The Battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina, on March 15, 1781, proved pivotal to the American victory in the American Revolutionary War (1775-83). Although British troops under Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805) scored a tactical victory at Guilford Courthouse over American forces under Major General Nathanael Greene (1742-86), the British suffered significant troop losses during the battle. Afterward, Cornwallis abandoned his campaign for the Carolinas and instead took his army into Virginia, where in October of that year he surrendered to General George Washington (1732-99) following the Battle of Yorktown, the last major land battle of the war.

Battle of Guilford Courthouse: Background

For the first three years of the American Revolutionary War, which began in April 1775, most of the major battles took place in the Northern colonies. After the French entered the war on the side of the Americans in 1778, the British shifted their focus to a campaign in the South, where they hoped to enlist the support of American colonists still loyal to Great Britain and the British monarchy (after conquering the Southern colonies, the British believed they then could more readily capture those in the North). The campaign initially was successful, as the British seized the key ports of Savannah, Georgia, in December 1778, and Charleston, South Carolina, in May 1780, and in the process devastated the American military in the South.

Did you know? Following the Battle of Yorktown, Charles Cornwallis, the British commander, refused to attend the official surrender ceremony, claiming to be sick. In his place, he sent Brigadier General Charles O’Hara.

The tide began to turn for the Americans in the fall of 1780, when in October a Patriot militia defeated a Loyalist militia at the Battle of Kings Mountain, near present-day Blacksburg, South Carolina. Additionally, in late 1780 General George Washington appointed Major General Nathanael Greene to head the Continental army in the South. The new commander decided to divide his troops in the Carolinas in order to force the larger British contingent under Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis to fight them on multiple fronts (Greene also wanted to buy time to rebuild his army). This strategy paid off on January 17, 1781, when Brigadier General Daniel Morgan (1736-1802) and his troops decisively defeated a British force commanded by Colonel Banastre Tarleton (1754-1833) at Cowpens, South Carolina.

Following the Battle of Cowpens, Cornwallis pursued the Continentals across North Carolina before halting his tired British troops at the Dan River. The Continentals escaped into Virginia, where Greene continued to build up his forces in preparation to face off against Cornwallis’ troops. By March 14, Greene’s soldiers had returned to North Carolina and were camped around Guilford Courthouse, near the present-day city of Greensboro (named for General Greene).

Battle of Guilford Courthouse: March 15, 1781

At the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781, some 1,900 British soldiers under Cornwallis went on the offensive against Greene’s 4,400 to 4,500 Continental troops and militia. The battle raged for around two hours before Greene ordered his troops to retreat, giving the British a tactical victory but enabling Greene’s army to remain mostly intact. More than 25 percent of Cornwallis’s men were killed, wounded or captured during the battle. One British statesman, Charles James Fox (1749-1806), said of this result: “Another such victory would ruin the British army.”

Battle of Guilford Courthouse: Aftermath

Cornwallis did not pursue Greene’s army. Instead, the British commander abandoned his campaign for the Carolinas and eventually led his troops into Virginia. There, on October 19, 1781, following a three-week siege by American and French forces at Yorktown, Cornwallis was forced to surrender to General Washington and French commander Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau (1725-1807). The Battle of Yorktown was the last major land battle of the Revolutionary War, which officially ended with the 1783 Treaty of Paris, in which Great Britain formally recognized the independence of the United States.

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