Battle of Guilford Court House

The British Win, Yet Lose


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Coordinates: 36.1292, -79.8515.

Type: Sight
Tour: Guilford Battle
County: Guilford

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Most of the largest Revolutionary War battlefield in North Carolina lies under modern housing, shopping centers, a cemetery, and a dog park. Much of the current military park was developed before the National Park Service (NPS) gained ownership, and its first protectors made major mistakes. Many memorials and old NPS markers do not match later research. This page tries to cut through all of that to provide as accurate a picture of what happened that day as humanly possible.

We take you on an extensive walking tour of the battlefield both in and outside of the military park. Good walking shoes and weather protection are recommended. Allow two hours for the in-park sections, and an hour for two mostly driving tours outside it. In case you only want to drive within the park, NPS Auto Tour stop numbers are shown in bold. Most of the battlefield can be viewed from your vehicle, though parts of it only at a distance.

You will start at the Hoskins Farm site (shown on some maps with its old name, Tannenbaum Historic Site) of the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. The park’s Visitor Center does not have to be open to take our walking tour, though you may have to park on the street and then in nearby greenway parking along Old Battleground Road.


Button for audio tourAfter a two-month game of cat-and-mouse from South Carolina to Virginia, the British and Continental armies of the South are finally prepared to confront each other in open battle.



The army of Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis was camped at Deep River Meeting House 12 miles to the southwest when he learned of the Americans’ position. His army of 1,900–2,200 professional troops left before dawn to confront the Continentals. It pushed through stiff resistance at the Battle of New Garden in the morning before continuing up the Great Salisbury Wagon Road.


Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene’s army had camped on a hill topped by the Guilford County Court House on February 8–9 during the “Race to the Dan” with Cornwallis. He saw it was good ground for a defensive battle, but with a “council of war” of his officers decided they didn’t have enough supplies and Patriot part-time troops (“militia”). After getting more supplies and regular army troops in Virginia, he returned to North Carolina. Again he called in militia, shifting positions east and northeast of this location while they gathered. He camped at Troublesome Iron Works to the north before moving his army here on March 14 to await Cornwallis. By then it was up to 4,250 men, including 1,500–1,600 regular Continental soldiers.


Thursday, March 15, 1781.


Mug with a map of the Battle of Guilford Court House
Mug saying "250 Years" with scenes and a map from the Battle of Alamance

Imagine the Scene

The British Deploy

Button for audio tourTake the trail from the Hoskins Farm parking lot to the farm complex. Continue inside the fence to your right down to New Garden Road. Stand at the nearest fence corner and look at the Hoskins home now behind you.

Photo of a small, unpainted, two-story, 1800s farmhouse
(AmRevNC photograph)

This is not the original house, but rather one built by the Hoskins’ son in the early 1810s.[1] A map from the time indicates the original was in the immediate area, if not the same spot. The post-Revolution barn[2] was moved here for the park.

On the day of the battle, this is the 150-acre farm of Joseph and Sarah Hoskins and their two young children.[3] They moved here two years earlier from Pennsylvania. Their previous farm was stripped by the Continental Army of Gen. George Washington as it tried to survive the winter of 1777-8 in nearby Valley Forge. The war has caught up to them. However, there is no record of where the family is on the day of the battle.

The day started cold, but now by late morning it is relatively warm and humid for the middle of March, under a clear sky.

Face left, east, across the fence you walked along.

Starting around where the modern fence is and running more than 300 yards into the distance along the road is the Hoskins’ muddy farm field. Recently plowed, it is seeded with corn. Woods are on the other side of the road. Another shorter field is past those woods, and a third field on the right is hidden from your view by a narrow strip of trees.

At the far end, past the modern housing, is a line of Patriot or “Whig” militia. They are packed along the entire visible length of a fence marking that end of the fields on both sides of the road. Another fence is roughly in the middle of the field. These are “rail” fences like the modern reproductions next to you, so they do not provide much protection from bullets or bayonets.

Turn around and look west, toward the intersection with Battleground Avenue.

There are dense woods with heavy underbrush in front of you, probably similar to what you see today on the far side of the farm site. The 1781 forest is split by a narrow dirt road to nearby New Garden Meeting House and eventually Salisbury, running in the middle of the modern New Garden Road. Throughout the morning you have heard the sounds of the Battle of New Garden coming from that direction. That action was led by Lt. Gen. “Light Horse” Henry Lee to slow down the British advance while Greene arranged the rest of the army on the hillside behind you. Sometime around 10:30 a.m., Lee and his cavalry ride up the road and uphill past you, they and their horses wet with sweat, and some bleeding.

Photo looking down a three-lane road into a major intersection
(AmRevNC photograph)

Around 11:30 two Continental cannons back at the Patriot line open fire, perhaps making you jump! Between rounds you hear the British army arrive and spread out in the woods on either side of the road, roughly where Battleground Avenue is today. Already fatigued by a 12-mile march, and in most cases the earlier battle, they are also hungry, not having eaten well for days.

Though probably blocked from your view by the trees, Redcoats bring up four cannon and place them around the modern intersection, facing this way. There are three six-pounders and a smaller three-pounder, named for the weight of their cannon balls. They open fire at the Continental artillery. For about 20 minutes, nothing happens but an artillery duel. It wounds a few men and horses on both sides and kills a British artillery lieutenant, plus a few Patriots. Finally the Continentals break it off, hauling their cannons uphill.

Meanwhile most of the British have filed out into a single line abreast of the cannons. Cornwallis is expecting their massed bayonets will scare off the militia, so he does not need the usual multiple lines that are typically used to fire volleys faster (one line reloading while the other shoots). Perhaps behind them you hear the horses of the feared “British Legion” of Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton waiting on New Garden Road. Some other infantry units are behind the main line as “reserves” to be used where needed.

Photo of modern British soldier re-enactors in red coats with guns lowered, bayonets on the end
(AmRevNC photograph)

Around noon, you hear orders yelled to fix bayonets and march. Drums beat and fifes sound. Moments later the first soldiers emerge from the woods at the edge of the farm. Men move around trees and buildings as needed, and about where you stand they re-form into a good line. Most are regular British “Redcoats.” To your far left, blocked from view by the woods along that side of the homesite, are dark-green-coated mercenaries from Germany called “Hessians.” No Loyalist or “Tory” militia are know to participate. Some were assigned to guard the baggage, but many N.C. Tories were scared off by several Patriot victories against them in recent months.

First Patriot Line

Tour the farm site if you wish. Then return to your car and:

  1. Go out the north driveway from the lot, to New Garden Road.
  2. Turn right, and continue to where it forks at the National Military Park sign.
  3. Curve right and park in the Visitor Center parking lot.
    Note: A tour of the center is highly recommended, to see the artifacts and film and pick up a free park map.
  4. Take the paved trail across from the center’s entrance.
    Note: If you’re only driving, continue to Auto Tour Stop #2 to read this section. You drove past the location described here as you entered the park grounds, where the road to your right joins New Garden.
  5. At the first cross trail, turn right and walk to the “American First Line” marker.
  6. Read the marker, and continue on the trail downhill across the Auto Tour Road.

As you near the trail’s end at New Garden Road, you will see an unpaved trail to your left to a small monument within a fence in the woods. Either go to that monument, or continue to the road and look toward the farm.

The monument marks the grave of Capt. Joseph Tate of the Virginia militia. He was killed at the Battle of New Garden and moved here in 1891.[4]

Button for audio tourThe distant fence you “saw” from the farm is right in front of you, extending as far as you can see to the right and left except for a gap at New Garden Road. There is nothing between you and the farm except, as mentioned earlier, another fence running parallel to the near one, roughly halfway across the muddy farm fields.

Before the battle, two six-pounders are side-by side in the road, a few yards in front of the fence, facing toward the farm. On each side of the road and behind them are at least 40 regular army soldiers from North Carolina, protecting and helping with the cannons, in addition to the normal artillery men. These are likely the only remaining N.C. Continentals, the rest having been captured at the Battle of Camden (S.C.) in August.[a]

Photo looking down two-lane city road with trees and grass along the left side
(AmRevNC photograph)

Down the road from the rear comes Maj. Gen. Greene. He rides along behind the North Carolina militia lining the fence, at one point removing his hat and wiping sweat from his forehead. You hear him call out several times, “Three rounds, my boys, and then you may fall back.” He then returns up the hill.

