Gary Strader/gStrader Photography

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse: The Beginning of the End

On March 1, 1781
Maj. General Nathanael Greene's army came back across the Dan River into North Carolina. After two weeks of maneuvering, Greene led his army to Guilford Courthouse and prepared for battle. On March 15, 1781, British Lt. General Charles Cornwallis marched to meet Greene for the confrontation that he desired. The battle began with a skirmish of advance guard led by Lt. Colonel Henry Lee. Lee withdrew and the British advanced the final three miles to Guilford Courthouse.

General Greene had divided his force of roughly 4,400 men into three lines. The first two lines were made up of militia from North Carolina (1st line) and Virginia (2nd line), most of whom were untrained and inexperienced. The first line's left flank was supported by Lt. Colonel Lee's Legion and Colonel William Campbell's Riflemen. The right flank was supported by Lt. Colonel William Washington's calvary and Colonel Charles Lynch's Riflemen. Greene's third line was made up of Continental regulars. General Cornwallis led 2,000 veteran British troops.

The British attacked and, although suffering many casualties, were able to break the center of the first line relatively quickly, although the right and left sides of the line held battle a bit longer. The second line inflicted more casualties upon the British, but these militia also withdrew to the rear under the pressure of the battle-hardened British forces. The British now attempted to engage the third and final American line, but their advance was slowed in the center by the rough terrain between the second and third lines. Meanwhile, the right and left portions of the American line engaged the British advance. The left side of the line repelled the British here, while the right side, with the support of a cavalry charge by Lt. Colonel Washington, decimated the British forces that it engaged.

At this point, the British artillery had finally made its way through the rough terrain and were in position to attack the American line. General Greene considered the fact that he had suffered few casualties up to this point, while having inflicted extensive casualties on the British. He decided that one final equally balanced attack by his remaining line would benefit the British more than he. He thus chose to withdraw from the field of battle allowing his adversary to claim victory, but with his own forces still fully capable to engage in immediate action.

The keys to General Greene's success over the actual winner Cornwallis in this Battle were as follows:

 1. General Greene used the untrained NC Militia to first soften up the highly trained soldiers of  Cornwallis's Army. 

It has been said that the NC Militia were cowards and would not hold their ranks. While it is true in that the main line of the Militia did not hold their ground there were good reasons for this.

First The type warfare the Armies of Europe conducted was to form ranks, and the first line would fire, then kneel down to reload, while the second line stepped forward to fire, with the third line right behind. When this second line fired their weapon, they in turn would kneel to reload, while the third, and first line stepped forward.

This would continue until the opposing sides closed to a few yards, at which time the three ranks would discharge their weapons, and go in a running charge with bayonets affixed to their muskets. 

The Militia had no such formal training, and had no bayonets. They usually fought with their own weapons that they brought from home. It would be suicide to engage a well trained, and well armed army to fight in the way they were accustomed to.

The militia were more inclined to ambush the Brits from behind hedgerows, and trees, from the woods. Hit hard, hit fast, and run away, was their style, and General Greene used their style to help to win this battle.

By using the Militia first, the VA militia next, and the Continental Army, who were professional soldiers last, they were assured victory by using the land and surprise.

 2. Because Greene did this, it forced Cornwallis's Army to be surprised by the Regular Army waiting for them , guns blazing as they came to the last clearing before the woods.

Greene's Regulars were well trained and fresh, and had been waiting, as Cornwallis's troops had been  fighting for some time, and had been chasing the militia who were  leading them into the trap.

3.Another factor that figured into the fight was that Cornwallis's Troops had been basically relying on Loyalists to keep them supplied with food, and supplies, as well as by raiding the local farmers farm stores of meat, and grain. It was reported that his troops had not had anything to eat for three days prior to the Battle. Everyone knows a Army marches on it's stomach.

In fact, it was that Cornwallis could not sustain and press the fight for sustained periods because of a lack of supply, that had much to do with his ultimate defeat. He and his army must have just been weary from battle, and from hunger, wanting to go home.

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse only took about 90 minutes to fight; however it was what went on after the Battle that really caught my attention. The days, weeks, months, and even years after; deeply affected the people of this part of North Carolina.

In my next installment, I will go into detail of what went on. Events of which you will not know about, unless you are a student of this history. You do not know the drama that unfolded. 

To me it was what happened after the epic battle that made the biggest impression on me.

I will go into much greater detail, and I will introduce you to actual people who played a part of history. It is these people  are to me the real heroes. For the most part these people are for the most part lost to history.

I will tell you about the place in which they lived, and about my efforts to save something of their past for future generations. I will share with you what went on when I tried to save this legacy. It is my hope that when I am finished that you too will have the same respect for them that I have for them. I also hope that it will inspire you to delve deeply into the history of where you live, so that you too might know the background from which you came, and get direction for where we are going.

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