Sunday, September 17, 2023

ARP281 Ratifying the Articles of Confederation

It’s been a while since we’ve discussed the Continental Congress specifically.  Many of the more memorable delegates had moved on to other duties.  Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were in France.  Thomas Jefferson was serving as Governor of Virginia.  Former President Henry Laurens had left for a diplomatic assignment in the Netherlands, but had been captured by the British.  His successor, John Jay left to become the delegate to Spain.  John Hancock had become the Governor of Massachusetts.

Articles of Confederation (from Const. Amer.)

Samuel Huntington had become the President of Congress in 1779, after Jay left for Spain.  Huntington was a lawyer from Connecticut.  He had served in the colonial legislatures and the Governor’s council before the war and had arrived in Congress in 1776, in time to sign the Declaration of Independence.

As President, Huntington spent his time corresponding with General Washington, who was constantly asking for more men and supplies.  He also corresponded with all of the state governors, asking them to supply more men and supplies, and usually being turned down.

Executive Departments

Congress had always struggled with running a government.  The government lacked any sort of civilian bureaucracy or an executive branch to execute the laws that it passed.  Delegates found it impossible to run the government while also trying to legislate.  

On January 10, 1781, Congress voted to create a department of Foreign Affairs.  A month later on February 7, it voted to create Departments of Finance, War, and Marine.  Congress would appoint secretaries to run each department, and would provide each secretary with a staff. The actual appointments would not take place until many months later.  In fact, Congress never got around to making an appointment from someone to run the Marine Committee, which was supposed to be in charge of the Navy.  But then, they didn’t have much of a navy anyway.

Robert Morris

Congress would appoint Robert Livingston as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Robert Morris as Secretary of Finance, and General Benjamin Lincoln as Secretary of War.  Livingston had left Congress in 1780 to serve as the chancellor of New York, a job he kept while still serving as Secretary of Foreign Affairs.  Morris had left Congress in 1778. He had been serving in the Pennsylvania Assembly as head of the Republican faction.  

General Benjamin Lincoln had been captured at the Siege of Charleston in the spring of 1780.  He had been paroled and returned to Philadelphia, but could not serve again until exchanged.  In November, 1780, he was exchanged for Major General William Phillips, who had been captured at Saratoga three years earlier.  So by 1781, he was able to serve as secretary.  Lincoln, however, was also still an active-duty officer who sometimes left on military campaigns.

None of these new departments were the first attempts to run the country.  The Foreign Affairs Department drew from the Secret Committee, which had been established to correspond with foreign powers and with commissioners serving abroad.  The committee changed its name to the Committee for Foreign Affairs in 1777.  It also turned over most of its powers to the new Executive Department in 1781.

The Board of War under Horatio Gates had been an effort to organize some better civilian control over the Army.  But with Gates’ reputation in disrepute after Camden, Congress finally decided to shut down the Board of War in February, 1781.

Finances had always been a mess in Congress. Morris had taken primary responsibility for financial affairs, but after Congress questioned where he was mixing his work too much with his private business, Morris departed from Congress in 1778 and left the job to others.  Congress reorganized its financial committees three times over the next three years, before finally creating the Department of Finance, and calling back Morris to run it.

For all of the new departments, there were no fixed terms.  Although Congress had the power to remove a secretary, the delegates never did. Each of the secretaries served until they resigned.

Articles of Confederation

One of the big accomplishments in 1781 was the final ratification of the Articles of Confederation.  Congress had sent the Articles to the states for approval back in 1777.  Within a few months, a majority of states had ratified them.  But the Articles could not take effect until all thirteen states had ratified them.

Keep in mind that the Continental Congress really had no governing document until the Articles were ratified.  The delegates only really had any authority to do anything because the states allowed it. Congress could not force the states to do anything.  Any rules that Congress had in place to run itself were established by the delegates themselves and could be changed at any time.  They were literally making it up as they went along.

By the end of 1778, all of the states but two had ratified the articles.  Delaware waited until February of 1779 to ratify.  

That left Maryland as the final hold-out.  Officials in Maryland did not have any specific objection to the articles themselves.  They wanted a decision on western land claims before they would approve the Articles.

