I never saw such fighting since God made me. The Americans fought like demons.
–Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis
With the news of Tarleton’s rout along Thickety Creek, Lord Cornwallis had to do some hard calculating, and he could not have been entirely sanguine about his prospects. He had twice lost the left wing of his advance, first at King’s Mountain and now at Cowpens. The twin disasters had cost the British more than 2,000 casualties, and with the rout of Tarleton’s green-jackets Cornwallis had lost something like half of his mounted strike force. Yet despite these bloody checks Cornwallis remained resolved to carry the war to the Americans. He was also developing a new understanding of the difficulties he faced. His enemies were not only the growing strength of the Continental Line and the surprising resilience of the militia auxiliaries but the vast distances of the American interior itself. Whatever else Cornwallis was, he was bold. Having lunged at the rebel column once and struck nothing but air, he would go after Greene again and drive him so hard he would have to fight or flee. If Greene fought in the open field, the advantage should be with his redcoats. If Greene fled, Cornwallis would push him against the Dan River on the Virginia border and bring him there to a battle he could not win. To do so, he would strip his own command to the bare bones for speed. All the ponderous impedimenta of a professional European army–baggage, tents, wagons, camp followers–were to be destroyed or abandoned. He meant to march hard and unencumbered. On 27 January 1781 he issued a last gill of rum to his soldiery; the rest–to the dismay of his men–was poured out into the sandy Carolina soil. From here on out his army would march on branch water and parched corn like their adversaries. The next day he set it in motion at a brisk route step. It must have troubled the earl somewhat to see that, despite his dispositions, his column was still dragging a long tail of women, children, and runaway blacks.
General Greene was by no means ready to give battle at this point. For one thing Morgan’s column was still trudging north from Cowpens and the main army was in camp at Cheraw; nearly a hundred and fifty miles separated the two commands. For another, Greene seems to have had an intuitive sense of Cornwallis’ design: he did not intend to be drawn into a battle at long odds or trapped against the Dan. With hardly more than a corporal’s squad Greene struck out almost immediately to pick up Morgan’s line of march and help drive that column north. At the same time he left orders with Issac Huger to march the Cheraw command with all deliberate speed to the Dan. If all went well, the two columns would be reunited in the neighborhood of Salisbury and together hike hard for the Dan. Huger would also be responsible for pushing an advance party well ahead to scoop up everything that floated and secure it on the south bank. Light Horse Harry Lee was still well to the south on the Congaree and making mischief with Marion there. Lee’s Legion would now have to gallop hard cross-country to join Greene and stiffen his rear-guard against Cornwallis’ slashing horsemen. Though Tarleton’s losses had been crippling, Cornwallis could still call on General Charles O’Hara and the Guards for aggressive pursuit. The race for the Dan was on.
And quite a race it was, both armies legging it through the sleet and sloppy snow of a raw February, over wretched roads that froze in the night and turned to gelatinous mud by day. For Greene’s men it was cheerless camps and half-rations and bloody feet. Redcoats in drizzly bivouacs might find some small solace in the fact that they were better-booted. The grimly determined marching columns, redcoat and rebel, were united in their common misery and matched each other stride for stride. When Cornwallis’ van collided with Greene’s rearguard, there were sharp little firefights and cavalry scuffles at muddy crossroads and creek fords. So the combatants pushed north from river to river, Greene not quite able to elude his pursuers and his pursuers not quite able to bring him to bay. On 4 February Greene’s column put on an astonishing burst of speed. First feinting north, they turned east toward Guilford Court House. Covering nearly fifty miles in two days, Greene’s weary men met Huger’s column just recently ordered up from Salisbury. When Lee’s Legion came loping into the courthouse town later the same day, the army was at last reunited. Reunited, but by no means out of danger, for the Dan River fords were still off to the northeast and Cornwallis still on Greene’s backtrail at Salem not far down the road. Greene actually pondered making a stand here, but his subordinates persuaded him that his men were too famished and footsore for a standup fight. They must push on to the Dan. If Cornwallis was proving a bold innovator in stripping his army down to light marching kit, Greene was proving his equal in agility. With O’Hara’s Guards constantly slashing at his heels, Greene pushed out a small detachment (about 700) just to the west of his retreating column. It was as we might say today a combat team: Washington and Lee’s cavalry, some Continentals, and militia marksmen under a tough Maryland colonel, Otho Williams. (Williams was taking up the slack for Greene in anticipation of Morgan’s departure.) For four full days O’Hara and Williams’ men made a bitter, bloody, wearing, running fight of it, but the Britons could never quite break the rebel front. It was Greene’s shrewdest move in a crisply handled retreat. Cornwallis took this push to be Greene’s last desperate effort to reach the fords of the upper Dan. While O’Hara and Williams clashed, however, Greene was already floating his main body across at Irwin’s Ferry downriver. By 13 February Greene was in Virginia and by nightfall Williams’ embattled command was across as well. Cornwallis had run a good race only to contemplate the bridgeless and boatless shores of the Dan River.
