On the bright, late winter day of March 15, 1781, the Revolutionary War came to a remote county seat in north central North Carolina. Guilford Courthouse, with its population of considerably fewer than 100, was on this day the temporary residence of 4,400 American soldiers and their leader, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene. The British had overrun Georgia and South Carolina and showed every indication of ripping the stars and stripes of North Carolina and Virginia from the new American flag. From the ragged remnants of a defeated southern army, Greene had raised a new force comprising 1,700 Continentals (three-year enlistees in the regular army) and about 2,700 militia (mostly farmers who were nonprofessional temporary soldiers called up for short periods of service during an emergency). Early on the morning of March 15, General Greene deployed his men in three lines of battle across the Great Salisbury Wagon Road that led off to the southwest toward the camp of the British army commanded by Lord Charles Cornwallis. Although grossly outnumbered, Cornwallis nonetheless was certain that his redcoats, victors on scores of battlefields, could overcome the rebels.
The battle began about noon and progressed unevenly. The first line of the North Carolina militia, its center deployed behind a rail fence facing cleared farm fields and its flanks extending into the forest, collapsed rapidly after the center of the line gave way. Before they retreated, however, the militia inflicted heavy casualties on the redcoats. One British officer later recalled that when his men of the 71st Highland Regiment were hit by a volley (a simultaneous discharge of firearms, in this case 1,500 muskets), “one half of the Highlanders dropped on that spot.”
The second line proved to be an even greater obstacle for the British. Located in heavy forest and with non-commissioned officers ordered to shoot any men who ran away, the Virginia militia grappled with their attackers for about an hour in an action a British writer later described as “a number of irregular, but hard fought and bloody skirmishes.”² After enduring more heavy losses, the redcoats finally were able to break through.
The heaviest fighting took place on the third line where General Greene had stationed his Continentals. Even here the intensity of the fighting varied; some new Continentals retreated after offering only token resistance, while other, more experienced soldiers fought furiously. In the final stages of the fighting Lord Cornwallis found portions of his army under simultaneous attack from two directions, as if caught between hammer and anvil. He extricated his men by firing two cannon directly into the mass of struggling soldiers, as if to blast them apart. A number of his own soldiers were killed in the process (another British officer, Brig. Gen. Charles O’Hara, begged him not to do it), but when the smoke cleared the battle was over. General Greene had ordered his army to retreat, leaving the British in possession of the battlefield.
Such was the strange and untoward nature of this war, that victory now, as we have already seen in more than one other instance, was productive of all the consequences of defeat. The news of this victory in England, for a while, produced the usual effects upon the minds of the people in general. A very little time and reflection gave rise to other thoughts; and a series of victories caused for the first time, the beginning of a general despair. The fact was, that while the British army astonished both the old and new world, by the greatness of its exertions and the rapidity of its marches, it had never advanced any nearer even to the conquest of North Carolina. And such was the hard fate of the victors, who had gained so much glory at Guilford, as in the first place, to abandon a part of their wounded; and, in the second, to make a circuitous retreat of 200 miles, before they could find shelter or rest.