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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

North Carolina
in the American Revolution

Hugh F. Rankin
North Carolina
Division of Archives and History
Raleigh, 1959

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p52  Chapter 6

The Battle of Guilford Court House

Greene's retreat did not end with his crossing of the Dan River. He led his footsore army as far north as Halifax Court House in Virginia. There he allowed them to rest while supplies were collected and additional troops enlisted. Greene spent much of his time at his writing desk. Letters were sent to Governor Abner Nash of North Carolina, Governor Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, and General Washington. He begged them to reinforce his little army with troops, equipment, and supplies. Letters also went to other important political figures, including Patrick Henry, asking them to exercise their influence to encourage enlistments in the army.

Meanwhile, Cornwallis had given up the chase. His army was dangerously low on supplies and his men were tired. He marched them towards Hillsboro. In that town he not only planned to gather food and forage, but also to persuade the Tories of that region to enlist under his command. On February 20, 1781, Lord Cornwallis and his army marched jauntily into Hillsboro. The next day, to the ceremonial booming of a twenty‑one gun slut by the artillery, the Royal Standard (the flag of the King) was raised. Cornwallis issued a proclamation, declaring that he had come to rescue the loyal subjects of North Carolina "from the cruel tyranny under which they have groaned for several years." All loyalists were urged to come into Hillsboro and join the army of George III. Governor Josiah Martin also busied himself, trying to re‑establish his position as the royal governor of North Carolina.

A number of Tories did ride into Hillsboro, but after looking things over, few expressed the desire to join the British army. Many of them felt that Cornwallis's army was too small to fight Greene's army and protect their families at the same time. Others argued that the British general had allowed Greene to outwit him. Others felt that the British Government had treated them rather shabbily since the beginning of the war.

The British soldiers were restless. As a means of keeping them out of mischief, and to prevent them from plundering the very people they were supposed to protect, Lord Cornwallis put them to work paving the streets of the town with cobblestones.  p53 In the forests on the outskirts of Hillsboro, little groups of patriots concealed themselves. When a redcoat wandered too far from his comrades, he was picked off by sharpshooters. Orders had to be issued forbidding them to leave the town. Detachments sent to grind corn in the neighborhood mills were sometimes cut to pieces by fast-riding groups similar to that led by Captain Joseph Graham.

General Greene also sent two units back across the Dan to observe the movements of the enemy. These were the Legion of Light Horse Harry Lee and another group under the command of Andrew Pickens of South Carolina. By accident, they stumbled into a group of Tories, under Doctor John Pyle, marching to Hillsboro to join Cornwallis. Lee's Legion were uniformed in green jackets similar to those worn by the British Legion of Banastre Tarleton, and Pyle and his men thought that they were the British group. They were small fry so far as Lee was concerned. He was after bigger game. Word had come that Tarleton himself was camped not too far away, and Lee was on the trail of the British cavalry leader, for whom he had planned a surprise attack. When he met Pyle's Tories, he planned to allow them to think that he was Tarleton and march right on past them.

Lee had made this decision on the spur of the moment and had no time to inform his men of the plan. The Tories stepped to the side of the road to allow the Legion to pass. Some of the men near the end of the column recognized the sprigs of green in the hats of the men by the roadside. Tories! Swords were snatched from their scabbards as they wheeled towards the enemy. The stunned Tories could not believe their eyes! Tarleton's men attacking friends They began to cry out, "Hurrah for King George," and "I am a friend to his Majesty." The only answer was the charging horses. Flashing cavalry sabers cut them down. A few fired a wild shot or two, but then they joined their comrades scampering through the trees. Behind them they left ninety of their number dead, and a number of those who escaped later died of their wounds. Lee and Pickens suffered the loss of one horse hit by a stray bullet.

This little battle ruined any chance Lee had of surprising Tarleton. The Colonel of the British Legion was warned and he quickly scurried back to Hillsboro and the protection of Lord Cornwallis's army.

 p54  Two weeks had now passed since Greene had crossed into Virginia. Up at Halifax Court House, he had received some supplies and new troops were coming in. Still more recruits were on the march to join him. An army is no good when it hides from the enemy, so on February 23, 1781, the American army recrossed the Dan River back into North Carolina.