Thus, by the middle of February 1781 Cornwallis’ hard calculation, bold resolve, and prodigious marching had come to nothing. No, it was worse than that; all his striving had come to somewhat less than nothing. He had destroyed his own wagons and stores and the campaign had cost 200 casualties. It was of course possible for him to push on, crossing the Dan upriver, and continue the pursuit into Virginia. To do so, however, would mean moving farther from his base of supplies back in Camden, already 200 miles to the south. At the same time he would be pushing Greene closer to support, for Steuben was up the road drilling Continental battalions. Even if he did close with Greene, it wasn’t at all clear that he could bring him to battle on favorable terms. His own men were hungry and road-worn. To push ahead promised little, to stand down here promised less. In the end the earl withdrew slowly back down the road to Hillsboro, reaching that place on 20 February. Here he might rest, refit, and reconsider.
Despite the plain facts that his pursing column had carried with it just a hundred Loyalists and that he had met no very warm welcome from the locals along his line of march, Cornwallis now issued from Hillsboro a further and somewhat florid invitation to the Loyalists. He expressed “His Majesty’s most gracious wish to rescue his faithful and loyal subjects from the cruel tyranny under which they have groaned.” Groaning loyalists who wished to participate in their own rescue were welcome to join the colors; Loyalists who came in with a musket and ten-days’ rations were especially welcome. It may have come as a pleasant surprise to Cornwallis that his proclamation did seem to stir the Carolina Tories in some numbers. Of course, Cornwallis’ proclamation reached Greene as quickly as it did the countryside south of the Dan, and just as quickly he set out to suppress the Tory rising. Detachments of the Delawares marched south to snap up supplies and break up Tory meetings. Pickens came up to pinch off the roads to Hillsboro. Lee’s Legion galloped down on Colonel John Pyle’s Tory horsemen near Alamance Creek in a slaughter every bit as savage as anything done under Tarleton. In the end, very few Tories ever came in to Hillsboro, and Cornwallis wrote candidly to Germain that his army stood between “timid friends” and “inveterate rebels.”
