The morning of March 15, 1781, was clear and cold. A light frost had disappeared under the first rays of the sun, but the ground underfoot was still spongy from winter rains and snows. In the damp woods west of Guilford Courthouse, hub of an isolated little farming community on the main road through North Carolina, some 4,400 American troops, in all kinds of uniforms and country clothes, waited for battle.
It was a long, suspenseful morning. About 1:30 the enemy--some of the best regiments of His Majesty George Ill--in campaign-worn, faded columns of crimson, blue, and green, marched into sight where the road from Salisbury emerged from woods into a clearing. When the Americans opened fire on them from two cannons astride the road, an engagement opened that lasted more than two hours--and greatly hastened the end of the war. The generals who brought it to pass were well-matched. Both were energetic, talented, and experienced. But the one who chose the ground lost the day-- and the one who kept the field lost the war.
The ground had been chosen by Greene, commanding general of the Continental Army's Southern Department. He was an iron-master by trade, self-taught in the art of war. His opponent, Charles, Earl Cornwallis, now coolly deploying his troops, was a scion of English nobility, a professional soldier and every inch an aristocrat.
A basic shift in England's strategy for suppressing the American rebellion had brought both men from commands in the northern colonies to this field. By 1778 it was apparent to the British high command that the war was stalemated. The rebellion was continuing and even growing and the rebels had made an alliance with France. In a complete turnabout of military policy, the Crown ordered the Army to break oft the war in the North and throw its full force into a campaign to retake the South. Such a campaign had been tried in 1776 and it failed, but by late 1780 both Georgia and South Carolina were in British hands, and Cornwallis was ready to drive northward through the Carolinas into Virginia. He was set back in October when backwoods militia wiped out his left wing at Kings Mountain. He fell back temporarily to a base at Winnsboro, but by the time Greene arrived in Charlotte, N. C., in December to take over what was left of the American forces in the South, Cornwallis was poised to resume his thrust northward.
Greene was too weak to come to grips with Cornwallis. Hoping to lead his adversary to scatter his superior strength, thus securing for himself an undisturbed encampment and time to find recruits and subsistence, Greene split his small army. He moved its main body southeast to Cheraw, S.C., on Cornwallis' right flank and sent Gen. Daniel Morgan with 600 men westward to threaten his enemy's left. Greene's risky stratagem succeeded. Cornwallis divided his force into three parts. One he positioned at Camden to watch Greene. Another, under Banastre Tarleton, he sent to attack Morgan. He himself resumed his original course toward North Carolina. It was January 24, 1781, when Greene learned that on the 17th Morgan had chopped up Tarleton's troops at the Cowpens in western South Carolina. Recognizing that Cornwallis would try not only to destroy Morgan but also place himself between Greene and Virginia, whence he knew Greene expected fresh troops, Greene ordered all his force to junction at Guilford Courthouse for a general withdrawal into Virginia.
Through rain and snow, Greene led his foe a bewildering chase. Cornwallis burned most of his baggage to speed his pursuit, but at the end of three torturous weeks, he found Greene safely beyond the swollen Dan River in possession of all his boats and he himself worn down, hungry, and ill-equipped, 230 miles from his base at Winnsboro. Disconsolately he turned back to Hillsborough, N.C., hoping to raise reinforcements among the Loyalists of the region. A few days later, reinforced by Virginia militia, Greene recrossed the Dan. For three more weeks, the armies sparred, seldom more than 20 miles apart, their detachments skirmishing regularly. Cornwallis hungered for a general action, but Greene, anticipating additional forces, bided his time. By March 14, with the arrival of new troops, he was ready to attack.
Greene spent an uneasy night worrying that rain might fall and render his muskets useless or that Cornwallis (camped on Deep River twelve miles away) might attack in the night and demoralize his militia and green regulars. But when the morning of the 15th dawned quiet and clear, Greene, learning of the British approach, laid down his lines of battle.
The courthouse at Guilford stood alone in a clearing by the "Great Road." From it the road sloped westward through woodlands of oak and pine to Little Horsepen Creek, a mile away. Beyond the creek it disappeared in dense timber. On the near side of the creek, on both sides of the road, lay cornfields a quarter-mile deep, their upper boundaries marked by a zigzag rail fence. Cornwallis would have to come east on the road to the creek and up through the fields. Behind the fence, backed against the woods, Greene placed the center of a half-mile wide line of North Carolina militia with skilled rifle companies, Delaware regulars, and horse on its wings. In the road he placed two 6-pounders. To the rear of this line, on a slight knoll within the woods, he formed a second line of Virginia militia. About 500 yards behind this line, on an open hill in front of the courthouse, he placed his crack troops, Continentals from Virginia and Maryland, in a large V, with his two remaining fieldpieces in the center.
