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.

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