Battle of Guilford Courthouse 1781

A British Light Dragoon
A Light Dragoon

Battle: Guildford Courthouse

War: American Revolutionary War

Date: 15th March 1781

Place: North Carolina, United States of America

Combatants: British against the Americans

Generals: Major General Lord Cornwallis against Major General Nathaniel Greene

Size of the armies: Around 1,900 British against 4,400 Americans

Uniforms, arms and equipment: The British wore red coats and headgear of bearskin caps, leather caps or tricorne hats depending on whether the troops were grenadiers, light infantry or battalion company men. Tarleton’s Legion wore green uniforms and light dragoon helmets. The German infantry wore blue coats and retained the Prussian style grenadier mitre with brass front plate. The Americans dressed as best they could. Increasingly as the war progressed regular infantry regiments of the Continental Army wore blue uniform coats but the militia continued in rough clothing. Both sides were armed with muskets and guns. The Pennsylvania regiments carried long, small calibre, rifled weapons.

Battle of Guilford Courthouse
Battle of Guilford Courthouse

Winner: The British won a Pyrrhic victory.

British Regiments:
1 troop of the 17th Light Dragoons (incorporated in Tarleton’s Legion)
2 composite battalions of Foot Guards (comprising men from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Foot Guards)
23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers
33rd Foot, now the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment
71st Fraser’s Highlanders (disbanded at the end of the war)
Bose’s Hessian Regiment
Light Infantry
Royal Artillery
Tarleton’s Light Dragoons

American Continental Line
American Continental Line

American Regiments:
1st and 5th Maryland Regiments
Delaware Infantry
4th and 5th Virginia Regiments
Lee’s Legion
Light Infantry
North Carolina militia
Virginia militia
William Washington’s Light Dragoons
2 companies of artillery with four 6 pounder guns

An American Soldier
An American Soldier

Account:
After two years of the toughest of campaigning in South and North Carolina, Cornwallis pursued Greene’s army in an attempt to defeat him before launching the final and ill-fated British invasion of Virginia.
After a headlong march in which he constantly kept ahead of the British force, Greene halted to give battle at Guilford. He formed his army up at the Courthouse. Cornwallis rushed to attack him on the morning of 15th March 1781, his troops hungry and tired.

The British advanced up a road through thickly wooded country to an area cleared for grazing a half mile short of the Courthouse. Beyond this area the woods continued until the road reached the Courthouse where there was another large cleared area.

The first American line was formed across the northern edge of the first clearing and extended into the woods on each side: the North Carolina militia, Washington’s Legion, Lee’s Legion, and Campbell’s riflemen. Lee’s and Washington’s cavalry held the flanks. While there were initially two guns in this line, these were withdrawn as the battle began.

Three hundred and fifty yards further back in the woods was a second line of Virginia Militia and at a similar distance to the rear at the Courthouse was the third line of two more guns and Greene’s Continental Infantry.

On the advice of Major Morgan, Greene placed parties of riflemen behind the North Carolina militia with orders to shoot any militiaman who left his post before he had given the two discharges required of him.

The Americans opened fire as the British appeared at the edge of the first clearing. Cornwallis formed his line from the right with Bose’s Regiment and the 71st commanded by Major General Leslie and the 23rd and 33rd commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James Webster of the 33rd. The second line comprised the two battalions of Foot Guards, the Light Infantry and the Grenadiers commanded by Brigadier O’Hara of the 2nd Coldstream Regiment of Foot Guards. Tarleton’s Light Dragoons formed the final reserve.


Dummer and soldier of the Coldstream Guards

The British line advanced across the cleared area under heavy musket fire suffering significant casualties. They were impeded by the fencing. The British Foot charged and the militia having delivered the two volleys ordered hurried away through the woods.

The British were however still under fire from the American units in the woods on their flanks. The British line turned to deal with the menace and the grenadiers and one battalion of Foot Guards moved into the center to fill the gap.

The British Attack
The British Attack

The British line now attacked the second line of Virginians who had been reinforced by Washington’s and Lee’s men and some of the North Carolina militia. Webster pushed hard at the right flank of the American second line and forced it back. His men then immediately attacked the Continental troops in the third line. A heavy fire and a charge repelled Webster’s 33rd and O’Hara’s Jaegers and Foot Guards.

Following their charge the Continental regiments returned to their positions. The British left flank was reinforced with the 23rd and the 71st and the British attack was renewed. The American infantry gave ground but Washington’s charged the Foot Guards in the rear and an American counter attack led to a savage and confused melee.

At this crisis Cornwallis ordered his three guns to fire grape shot into the struggling mass. American and Briton were struck down indiscriminately by this fire but the American assault was repelled. Tarleton then charged the American right flank.

At this juncture Greene withdrew leaving his guns to the British.  There was no pursuit. Cornwallis was left on the field, but his army was in a sad state. He had suffered heavy casualties which could not be replaced. He had no supplies and it began to rain heavily. Webster on whom he relied had been killed and O’Hara was wounded.

Casualties:
British casualties were 550 dead and wounded. The Foot Guards had lost 11 officers of 19 and 200 soldiers of 450.
The American casualties were 250. In addition the North Carolina militia who left the field did not return

Follow-up:
Following the battle Cornwallis began his move into Virginia which led finally to Yorktown and his surrender.

References:

  • History of the British Army by Sir John Fortescue
  • The War of the Revolution by Christopher Ward