June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
Third in a series of paintings for AMERICAN HERITAGE BY DON TROIANI
Major General Nathanael Greene, commanding the Continental Army in the south, spent mid-March of 1781 trying to lure Cornwallis and his army into battle on advantageous ground. He had to do it quickly, for the enlistments of many of his soldiers would soon expire. Greene finally deployed his troops on the high ground surrounding Guilford Court House in North Carolina. Cornwallis took the bait and began to move against him with some two thousand men. Although Greene had more than twice that number, most of them were shaky militia whose reaction to battle was wholly unpredictable. Greene planned accordingly. He posted untried North Carolinians across the probable path of the enemy and, grinning encouragement, told them to fire only two volleys before they ran away. Behind these men was a tougher line of Virginians, and behind them the rock of Greene’s makeshift army, indestructible Maryland and Delaware regiments. The units took up their final positions on the cool, bright morning of March 15.
The first blood of the day was spilled in a sharp cavalry brush when Colonel Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee’s men cut up a column of Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s hated dragoons and retired toward the main body of the Continental Army with the British advance close on their heels.
The English and Hessian troops came out of the woods in formal line of battle, and the Carolinians fired their two volleys and fled. The British pressed forward behind level bayonets, but steady American riflemen knocked large gaps in their ranks. The attack faltered and stopped as American units backed up by Colonel William Washington’s cavalrymen plunged in among the British files. For a few bloody minutes it looked as though the Continentals were going to win the field. Then Cornwallis, in a desperate decision, turned his artillery on the chaos, spraying his own soldiers as well as the Americans with grape. Gradually the two armies separated and drew apart. The exhausted Continentals waited for the fighting to resume, but Greene, realizing that he had hurt the British badly and loath to gamble the only American army in the south, wisely ordered a retreat.
The Americans pulled back through a dismal, chilly rain. They had suflered a long and grueling day and. strictly speaking, a defeat. But they were by no means disheartened. British losses had been twice theirs, and the weary men knew they were leaving a shaken enemy behind them. And though none of them could know it at the time, they were close now to a victory worth a hundred Guilfords; soon Cornwallis would begin his long retreat that would end, a half year later, at Yorktown.