Defense in Depth as a Revolutionary War Battlefield Tactic

Part Three (click here for first two installments)

Determined to avenge his embarrassing defeat at Cowpens, Lt. Gen. Charles Lord Cornwallis set his army out in a determined pursuit of the American army. Knowing that he was too weak to face Cornwallis in a pitched battle, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, the Southern Department commander, retreated northeastward from Salisbury, North Carolina toward the Virginia state line, where he hoped that additional militia troops would reinforce his army and he would receive supplies. The British chased Greene to the Dan River, near the Virginia border, but Greene wisely put the river between his army and the enemy. Cornwallis and his weary soldiers arrived at the rain-swollen river on February 15, too late to catch Greene’s army, which had finished crossing earlier that day. Frustrated, Cornwallis withdrew to Hillsborough, North Carolina.

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Lord Charles Cornwallis

After receiving both the expected supplies and reinforcements, and after an opportunity to rest his command, Greene soon marched back into North Carolina to face Cornwallis’ tired and poorly supplied army, which now numbered less than 2000 men. After several weeks of skirmishing with Loyalist militiamen and a great deal of maneuvering Greene assumed a defensive position around Guildford Courthouse (near modern Greensboro, North Carolina) on March 14, 1781. Greene had more than 4000 Continentals, militiamen and cavalry, meaning that his army outnumbered Cornwallis’ by more than twice their strength.

After consulting with Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan, Greene decided to employ the same defense in depth strategy and tactics employed so successfully at Cowpens two months earlier. He deployed his army in three lines: the North Carolina militiamen, supported on both flanks by Continentals and dragoons. The second line consisted of Virginia troops, many of whom were veterans. Finally, near the courthouse, Greene deployed his Continental regulars from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, with Continental cavalry in reserve. In short, Greene intended to use almost identical tactics to those used so well by Morgan at Cowpens.

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General Nathanael Greene

On March 15, Cornwallis approached Greene’s well-designed positions from the New Garden Quaker meetinghouse eight miles to the southwest, with Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton’s Loyalist dragoons leading the way. American cavalry commanded by Lt. Col. Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee resisted Tarleton’s approach along the Great Salisbury Road, and then fall back to join Greene’s main body. They did their job well: they drew Tarleton’s dragoons into the trap laid by the cagey American commander.

The advancing British found the untested militiamen holding Greene’s first line deployed in a position to block the road. These men were in a line behind a rail fence, with Continental riflemen and dragoons anchoring both flanks. Greene instructed the militia officers to have their men fire two volleys and then fall back through the woods to his second line once the British Regulars closed in on them. These raw men nervously waited the advance of the feared Redcoats.

After a thirty minute artillery barrage, Cornwallis ordered his Redcoats to attack Greene’s first line about noon. When the British reached a position about forty yards from the first American line, the Carolina militia unleashed “a most galling and effective fire,” as a British officer described it. Their severe fire staggered the British advance. The Redcoats then regrouped, returned fire, and then made a bayonet charge that routed the inexperienced militiamen in a panic. After breaking the first line, the British then surged forward toward Greene’s second line, the Virginia militiamen, about four hundred yards away.

The British had trouble keeping their lines intact in the heavily wooded terrain, which disrupted their alignments and caused their attack to be disjointed. Determined bayonet charges and their superior discipline finally prevailed, and the Virginians and Carolinians broke. Although some fled in panic, nearly 500 men from the first and second rallied behind Greene’s third line at the courthouse.

While this drama played out, on the far right of Cornwallis’ attack, a separate battle broke out. British and Hessian infantry drove the Virginia militiamen and Lee’s mixed legion of cavalry and infantry southward through the woods. With Tarleton’s cavalry pursuing them, many of Greene’s soldiers were killed or wounded by British saber wounds.

About 90 minutes after the opening shots of the battle, the now-tired British soldiers approached Greene’s third line, which had not yet been engaged in the fighting. The 1st Maryland and 2nd Virginia repulsed the initial British attack, but a determined attack by Brig. Gen. Charles O’Hara’s 2nd Battalion of Guards broke the 2nd Maryland and captured two cannons. O’Hara’s attack placed his men in the rear of the 1st Maryland, which faced about and gave “some well directed fires” at close range.

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Lt. Col William Washington

Lt. Col. William Washington’s Continental Light Dragoons soon pitched in, charging the British infantry with about eighty mounted men, who then made a second pass through the enemy troop formation. The confusion created by this action allowed the 1st Maryland to recapture the lost cannons and some prisoners during bitter hand-to-hand combat. Several belches of artillery fire from the British lines drove of Washington’s dragoons, but the damage had been done.

With Cornwallis’ entire army now in position to assault the third line, and with his command having engaged in heavy fighting, Greene prudently determined that it was time to withdraw. About 3:30, his army withdrew northward in good order to the army’s pre-designated rallying point. British forces initially pursued, but the Virginia Continental rear guard soon repulsed them, allowing Greene’s army to escape. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse was over.

It was “one of the most hazardous, as well as severe battles that occurred during the war,” wrote Tarleton years later. Greene correctly reported that the British “have met with a defeat in a victory.” Greene’s losses were 79 killed, 184 wounded, and 1,046 missing, most of the latter being routed militiamen who fled and did not return to the ranks, and four cannons lost. By contrast, Cornwallis lost 93 killed, 413 wounded, and 26 missing, a staggering casualty rate of about 25 per cent that left with only about 1500 effectives. While his army held the battlefield at the end of the day, it did so at great cost. “Another such victory would ruin the British Army,” observed Charles James Fox, a prominent member of the British Parliament.

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Battle of Guilford Court House (courtesy of CWT / Campaign 1776)

In a letter to Lord George Germain, Cornwallis commented: “From our observation, and the best accounts we could procure, we did not doubt but the strength of the enemy exceeded 7,000 men [Greene’s accounts put this number closer to 4,400]….I cannot ascertain the loss of the enemy, but it must have been considerable; between 200 and 300 dead were left on the field of battle…. many of their wounded escaped…. Our forage parties have reported to me that houses in a circle six to eight miles around us are full of others…. We took few prisoners.” He concluded, “The conduct and actions of the officers and soldiers that composed this little army will do more justice to their merit than I can by words. Their persevering intrepidity in action, their invincible patience in the hardships and fatigues of a march of above 600 miles, in which they have forded several large rivers and numberless creeks, many of which would be reckoned large rivers in any other country in the world, without tents or covering against the climate, and often without provisions, will sufficiently manifest their ardent zeal for the honour and interests of their Sovereign and their country.”

Cornwallis realized that while he had won the battle, he had suffered frightful casualties, and then Greene’s army remained plenty full of fight. Left with few alternatives, he withdrew his army and marched southeast to Wilmington, North Carolina, arriving on April 7. After resting his battered army for about three weeks, he began a campaign that was intended to subdue Virginia, but which ended with the surrender of his army at Yorktown in October 1781.

Greene proved that he had learned from his able subordinate Morgan’s example from Cowpens. His stubborn defense in depth at Guilford Courthouse, while a tactical defeat, was a strategic victory that nearly wrecked Cornwallis’ army. The effectiveness of this tactic had been amply proven.

*Suggestions for additional reading: for the best book-length monograph on the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, see Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard, Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009). This book is the primary resource consulted in drafting this article.*

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About Eric J. Wittenberg

Award-winning Civil War historian Eric J. Wittenberg focuses on cavalry operations in the Civil War.
This entry was posted in Armies, Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, British Leadership, Common Soldier, Continental Leadership, Militia (Patriot) Leadership, National Park Service, Personalities, Revolutionary War, Southern Theater and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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