The sun had begun to slant westward when the British advanced from the woods and approached the creek. The fieldpieces in Greene's front line opened fire. For 30 minutes the British answered with 3-pounders. Then, according to plan, Greene's artillerists galloped their guns to the rear. By then the enemy ranks were moving torward. Drums snapping, bagpipes skirling, bayonets glinting, they came at a measured pace across the cornfields toward the rail fence on which a thousand American guns rested. When they were 150 yards from the fence, the militia opened its first crashing round of fire. The British line, with great holes torn in it, staggered but re-formed and continued uphill, stepping over its dead. At musket range, the redcoats delivered a volley, gave a huzza and rushed at the North Carolinians with leveled bayonets. The Carolinians had been told they might fall back after delivering two rounds and leave the engagement to the second and third lines. Some of the militia got off another round, but many broke and fled, flinging away their weapons. The American flanks held longer, and as Cornwallis threw regiments against them, separate combats drifted far into the woods.
With the American flanks driven aside, the reformed British ranks strode into the woods to engage Greene's second line. In the heavy underbrush, their files were broken, their bayonets of little use in the tangled surroundings. Fighting savagely, the redcoats drove through to Greene's last line. There, in cleared fields, the action swayed back and forth, and there, for the first time that afternoon, Greenes cavalry came slashing into the fight. Until now Cornwallis had had the best of it, but suddenly he saw he was checked and in danger of defeat. From the road he directed his artillery to fire grapeshot into the melee on friend and foe alike. Firing into his own troops was a harsh decision but necessary to save his army. His cannon fire did its work: the American cavalry charge was checked, the infantry driven back. Then more British units poured from the woods and there was fighting close in. Greene had lost his fieldpieces to the enemy when he got word British infantrymen were working around to his rear. By now he could see that the tide was turning against him. He ordered his regiments to disengage. They withdrew "leisurely" from the smoky field, covered by a skillful rearguard.
As the afternoon turned sharply cold and a storm moved in, Greene marched toward an old camp 15 miles away. Chilled to the bone, hungry and exhausted, Greene reviewed the events of the day with conflicting emotions. He was disgusted by the panic of the Carolinians but proud of the way his army as a whole had stood against the disciplined British veterans. He was pleased that his regulars had not run and that Cornwallis had not dared a close pursuit. But as contests at arms are measured, no matter how savagely his army had fought, he knew he had suffered a defeat.In camp he discovered that he had been more successful than he had dared hope. His losses were relatively light, while those of Cornwallis were overwhelming. This view was confirmed when, a few days later, Cornwallis began a painful retreat toward Wilmington on the North Carolina coast.
Greene for a short time shadowed him, before making the crucial decision to move southward and reconquer South Carolina and Georgia. Cornwallis did not follow him. Instead, still obsessed that a conquest of Virginia would assure the fall of all the States to the south, he convinced himself that his garrisons strung across South Carolina could handle the Quaker general. In April he obstinately set out again for Virginia. He hoped that Greene would be drawn after him. Aware that American troops were assembling in Virginia, Greene left it to them to confront Cornwallis.
These two decisions--Greene's for South Carolina and Cornwallis's for Virginia--set the stage for the final collapse of British power in the South. For as Greene, using hard-hitting local partisans, brilliantly regained South Carolina in the ensuing months, Cornwallis, committed to an unsound operation, fought through a hapless summer that ended with his surrender at Yorktown, October 19,1781-- seven months after his "victory" at Guilford. Although the war technically dragged on until 1783, its outcome was settled when Nathanael Greene's great adversary in the Carolinas surrendered in Virginia.
|Nathaniel Greene, a Rhode Island Quaker, proved himself an able, aggressive, and cunning soldier. He was robust and commanding in appearance, though he walked with a tiring limp, struggled against asthma, and suffered from a recurrent eye infection got from a smallpox innoculation when a youth. He was 38 in the fall of 1780 when George Washington handpicked him for command in the South.||Cornwallis, short, heavyset, and also afflicted with a bad eye, was 42 this spring. Though sympathetic with American political thought, he loyally volunteered for service in America in 1775 and fought with distinction in the North. Adept at politics, he was able by 1781 to ignore his commander in chiefs wishes and propose to London war plans of his own. His soldiers, however, saw him as brave, just, and compassionate.|
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