Virginia Land Claims

Maryland did not have any western claims of its own.  Its concern was primarily its neighbor, Virginia.  At the time, Virginia claimed what is today West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota and even Canada.  There were other states that held conflicting claims to some of this land, but Virginia’s claims, if recognized, would probably have given it a larger land mass than all the other states combined.

Maryland felt threatened by this massive empire to its south and west.  It wanted Congress to take control of most of these western lands and ensure that they would be broken up into other states.  Congress could use these lands to raise funds, and make good on the land grant promises to veterans.  It would also prevent the states from going to war with one another to enforce their land claims.

Virginia, understandably, resisted giving up all of its claims to western lands.  Congress passed several resolutions calling on all states to give up their claims to western lands and turn them over to Congress. Finally, in January, 1781, Virginia agreed to cede most of its western land to Congress.  Among its conditions for doing so is that the lands be held by Congress, not claimed by any other existing state, and that the land eventually be developed into new independent states that would join the union.  Virginia shrunk its borders to what is today Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. 

With that issue finally resolved, Maryland became the thirteenth state to ratify the Articles in February, 1781, finally allowing them to take effect after three and a half years.

Congress celebrated the adoption of the Articles on March 1.  Even as they celebrated, many delegates were already commenting that the Articles were inadequate to running an effective government.  

Much of the articles were also rather vague. For example, it did not specify what constituted a quorum.  Initially, the delegates set this at nine states, but later dropped it to seven for ordinary business.

There was also a question about terms of service. The Articles imposed term limits.  A president could only serve for one year.  Delegates could only serve for three of every six years. But it was unclear if that was retroactive.  President Huntington had already been in office for more than a year, and many delegates had been in Congress for over three years.  Congress decided that the clock on term limits only started on March 1, and would not apply retroactively to prior service.

Articles, printed (from Northwestern)

The Articles also required that each state have two delegates. Some states only had one delegate present, meaning they could not vote until their states sent a second delegate.

Debate on these issues often got heated. In March, French Minister Luzern reported to officials Minister Vergennes back in France that two delegates attacked each other on the floor of the state house with canes.  Samuel Adams became a leading opponent of giving any new powers to Congress.

Other members, however, continued to argue for new powers.  A new freshmen delegate from Virginia, James Madison, first came to Congress in 1780 at the age of 29.  He began fighting for increased powers for Congress, including the ability to coerce states into doing things involuntarily, and the ability of Congress to collect tariffs without the states in order to help fund the war effort.

Bank of North America

Finances, of course, were the largest problem.  In January, Congress received word that large segments of the Continental Army were in mutiny, in part over Congress’ failure to keep its promises of pay to the soldiers.  Inflation had reached crazy proportions.  Some reports of it taking 500 Continental dollars to exchange for one dollar of hard money.

Bank of North America
Congress began to back away from its requirement that everyone accept Continental dollars for payments of debts.  Debtors would be able to pay off hundreds of dollars in debts by purchasing Continental dollars for pennies, then using those to pay off their debts.

Given the financial crisis, Congress prioritized getting Robert Morris into his new position as Secretary of Finance, finalizing his appointment in March.  By May, Morris took office and within days presented his plan for a national bank.

It’s important to remember that there were no banks in America up until this time.  All financial transactions were performed by private merchants.  

Even Morris’ proposed Bank of North America would not be for private depositors. Britain had the Bank of England, which had become critical to the government’s ability to borrow and maintain credit.  America needed something similar.

It would take nearly a year to get the bank off the ground and running. At least plans were beginning to form that would put some institutional controls over the nation’s finances.  Even the bank’s organization did not take the place of actually having money.  Congress was still pinning all its  hopes on loans or grants from Europe.  At some point, Congress was going to have to pay back that debt. Creating a bank showed potential creditors that Congress was building some infrastructure to handle that problem.

Congress would charter the bank in 1781 based on Morris’ proposal.  That bank would not open until 1782.  Of course, a bank at this time needed to have specie, gold or silver, in order to get people to trust its bank notes.  To fund the bank, Morris redirected a silver shipment from France to Congress.  Morris then used that sliver to issue loans to Congress to back additional currency. Private investors were also offered shares in the bank, provided they could buy them with gold or silver.  