Three days later Cornwallis pulled out of Hillsboro. All the food in the neighborhood had been consumed by hungry British mouths. The next camp was on Alamance Creek, between the Deep and Haw rivers. The supply situation was corrected by this march. Here the British general waited for Greene's next move.

Greene kept his men constantly on the move, feeding them off the land, and never camping two nights in the same place. He divided his army, placing the smaller number under the command of Colonel Otho Williams of Maryland. These were ordered to take a position between the main American army and the British. There was almost constant skirmishing.

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Colonel Otho H. Williams of Maryland was given command of a smaller unit of General Nathanael Greene's army when the latter returned to North Carolina in February, 1781. The Maryland troops were outstanding in gallantry at the Battle of Guilford Court House.

Cornwallis was determined to force a showdown with Greene. Around 5:30 in the morning of March 6th, he marched his army out into the fog, hoping to surprise his enemy. Marching swiftly, they were within two miles of Williams's camp before they were discovered. The Americans immediately broke camp and began a fast retreat towards Greene's army. At Wetzell's Mill they splashed across the Reedy Fork Creek. Here Williams halted his soldiers and stationed them on the far side. As the redcoats waded into the water they were met with blistering fire. They staggered back. British artillery was brought up to furnish a covering fire for the crossing. Williams, now badly outnumbered, continued his retreat. The British turned back only after they had pursued him for another five miles.

 p55  Despite the increased number of men in his army, General Greene was still cautious. Most of his men were untrained and had never smelled the smoke of battle. Cornwallis's troops were battle-tested veterans. Greene moved his men about, as if he were playing a giant game of chess with his opponent. On March 10th, at the High Rock Ford on Haw River, a large number of reinforcements came in. Now, he felt, his army was strong enough to do battle.

In February, on his retreat through North Carolina, Guilford Court House had appealed to Greene as a battleground. Now he began to work his way back towards that site. From High Rock Ford he marched to Speedwell Iron Works on Troublesome Creek (near present‑day Reidsville). Here he left most of his baggage and moved to Guilford Court House.

Cornwallis was also on the move. From Alamance Creek his army marched to South Buffalo Creek (present site of Greensboro). From here he moved to the Quaker Meeting House at New Garden, between the forks of the Deep River. On March 14th, scouts brought him word that Greene was camped at Guilford Court House. He planned a little surprise for the Americans. At daybreak, on the morning of March 15, 1781, the red column moved towards Guilford.

Spies kept Greene informed of every movement of the enemy. Lee and his Legion were ordered out to observe and harass the British. Scouting in front of Cornwallis's troops was Banastre Tarleton and his Legion. Skilfully, Lee led Tarleton into an ambush. A sharp skirmish followed. Fresh troops were sent up to aid the British. Lee galloped back to the courthouse with the news of the approach of the enemy.

Greene had already prepared a warm reception. His army numbered about 4,000 men, much larger than the 2,253 commanded by Cornwallis. But the Britishers were well-trained professional soldiers whose eyes had often smarted from burnt powder. On the other hand, many of Greene's man belonged to the militia, and no one could predict the behavior of these men under the strain of battle.

The battleground selected by the American general was a long, sloping, and almost-steep hill. At the bottom of the slope a creek skipped along between its banks. The main highway from Hillsboro to Salisbury ran through the middle of the large open area  p56 selected as the battlefield. Here Greene placed his troops in three battle lines.

About half‑way down the slope was a rail fence. Here were stationed the North Carolina militia under Generals John Butler and Thomas Eaton. Behind them, on the highway, were placed two of Greene's four cannon. Farther up the slope there was another line composed of General Lawson's Virginia militia. These, however, were better soldiers than the average militia men, for most of them had been in battle before. The third line was at the crest of the hill. This was made up of the Continental troops, the best fighting men in the American army. Here were placed the remaining two cannon, and on the flanks were stationed the cavalry units of Colonels Lee and William Washington.

When the troops were in position, General Greene rode among them, talking with them and trying to keep their spirits up. He promised the North Carolina militia in the front line that if they would only fire two volleys at the British, they would be free to leave the field. He told the Virginians to allow the North Carolinians to come through their ranks when they began to retreat. Then the general rode back to the rear line and there sat resting on his horse, awaiting the arrival of the enemy.

