On the morning of March 15, 1781, British General Lord Charles Cornwallis’s force of 2,100 men discovered an American army under General Nathanael Greene holding a defensible position on elevated ground about one and a half miles from the Guilford Court House, near present day Greensboro, North Carolina.
Greene’s force of roughly 4,500 men was organized into three lines. The first line was held by South Carolina militia. In the second line Greene positioned militiamen from Virginia. They were supported by artillery near their center. Battle hardened Continentals composed Greene’s third and most formidable line.
At 1:30 P.M., after an initial artillery barrage, Cornwallis launched his attack up the western side of the road. When the British got to within 150 yards of Greene’s men, the Americans opened fire. The British pressed on, returning fire only when they got within range. On command, they surged forward, only to be scattered by elements of the North Carolina militia posted along a picket fence. Still the British advance continued, spearheaded by the 33rd Regiment of Foot. The North Carolinians fired one more time and then retreated into the woods to their rear, abandoning their equipment as they fled.
The British believed their enemy was routing, only to run into stiff resistance when they came up against Greene’s second line. The 33rd nonetheless moved around the American flank and hit Greene’s third and final line.
In breaking through the first two lines the British had sustained heavy casualties. Advancing up the center, however, were the 71st Regiment of Foot and the 2nd Guards Battalion. Luckily for Greene, the 1st Guards Battalion and a contingent of Hessians were prevented from attacking the American rights thanks to the efforts of Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s cavalry.
The British 2nd Guards soon found themselves on open ground near the court house. Facing the Redcoats was a large contingent of Continentals. The British attacked, capturing two six-pound artillery pieces. As the Americans were forced back, Lt. Colonel William Washington’s Light Dragoons and the 1st Maryland Regiment counterattacked, blunting the British advance.
Cornwallis ordered forward his own artillery forward, directing his officers to fire on the Dragoons as well as his own men. While friendly fire killed many of those in the British ranks, Greene ordered his forces to break off the counterattack and leave the field. It was a dear bought pyrrhic victory and given his casualties and diminished supplies, Cornwallis opted to head to the Virginia coast where he could be refitted, reinforced and resupplied.