The basic idea of the bank is that it would offer a stable form of currency.  Unlike Congress, which just printed more money whenever it needed it, the bank would use standards of the day to issue a limited amount of bank notes based on the amount of gold and silver that it had in reserve.  As long as the public retained confidence in the bank’s practices, the currency should retain its value.

The proposal was controversial from the beginning.  James Madison led the opposition to the bank in Congress, arguing that Congress did not have authority under the Articles of Confederation to create such a bank.  In the end, Congress approved the bank with only seven states voting in favor of it. Several, including Morris’ home state of Pennsylvania, were divided and could not cast a vote either way.

Through the remainder of the war Morris and the bank would do their best to stabilize the currency and finance the war.  But the overwhelming debt and lack of any income from taxes, made this job more damage control than effective policy-making.

Silas Deane Defeatist Letters

Congress’ lack of money and inability to implement a stable financial system was nothing new. Conditions had only worsened steadily since the war began.  Congress’ inability to repay debts had some pretty drastic consequences.  The last few months of 1780 had seen the defection of General Arnold, based primarily on Congress’ refusal to pay him for the campaigns he had funded out of his own pocket.  The new year opened with a large portion of the Continental Army mutinying because Congress could not live up to its agreements to provide pay bounties to soldiers, or even to provide basic food, clothing and shelter.

The entire government seemed to be on the verge of collapse.  Congress could not agree on any effective solution to prevent it, other than continue to deny the reality of things and hope for the best.

One man who seemed to have lost hope was Silas Deane.  As an original delegate from Connecticut, Deane had been a committed patriot and knew well how Congress operated.  Congress had sent him to France very early in the war, long before Franklin and Adams made the trip.  Deane had managed to pull off some amazing loans and assistance in France, thanks to officials who were amenable to supporting the effort.

In doing so, Deane had spent a great deal of his own money to support himself and what amounted to the American diplomatic mission in Europe.  However, thanks to lies from Arthur Lee, Congress turned against Deane.  It ended up refusing to repay Deane for his debts and even recalled him to America to answer questions about whether he had profited from his financial transactions in France.

When Deane returned to America in 1778 to settle the matter with Congress, he found that Congress was unwilling to do anything but stretch out the hearings and bury Deane in unsupported innuendo.  Deane’s understandable frustration only got him into more trouble for bad-mouthing Congress.  

Silas Deane

Eventually, Deane got approval to return to Europe, at his own expense, in order to get more accurate records of his financial transactions. But since these transactions were with the French government, and French leaders did not want to release the records, they kept Deane on ice as well, unwilling to give him the information that he needed.  Congress had promised to send an auditor to France to look into his finances, but never got around to sending anyone.

On the verge of bankruptcy, heavily in debt, and no longer even having the promise of pay from Congress, Deane was forced to leave Paris, and take up residence in Ghent, where living was cheaper.

During this time, Deane continued his correspondence with friendly members of Congress, French officials, as well as friends and family in America.  Understandably, many of these letters were critical of Congress and its treatment of him.  He was also critical of France, which by this time seemed unwilling to help him and had ended much of its financial aid to the Continentals since it was fighting its own war by this time.

In May, Deane wrote to his friend and former Pennsylvania Delegate to Congress, James Wilson.  Deane vented his frustration, and was particularly critical of France, who he believed would throw American independence under the bus if it suited its interests.  He wrote to others, including General Samuel Parsons, that Britain seemed more powerful and united than ever, and that the British Navy was dominating France and Spain.

Over the course of the summer, Deane wrote a stream of candid and pessimistic letters to those back home.  To delegate William Duer, Deane wrote:

I know and confess the difficult situation of Congress ; and I know also (what I am sure that they will not confess) that they have brought themselves into it by their cabals, their ignorance, and their mismanagement.

He goes on to suggest that perhaps Congress should give up on the idea of independence:

let them weigh fairly the probable chances for their succeeding to establish independent sovereignty, and if they find the probability against it, let them honestly confess it, and put an end to the calamities of our country by a peace on honourable terms.

