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Battle of Guilford Courthouse: March 15, 1781

On March 15, 1781, British and American troops clashed at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, in one of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution and the largest battle in the southern theater. Though the British would technically emerge the victors, the cost of their victory would prove devastatingly high.

Fold3 Image - Statue of Nathanael Greene
Throughout February 1781, the British army under General Charles Cornwallis had been pursuing General Nathanael Greene’s American force through the Carolinas. Although Greene made it to relative safety in Virginia, he decided to lead his troops back into North Carolina to face the British.

Greene took his stand at Guilford Courthouse, a densely wooded area. He arranged his roughly 4,500 troops (about twice the British number) in three defensive lines, spaced a few hundred yards apart, with no men held in reserve. The North Carolina militia was in the front (flanked on either side by cavalry, light infantry, and riflemen), the Virginia militia was behind them, and the Virginia and Maryland Continentals were in the back, off slightly to the right.

The British arrived on March 15th after marching 12 miles. They attacked the Americans’ forward line, with some of the British getting diverted into fights with the cavalry and other troops on the American right and left flanks. When the Americans’ first line crumbled, the British then pushed forward to fight the second line. The American right of this line gave way, while the left held out a while longer.

When the right of the American second line crumbled, the British pushed forward again to encounter the center of the American third line. However, this part of the line contained the most experienced of the American troops, and they succeeded in repelling the British.

Meanwhile, when the left of the American second line finally gave way, the British attacked the far left of the American third line. This evolved into brutal, close fighting, and Cornwallis made the decision to fire his 3-pound guns into the melee. This resulted in casualties on both sides but did make the Americans fighting there pull back.

When Greene saw that the British had reformed their lines and were preparing to attack again, he made the decision to retreat. Cornwallis sent some of his troops to pursue the Americans, but his men were too exhausted to be effective.

With the American retreat, the British were left in command of the field, but their victory was costly. The British had suffered a much higher casualty rate than the Americans, at 27 percent to the Americans’ 6 percent. Cornwallis’ army had been significantly damaged, and this would contribute to his surrender at Yorktown later that year.

Do you have ancestors who fought in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse? Tell us about them. Or learn more about the battle on Fold3.

101 Comments

  1. This is a reply to George Potts mention of John Fleece who was severely wounded during a reconnoiter two days before the Battle of Guilford Court House by Tarlton. He was then captured by the British who had him taken to Guilford Court House.

    John Fleece is my 4 times great-grandfather. I wonder how you fit into my family tree.

  2. I believe Thomas Glaze served in the North Carolina military during the Revolutionary War. I don’t know very much about him, but I hope someone can fill me in on his history.

  3. My ancestor, Wooldrich (Frederick) Fritz, fought in this battle as a private. On November 2, 1781, Valentine Leonard and Wooldrich were both attacked and shot at their homes by a band of Tories, Woodrich dying immediately. There is a monument to the 2 heroes at the Pilgrim Reformed Church Cemetery, Lexington, Davidson County, North Carolina, USA.
    My grandmother, Ruby Jewel Fritts Ransom, is the 6th generation after Woolrich and is buried in Bethlehem Cemetery in Denmark, Jackson County, Arkansas.

  4. Would love to see the map and list. Are they posted some where?

  5. thanks for the link. It worked and I saved it to my tree

  6. I tried locating your tree thru the library ancestry but need the name of your tree if its in the public group.

    • Not sure where you are looking. Look under Ancestry.com for Ayers family tree.

    • My family tree is John Y.Sessums and my father was Thomas Little Sessums and his mother was Elizabeth Little of Little Rock ,AR. My great grandfather was Dr. John L.H. Sessums (changed from Sessoms) after the Civil War. Grand father was John Walker Sessums. His grandfather was George Wynn Sessoms III.from Hertford North Carolina.

    • My family tree is Sessums (oms). from Nicholas Sessums of Jamestown 1066.

  7. John Sessums –

    I am also descended from Nicholas Sessums – he is my 7th great-grandfather. Would you please email me so we can chat – this is a new family for me and I have LOTS of ?’s.
    Many thanks
    Diane Stark McConnell Sanfilippo

    • He is my 7th Great Grandfather also. We go through Thomas his son who died ca. 1711 in Chowan N.C. Thomas’s son Culmer married Mary Wynn daughter of George Wynn of Chowan County N.C. His son was George Wynn Sessoms who married Katherine Roscoe. His son George Wynn Sessoms II born 1774 liied in Hertford County but moved to Maury County, Tennessee when his wife died ca. 1824. Their son was George Wynn III who married Emily Brown. She died when son (my great grandfather) Dr. John L.H. Sessoms was 4. My father Thomas Little Sessums was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1904 and his father was John Walker Sessums Sr. Let me know your line to Nicholas. I am very interested. Thanks

    • John Sessums –

      My line is through Mary, daughter of Nicolas and Elizabeth ?Hooker, daughter of William B. Hooker and Martha Ann Cook.
      Mary was born ? Lawnes Creek, Surry, Virginia, British America and married William Blake b. 1677 Isle of Wight County. She died 1742 and he died 1746. Mary married William Blake.
      I am tracing my families back to the original immigrant and cannot find any data on Nicholas but may have more on Ancestry. Soon I will download my Ancestry GED, clean it up to only blood kin and put it back on to remain.

  8. If you love knowing about the Revolutionary war, “The Road to Guilford Courthouse” is one of the most enlightening reads. It is almost like a novel in its descriptions and stories.

    I finally “got” how the rag-tag American soldiers were able to overcome the Brits. Thank heavens for the South’s bogs, swamps, pestilence and deluges and those who persisted in drawing the King’s army into them.