Battle of Guilford Courthouse 1781
A Light Dragoon
Battle: Guildford Courthouse
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
Battle of Guilford Courthouse
Winner: The British won a Pyrrhic victory.
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
Tarleton’s Light Dragoons
American Continental Line
1st and 5th Maryland Regiments
4th and 5th Virginia Regiments
North Carolina militia
William Washington’s Light Dragoons
2 companies of artillery with four 6 pounder guns
An American Soldier
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
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
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
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 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.
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
Following the battle Cornwallis began his move into Virginia which
led finally to Yorktown and his surrender.
- History of the British Army by Sir John Fortescue
- The War of the Revolution by Christopher Ward