Deane wrote numerous letters the themes of which were that Congress was incompetent and corrupt. It had bankrupted the economy and put the country on the verge of anarchy.  Britain was winning the war militarily, and would continue to drive America into the ground.  France was going to ditch America as soon as it decided it was in its own best interests.  France had always been, and remained, a monarchy that does not respect the liberties of its people.  Britain might have its faults, but at least it had a history of respecting certain individual rights, unlike the rest of Europe.  Perhaps it was time to consider peace negotiations with Britain that would give up on independence if America could get certain other assurances.

It’s certainly understandable why Deane felt as he did. Congress had screwed him over multiple times.  He saw the incompetence, willful injustice, and factionalization of Congress first-hand.  He was not only being shut out of most courts of Europe, but saw that other active American diplomats were as well. He was reading British newspapers that reported on the capture of Charleston, the British victory at Camden, and announcements that a British victory was close at hand.

Sadly for Deane these letters fell into British hands and were soon published in newspapers.  Dean’s view that the American cause was lost and that it should give up on the dream of independence became public at the worst time, shortly after the victory at Yorktown in the fall of 1781.

The result was that Deane was seen as a defeatist and someone who was spouting the Tory line.  Some even accused him of becoming a British spy.  While there is no evidence that Deane had changed sides, or even had communications with British officials, his own words showed that he had given up on the cause of a free and independent America.  The result was that Deane’s reputation plummeted even further, and would never recover.

Congress, despite its reputation among a growing number of critics, continued to do whatever it could to further the war effort.  

Next week: The war continues in Virginia as General Lafayette leads an army against Benedict Arnold.

- - -

Next Episode 282 Lafayette in Virginia 

Previous Episode 280 Guilford Courthouse

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Further Reading


Articles of Confederation:

Ratification of the Articles of Confederation:

Young, Rowland L. “The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.” American Bar Association Journal, vol. 63, no. 11, 1977, pp. 1572–75. JSTOR,

Bank of North America:

James, F. Cyril. “The Bank of North America and the Financial History of Philadelphia.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 64, no. 1, 1940, pp. 56–87. JSTOR,

Rappaport, George David. “The First Description of the Bank of North America.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 4, 1976, pp. 661–67. JSTOR,

Nuxoll, Elizabeth M. “The Bank of North America and Robert Morris’s Management of the Nation’s First Fiscal Crisis.” Business and Economic History, vol. 13, 1984, pp. 159–70. JSTOR,

Silas Deane’s intercepted letters:;idno=N13851.0001.001

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Journals of the Continental Congress, Vol. 19, Jan. 1 - April 23, 1781. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1912. 

Clark, George L. Silas Deane, New York: G. P. Putnam's sons, 1913. 

Deane, Silas The Deane Papers, Vol. 4 (1779-1781) New York Historical Society, 1887. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Burnett, Edmund Cody, The Continental Congress, Macmillan Co. 1941 

Feinberg, Barbara Silberdick The Articles of Confederation, Twenty-First Century Books, 2002. 

(borrow on

Jensen, Merrill The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774-1781, Univ. of Wisconsin, 1948. 

Montross, Lynn The Reluctant Rebels, Harper & Brothers, 1950 (borrow on

Rappleye, Charles Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution, Simon & Schuster, 2010. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

ARP280 Guilford Courthouse

Last time we followed British General Charles Cornwallis as his army chased the Americans under General Nathanael Greene across North Carolina.  Greene stayed ahead of the British and managed to get his army across the Dan River and into Virginia before the British gave up the chase on February 14, 1781.

The British moved to Hillsborough.  Although Cornwallis did not get the battle that he wanted, he did manage to push the Americans out of North Carolina.  That was something he had been trying to do for nearly a year.

Guilford Courthouse Flag
Greene considered it a success that he managed to keep his Continental army intact.  He had made every effort to avoid a decisive battle since he did not think he could win.  But he also knew that he could not sit in Virginia and allow the British to claim North Carolina.  

The relatively few North Carolina militia who had joined Greene either abandoned him before he entered Virginia, or left soon after their arrival.  A few days after he crossed the Dan, Greene reported that he had only about eighty North Carolina militia in his army.