During the artillery duel, the last British cannonball kills one of the Americans nearby in a gruesome way. By leaning forward on his knee, his body is aligned with the arc of the ball, which “‘tore the spine out the whole length of the body.’”[5]

The British you left at the farm buildings cross the fence there, re-form their line, and march toward you. The mud slows them down. At the middle fence line about 120 yards away, the troops cross, re-form again, and continue. Others who had been hidden by the woods across the road appear from the trees and do the same. Almost as soon as the British appear there, expert Patriot riflemen out of view on the far ends of this line start firing at the British and Hessians within range. (Unlike most men on the line, their weapons are “rifled,” meaning the insides of the barrels have corkscrew grooves cut into them to spin the balls. This makes them more accurate over a longer distance.)

At the first sight of the Redcoat bayonets, some of the untried militia men here dart away without firing a shot.[6] Most hold their ground, however, and their fire, for the roughly two minutes it takes the British to continue their advance after crossing the middle fence.

Look at the closest driveway on the right side of the road, roughly 50 yards away (half of an American football field).

The regiments approaching on the north side of the road have quickened their steps due to the rifle fire, perhaps pulling ahead of the units on either side of them. However, as they near 50 yards out—nearly the killing range of muskets of the day—these Royal Welch Fusiliers hesitate. (The name “Fusiliers” refers to smaller guns called “fusils” the unit carried in earlier days.[7]) Perhaps this allows the rest of the line to catch up. Meanwhile, an officer on horseback gallops in front of them. He is Lt. Col. James Webster, in command of the regiments on that side of the road. He yells, “Come on, my brave Fusiliers!” Now they break into a spontaneous run, bayonets lowered.

Painting of militia firing from behind a rail fence
(Credit: 1976 Illustration by Don Troiani, National Park Service)

When the entire British line is within 35–50 yards, around where the closest modern driveway is on the right side, the Patriot militia along the entire line opens up with a volley. It’s unclear whether this was ordered, or somebody fired and the rest joined in. Regardless, gaps open in the British line as many men fall. The well-trained soldiers fill those in and then return a volley. A number of Patriots collapse as the air fills with smoke.

The British resume their charge, some units stopping to volley again, others simply rushing toward the fence.

What happens next depends on where you are in the line. Most of the remaining militia break for the rear, many leaving behind guns, ammunition boxes, anything that might slow them down. Their senior officers wave swords, grab the arms of passing men, and curse at the rest. The braver Patriots manage to reload and fire one more round before fleeing, while a very few get off a third shot. (It takes most men at least 30 seconds to reload a musket.) The British, and their bayonet points, are within a few yards of you by the time the rest fall back.

Our next stop will help you “see” the attack.

Time and Distance

Walk back to the cross trail—the one leading to New Garden Road, but don’t turn that way. Turn right. (Or if you stayed on it, walk back the way you came.) The trail joins the Auto Tour Road. Turn right to follow it. Walk to the small monument on the left for Arthur Forbis at Auto Tour Stop #2.

Button for audio tourYou may want to read the marker and view the monument, the first on this battlefield, placed in 1887. Though marking the first line, it is not close to where Forbis fell as the marker says. His story is told near that location under the “Southern Flank.”

The larger monument placed in 2016 across the open square, in the direction of the farm, is for the British units that served here.

The grassy area in front of the Crown Forces Monument gives a better sense of what the N.C. militiamen faced. It is roughly 80 yards from the Forbis Memorial, well outside the 50-yard effective range of muskets. If the British attacking you here over the open field walked at a normal pace, they would cover the distance from the monument to the modern fence in about 30 seconds, the minimum amount of time it took most people to reload. So they are already close by the time of the first militia volley, and get extremely close in less time than it takes you to ready a second shot.

Photo looking across a narrow street, rail fence, and tree-rimmed green space with an obelisk on the far side
(AmRevNC photograph)

First Line Battle Map

Battle map: © 2020 May not be reproduced in any form without permission. Base map: © OpenStreetMap contributors.

First Line, The Battle of Guilford Court House: All troop locations are approximate. 1) British and Hessians (green) form line as N.C. militia wait behind fence. 2) Cannons exchange fire. 3) British/Hessians attack. 4) Flanks turn toward militia rifle companies that fire first, supported by reserves. 5) Most militia run, some firing 1–2 shots, a few 3. 6) Flanks withdraw away from main battle.

Second Line

Walk or drive up the tour road to Auto Tour Stop #3. Those on foot who wish to visit the grave of Maj. Joseph Winston, a Surry County militia leader who fought here and in every other major action in North Carolina, must make a side trip up to Auto Tour Stop #4. Otherwise, that stop can be skipped, because the information there is covered below. If you are only driving, read this section here, but skip “Second Line Retreat” until you get to Stop #8.

Otherwise, read the marker in the woods, and then take the Second Line Trail to the right of it. Eventually it curves left just as the largest monument on the grounds begins to appear through the trees. Bypass the trail to the right off the curve, and stop just short of where the trail curves right toward that monument.

Button for audio tourYou are standing in the second Patriot line, manned almost entirely by militia units from Virginia. Posted on this side of the New Garden Road is the brigade of Brig. Gen. Edward Stevens, mostly men from the Shenandoah Valley. Samuel Houston later describes what these frontiersmen look like. They are in heavy linen shirts “‘died brown with bark…” These are “open in front and made to extend down near to the knee and belted round the waist with dressed skin or woven girths (belts). The sleeves were large, with a wrist band… and fringed over the upper part of the hand as far as the knuckles. Under the hunting shirt was a jacket made of some finer materials, and breeches of dressed buck or deer skin to just below the knees, with long stockings and moccasins of deer leather…’”[8] Another finer flax shirt was next to the skin. (This may have been Capt. Sam Houston, of the Virginia riflemen on the left end of the first line, whose namesake son would become the president of Texas when it was briefly its own country.)[b]

About 10 yards behind this line, you see a scattered row of other men. During the Battle of Camden (S.C.) the previous August, this brigade broke and ran, contributing to a terrible Continental defeat. Stevens is not going to risk a repeat. These 40 men he has ordered to shoot whoever flinches first in the main line.[9]

Look ahead at the woods where the trail curves right.

The trees were older and larger, but the underbrush ahead of you suggests what was here at the time, perhaps only with budding leaves in mid-March. Some of the men built up small barricades of brushwood. Though they have heard the cannons and muskets from the first line, the first sights of the battle these men see is panicked North Carolina militia running past them. No doubt those men endure plenty of verbal abuse. The Virginia militia had more former Continentals, including officers, than did the North Carolinians.[c]

The British are making their way up the heavily forested slope, often blocked from view until very close. All along this line, the Virginians open fire individually from behind trees and through the bushes as the Redcoats appear, no longer in clean lines. The British halt and return fire. The training of the British keeps them from panicking even as many of their officers are hit. The battle breaks down in many places along the second line to clumps of men on both sides shooting at will. Some were probably firing blind at times, given the heavy underbrush, trees, and smoke.

Photo of dense woods and undergrowth with trail curving away at bottom right
(AmRevNC photograph)

Second Line Retreat

Continue on the trail. The oddest memorial here is to the left as you step into the open area. Judge David Schenck, the man most responsible for preserving the battlefield, insisted over family objections to moving remains of the three North Carolina signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence here. Joseph Hewes could not be found; John Penn was moved from his former plantation near today’s Kerr Lake on the Virginia border; and at least part of William Hooper was moved from Hillsborough, where you can see the original grave. They are below the column. Visit other monuments if you wish, bearing in mind many are inaccurate.

Button for audio tourWalk past the largest, the Greene Monument, to the former New Garden Road, which is just a gravel trail here.

