Battle of Guilford County Courthouse

Written By Jane Shaw Stroup

One battle in North Carolina helped start the war of independence and another helped bring it to an end. The Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge was fought on February 27, 1776, before the Declaration of Independence had even been written. The battle of Guilford County Courthouse took place on March 15, 1781.

Although the Patriots did not win at Guilford Courthouse, the battle so damaged the forces of Charles, Lord Cornwallis that he headed to Virginia to regroup. There, after the Battle of Yorktown seven months later, on Oct. 10, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered his forces to George Washington. That was the last major battle of the revolution.

How It Started

In 1778, in the middle of the war, the British decided to invade the southern colonies. They knew that the South had many Loyalists—although they could not know how many would join their forces or how effective they would be as soldiers. Additionally, the South was more important economically to the British because it grew cotton and rice, which Britain did not produce. (The North produced manufactured goods, as did Britain.) Even if the British lost New England, perhaps they could keep the South, which was more valuable to them.

At first, the British avoided North Carolina. The state had no major ports, and its coastal waters on the Albemarle Sound were protected by Outer Banks islands. The sound’s low waters made it difficult for a large ship to maneuver. So the British sailed to Georgia, where the city of Savannah fell to the British. Soon, Charleston, South Carolina, also fell.

Indeed, the South was ripe for invasion. The Continental army was weak in the South and its leadership prone to error. The Patriots suffered a severe loss in Camden, South Carolina, on August 16, 1780. The army was “cut to pieces,” writes historian William A. Link.[1] The Camden defeat led to the dismissal of Major General Horatio Gates as commander of the Southern Army.

Cornwallis was eager to press into Virginia. As historian Hugh F. Rankin says, “Only a few ragged remnants of Gates’s defeated army lay between the British general and his objective.”[2]  That’s a reference to North Carolina.

Nathanael Greene Takes Over

But the new commander of the Southern Army, Nathanael Greene, sought to prevent Cornwallis from an easy trip through North Carolina. As Nick McGrath writes, “Greene’s army led Cornwallis’s column deep into the interior of North Carolina, which put such a strain on the British supply lines that Cornwallis ordered the destruction of all heavy baggage.“ This caused problems later for the British when provisions and equipment were needed.

Greene didn’t have enough regular soldiers to directly attack Cornwallis, so he used American guerilla tactics such as “hit-and-run” attacks. These required extensive knowledge of the area’s geography and landscape. 

As Cornwallis continued through North Carolina, Greene found a spot for battle at the Guilford County Courthouse (located in present-day Greensboro, in the north-central part of the state). Although Greene had 4,400 men, and Cornwallis only 1,900, the British troops were for the most part trained and experienced “regulars.” The Continental army included many Patriots and militia who had little training or experience.

Greene’s Strategy

Greene did not have to wait long for the British. His tactic was to form three lines of soldiers to meet the British as they advanced toward the courthouse green. The first was composed of North Carolina militia. Behind them were Virginia militia, and behind them mostly “regulars.” As Nick McGrath describes it, the first line broke almost immediately under the British attack. “[F]ew militiamen got off more than two shots, and most simply threw their guns down and ran.”[3] 

The second did better, as did the third-line regulars. But ultimately, the Patriots had to retreat, and the losses were significant on both sides.

The retreat indicated that the British had won (and Cornwallis reported that to his superiors), but the Guilford win is widely known as a “pyrrhic victory.” That is a victory that is not worth the cost because it causes such harm or damage to the victors.

After the battle of the courthouse, the British hopes of a broad southern campaign were over. Cornwallis headed toward Virginia, his only hope of success. However, writes McGrath, “While the British licked their wounds, General Nathanael Greene’s army proceeded to isolate and destroy British and Loyalist garrisons in the state’s interior, confining British control to the coasts.” Seven months later, Cornwallis surrendered.