Greene had also made plans with South Carolina leader Andrew Pickens to remain in North Carolina and continue recruiting efforts.  A few days after Greene arrived in Virginia, Pickens reported that he had a force of about 700 still in North Carolina to harass the enemy.  However, many of the men with Pickens were from South Carolina and Georgia.  They wanted to go fight in their home states, not North Carolina.  So many of them abandoned Pickens and went home.  Pickens told Greene that they were among the worst men he had ever commanded.  So chances of Pickens maintaining an effective fighting force, even for harassment, seemed pretty slim.  That’s right, I called it “slim pickins”.

Pyle’s Massacre

After a few days in Virginia, Greene got word that the British were recruiting loyalist militia in North Carolina. Greene deployed Light Horse Harry Lee to break up these recruiting efforts.  Lee crossed over the Dan River, back into North Carolina, with his legion of dragoons, as well as two companies of Continental infantry from the Maryland line.

Pyle's Pond
Lee’s first goal was to link up with Pickens and his militia.  He found them, but as his legion approached, the militia mistook their green uniforms for the green uniforms of Tarleton’s legion, and opened fire. Fortunately, the men realized they were on the same side before anyone was killed.  Pickens had lost some of his militia by the time he met up with Lee. The combined force was about 600 men.

The Americans knew that Tarleton was in the area.  Cornwallis gave him 200 dragoons on horseback, 150 infantry regulars and 100 Hessian Jaegers to march west and protect the groups of Tory recruits being raised for military duty. The Americans under Pickens and Lee wanted to find and attack Tarleton’s division before it could link up with the loyalist recruits.  

On the afternoon of February 25, while they were marching, the Americans came across a regiment of loyalist recruits led by loyalist militia Colonel John Pyle.  Once again, Lee’s Green uniforms led to the mistake that they were part of Tarleton’s Legion.  Pyle’s men greeted the Americans as friends, and allowed them to move up the path they were on.

Many years later, Lee wrote that he planned to ride up to Colonel Pyle and demand his surrender.  He then planned to disperse the militia and allow them to return home on the promise that they would not try to join the British.  Whether or not that really was Lee’s intent, that is not what happened.

Just about the time that Lee reached Pyle, the loyalists realized that they were, in fact, intermingled with the enemy.  It’s not clear what happened, but stories indicate that one of the American militia took some hostile act against the loyalists. 

Whatever happened, the Americans opened fire and attacked the startled loyalists with sabers and bayonets.  Within minutes, about one-fourth of the militia were dead and most of the rest wounded.  Most of those wounded were so badly wounded that they died over the next few days.  Out of a total of 400 loyalists, about 250 died and 93 others survived with their wounds, including Colonel Pyle, who lost several fingers on his left hand.  

The loyalists had no time to react.  Only one American was killed.  There are also reports that after the fighting ended, some of the loyalists taken prisoner were cut down by men who shouted, “Remember Buford” reverencing an incident I discussed back in Episode 251, where Tarleton’s Legion cut down surrendering Americans.

Pyle's Massacre
The incident became known as Pyle’s massacre.  It has been compared to Buford’s massacre, which had contributed to Tarleton’s reputation.  Greene, however, justified the action, saying it was necessary to discourage loyalist recruitment in North Carolina.

Tarleton’s legion was not very far from the massacre.  Tarleton later reported that he got word of it and located the enemy camp that night.  He prepared his men to march at midnight to attack the American camp.  

As he prepared, he received orders from General Cornwallis to return to Hillsborough immediately.  So Tarleton called off the attack and marched his legion back to Hillsborough. Lee and Pickens attempted to chase down Tarleton’s legion.  But the fast-moving Tarleton managed to stay ahead of them and return to the main camp at Hillsborough.

Greene Returns to North Carolina

The reason Cornwallis recalled Tarleton so suddenly was his concern about Greene’s movements with the main Continental Army. On February 22, three days before the Pyle Massacre, Nathanael Greene re-crossed the Dan River to bring the main army back into North Carolina.

Greene had been hoping for the arrival of Colonel William Campbell with about 1000 Virginia militia.  Campbell, you may recall, was one of the leaders at King’s Mountain.  As Greene began to move, Campbell was still a no-show.  Greene, still concerned about British efforts to rally loyalist militia in North Carolina, felt he had to bring the army back into the state in order to show that control was still contested.  He moved down near the town of Salem, about 40 or 50 miles west of the British base of operation at Hillsborough.