Photo of a cannon, looking down the barrel
Reproduction six-pounder (AmRevNC photograph)

The two cannons you saw at the first line are now around here in front of the militia, firing away at the British. The same N.C. Continental company from the first line is again behind them in the road, at the moment just staying out of the way of the artillerymen.

Directly across the road is an unpaved trail. Take that to the statue at the far end. Turn right, and follow the paved trail to where it curves further left. Turn around to face the way you came.

Brig. Gen. Robert Lawson of the Virginia militia, in charge of the forces on this side of New Garden Road, sees an opportunity off to your right. As you’ll witness when we visit the Northern Flank, two British units on that end had turned to go after the riflemen we mentioned hitting them from that side. That created a large gap between them and the regiments marching toward you now, and the Virginia line extends well past the end of the approaching Redcoats.

Perhaps Lawson is close enough for you to hear him order most of the regiments here to attack, despite Greene’s orders to merely hold the line. Some stay behind to help guard the cannons, leaving a gap off the left flank of the militia who move forward through the woods.

That move is a mistake. Below you, around the greenway parking lot and modern road running side to side, the British units marching directly toward you turn to attack the left end of Lawson’s line. The men nearest them shoot back. Others, including most of them in the distance to the right, panic and retreat. Perhaps you can hear them crashing through the woods. Those who remain begin a desperate fight for survival, broken into groups in the underbrush, as at our earlier stop. At one point some of the Virginians make a charge and push the British back, but it doesn’t last.

A British officer flat on his back by a tree is offered a final shot of alcohol by a militia soldier, who “bade him to die like a brave man…”[10] Lawson himself nearly pays dearly for his mistake. Somewhere below you his horse is shot in the head and dies instantly. Lawson escapes injury from the fall and tries to direct the fight on foot. But what remains of his brigade is shoved back with him.

Face right, toward the Auto Tour Road.

Slowly the men between the British and where you stand rotate around to your right until the Patriot unit faces away from New Garden Road, as you are now. The Americans still at the road (now behind you) join them as the British turn this way and the two sides exchange bullets.

Painting of a man in a white wig in a 1700s uniform with a sash across his white vest
Lord Cornwallis (Credit: Benjamin Smith / Public domain)

However, Cornwallis sends his last infantry reserve unit, the 2nd Battalion of Guards, up New Garden Road and directly into the side of the Americans here. Now under attack from the front and the left, the remaining Virginia militia and N.C. Continentals hold their ground stubbornly.

Lord Cornwallis himself rides in front of his troops to urge them on, somewhere to your left. In other circumstances, he would look comical. His own horse was killed, so he is on a cavalry horse. Its saddlebags have swung down under the poor animal, and are catching on the underbrush as he rides through it. Cornwallis is so determined, he nearly rides into the Virginians! A British sergeant grabs the horse’s bridle to drag it and his commander back to safety.

Go back the way you came to New Garden Road, turn left, and walk along it about 50 feet uphill of the Greene Monument. Face right into the woods behind the monument.

Except for the men who broke, each side fires as many as 20 rounds along the second line. Many men are falling all around you. By that point the flints, small rocks that make the guns work, have worn out (see “How Flintlocks Work”). It takes around a minute to replace those, which combined with the 30–45 seconds it takes to reload, is too long of a gap for the militia: They have no bayonets, and the British do.

That said, many hold their ground as long as their commander Stevens, mentioned earlier, is standing about here near the road. He is standing because his horse was shot dead from under him. Now he cries out and falls to the ground, having taken a ball through his thigh. You hear him finally give the order to retreat. The men here pull back from some of the most intense fighting of the battle, a few presumably stopping to help Stevens go with them.

The militia begin to fall back up the hill. Seeing this, the British soldiers press forward, and the remaining militia troops withdraw in good order. At some point before this the cannons had already been withdrawn, by hand. Their horses are dead.

An old monument to Stevens below the Greene statue claims he was wounded there, but that does not align with historical records. Stevens did not advance his brigade the way Lawson did.

Second Line Battle Map

Battle map: © 2020 May not be reproduced in any form without permission. Base map: © OpenStreetMap contributors.

Second Line, The Battle of Guilford Court House: All troop locations are approximate. A1) British make their way through woods, which break up their lines, toward waiting Virginia militia. A2) British 1st Guards chase Americans from south end of first line (see “Southern Flank”). A3) British and Jaegers fight through woods with Americans from north end of first line. B1) Lawson’s Brigade charges. B2) Stevens’ Brigade and British break into combat in groups. B3) Part of Lawson’s Brigade breaks for rear, with others along the line. C1) British reserves are sent toward Lawson. C2) British left turns American line. C3) Stevens falls as ammunition, flints begin to fail. C4) Remaining militia fall back. C5) American left fires on delayed British.

Misplaced Monuments

Take a long walk further up New Garden Road, imagining what it would have been like for the tired and hungry British marching to an uncertain fate somewhere beyond the forest. The road slowly curves right, and then turns sharply left and down into an open area with several monuments in view. Drop down with it.

If you are driving, continue to Auto Tour Stop #5, which overlooks the described area. When leaves are down you may be able to see the New Garden Road trail below you, and get a better view of the Stuart Monument at Stop #7 on the far side.

Button for audio tourThe modern appearance of this area is misleading. At the time of the battle today’s meadows here were dense woods, more heavily forested than the “Second Line” area. Judge Schenck of the Battlefield Company mistakenly or conveniently[11] decided in the late 1800s that the Continental third line occupied the high ground on the far side of this hollow, which would mean the farm fields discussed below would have been here. Many monuments were incorrectly placed here on that assumption after his company clear-cut this area .

Photo of a mowed arc around longer grass and trees, with a short obelisk in the distance on the left
Stuart Monument, rear left (AmRevNC photograph)

The one visible along a trail to your left, the Stuart Monument, cannot be where the man it honors fell in “The Melee” described below. It is possible his sword was found there as the monument states. The next monument down the road on that side, to the Continental cavalry, is definitely misplaced.

In short, the only fighting that happened here was the Redcoats with the undergrowth, trying to keep their units together in the thick forest and broken terrain.

The Third Line Engages

Photo of a corner of a hill on the right, seen from the top, with bare trees and a road running below it on the left
(AmRevNC photograph)

Continue up New Garden Road until it rejoins the Auto Tour Road. If you wish, go partway up the paved trail to the right just before the road, until you are high enough to see the top corner and past it into the valley ahead of you. The British cannon mentioned in the next section were on or near the corner, possibly further forward before the tour road was cut through the hill.

Continue to where you can see into the creek valley on either side. If driving from Auto Tour Stop #5, pause at the spot after the New Garden Road trail rejoins the tour road from the left. You passed the cannon spot above you to your left.

Button for audio tourThis area, too, looks little like it did on the day of the battle. Other than the rise you passed between the tour road and the New Garden Road, the ground was flatter. Erosion and/or later development in this vicinity may have made the creek wider and its valley deeper. Older maps do not show the rise you passed extending to the left of the trail/road juncture, suggesting part of it is human-made. At the time of the battle, the road dropped down through the valley and across the creek.

Most importantly, there are no trees in 1781. Participants in the battle later referred to this small valley as “the vale.” On both sides of the creek you see plowed fields of mud. To the left they disappear straight north into the distance, and on the right side they curve around the heights ahead of you.

The combination of the open depression of the vale overlooked by higher ground, referred to as “the terrace” by participants, is part of what caught Greene’s military eye when camped on the ridge during the Race to the Dan.

All along the edge of the terrace to the left of the road are blue-coated Continental Army soldiers. Most of these are veterans of multiple battles, some dating back to northern campaigns at the start of the war. The Continentals of the third line are the distance of six football fields from the second line, so they have no idea how the fight is going. For nearly 90 minutes smoke and noise have been crossing over the distance, and little else than the retreating militiamen. That amount of time passing without any Redcoats must be encouraging to the men here.