About one‑thirty in the afternoon the British came into view. Almost immediately the American cannon began to thunder out a deadly welcome. Cornwallis brought up his own artillery and soon the thump of British cannon answered. Redcoats spread out in a battle line. Now and then one of the soldiers would topple out of the ranks as an American sharpshooter caught him in his sights. The long red line began to move across the muddy field towards the first American position.

As the British approached the rail fence, it suddenly seemed to blossom for a moment, then resumed its steady advance. Forty yards away the ugly muzzles of rifle and musket barrels could be seen resting on the rails. For a moment, the British soldiers appeared to falter, but they were rallied quickly by their officers. They raised their muskets to their shoulders and fired a volley. Then, with a shout, they hurled themselves in a bayonet charge at the men behind the rail fence.

The North Carolina militia men behind the rail fence were not cowards, but neither were they supermen. Few, if any, had  p57 ever been in battle before. It is doubtful that very many had bayonets for their own arms with which they could meet the bayonet charge of the British. When they saw the line of cold steel bearing down upon them, they broke. Some threw away their guns as they fled, others withdrew more slowly, firing a few fleeting shots at the enemy as they retreated. Generals Butler and Eaton tried to rally their troops, but soon discovered that they were shouting at a whirlwind. The second line of the Virginia militia opened ranks and allowed the men of the first line to storm through.

The British line resumed a steady advance. Again the British were met by a blast of fire from the second line. Again they faltered, but as before they reformed and pushed on. General Lawson, commanding the Virginians, was wounded and carried from the field. His men began a slow orderly retreat. A British charge quickened their pace. Leading the charge was Lord Cornwallis himself. His horse was killed. He quickly caught another and remounted.

After the dispersal of the second line, the British advanced upon Greene's third and last battle line. For the most part, they were seasoned Continental soldiers, except for the Second Maryland Regiment, which was made up of raw recruits. When these new soldiers, fresh to the noise of battle, saw the British soldiers with bayonets ready, and quick-stepping across the field, they broke into a disorderly retreat as the North Carolinians had done. The veteran First Maryland Regiment, however, stood firm. Their concentrated and well-aimed fire forced the British to take shelter in a ravine. General Greene rode along behind his soldiers, shouting words of encouragement to keep up their spirits.

Reinforcements to bolster the British line were brought up. Once more they charged, and again they were met by a galling fire. As soon as they had delivered this volley, the First Maryland charged with the bayonet. At the same instant, Colonel William Washington was ordered to make a cavalry charge. The sudden volley, the unexpected bayonet charge, the appearance of Washington's saber-swinging dragoons, threw the redcoats into a panic. They reeled back under this onslaught. Lord Cornwallis rode recklessly among his men in an attempt to rally them. They continued to fall back. With this, the British general galloped back to his cannon and ordered them to fire a round of grape shot  p58 into the midst of Washington's men. It was pointed out that British soldiers were in the line of fire between the cannon and the Americans. Nevertheless, Cornwallis repeated his order to fire. The answering roar of the cannon sent grape shot ripping across the field. British soldiers were killed at the same time as the Americans with whom they were fighting. The round of grape shot did halt the British retreat. Cornwallis brought up fresh troops. Greene's men began to fall back.

The redcoats reformed and again resumed their methodical advance. The horses pulling General Greene's artillery were killed, and all four American cannon were captured. The British battle line now stretched out longer than that of the Americans, which meant that Greene's men could be surrounded. And now there were no cannon to break the red battle line. Nathanael Greene, to avoid the encirclement of his army, gave orders for a retreat.

It was around three-thirty in the chill, cloudy afternoon of March 15th when the battle-weary Americans withdrew from Guilford Court House. Early the next morning they trudged into their camp at Speedwell Iron Works on Troublesome Creek, wet, cold, hungry, and tired. There was no time to rest. Expecting another attack from Cornwallis, Greene gave orders to dig in. In the midst of a steady downpour of rain, the soldiers laid down their firearms and began to throw up mud into earthworks.

Back at the battleground, Lord Cornwallis was in no mood to pursue Greene. Darkness came on fast, and rain had begun to fall. The British soldiers had no opportunity to rest, for their tents had been left back at New Garden Meeting House. For the next two days, in an almost continuous downpour of rain, they remained on the battlefield, caring for the wounded and burying the dead. American wounds were dressed as well as those of the British.