Within days of Greene’s return to North Carolina, Cornwallis moved his army out of Hillsborough and toward Greene’s reported location.  Part of the reason for leaving Hillsborough was the hope of catching Greene and forcing a battle.  The other reason was that the British were starving in Hillsborough.  They could not get food from the locals.  Officers and men were on starvation rations.

Cornwallis retained the good-will of the men by sharing their sufferings.  He personally took no more than the standard food ration given to the men, and also slept out under the stars when his men were forced to do so, having burned their tents and wagons weeks earlier.

Cornwallis also still hoped to supplement his forces with local militia.  The Pyle Massacre put a damper on that, but things got worse when a group of militia recruits approached the British camp on March 4.  Soldiers from Tarleton’s Legion thought they were rebels and rushed on them, killing many of the recruits with their sabers.  The rest escaped into the woods before the British realized their mistake.  Those who escaped returned home.

The night following this incident, a group of loyalists were driving a small herd of cattle to the British camp for food.  An American patrol discovered them and killed twenty-three men driving the herd.  These incidents further discouraged any would-be loyalist volunteers from attempting to join or assist the British.

For the next few weeks, the two armies played a game of cat and mouse.  They moved locations every day, and usually remained within about twenty miles of each other.  Cornwallis wanted a fight.  Greene did not.  Because patriot militia seemed to come and go at will, Greene never had a good idea of how many men were in his army at any one time.  Those that remained created their own problems. For example, Colonel Otho Williams sent an officer to command a new group of Virginia riflemen. They refused to serve under that officer and insisted on electing their own.  Greene, still hoping Campbell would arrive soon with a thousand Virginia militia, received a note from Campbell informing the commander that he had managed to raise an army of only sixty men.

Weitzel’s Mill

In the pre-dawn hours of March 6, Colonel Williams led a detachment to attack a small British encampment at a mill.  As Williams’ men advanced on the mill, he received word that a much larger British division of regulars under Colonel James Webster, as well Colonel Tarleton and his legion, were on the hunt for him, and were only about two miles away.  The British force was between 1000 and 1200 men.

Otho Williams

Williams detached a few patrols to slow down the enemy, but turned around his main force and retreated back toward Weitzel’s Mill about ten miles away.  This was the location of a ford over Reedy Fork Creek which led back to the main army under Greene.

With Williams were the few dozen South Carolina militia under Andrew Pickens, and the newly arrived Colonel Campbell with his sixty Virginia militia.  Also with them were Light Horse Harry’s legion. And William Washington’s dragoons. In total they had about 600-700 men, mostly militia.

The Americans got to the ford just ahead of their pursuers.  Williams deployed the militia under Pickens and Campbell to lay down covering fire as the rest of the men crossed the ford.  Washington and Lee provided support on the flanks.  Once across, the men on the far bank provided covering fire for the rest of the army to cross.  

Crossing the ford under fire was panicked and crowded.  Some militia were reported to have drowned during the crossing.  But the bulk of the army got across the river and was able to escape a full disaster.  Reports of the battle are not consistent, but show between thirty and fifty casualties on each side.

Williams’ division returned to the main army and the British did not pursue any further.

Guilford Courthouse

By the second week of March, Greene’s forces began to grow.  After he returned to North Carolina, the militia finally began to turn out in significant numbers.  Militia Generals John Butler and Thomas Eaton rode into camp with about 1000 militia.  General Von Steuben, still in Virginia, sent Greene 400 new Continentals from Maryland.

Guilford Courthouse
By contrast Cornwallis had only managed to attract a few hundred loyalist militia.  These did not even replace the regulars he had lost over the last couple of months to death, disease and desertion. His core soldiers were now under 2000.  Even so, Cornwallis was still looking for a decisive battle.  He was still confident that his regulars could defeat an even larger enemy of mostly militia. 

With his new reinforcements, Greene also was ready for battle. He had no idea how long his militia would remain with him.  He had to fight while his numbers were high.  Greene also wanted to pick favorable ground for the battle.  Since Cornwallis would pursue him anywhere, he could pick the place and time for the showdown.

