March 15, 1781
By Bud Cole
Most history buffs know that Lt. General Charles Earl Cornwallis surrendered his army after a decisive defeat of his troops in Yorktown, Virginia when the combined American forces, led by General George Washington and French forces led by General Comte de Rochambeau, overpowered the British forces. The surrender ceremony took place on October 19, 1781.
But how many laymen historians are aware of a previous battle that took place seven months earlier on Thursday, March 15, 1781 in the hills of western North Carolina? It was this late winter battle, in what is now Greensboro, NC that weakened Cornwallis’s troops to the point that the final major ground battle of the war was able to take place in Yorktown in October. The defeat at Yorktown and the previous defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York during two battles on September 19 and October 7, 1777 prompted the British government to negotiate an end to what we Americans refer to as the Revolutionary War.
That March battle at Guilford Courthouse, known as the high-water mark of the Southern Campaign, was led by American Major General Nathanael Greene.
He and his 4,400 rag tag American forces made a stand against the invasion of North Carolina by Cornwallis and his well trained veteran army of 1,900 men. Although this battle has been recorded in history as a British victory, it marked the beginning of the end of the War for Independence. Cornwallis was quoted after the Guilford Courthouse Battle saying, “I never saw such fighting since God made me. The Americans fought like demons.”
Guilford County was considered back country when the county was established in 1771. Areas like Guilford, just west of what was already settled, were of great interest to settlers in search of their own land. Thousands of people began arriving in the Guilford area as early as 1740. Most of these early settlers established small farms.
Their main diet consisted of corn and pork. This basic menu was supplemented with fish, venison, wild turkey and other game animals. It was a difficult life. The resident farmers raised and sold cattle, hogs and wheat, but this newly settled area was too far from any major cities to produce much profit.
During courthouse sessions the farmers sold and bartered their goods and produce. It was a time when alcohol flowed freely and dancing along the dirt lanes was not uncommon. Court in session marked a time of celebration.
The colonies endured seven years of brutal conflict between the time the first muskets were fired by American and British soldiers on April 19, 1775 at Lexington and Concord in the Massachusetts Colony and that ceremonial surrender in Yorktown , Virginia on October 19, 1781 . The colonists who raised their weapons against their British government to protest against their lack of representation in the government and what they felt were unfair taxes were asserting their rights as true Englishmen. This all changed when the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776 . These same colonial citizens were no longer aggrieved Britons, but free and independent citizens fighting for the United States of America.
In 1778 the unexpected Saratoga, New York victory prompted the French to join forces with the United States against the British. This alliance with France turned the battle in the colonies into a world war. The British were fighting a war against the American colonies as well as protecting the British Isles and other established British territories around the world. The British forces were spread thin trying to defend so many areas.
The British government assumed their armies would be welcomed in the southern colonies and be reinforced by thousands of loyalists who would take up their own arms against their rebelling fellow colonists who primarily resided in the north. The southern colonies became the British forces primary theater of operations.
Guilford Courthouse, like many battles in many wars, just happened to be the location where the enemy forces crossed paths. The British forces had swept through Georgia and South Carolina and planned to do the same in North Carolina and Virginia.
Greene’s 4,400 forces were comprised of about 1,700 Continentals who had enlisted for three years in the army and about 2,700 militia consisting primarily of farmers who were often called upon for short periods of service during emergencies. Greene divided his forces into three lines of battle. That clear March day turned into a shooting match about noon when Greene’s first line of North Carolina militia and Cornwallis advancing troops clashed along the Great Salisbury Wagon Road. This first line of militia positioned behind a rail fence inflicted heavy casualties on the redcoats before the middle of the militia line collapsed. About one half of the British force were killed or wounded.
The second line was even more of an obstacle to the British advancement. They were positioned in a thick forest where they were able to pick off the rows of advancing British soldiers. The British forces’ military training paid off after about an hour of fighting. They were able to break through Greene’s second line and push on to face the third line made up of the Continentals. The heaviest fighting took place between these two groups.
Cornwallis often found his men under simultaneous attacks from two directions. The British fired two cannons into the main concentration of the Continentals with the goal of blasting them apart. When the smoke lifted there were many casualties from both sides. At this point Greene ordered a retreat and the British were in command of the battlefield. Although the redcoats suffered many deaths and injuries, the victory belonged to the British. The victor of a battle during that period of history went to the group occupying the battlefield when the battle ended.
The first line of the colonial forces was spread across the fields owned by Joseph and Hannah Hoskins. The Hoskins, originally from Chester County, Pennsylvania, had come to Guilford Courthouse in 1778. They had about 150 acres and although none of the original buildings exist the land has been preserved and period buildings have either been moved to the site or built from a British surveyor’s map depictions of the buildings on the battlefield.
Tammy Solomon, a local resident was visiting the battlefield and plantation for the first time. “We learned about this in school, but I just did not get around to visiting before. I’m very impressed with the park and I wish I had come to see it sooner. I will definitely come back again, soon.” Tammy said.
Tannenbaum Historic Park in Greensboro covers about one twentieth of the original 150 acre Hoskins’ plantation. One of the park goals is to interpret life as it was before, during and after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. The area is preserved much like it was at the time of the battle. Docents in period dress go about the daily life of the residents of the time period.
They are available to answer questions of the era. The Battlefield Visitor Center has exhibits, a film about the battle and a map program. The two visitor’s centers are located within a mile of each other. You can Google the battle and click on National Military Park or call 336-288-1776.