniel Greene kicked his butt pretty well at the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina, Gen. Cornwallis was determined to destroy Greene and his Patriots once and for all. After that epic battle, Cornwallis had to burn his supplies so that the remnants of his army could move quicker in pursuit of Greene, but Greene was a good ol’ Southern boy who knew his country like the back of his hand, and led the British on a merry chase through the woods and across rivers, always staying just ahead of the British.
Finally, the British, exhausted and hungry (they had to burn their supplies to travel faster, remember?) made camp in the forks of the Deep River to rest. While there, Cornwallis learned through his spy network that Green was at Guilford Court House with about 4,500 troops. In his obsession to destroy Greene, Cornwallis rousted his troops onto the road before breakfast could even be eaten to destroy Nathaniel Greene and his Patriots once and for all.
The British (including the dreaded Banastre Tarleton, the ruthless, vicious cavalry officer who had just gotten stomped by the Patriots at the Battle of Cowpens and was eager to even the score), lined up facing the Patriots.
There was a light breeze carrying the sound of the fifes and Highlander pipes across the field. “With blood dripping from his sword, the Patriot cavalry officer – none other than Light Horse Harry Lee, father of General Robert E. Lee – delivered a stirring address to his men before the battle: ‘My brave boys, your lands, your lives and your country depend on your conduct this day – I have given Tarleton hell this morning, and I will give him more of it before night.'” (reclaimourrepublic.wordpress.com)
The Patriots lined up and stared across a wet, recently plowed cornfield at the Redcoats, burnished armor and banners floating, as Cornwallis assembled his troops in formation more than 400 yards in front of them.
The Patriots dug into their carefully plotted positions and prepared themselves for battle. Author Patrick O’Donnell refers to this battle as the first “Band-of-Brothers” treatment of the Revolution and it turned out to be one of the most critical battles of the war. Nathaniel Green had prepared his defense in three lines, using the “collapsing box” tactic employed so successfully at the Battle of Cowpens.
The battle began with both sides firing artillery at each other. Lee told his men to stand and make two fires before falling back. The British began advancing across the muddy field. The Patriots, remembering Lee’s order, fired twice before falling back. The goal was to entice the British to follow them deeper into the waiting American lines, forcing them to plow through the mud and furrows chasing the Patriots.
The British fell for it and believed they had routed the Americans so they surged forward as fast as they could go, chasing Lee’s men. Lee’s men by then had positioned themselves behind trees and foliage and began firing on the British, picking off the advancing Redcoats as they continued slowly falling back as planned. Right into the sights of the second American line waiting silently for them. Lee’s men reached safety behind the second line as it opened up on the advancing British.
By this time, the British were exhausted from slogging through the muddy field and chasing Patriot troops as they “fled.”
About an hour and a half into the battle, the British ran right into the fresh third line, the strongest and best prepared, and a brawl ensued between both sides fighting hand-to-hand and employing bayonets when they could. So obsessed was Gen. Cornwallis for this victory that he made a terrible decision: he ordered his artillery to fire into the mass of fighting men, sending deadly grapeshot into British and Americans alike.
Nathaniel Greene decided to cut his losses to save his men and ordered a retreat. He had accomplished his strategic goal of inflicting massive damage to Cornwallis’s army. Cornwallis, having won a tactical “victory,” had lost more than 25% of his troops and could not pursue the retreating Americans. Instead, he moved his army to Wilmington, North Carolina to rest, recover and recruit, abandoning his campaign for the Carolinas and eventually moved his troops to Virginia. To Yorktown, to be precise.
No one realized it at the time, but the Battle of Guilford Courthouse was a major turning point of the war and launched the final leg of the American Revolution.