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.
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.
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