The largest, most hotly-contested battle of the Revolutionary War's Southern Campaign was fought on March 15, 1781, at the small North Carolina backcounty hamlet of Guilford Courthouse. Each year, on the anniversary of the battle, reenactors gather in Greensboro to bring history to life for visitors.
British soldiers wearing their distinctive red coats drill in camp before the battle. British soldiers prided themselves on being part of the best-trained army in the world.
Major General Nathanael Greene defended the ground at Guilford Courthouse with an army of almost 4,500 American militia and soldiers of the Continental Army. The British army under Lord Charles Cornwallis had only about 1,900 veteran soldiers and German allies. Although Cornwallis was outnumbered by more than two to one, he decided to engage the Americans in battle. Here, soldiers (possibly Hessian mercenaries, fighting for Britain) discuss battle plans as an officer looks on.
A tent in the British camp bears the royal coat of arms, with the motto “Dieu et mon droit” — “God and my right.” Ten years earlier, American colonists would have found the motto and seal as inspiring as these soldiers. Even now, a large minority of North Carolinians remained loyal to the king and to Britain.
The American army was organized into three lines of defense. Here, Continental soldiers in the third line wait for British troops to attack — demonstrating why war is often described as long stretches of boredom punctuated by short bursts of terror. The soldiers are wearing various colors and styles of uniforms, as was common during the Revolution. Although brown was the official color of uniform for soldiers of the Continental Army, officers wore blue, and state regiments and militias often wore their own colors.
Continental soldiers were of all ages and wore a variety of uniforms. They didn't look like a professional army by European standards, but by 1781, they had learned to fight like one.
The Continental Army used a variety of firearms and artillery, but French arms -- and armed forces -- were critical to the American victory. The French musket held by this Continental officer weighs 10 pounds and is outfitted with a bayonet, which turns the gun into a spear for close-range fighting.
Continental soldiers watch as British troops fire at the front line of American militia. The militia were ordered to fire twice, then break formation. Since militia were not professional soldiers but citizens called out to assist the army in time of need, how well they obeyed orders depended on their captain and their training. Some ran without firing a shot, while others stayed and died where they stood.
After returning fire, the militia retreat to the woods. Most of the militia at Guilford Courthouse returned home after the battle, to tend their farms and provide for their families.
As the British troops advance, Continental soldiers fire artillery. Like its firearms, the Continental Army's cannons consisted of whatever soldiers could get their hands on.
Smoke from the Conintentals' cannon obscures their view of the battlefield, making it difficult to see whether they had hit the oncoming British soldiers.
High-ranking Continental officers arrive on horseback to watch the action from behind the lines. Eighteenth-century muskets were accurate to less than 100 yards, and so generals could observe a battle at close range while remaining relatively safe.
After several volleys of musket and cannon fire, smoke begins to obscure soldiers' view of the battlefield. In a pitched battle, smoke not only limited visibility but irritated soldiers' eyes and could make breathing difficult. In the confusion, many soldiers were killed by "friendly fire" from their own side.
Having forced the militia to retreat, British soliders (to the right, in the distance) take aim at the first line of Continentals. Because muskets were so inaccurate, lines of soldiers fired their muskets in unison to increase the chances of hitting the enemy.
The Continentals return fire, and men on both sides fall. Though it isn't reenacted, the armies fell into hand-to-hand combat with bayonets, even using the butts of their muskets and rifles as clubs. "I never saw such fighting since God made me," Lord Conwallis would later write. "The Americans fought like demons."
After repeated exchanges of fire, the British force the Continentals to retreat. Greene's main objective was to preserve his army, and he chose to withdraw rather than take more casualties.
Victorious, the British take the field.
A Continental soldier helps a wounded comrade from the field. The Continentals suffered 79 killed and 185 wounded, out of a force of over 4,000. The British, meanwhile, lost 93 killed and more than 400 wounded out of a force of less than 2,000 — a casualty rate of more than 1 in 5. Cornwallis' army would never fully recover from the losses it suffered here.
According to family tradition, Kerenhappuch Norman Turner had a son who was badly wounded at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. She rode by horseback from Maryland to Guilford Courthouse, where she found her son and nursed him back to health. Her statue, shown here, stands near the visitor center at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park.
After the battle, a torrential rain began to fall, making it difficult to tend to the wounded. Dozens more British soldiers died during the night. The British had won the battle, but all they gained was a bloody mud-soaked field, while the American army survived to fight another day.
“We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again,” said Nathaniel Greene of his army. While Cornwallis retreated to the coast to recover his strength, Greene moved south to recover South Carolina. By the end of the year, he had succeeded — while Cornwallis was forced to surrender his army to General Washington at Yorktown. Greene's monument at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park testifies to his role in the ultimate American victory.