Because he had forced General Greene to leave the field, Lord Cornwallis claimed the battle of Guilford Court House as a British victory. On the other hand, he had lost some of his best troops in the engagement. In fact, so many redcoats had felt the bitter sting of American lead, that Cornwallis did not dare seek another battle with Greene. The battle had been the most violent of his military career, and he was supposed to have later said, "I never saw such fighting since God made me. The Americans fought like demons." When his claim of victory reached  p59 England his casualty figures made such a boast seem empty. The British politician, Charles James Fox, exclaimed, "And such victory would destroy the British Army." Crusty old Horace Walpole rumbled, "Lord Cornwallis has conquered his troops out of shoes and provisions, and himself out of troops."

On Sunday, March 18th, the British army marched away from Guilford. Its destination was to the east. Major James Craig had captured Wilmington, and there were supposed to be supplies in that city, or possibly even at Cross Creek. Before he left Guilford, Cornwallis had issued a proclamation, boasting of his victory, and calling upon all loyal persons to join his army. An offer was also made to pardon all rebels if they would only lay down their arms and give their word to fight no more. This was a hollow gesture, for Cornwallis marched away on the very day he issued the proclamation. A number of his more seriously wounded men were left at New Garden Meeting House, to be cared for by the gentle Quakers of that community.

The march was at a leisurely pace. Every grist mill along the way was used to grind for the flour needed to feed the soldiers. From Bell's Mill in Guilford to Dixon's Mill in Chatham County they marched. It was at Ramsey's Mill on the Deep River that Greene finally caught up with the British army.

When Greene first heard of Cornwallis's march towards the coast, he hurriedly decamped from the Ironworks. A number of the American wounded, who were too weak to travel swiftly, were left at Guilford Court House in care of the Quakers of that area. His men marched fast. Lee's Legion was sent out ahead of the army, and soon it was harassing the edges of the marching British column. A number of prisoners were taken.

At Ramsey's Mill (now Lockville), Lee skirmished briefly with a portion of Cornwallis's army, and prevented them from destroying the bridge over the river. This kept the road for pursuit open. Cornwallis quickened his pace. The hare was now chasing the hounds. General Greene, upon his arrival at Ramsey's Mill, decided to call off the pursuit. The enlistment time of many of his soldiers would soon expire and they were anxious to return to their homes. Their departure would weaken the American army too much to risk another battle with the British. For several days they rested, until the order was given to return to South Carolina. Greene hoped to increase the size of his force, attack the British posts in that state and force Cornwallis to return to the southward. There was one other consideration in  p60 Greene's decision. With two armies marching back and forth across North Carolina, the land had been so ravaged that there was not enough food or supplies even for one group. On April 6, Lord Cornwallis had hoped to find the answers to some of his supply problems in Cross Creek. Major Craig was supposed to send supplies from Wilmington up the Cape Fear River to this town. Sharp-shooting Whigs stationed on the high banks along the narrow stretches of the river, however, had made it impossible for British supply boats to navigate the stream. The loyalists of the community still remembered Moore's Creek Bridge and were not too enthusiastic about enlisting or furnishing supplies for the British army. Food was scarce in Cross Creek, and there was an outbreak of smallpox in the community, so Lord Cornwallis on April first, gave orders for the march to Wilmington.

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Cornwallis's Headquarters. After leaving Guilford Court House, he reached Wilmington, April, 1781. There he established his headquarters in one of the finer houses.

It was a tired, dirty, and footsore army that straggled over the sandy roads of the coastal plains. Rain and sun had faded bright red coats to a pale pink. Nearly every soldier walked with a limp, some because of their wounds, others because they had been unable to secure replacements for worn‑out shoes. To make life even more miserable, they were harassed constantly by the militia of Bladen County under Colonel Alexander Lillington. Stragglers who were not able to keep up with the main British column were picked off one by one. In all, Cornwallis lost about thirty-five soldiers to Lillington's men between Cross Creek and Wilmington. Never did a place look so good to these British soldiers as did Wilmington when they limped into town on April 7, 1781.

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