Photo of a small, forested rise angled along a road
(AmRevNC photograph)

As the second line withdraws, more militia soldiers pass you, plus a few Continentals hauling the two cannon. Other Virginia Patriots are moving into and across the fields for as far as you can see left and right. Some run, weaponless. Many are wounded. Some militia units have no officers, but move up the road or stream through the vale on their own.

The third line fighting starts further north (outside of the military park, visited in the “Northern Flank” section below.) The British 33rd Foot attacks across the vale there, but their first charge is repulsed. About the time the 33rd is retreating, the 600 remaining Redcoats of the 2nd Guards, who we saw at the second line, march past you and down into the vale on both sides of New Garden Road. They angle toward the Continentals. Riding in front of them is Brig. Gen. O’Hara and the regimental commanders. Some rebel bullets take out several men each.

To and Fro

Walk up the road until you can see the reproduction six-pounder cannons ahead to the left, and you are fairly close to the bicycle road sign on the right. If driving, continue to Auto Tour Stop #6. You can view or walk back to this location from there.

Look downhill.

Button for audio tourAs you walked or drove, you passed on the left the 2nd Maryland Regiment, now on your right. This unit is newer, made up of draftees and men paid by others wanting to avoid the draft. They don’t know each other and few have battle experience. Some of their officers have only been with them for a week.[12]

Drawing of three soldiers in blue coats, tricorn hats, and muskets talking to an officer with a pike
Continental Army soldiers

Their line faces the road here and curls to the right to face west across the vale. The two Continental cannons are where you stand or a little uphill, in the road (not where the models are today, though possibly in line with them). They likely are firing cans or bags of metal balls, sometimes called “grapeshot,” like they are large shotguns. Perhaps they are temporarily blocked as the Maryland officers move the men partway down the slope when the British appear. The cannons open up again over their heads.

It’s unclear whether the British form a line, but they jog forward, halt long enough to fire volleys in small groups (platoons), then pick up again, running straight at the 2nd Maryland with bayonets gleaming. Hand-to-hand fighting breaks out briefly, and many Patriots fall to the British steel.

Turn around and notice the next marker uphill (“Third Line Trail”), just past where the tour road splits again from the gravel trail. At the paved trail by that marker, or close by, the Reedy Fork Road formed a “T” intersection with New Garden from the left (north).

The unit then crumbles, realizing the British can “flank” them—get around their left end. Ignoring their remaining infuriated officers, they run back past their former position and up either Reedy Fork or New Garden roads. Lt. Col. Otho Williams rides back and forth trying to rally them, but panic has taken over. The excited Redcoats run up the road and gain control of the cannon here.

A Commander’s Close Call

Take the Third Line Trail. It turns left, but the Reedy Fork Road continued straight north. This end of the trail runs roughly behind where the third line stood.

Investigate the cannon models if you like. Then continue down the trail to where it takes a hard left turn into the vale. You will pass a marker about the British victory, which repeats a Cornwallis myth we will debunk later.

Button for audio tourThe Redcoats almost capture an even bigger prize. Thanks to a thick stand of trees here or ahead of you, Greene apparently doesn’t realize why his troops are running away. He has ridden down Reedy Fork Road. Suddenly the British are on the near side of the copse, 30 yards away from him, uphill of you. A colonel points out the danger, and he quickly rides away.

Because of the same copse, the British had apparently not seen a bigger danger to them: The 1st Maryland is on the other side, considered by some the finest fighters in the entire Continental Army. The unit had been facing directly west. Now it is marching at an angle in a line toward you and the Redcoats and into the vale, thus aiming between the Guards and the rest of their army! Officers order their men back down the road, giving up the cannons and reforming their line at the far edge of the vale.

If visiting when leaves are down, look diagonally into the woods and spot what looks like a ditch running uphill, the former ravine mentioned in the next section.

The Melee

Button for audio tourContinue down the trail into the vale.

The two sides begin to exchange shots as the Continentals move past you from the base of the terrace. When they are nearly on top of each other near the road, reportedly 12 yards apart[13], each lets loose a volley in a merging sheet of flame.

About this time, Continental cavalry under Lt. Col. William Washington (third cousin to George) leap a ravine across Reedy Fork Road, gallop to New Garden Road, and charge into the vale left to right. N.C. and Virginia militia cavalry that had been posted across New Garden join in.

The most vicious fighting of the day, as violent as any in the Revolutionary War, happens all around you. Lines break down into a general melee. Brutal personal combat occurs between two of the most experienced infantry regiments of the time and Washington’s veteran cavalry.

Photo of a small valley covered in fall leaves, with sun coming through trees and a road embankment in the rear
Melee area view toward New Garden Road, at left rear (AmRevNC photograph)

In a famous example, British Lt. Col. James Stuart of the Guards sees a clump of Marylanders led by Capt. John Smith killing many of his troops. (This is the Stuart of the monument and sword mentioned earlier.) Stuart rushes through the melee and thrusts his short sword at Smith. However, his foot catches on the man Smith just killed, and he comes down on the body with one knee. Smith has time to shift to the right and raise his left arm out of the way of the blade, though its hand guard brushes his chest. Smith pivots and swipes Stuart to the ground with his sword, killing him. Guards come to Stuart’s defense; Smith’s sergeant kills one, and Smith drops a second, but a third fires point-blank into the back of Smith’s head. Smith’s men drag him away. Fortunately for him, the gun only had buckshot loaded, so he lives to tell the story. A later business partner recorded it in a letter.[14]

British Gen. O’Hara, already wounded in his thigh at the second line, is shot in the chest and falls from his horse. His men rally around him and press the Marylanders briefly, but the latter form into a semblance of a line and charge, driving the Redcoats back. The British are pressed on three sides, by the 2nd Maryland angling in from your right and the cavalry to the front and your left. With most of their officers on the ground, the British begin backing out of the vale.

Button for audio tourWalk back to New Garden Road near the Third Line marker. Look again toward the small hill pointed out earlier, by the New Garden trail on the left past the tour road curve.

By this point, two of the British cannons from the first line have been pulled forward to that rise and overlook the vale. You should duck, because they fire grapeshot in this direction to drive back the American cavalry. Several are felled, including Capt. Griffin Fauntleroy, who takes a musket ball or grapeshot through the thigh and later dies on the field. His horse is smart enough to get out of there, back up the road. The other cavalry follow—not realizing the Continental commander, Washington, has dismounted, due to a problem with his horse’s tack! He manages to get it fixed without getting killed and follows them.

Some of the grapeshot may have hit some of the British, giving rise to a legend that Cornwallis ordered artillery fire into the melee despite the danger to his own men. That was embellished from a claim by Light Horse Harry Lee, writing 30 years later and still engaged on the Southern Flank at this point of the battle.

At the same time, two more British units finally get through the woods and enter the vale to your left, and another starts entering from the right. Tarleton’s green-coated cavalry appear on the New Garden Road below the British artillery. The Marylanders’ commander sees they are in danger of being surrounded themselves, and orders his men to retreat back up the terrace toward Reedy Fork Road. The British infantry and cavalry push toward the terrace from all angles, eventually capturing many men. After the Americans retire in good order, the British also regain the two Continental cannons. However, the battle’s remaining events suggest they did not repeat the mistake of a headlong rush after the Patriots.

Court House Campsite

Go further uphill to the next marker along the New Garden Road (nearest the Auto Tour Stop #6 parking lot). Stand at the marker and look across the trail.

Button for audio tourThe flat-topped rise on the left is the likely location of the Guilford County Court House, probably a small rectangular log building aligned along the New Garden Road, surrounded by a clearing as you see today. In addition to its role as the seat of county government (as county courts were in those days), it served as a mustering point for local militia like Arthur Forbis throughout the war. Among other outbuildings on the grounds, including one across Reedy Fork, is a military supply depot.[15] The courthouse was also Greene’s headquarters when the army first camped here on the way to Virginia. The men likely spread all over the terrace then.

