Volume V - Nos. 4 & 5
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF GUILFORD COURTHOUSE
Interpretative Statement : II
Guilford Courthouse National Military Park includes the site of the original Guilford County, North Carolina, courthouse, and a part of the vanished village of Martinsville which grew up around the courthouse and jail. More important, however, it is the site over which was contended the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781.
The Battle of Guilford Courthouse in one sense marks the beginning of the end of the Revolutionary struggle. After his victory in that battle, Earl Cornwallis was so weakened as to be unable to carry to a successful conclusion the British plan of campaign formed more than two years earlier. The plan had contemplated the conquest of Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and possibly Maryland, and the detachment of these colonies from what was believed to be the more vigorously Revolutionary East and North. It was assumed by the British high command that the southern colonies could be restored to the crown and that, with their detachment, those remaining could be defeated more easily.
The plan had succeeded sufficiently to place in British power the States of Georgia and South Carolina; one American Army under Lincoln had surrendered at Charleston, and another under Gates had been defeated disastrously at Camden during the spring and summer of 1780. Cornwallis had invaded North Carolina in the early fall of 1780, but as a result of the unexpected blow at Kings Mountain, was forced to return to South Carolina.
The winter campaign of 1781 culminating in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse began a few weeks after the arrival of Greene in the southern department as successor to Gates. Greene, after his subordinate Morgan had inflicted a defeat on Tarleton at Cowpens, conducted a masterly retreat completely across North Carolina into Virginia. He returned soon, however, and in the middle of March took position at Guilford Courthouse to offer the encounter that his adversary had so ardently desired.
The battle involved approximately 2,000 British troops and about 4,400 Americans. It lasted about two and a half hours, and was exceedingly bloody. The British losses were very nearly 600 in killed or wounded, while the Americans lost approximately half as many. The latter had a large number missing at the close of the engagement, but the majority of these returned in a few days.
After winning his victory, Cornwallis was unable to proceed. He had started northward fron his winter quarters at Winnsborough, South Carolina, early in January. He had pushed his pursuit of the retreating Americans as rapidly as possible, resorting to the expedient of burning his wagon train in order that that unit might not delay his advance. By the middle of March his army was exhausted, food was scarce, supplies of all kinds were dangerously low, or completely expended, and in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse he had lost more than a quarter of his entire force. Rest, reorganization, and refitting were imperatively demanded if his force was to preserve itself.
The myriad supplies of all kinds which were needed could be obtained only from Charleston. After Guilford Courthouse, Cornwallis, therefore, proceeded to Wilmington where water communication with his Charleston base was available. His army was so exhausted that it had much trouble in reaching the coast, and was in no wise a danger to North Carolina.
Guilford Courthouse so weakened Cornwallis that he was unable to extend to North Carolina the British reconquest in the South and was forced to turn his attention to extricating his army from its own difficult situation. The American forces under Greene, therefore, were in a position to disregard the remnant of the force with which they had contended at Guilford and to move into South Carolina.
Guilford Courthouse, then, marks the failure of the British plan of campaign as it rendered impossible the conquest and occupation by the royal forces of North Carolina, end thus prevented the detachment of the South from the remainder of the revolting colonies; and it freed Greene from worry as to North Carolina, permitting him to turn his attention to the redemption of South Carolina.
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