The Battle of Guilford Courthouse (1781)

During Major General Nathaniel Greene’s campaign in the southern colonies against British forces under Lord Charles Cornwallis in 1781, Greene hoped to draw Cornwallis away from his supply lines and force him into battle without risking defeat of his own army while at the same time checking the British advance through the Carolinas and into Virginia. Greene occupied a position on gently rising ground and deployed his men into three defensive lines. The first line was situated along a wood line with an open field behind it, bisected by a road, and defended by North Carolina militia supported by two 6 pound cannon. His second line consisted of Virginia militia, also supported by two 6 pound guns. Greene situated his third line, four hundred yards behind the second, on a gentle ridge west of the road.

Cornwallis’s British force arrived and deployed in formations facing the first defensive line. As the British advanced, the two sides traded volleys of musketry before the North Carolinians fled their position. Unlike the militia actions in the Battle of Cowpens, however, the militiamen failed to rally with Greene’s second line. The British continued toward Greene’s second line, largely flanking it but the woods accomplished Greene’s primary goal of breaking up the Redcoat formations. After stiff resistance by the Virginia militia defending this second line, Cornwallis’s force emerged from the woods only to confront Greene’s third line, held by the Continentals. The British successfully moved against the 3rd line and broke through the positions of the 5th Maryland Regiment. The 1st Maryland, however, kept the British from exploiting the advantage by wheeling to their left where they fired into the flank of the oncoming British force. Additionally, Lieutenant Colonel William Washington’s cavalry maneuvered from their position on Greene’s second line, around the third line, and struck the attacking British from the rear. To stop this Continental counterattack, Cornwallis ordered his artillery to fire into the melee, check-ing their advance but also killing several of his own men. This action, however, also allowed Greene to break contact and remove his army from the field.

Greene’s conduct of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse highlights several aspects of Unified Land Operations. First, Greene visualized and shaped the battlefield, ensuring that his army held the advantage and putting the British at a position of relative disadvantage. His position and its arrangement also constituted a defense in depth. Moreover, like General Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens, Greene successfully integrated the regular and militia components of his army, taking advantage of both their strengths and weaknesses. In a combined arms sense, William Washington’s cavalry assault on the British rear, along with the simultaneous counterattack of the 1st Maryland toward the British advance demonstrates the use of maneuver and combined arms to successfully check enemy progress.

Display Week: 
Monday, March 9, 2020 to Sunday, March 15, 2020