Greene chose the area around Guilford Courthouse.  He had analyzed the area during his march to the Dan River weeks earlier.  He thought the location was as good as any he had seen.  On March 13, the Americans marched to Guilford Courthouse and began to deploy for battle.  Cornwallis received reports of Greene’s position the following day, and made plans to march into battle.

On the evening of the 14th, Greene asked Lee to reconnoiter.  About four miles west of Guilford Courthouse, Lee’s dragoons ran into the enemy.  Lee sent a dispatch rider to inform Greene, and deployed his men to get more information about the size and movement of the enemy.

Banastre Tarleton, at the head of the British column, rode into an ambush set by Lee.  There was a firefight of about 30 minutes as both sides took casualties.  Tarleton received a bullet wound in his hand, but continued to fight.  Eventually Lee’s forces withdrew to inform Greene of the enemy’s approach.

Greene had about 4400 men under arms.  About 40% of these, about 1800, were Continentals. Greene deployed his men using much of the same strategy that Morgan had used at Cowpens.  Greene put his 1000 North Carolina militia commanded by Butler and Easton in the front of his line, with the expectation that they would get off a couple of shots, then withdraw.

About 300 yards behind the first line, Greene deployed a second line of 1200 Virginia militia, under the command of General Robert Lawson and Edward Stevens.  Still embarrassed by the failure of the Virginia militia at Camden who fled under his command. Stevens deployed twenty riflemen behind his line and informed his men that the riflemen had orders to shoot any soldier who turned and ran.

Greene put 1200 Continentals in a third line to the rear.  General Isaac Huger, Colonel Otho Williams and others led these men.  He deployed riflemen and cavalry to protect the flanks of all three lines, trying to drive the enemy into a frontal assault.  Additional artillery supported the center of the Continental line.

Although Greene was using a strategy of putting his weakest soldiers in front and asking them only for a few shots, this was a very different battlefield from the one at Cowpens, where Morgan won with this tactic.  The field at Guilford Courthouse was much larger, meaning the lines could not support each other. Given the hills and trees, they could not even see each other.  Greene also did not keep a reserve behind his third line that he could throw into any problem that arose.

At around 1:30 in the afternoon, the first British infantry arrived on the field; fifes, drums, and bagpipes announcing their arrival.  Cornwallis feared that he might be facing as many as 10,000 Americans against his 2400, but he would not walk away from this fight. Both sides opened up with artillery, but at a distance that had little impact on either side.  

Although the British line was almost entirely regulars and Hessians, the men were not in good shape.  They had been on short rations for over two months, and had just marched twelve miles to reach the battlefield, without stopping for breakfast.

The British infantry marched to within 400 yards of the front line of the militia.  Formed into line, the British advanced toward the enemy.  According to Greene, the militia got off only a shot or two before retreating.  Many men did not fire at all.  Other offices later said the militia did fairly well before retreating, and several British regiments reported taking pretty high casualties in this exchange of fire.

The British stepped over their dead and dying comrades, closed ranks and continued to march within 40 yards of the militia. At that point, the British charged bayonets and rushed the enemy.  The remaining militia fled. Greene had hoped that they would run back to the next line and provide support there.  But the militiamen had had enough. They fled the battlefield and were done for the day.  Many of them dropped their weapons, in order to run faster, as they disappeared into the woods.

The British could not pursue the fleeing militia, because Continental infantry and riflemen were firing onto the field from both flanks. The British had to contend with those flanking companies before advancing.  The fighting on the flanks moved into the woods, where British lines broke up and fighting devolved into individual attacks mostly using swords and bayonets.  Cornwallis himself was at the front of the fighting.  He had ordered Tarleton to remain in reserve in case a regiment got overrun.  The Americans shot Cornwallis’ horse, and he was forced to mount another horse to continue his efforts.

The British advanced through the woods, along the American flanks and attacked the Virginia militia in the second line of Americans from the side.  The militia appear to have fought well, General Stevens took a shot to the thigh, but praised the actions of his soldiers before they finally gave way.

After fighting through two heavily contested lines of Americans, the British finally reached the crest of the hill.  There they saw more than a thousand Continentals, supported by artillery in the line several hundred yards away.  