The civil war between Tories and Whigs that was part of the Revolution took a bloody turn here—literally. Two Loyalists were captured by Whig militia and brought to the court house for trial (date unknown). Both were found guilty, and one was executed by firing squad. The other was “spicketed,” according to a witness: “‘that is, he was placed with one foot drove (sic) in a block, and was turned around… until the pin run through his foot.’” The witness, whose mother had been whipped by Tories, described it as cruel but admitted he “‘viewed the punishment with no little satisfaction.’”[d]

Photo of a small, grassy rise with some trees above a gravel path
(AmRevNC photograph)

At the end of the battle, a seriously wounded British soldier had wandered a few steps to this side of Reedy Fork Road with a pike (staff with an iron tip) still in hand. He apparently collapsed there. As the last of the Continentals are marching away, he spots a fellow Irishman among them and begs for water. That man accommodated him. According to a witness: “‘When he turned to go away, and before he had got any distance, (the Redcoat), so frenzied with pain and thirst… that he did not know what he was doing, threw his staff, with all his remaining strength, at his benefactor, and the iron point struck him, but inflicted only a slight wound.’” The Continental turned back and shoved his bayonet through the man’s heart. The British soldier was probably the last man killed in the battle, though by no means the last to die from it.[16]

The next day, the courthouse becomes the field hospital for the American wounded. They are tended by some British surgeons and a Continental one requested by Cornwallis at the same time Greene was offering him. Their letters apparently crossed in transit.

On his post-war tour of the Southern states in 1791, Pres. George Washington made a point of visiting where this momentous battle occurred, and stopped at the courthouse. He wrote in his diary on June 2, “I examined the ground on which the action of Greene and Cornwallis commenced, and after dinner rode over where their lines were formed and the score closed in the retreat of the American forces.” Dinner was in the courthouse with local notables, possibly including former N.C. militia general Griffith Rutherford, who missed the battle because he was a prisoner of war.[17]

The Continentals Retreat

Button for audio tourWalk or drive around the Auto Tour Road. It takes a long arc left as an apartment complex comes into view on the other side of the woods. The road then curves gently right and again left, starting back downhill. Stand or park by the road here at its northernmost point before you drop down.

Painting of a line of soldiers in a mix of blue and brown coats, with muskets, curving to the left on a height with an officer on horseback behind
(Credit: Illustration by Don Troiani, National Park Service)

At the start of the battle, the third line continued to the right into the modern apartment complex. The 2nd Virginia Regiment of regular Continentals is to your immediate right, angled slightly north where the terrace curves backward near the corner of the complex. The 1st Virginia is on the other side of that inward curve. The right end of the 1st Maryland was around here before they charged into the vale to the left. The north end of the farm fields is probably downhill from you, though the vale continues far to your right.

The troops to your right have exchanged attacks with the British and are under pressure (described under the “Northern Flank”). After his brush with capture, Greene returns up Reedy Fork Road behind you into the complex area and is too far north to witness the melee. Washington’s cavalry probably passes the same way after they are driven off. Perhaps on seeing them, Greene fears the 2nd Maryland has broken as well. Regardless, he begins to organize a retreat back to Troublesome Iron Works.

He orders the 1st Virginia to wheel backwards into a line across Reedy Fork Road, somewhere in today’s complex. He has other Virginia/Delaware Continentals who were further north move up the edge of the terrace toward you, part of them probably facing the vale, and the rest bending back to meet up with the Virginians. This will be the rear guard to protect the retreat.

Next he has the 2nd Virginia break off from its vale combat and fall back through the guard. Meanwhile, the troops from the melee begin moving up the road here in good order. Greene decides to leave his two other six-pounder cannons, which are on the edge of the terrace by the nearest apartment buildings, since their horses are dead like those of the earlier set. Most of the N.C. militia had obviously fled the area and headed home, given the high count of “missing” men who never report at the Iron Works. Many if not most of the Virginia militia had already retired up the road. So only the Marylanders were left south of the rear guard. When the last of them are through, the guard units withdraw into the distance. Shortly after, the British infantry walks behind you in careful pursuit, re-formed into lines. Eventually, Tarleton’s cavalry rides past, after a bloody errand to the southern flank described below.

Somewhere further down the road, the infantry halts. They are exhausted and can continue no further. Greene stops about three miles from here just across Reedy Fork Creek (where the Lake Brandt Dam is today). There Tarleton makes a final charge only to be turned back by a final volley.

It is 2:30 p.m. A British officer pulls out his pocket watch and reports to his men that from the initial picket exchange at the Hoskins Farm, the battle has lasted two hours and 27 minutes. Greene waits a few hours for his stragglers to arrive, and then marches everyone back to their previous camp at the Iron Works.

If you are only driving, continue to Auto Tour Stop #8 and read the “Second Line Retreat” section you skipped earlier. The statue mentioned in its instructions is the one uphill from the parking lot, of a man in a fedora and coat.

This is the end of our tour within the national park. But there was much more to this battle, described in driving tours of the southern and northern flanks in the next two sections.

Third Line Battle Map

Battle map: © 2020 May not be reproduced in any form without permission. Base map: © OpenStreetMap contributors.

Third Line, The Battle of Guilford Court House: Troop, courthouse, and added road locations are approximate. A1) As Continentals await, British 33rd Foot and then jaegers attack, are repulsed. A2) British 2nd Guards charge along road. A3) 2nd Maryland counterattacks. A4) 2nd Guards push them into retreat, capture cannons. B1) 2nd Virginia counterattacks, stalls in vale. B2) 1st Maryland and cavalry attack, melee results, 2nd Guards fall back. B3) British cannons, and arrival of units, drive Marylanders off. C1) Greene forms rear guard, orders retreat. C2) 33rd Foot charges again, takes terrace. C3) British infantry follows a short distance. C4) British cavalry follows to Reedy Fork Creek, is repulsed.

Southern Flank

The southern ends of the first American and British lines broke away and essentially fought their own separate battle. To “see” that action:

  1. From the Visitor Center lot, turn left onto modern New Garden Road (or if already driving, continue on the tour road past the center).
  2. Pass the Hoskins Farm and turn left at Battleground Avenue.
  3. Get in the right lane and drive to the first right, Downing Street.
  4. Turn right, and park next to the small park on the right.

Button for audio tourIf you wish, walk down the steps and to the far end of the green strip behind the playground. Look down the waterway, noticing the slope to the left. Both are partially visible from your vehicle.

You are near the end of the first British line containing the Hessian regiment (mercenaries from Germany). They faced another obstacle within the woods here, the ravine you are standing in. A Hessian major describes it as “‘a deep ravine in front of us with high banks filled with water. We crossed it with much difficulty…’”[18].

Photo of a wide creek within a tree-filled valley
(AmRevNC photograph)

Follow the Hessians:

  1. In your vehicle, turn around at the end of the street and return to Battleground Avenue.
  2. Turn left, and then immediately right onto British Lakes Drive.
  3. Continue until you see a low rail fence near the end of the street, and Old Battleground Road ahead of you, and park.

As of 2020, the open land behind the fence is an undeveloped part of the battlefield park. You can stay in your vehicle, or if you wish, walk to the left end of the fence. Continue past the fire hydrant, and you should find a mowed path. Walk in to the lowest point, where rainwater sometimes drains.

Button for audio tourAt the start of the battle, the American first line continues somewhere between you and the modern house on your right. Near the house site, the line angles behind you and to your left to cross today’s British Lakes Drive. (Looking at the land, it seems possible the angle roughly paralleled this watercourse if it existed then, though probably uphill behind you.) Recall that there is another cornfield on the far right of the British line, separated by trees from the fields near the farm. The field extends at least to the cleared area uphill of you, and possibly all the way to the watercourse (maps from the time differ).

Photo of a mowed trail to the left through high grass with trees in the background
(AmRevNC photograph)

Manning both sides of the angle in the line are 200 militia riflemen from Virginia under Col. William Campbell, commander of the Overmountain Campaign that won the Battle of King’s Mountain six months earlier. They already fought in the morning at the Battle of New Garden.

Around the turn behind you are perhaps 75 cavalry and 80 infantry under Harry Lee.[e] Prior to the start of action, according to one militia soldier posted in the area, Lee rides nearby and says, “My brave boys, your lands, your lives and your country depend on your conduct this day! I have given Tarleton hell this morning and I will give him more of it before night!’” He was referring to the Battle of New Garden, which you saw him return from at the farm.

