After the embarrassing British defeat by the Patriots at the Battle of Cowpens, British General Charles Cornwallis resolved to destroy the southern branch of the Continental Army led by Nathanael Greene. Cornwallis had chased Greene through much of North Carolina before learning he had assembled an army of North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland militia encamped at the Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina. Cornwallis decided to launch an attack despite the fact he had less than half as many soldiers as Greene. Cornwallis’ army totaled about 1,900 soldiers, while Greene’s total army numbered 4,500.
Much like the Battle of Cowpens, General Greene had prepared in advance for a British attack and had organized his army into three lines. Unlike at Cowpens, however, the lines were positioned far away from each other – too far to support each other. At 1:30 in the afternoon on March 15, 1781, the battle started. The British immediately advanced on the first two lines despite the barrage of bullets and cannot shot from the Patriots. After incurring significant losses, the British army forced the first two lines into a disorganized retreat, leaving the third line – which was positioned on a hill. Here, British forces were repulsed by American firepower and in some cases, hand-to-hand combat. Fearing the impending defeat of his army, Cornwallis made the decision to fire heavy guns and cannon over his own soldiers and into the Patriot third line on the hill. Despite the fact that this decision resulted in the deaths of many British soldiers, it proved effective. Soon, Greene’s entire army was in full retreat. The British army proceeded with a half-hearted pursuit but soon relented. Although the fighting lasted less than two and a half hours, Cornwallis’ army suffered 526 casualties and was reduced by over 25 percent. Historians credit Cornwallis with a pyrrhic victory – a technical military victory accompanied by large numbers of casualties.
Following the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Cornwallis led his battered army to Yorktown, Virginia, in the hopes of regrouping and finding better military success there. On the march to Yorktown, Cornwallis commandeered horses at will, raided farms, and freed thousands of slaves. Unbeknownst at the time, Cornwallis had set his army up for disaster, as Yorktown would be the site of the mighty siege on his army by American and French forces that would eventually lead to the war’s end. Meanwhile, Greene’s army marched into the heart of the south with the eventual goal of liberating South Carolina and Georgia.