Attack of the Marylanders - Guilford Courthouse
Without waiting for the rest of the army, General Webster led two regiments of British regulars against the Continental line.  The disciplined Continentals waited until they were within 100 yards, then released a devastating volley.  Webster was badly wounded but continued to rally his regulars.  

General O’Hara was also wounded, and turned over his command of regulars to John Stuart, who also charged the Continental line.  Stuart charged at the Second Maryland, which was a new regiment, untested in battle.  The men broke and ran.  The first regiment, however, stayed and fought some of the most brutal combat of the day.  

Seeing the danger, Colonel Washington charged his cavalry into the lines to support the First Maryland.  The fight descended into fighting with bayonet and sword, men using their muskets as clubs to beat the enemy to death.  Maryland Captain John Smith killed Stuart with a saber blow to the head.  

Neither side was backing down, and the men were intermingled on the field.  Cornwallis feared the British would be driven back.  Instead, he ordered his artillery to fire into the melee, killing both the enemy and his own regulars.  The fire forced both sides to scatter and withdraw.

Cornwallis advanced his regulars into the gap.  Greene had had enough, and ordered his men to withdraw from the field.  The retreat was orderly and well covered.  The British did not pursue them.

The Americans lost seventy-nine killed and 184 wounded.  Also, 90% of the militia that had fled the field, went home and did not return.  The British had lost 93 killed and 413 wounded, many of whom died within days.

At the end of the day, the British held the field, giving them a victory.  But Cornwallis had lost men that he could not replace.  His effective fighting force was down to about 1400, still starving and many shoeless.

British general O’Hara wrote “I wish it had produced one substantial benefit to Great Britain, on the contrary, we feel at the moment the sad and fatal effects on our loss on that day….and what remains [of our army] are so completely worn out by the excessive Fatigues of the campaign.”  Even Cornwallis conceded that “we had not a regiment or corps that did not at some time give way…The Americans fought like demons.”

Cornwallis took his battered army to the east coast town of Wilmington.  He had to abandon many of his wounded along the way.  Cornwallis’ army was no longer an effective fighting force.  It needed time to recover.  

Green advanced his army back to a largely unguarded South Carolina.  He had lost the battle but won the campaign.

Next week, the Continental Congress finally sees ratification of the Articles of Confederation.

- - -

Next Episode 281 Ratifying Articles of Confederation 

Previous Episode 279 Race to the Dan

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Further Reading


Pyle's Defeat

Pyle's Defeat

Haw River (Pyle's Massacre)

Battle of Guilford Courthouse:

Guilford Courthouse:

Battle of Guilford Courthouse:

Video: Guilford Courthouse National Park Service Video:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Connor, R. D. W. Revolutionary leaders of North Carolina, Greensboro, N.C. State College, 1916. 

Crow, Jeffrey (ed) The Southern Experience in the American Revolution, Univ. of NC Press, 1978.

Greene, George Washington The Life of Nathanael GreeneVol. 1Vol. 2, & Vol. 3, New York: Cambridge Univ. Press 1867-1871. 

Hatch, Charles E. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Washington: Dept. of Interior, 1971. 

Weigley, Russell Frank The Partisan War: the South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782, Univ. of SC Press, 1970 (borrow only). 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Buchanan, John The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, Wiley, 1999. 

Carbone, Gerald Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010 (borrow on 

Davis, Burke The Cowpens-Guilford Courthouse Campaign, Lippincott, 1962 (borrow on

Edgar, Walter B. Partisans and Redcoats: The Southern Conflict That Turned the Tide of the American Revolution, New York: Morrow, 2001 (borrow on

Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021. 

Golway, Terry Washington's General : Nathanael Greene and the triumph of the American Revolution, H. Holt, 2006. (borrow on

Hairr, John Guilford Courthouse: Nathanael Greene's Victory in Defeat, March 15, 1781, Da Capo Press, 2002 (borrow on

Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on 

Maass, John R. Battle of Guilford Courthouse: A Most Desperate Engagement, History Press, 2020. 

Tonsetic, Robert L. 1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War, Casemate, 2011 (borrow on 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.