As on the northern end, the riflemen here open fire on the flank of the British line as it appears. Some of the Hessians wheel this way, and Cornwallis sends help, the British 1st Battalion of Guards. (Combined with a similar decision on the northern flank, this means he has already committed most of his reserves minutes into the battle.)

Walk across the watercourse and as far uphill as you can get. Along the front line to your right, the unit just uphill from the riflemen is the Guilford County Regiment, including Capt. Arthur Forbis, whose monument we visited earlier.

As the British approach off to his right, Col. James Martin notices a Redcoat officer waving on his men with a sword, about 100 yards out. Martin asks Forbis if he has a good enough rifle to shoot the man, and Forbis says yes. Forbis may never have been in a battle before, because he asks Martin if he should shoot the man. Perhaps he is unsure of what is considered honorable on the battlefield. Martin says yes, but “let him come to within 50 yards and then take him down.” Forbis rests his gun on the fence rail and waits. At the appointed distance, he pulls the trigger. The Redcoat, probably Lt. Archibald McPherson, falls dead.

The first British/Hessian volley drops Forbis, however, with bullet wounds in his side and one leg. The troops along here are among those who mostly stay to fire a second round. The Hessians fall back about 40 yards to your left, regroup, and charge again. Now most of the militia take off.

However, four men around Forbis, plus scattered others along the line nearby, fire the third volley Greene had requested. Some stay long enough to swing their weapons around and club at the Hessians while bayonets are thrust through the fence. The remainder take off, except two men who are face down on the ground—alive. They faked being dead to avoid being bayonetted on the ground, as was often done.[19]

Perhaps Forbis seemed dead, because he avoided that fate, too. After the battle, Forbis is also overlooked by the British and local Quakers who come to help the wounded. As he lies on the ground in the cold and rain, one Tory militiaman he begs for water stops and gives it to him. (Loyalists are not known to have fought here, but local ones apparently scoured the battlefield afterward.) Sometime later he asks another passing by for the same. Instead, that man drives a bayonet into him. Somehow Forbis survives, and more than a day later, a lady from his neighborhood searching for her brother finds Arthur. She gets him onto her horse and carries him home. Sadly, a week later he dies. (You can pay your respects and learn more at the Forbis Grave and Memorial south of Greensboro.)

When the N.C. militia retreats from the first line, Lee orders his horsemen to withdraw along a narrow path through the trees, perhaps where Old Battleground Road runs further south today, and the infantry follow in good order. The British and Hessian units follow as well, though the Hessians are delayed by the resistance of Forbis’s and Campbell’s men.

Death where the Dead Now Lie

Go to your vehicle if on foot, and follow the Continentals:

  1. Drive to the end of British Lakes Drive and turn right onto Old Battleground Road.
  2. At the next major intersection, Battleground Avenue, turn left.
  3. Take a left at the next stoplight, Pisgah Church Road.
  4. Take the first left, Forest Lawn Drive (at the signs to county park facilities).
  5. Take the next left to stay on Forest Lawn.
  6. Pass through the gates of the cemetery and continue to where the road splits at the cemetery map.
  7. Take the right fork and then turn right again.
  8. Park, or turn around if you plan to stay in your vehicle.

Button for audio tourEyewitness reports from this part of the battle are confusing, so historians have struggled to say what happened where. This section presents a plausible description based on those reports and an assumption that the land has not been significantly reshaped in this part of the cemetery.

Look across the small valley with a stream running diagonally into the distance, to the right of and behind the cemetery map.

Just over the small ridge on the other side of the stream is the end of the American second line, barely out of your sight. Lee’s and Campbell’s men have followed parallel ridgelines pointing here from the first line. They catch up to you, going up and over the knoll behind you (shared now by the cemetery and Greensboro Country Park). Imagine the entire area you see covered in forest, like the woods in the park across the modern fence. The British 1st Guards have chased the Americans in a moving fight the entire way. Most Americans do not have bayonets, and keep pulling back further to fire at a distance. The 1st Guards likely kept trying to catch up where their bayonets will have an advantage!

In doing so, they pass the end of the second American line. They get close enough to it that the Virginia militia there under Maj. Alexander Stuart open fire on their flank. The 1st Guards take casualties, turn, and charge the Virginians, who probably bend their line back to face them better. No doubt to everyone’s surprise, the militia then countercharge, driving the British back and across the little valley in front of you onto the rise on the left. That moves both units away from the main battle. The Guards then drive them back, and the two units repeat this sequence of charge and countercharge again. Stuart’s unit ends back near the former American second line after the rest of the Virginia militia have withdrawn, but angled away from it.

Photo of a green area with a creek on the left side and trees behind
(AmRevNC photograph)

Now, however, the Guards have a new problem. Lee’s cavalry and infantry, and Campbell’s riflemen, come over the knoll from behind and/or the right of you and strike the British from the side, angling behind them. The fighting becomes desperate for this highly disciplined veteran unit pressed on three sides in the woods.

Every British lieutenant and captain falls. One who dismounted for the pursuit has a sergeant go back for his horse, because he is wounded in the leg. When the horse arrives he remounts only to be shot “‘through his lungs.’”[20] Now broken into small clusters, the Guards face annihilation.

But the Hessians finally arrive on the scene. They slam into the side of Stuart’s Virginians, who realize they have been flanked and retire uphill to the right again. Next the Hessians wheel in the direction of Lee’s forces, coming around the 1st Guards to your right as the Guards fall back to the left and re-organize.

Untimely Departure

Turn around and look up the knoll.

Photo looking up a cemetery hill, from the end of a diagonal line of tombstones
The knoll (AmRevNC photograph)

Button for audio tourApparently Lee’s troops back partway up this knoll, ahead and to the left of you. Campbell’s men are on the end to your right. The Hessians, soon joined again by the Guards, start attacking straight up past you. Meanwhile Stuart’s militia attacks them from behind. All of these soldiers are now at right angles to their original locations and the main battle.

The woods all around you are filled with groups of British and Hessian soldiers firing at the nearest groups of Continentals and militia. Depending on which way they are facing at the moment, the King’s men find themselves fired upon from all directions. In many places throughout the little valley, you see only flashes of gunshots through the smoke and forest, and hear their reports along with yelling—and the screaming of the wounded.

As if things weren’t bad enough for the Hessians, the woods to the left, where they are, catch fire from burning bits of cartridge paper used to pre-pack bullets and powder. Roughly along the base of the knoll, toward or in the modern park, some of the wounded are burned alive.

Roughly 30 minutes after the first actions between Stuart’s militia and the Guards, Lee orders his infantry and cavalry off the knoll around the Hessians. They head for the third-line terrace. (Lee claims in his memoirs decades later that he was heading off to support Greene at the end of that fight.) But he fails to coordinate with Col. Campbell, and his timing is terrible. Shortly after the last of Lee’s men disappear, there is a momentary lull from the valley. Then a volley sends flame and smoke up the knoll at Campbell’s militia. Seconds later, Tarleton and half of his British Legion of cavalry attack Campbell’s men from somewhere behind the modern cemetery map. They are coming right at you through the woods, swords waving!

Painting of a man in a green coat, white pants, and black-plumed hat leaning on his sword
Banastre Tarleton

The main battle is largely over; Cornwallis has sent Tarleton from the far side of the field to see why he can still hear fighting here. Tarleton’s troops probably rode all the way down New Garden Road after the melee in the vale, and ended up on the same path Lee had used to withdraw from the American first line. Tarleton ordered the organized volley to cover his attack. Now his sabres begin to fall on Campbell’s riflemen. They sprint east into the modern park area, but the forest is thin enough for horses to follow. Many of these Virginians are killed or wounded after the outcome of the battle has already been decided.

Campbell was furious with Lee for leaving his men exposed that way, but died from disease five months later, before he could do anything about it.

