The Battle of Guilford Courthouse—A Prelude to Yorktown

A sketch of militia at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse from the National Park Service

On March 15, 1781, American and British forces clashed near Guilford Courthouse. The battle was the culmination of several months of hard campaigning by the armies of Nathanael Greene and Lord Charles Cornwallis.

Early in the day, Greene deployed his army in three lines. The first and second lines were North Carolina and Virginia militiamen, with Greene’s Continental soldiers composing the third. Veteran Virginia and North Carolina riflemen and Continentals were also posted on the flanks of the first line.

After a 30-minute artillery barrage by both sides, the British broke through the first and second lines, but suffered severe casualties in the advance. Despite their losses, Cornwallis’s army pushed on to the third line, where they engaged the Continental soldiers.

The Guilford Courthouse Flag, now in the collection of the N.C. Museum of History

Unwilling to the risk the destruction of his army and realizing that he had inflicted massive casualties on the British, Greene withdrew his army; the battered British did not pursue. Twenty-seven percent of Cornwallis’s army lay dead or wounded on the field.  By comparison, Greene lost only 6 percent of his force, the majority of whom were North Carolina and Virginia militiamen who had fled shortly after the battle began.

In October Cornwallis surrendered his army to George Washington at Yorktown.