However, Campbell’s men get a small degree of satisfaction. Contrary to some later reports, it is somewhere within your sight that a gunshot takes off two of Tarleton’s fingers on his right hand.

One Virginian, the aptly named David Steel, receives more than a dozen sword cuts in this action, including a deep cut to his head after he surrenders. He plays dead. When the British leave the area, he is helped off the field by friends. A surgeon cuts a section out of his skull and replaces it with a silver plate.

The next year a French visitor at his home asks Steele why he has difficulty moving. Steele’s wife brings out the section of his skull as Steele tells the story![21]

Southern Flank Battle Map

Battle map: © 2020 May not be reproduced in any form without permission. Base map: © OpenStreetMap contributors.

Southern Flank, The Battle of Guilford Court House: Troop locations are guesses. A1) British 1st Guards attack Virginia second-line militia; these units attack and counterattack twice. A2) Continental cavalry, Virginia riflemen attack Guards from rear/side. B1) Guards are pressed from three sides. B2) Hessians arrive from first line, charge militia, militia withdraw. C1) Hessians push cavalry, riflemen back; Guards reform to join them. C2) Militia attack, British/Hessians fight surrounded. C3) Cavalry withdraws. C4) British cavalry attacks riflemen; they and militia retire.

Northern Flank

As on the southern flank, units on the northern flank drifted away from the main fighting in the center, though not as far. The area is now covered by a shopping center and modern housing, and looks entirely different than it did during the battle. The position of the American first line is on private property. Thus this section is a driving tour of the second and third lines only:

  1. Exit the cemetery.
  2. At Pisgah Church Avenue, turn right.
  3. At Battleground Avenue, turn right again.
  4. Drive past New Garden Road 0.5 miles, to the last major intersection before I-840, Cotswald Avenue.
  5. Turn right at Cotswold Avenue.
  6. Take the next road on the right, Cotswold Terrace, and notice the apartment complex on the right as you pass it.
  7. Cross Old Battleground Road using the roundabout, and take the next right, Harrow Place.
  8. Stop near or in the cul-de-sac.

Button for audio tourNear a stream directly below the modern apartment complex you passed on Cotswold Terrace is the north end of the American first line of N.C. militia. As at the southern end, the last bit of straight line is manned by another 200 Virginia riflemen. Probably angled along the small rise the complex occupies, and facing inward (to its left from here), are 110 detached Virginia and Delaware full-time Continental soldiers.

Among them is an example of the Patriot volunteers who wandered in one by one to help, John Larkin. Before the action began, he showed up with a rifle and some cooked meat on a spit. A local Irish immigrant, Larkin “‘sat down, striking his spit into the ground beside him. He calmly ate from the meat while preparing his rifle…’”[22]

There is no fence or field; the men take positions behind trees in thick woods instead of in a regular line. Behind them are the 86 Continental cavalry under William Washington you saw at the later melee, joined by militia cavalry.[f]

Drawing of three soldiers in green uniforms, one in front with a sword drawn
Hessian jaegers or “hunters” (Credit: Charles M. Lefferts / Public domain)

As mentioned before, the riflemen there are among the first to fire at the advancing British line, along with those on the southern flank. As the rest of the front line breaks, the British regiment on this end of their line, the 33rd Foot (infantry), wheels in that direction toward the men still fighting. As that unit separates from the rest, the 23rd Foot, closer to the New Garden Road, begins turning that way as well. Out of sight in the woods further to your right, Cornwallis sends reserves to protect the left flank of the 33rd. These include German rangers known as “jaegers” (“hunters”).

The Continental soldiers wait, like the other musket bearers, until the Redcoats are within 50 yards before firing. In general the men in that area hold their position the longest, with most of the militia firing at least three volleys as Greene requested. When the British are almost within bayonet range, the Americans pull back toward the second line here in good order. The Redcoats and jaegers follow them into the woods.

Look past the houses at the end of Harrow Place.

At the start of the battle, the second line of Virginia militia ended in this vicinity, aligned with the end of the straight part of the first line. As elsewhere on the second and third lines, the first visible signs of the battle other than smoke is the many N.C. militiamen running through the trees right to left. Finally the Redcoats become visible in the woods to your right. The men here are among those who break early, as described under “Second Line.”

After that, the first-line Continentals, militia, Redcoats and jaegers slowly fight through this area. The forested ground is far more jumbled at the time, which slows both sides. As seen on the southern flank, the lines are broken up and groups of men fight tree to tree. The Delaware and Virginia Continentals make a stand around here next to Lawson’s forces after those are driven back, even pushing the British/Germans briefly, before resuming their fighting retreat.

A Courageous Climb

You will follow them as you drive:

  1. Go back to Cotswald Terrace and turn right.
  2. Take the next right, Cottage Place.
  3. Past the second left, Pall Mall Place, you will see a triangular side yard on the right, where a wooded creek bed approaches the road.
    Note: Large vehicles that would block traffic by parking there can turn into Pall Mall, turn around in its cul-de-sac, and park facing downhill for a partial view.
  4. Park just past the traffic bump before the road narrows.

For safety you may stay in your vehicle; otherwise watch for traffic as you get out, and go to where the creek is nearest the road (off private property), or across the street. The creek bed was not as deep then: The ground you are standing on has been raised, so it was closer to the level of the land below Cottage Place on the far side.

Button for audio tourThe apartment complex across the creek and above you is the same one we saw under “The Continentals Retreat.” Look along the creek toward the modern house in the triangle.

You are back in the vale, north of the melee site. The creek is the same one you saw there. This part of the vale is still woods in 1781, not cleared fields.

Along the edge of the terrace at the start of the battle are the Virginia Continentals described in the “Retreat” section. The 1st Virginia Regiment is on this side as it rises higher, and the 2nd Regiment is on the far edge facing partially toward you. The latter includes many new recruits, and around 12% of the men are African or African-American.[23] (Other Continental units have similar percentages, but we have more details about this one.) Two more 6-pounder cannons are on a corner of the terrace where it curves more sharply inward between the Virginians (above the far end of the house). These are placed to rake across the end of the ravine to the right and that part of the vale.

Photo of a lawn on the right curving right, with trees on the left and houses below the curve
Cannon position on terrace looking toward vale, not open to the public (AmRevNC photograph)

The first men to arrive after the battle starts, other than maybe the N.C. militia, are the remains of the Virginia and Delaware regiments we met at the first line. They cross the vale behind you and take positions at the far north end of the terrace (further down Cottage Place, facing what now is its rightward curve).

As mentioned before, the 33rd Foot is the first British unit to attack the third line. About 250 men are left when it gets to the top of the slope on your right where Pall Mall Place runs now, steeper at the time. They slide down into the vale and form a new line stretching past the cannon location, and then march directly against the 2nd Virginia on the far edge of the terrace.

Photo of lawn and houses on right, creek and trees on the left, and trees behind
(AmRevNC photograph)

This may be the bravest charge of the battle. Under heavy gunfire from both Virginia regiments and grapeshot from the cannons, the Redcoats scramble up the terrace and reach the Continentals. The 2nd stands firm, despite its relative lack of experience. After brief hand-to-hand combat, the 33rd is forced to slide back into and across the vale and return up the slope on the right.

Behind you, the jaegers and 2nd Guards attack the Virginia/Delaware units shortly after the 33rd’s charge. They apparently fall back when it does.

At least some of the Continentals are ordered to pursue the British. It’s unclear what happens here and behind you, but you can see the 2nd Virginia stop partway across the vale. Their officers are screaming at them to pursue the British up the hill, but these new recruits are tentative. Then the British commander, Lt. Col. Webster, who we met at the first line, apparently gives an unusual order to the Redcoats: They lie down to shoot. This makes them almost impossible to hit. Clearly more exposed, the Continentals exchange fire for a while and then back out of range (perhaps all the way up the terrace).

Later, as the vale to the south is being cleared by the British at the end of the melee, the 33rd attacks again. Ahead of you but behind them, you see Webster fall from his horse, his right knee and thighbone destroyed. (He dies in the army’s camp near Black Swamp south of Fayetteville, presumably after two weeks of agony.) Up on the terrace, on his horse just behind the line, American Brig. Gen. Isaac Huger is shot in his sword-wielding right hand. The sword totters across his lap, and he uses his left to grab it. He pulls a handkerchief from his pocket, wraps his wounded hand in it, and continues his work.

This time, however, the British attain the edge of the ridge and capture the two cannon there as well, probably because the Americans have pulled back into the rear guard described earlier. The retreat and brief pursuit continue from there, leaving behind a field of horror.

Northern flank actions are shown on the first- through third-line battle maps.

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  • Button for audio tourBritish/German: 93 killed, 413 wounded, 26 missing.
  • Continental/Militia: 79 killed, 184 wounded, 1,046 missing (mostly N.C. militia).
  • Few prisoners taken by either side, most of whom are paroled—set free on condition of not fighting again.

After the Battle

The fields and woods you visited on this tour are littered with hundreds of bodies from both sides, “side by side in helpless agony. All through the sad night their shrieks and groans are mingled too. It was fearful to hear them, men who heard them have left written, as the big rain fell upon their unprotected bodies and the cold wind swept in gusts through the forest… Sometimes a sharp shriek would be followed by a feeble groan, and the groan grow fainter and fainter till death came and all was hushed.”[24]

The British have no tents with them, so even the survivors are exposed to the night’s cold. They nonetheless camp here two days tending to the wounded, using the Hoskins house and New Garden Meeting House a few miles away as their field hospitals. They also bury their many dead, in both cases with the help of area Quakers. Some graves are in the creek bed along the northern flank.[25] American wounded are moved by residents or find their way to houses for miles around. Meanwhile, 1,300 muskets are found on the battlefield, “many still loaded…”[26]

Cornwallis is technically the “victor,” because he holds the field and has driven off Greene. However, he has lost more than 500 men killed or wounded—one-fourth of his army. The two Guards units that started out as reserves together lost 45% of their troops.[27] The British are in no position to pursue Greene, who had half as many killed and wounded. They march back out the way they came in, and camp around New Garden Meeting House for two more days.

Cornwallis eventually withdraws to the Loyalist center at Cross Creek (now Fayetteville) to heal and resupply. (Several stops are described on this site, such as Dixon’s Mill). He leaves behind 70 wounded soldiers due to a lack of wagons, as well as the wounded among his Continental prisoners.[28]

Greene pursues him as far as Ramsey’s Mill near the lower end of today’s Lake Jordan, but breaks off when Cornwallis gets across the Deep River. Instead the Continentals go to South Carolina to challenge British forces there. While in Cross Creek, Cornwallis decides he must continue to Wilmington. He will fight only one other major battle: the siege at Yorktown, Va., where Cornwallis and his army surrender.

The N.C. legislature passes a law in April drafting all N.C. militia who fled the battlefield into the state’s new Continental regiments.[g]

Man in a white tee shirt that says, "Just a Regulator Guy"

More Information

Many footnotes refer to a single source, Babits and Howard (2009). That is the only comprehensive modern account of the battle as of 2020, thus providing many unique details. But most of the information on this page was corroborated using multiple sources.

  • Babits, Lawrence, and Joshua Howard, Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009)
  • Bass, Morris, Governor Caswell Memorial Historic Site, Interview with tour, 11/7/2020
  • Caruthers, E. W. (Eli Washington), Interesting Revolutionary Incidents and Sketches of Character, Chiefly in the ‘Old North State.’ (Philadelphia : Hayes & Zell, 1856) <> [accessed 23 April 2020]
  • Caruthers, E. W. (Eli Washington), A Sketch of the Life and Character of the Rev. David Caldwell, D. D. (Greensborough, N.C. : Printed by Swaim and Sherwood, 1842) <> [accessed 23 April 2020]
  • Fortescue, John W., The War of Independence: The British Army in North America, 1775—1783 (London: Greenhill Books [u.a.], 2001)
  • Greene, George Washington, The Life of Nathanael Greene: Major-General in the Army of the Revolution (G. P. Putnam and Son, 1871), Google-Books-ID: lHRKAAAAYAAJ
  • Griffith, Daniel, An Ethnographic Overview of the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park (National Park Service, 28 January 2015) <> [accessed 23 April 2020]
  • ‘Guilford Courthouse National Military Park Audio Tour’, NPS Guilford Courthouse <> [accessed 17 August 2020]
  • Henderson, Joseph, Henri Grissino-Mayer, Saskia Van de Gevel, and Justin Hart, ‘The Historical Dendroarchaeology of the Hoskins House, Tannenbaum Historic Park, Greensboro, North Carolina, U.S.A.’, Tree-Ring Research, 65.1 (2009), 37–45
  • Hoskins House Historic District, Tannenbaum Park, National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form, 1988 <>
  • ‘James Stuart Monument, Guilford Courthouse’, Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina, 2010 <> [accessed 15 August 2020]
  • ‘James Tate Grave, Guilford Courthouse’, Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina, 2010 <> [accessed 19 August 2020]
  • Kalmanson, Arnold W., ‘Otho Holland Williams and the Southern Campaign of 1780-1782’ (Salisbury University, 1990) <> [accessed 13 May 2020]
  • Lewis, J. D., ‘The Battle of Guilford Courthouse’, The American Revolution in North Carolina, 2012 <> [accessed 8 March 2020]
  • Long, Minnie, General Griffith Rutherford and Allied Families (Milwaukee: Wisconsin Cuneo Press, 1942), Pack Memorial Library [Asheville, N.C.], Pack Library Newspaper File Collection: Biographies, Vol. 59, ROC-RYM
  • ‘Maps – Guilford Courthouse National Military Park’, S. National Park Service <> [accessed 9 March 2020]
  • Pancake, John S., This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782 (University, AL : University of Alabama Press, 1985) <> [accessed 13 October 2020]
  • Poquette, Nancy, ‘Guilford County NC Archives Military Records…..Forbis, Arthur  Revwar – Pension’, USGenWeb Archives, 2006 <> [accessed 23 April 2020]
  • Rankin, Hugh F., The North Carolina Continentals (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1971)
  • Robinson, Blackwell, The Revolutionary War Sketches of William R. Davie (Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History, 1976)
  • Sherman, Wm. Thomas, Calendar and Record of the Revolutionary War in the South: 1780-1781, Tenth Edition (Seattle, WA: Gun Jones Publishing, 2007) <>
  • ‘Tannenbaum Historic Park – Greensboro, North Carolina’ <> [accessed 8 March 2020]

[1] Based on archeological research conducted on ceramics around the house and structural logs in the walls (Henderson et al. 2009).

[2] Hoskins Farm 1988.

[3] Guilford Courthouse National Military Park Audio Tour (“Audio Tour”).

[4] Joseph Tate Grave 2019.

[5] Babits and Howard 2009.

[6] Kalmanson 1990.

[7] Military trivia buffs may know that a British historian said the use of the term “tommies” for British soldiers originated in the “American War of Independence” with a Pvt. Tommy Atkins of this regiment. However, the name had appeared in a British military context as early as 1743.

[8] Babits and Howard.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Some have suggested he knew this was not the correct location. But the first land he was able to buy in order to protect (and exploit) the battlefield ended on the far side, and it fit the description of the actual spot, as you will see.

[12] Babits and Howard.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Audio Tour.

[16] Caruthers 1856.

[17] Diary: ‘Exhibits,’ Greensboro History Museum, Greensboro, N.C., 2020; Rutherford: Long 1942.

[18] Babits and Howard.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Greene.

[25] Bass 2020.

[26] Kalmanson.

[27] Babits and Howard.

[28] Kalmanson.

[a] Sherman 2007. The N.C. legislature passed a law to draft new regiments in January, but that was not slated to happen until March.

[b] Sherman.

[c] Barricades and Continentals: Rankin.

[d] Quoted in Pancake.

[e] Riflemen and Continental troop counts from Rankin.

[f] (Same as previous.)

[g] Sherman.

New Garden | Guilford Battle Tour | Whitesell’s Mill