Indeed, the inveterate rebels were on the march again, this time not in detachments but in force. On 23 February Greene, strengthened now by 600 fresh Virginia militia, crossed the Dan once more and pushed south. For Cornwallis this move appeared to be the opportunity he had been seeking, a chance to bring Greene to decisive battle. On 27 February he moved his army west to the country between Alamance Creek and the Haw River. For the next two weeks Cornwallis and Greene sparred sharply but inconclusively here. Though neither side was accomplishing anything in particular on this front, Greene was gaining an important advantage in his rear. From Virginia Steuben sent 400 Continentals (trained but thus far untested) and almost 1,700 militia (though these had signed on for just six weeks’ service). From North Carolina came two brigades of militia, 1,100 in sum. Reinforcements now brought Greene’s total strength to 4,400 of all arms to oppose 1,900 in Cornwallis’ camp at New Garden. Greene now proposed to give Cornwallis the battle the earl so urgently desired. On 14 March he shifted his army to Guilford Court House and prepared to let the redcoats come to him. Greene had developed a good eye for ground, and he liked what he had seen here on his retreat to the Dan. On a little hill stood the brick courthouse in the middle of a broad clearing. Southwest from the courthouse ran the Great Road. Not much more than a primitive track from New Garden and Salisbury beyond, it bisected a shallow wooded valley. If the British meant to give battle here, they would have to advance up this road between two low hills. Where the road entered the valley stood a second, somewhat narrower clearing of harvested cornfields bordered east and west by woods. It was likelier ground on which to fight than the meadow Morgan had chosen at Hannah’s Cowpens, but Greene was thinking hard now about the Old Wagoner’s counsel. “You have a great number of militia,” Morgan had written. “If they fight, you beat Cornwallis, if not, he will beat you. Put the… militia in the center with some picked troops in their rear to shoot down the first man that runs.” With this advice in mind and remembering what Morgan had achieved by defense-in-depth, Greene laid out his first line just at the edge of the second clearing: 1,000 North Carolina militia on both sides of the road would have open ground in front and woods at their back. On their right they would be supported by 200 Virginia rifles and 150 Delaware muskets, and further supported by Washington’s cavalry at the edge of the woods on the extreme right. On their left would go another 200 Virginia rifles and 150 of Lee’s Legion, both horse and foot. Straddling the road in the center would be two six-pounders. All Greene asked of the North Carolinians was to deliver two deliberate volleys and fall back through the woods. Greene posted his second line in the woods some 300 yards in their rear, two brigades of Virginia militia, one on each side of the road, 1,200 in all. Like Morgan, Greene posted his sturdiest troops in the third line, 600 yards to the rear of the second and near the crest of the courthouse rise. These were regiments of the Line: on the right Huger with 800 Virginians and on the left Williams with 600 Maryland men. As Greene was completing his dispositions, Cornwallis’ column was trudging the twelve miles from New Garden, headed for a collision at Guilford Court House.
About mid-morning on 15 March Tarleton leading the way ran into Lee’s skirmishers posted well out on the Great Road. There was a brief scuffle here and Lee’s men fell back. The encounter didn’t tell Cornwallis much except what he already knew, that there were armed Americans ahead. As he approached the village, he shook out his battle lines in two wings straddling the road, James Webster in command on the left and Alexander Leslie on the right. In reserve, he held Tarleton in the center and a mixed force of jaegers and light infantry off to his left in the woods. Then, with fifers fifing and drummers drumming, the whole line surged forward down a gentle slope, across Little Horsepen Creek, and then up into the clearing to close with the North Carolina men at its far edge. Greene’s six-pounders opened the ball but were swiftly answered by Cornwallis’ guns. Apparently, because the woods to the right of the clearing was somewhat more open, Cornwallis pushed Leslie’s wing up first. When the redcoats closed within 150 yards of the North Carolinians behind their rail fence, the militiamen let loose with a volley of rifle fire. It was a staggering blow. A captain in the 71st said simply, “one-half of the Highlanders dropped on that spot.” But the Highlanders were made of stern stuff. They surged forward with a yell, delivered a rattling volley of their own at fifty yards, and drove on at the point of the bayonet. The Carolinians here had seen enough, panicked, and ran. On the right side of the road, their comrades did a little better. They let loose against Webster’s wing at about the same time Leslie’s men were staggered, then reloaded and made ready. The Royal Welsh Fusiliers came on, as one of their number recalled, “in excellent order, in a smart run, with arms charged.” At forty yards the redcoats pulled up and leveled their muskets, and the Americans rested their rifles on the rail fence and took aim. In a moment both sides filled the air with a rattling roar, a cloud of dirty blue powder smoke, and hundreds of lethal missiles. Men fell on both sides, dead, dying, maimed. As the smoke cleared, the part-time soldiers broke and professionals pushed on.
The redcoats were in the woods now, struggling through the blackjack oak and pucker brush and feeling for the Virginia militia ahead. No one who survived the fighting here could say with certainty how the conflict unfolded except to agree that it was fierce and close. The British advance had been somewhat disordered in overrunning the Carolinians and was further broken by the heavy going in the timber. It was not possible here to organize the compact power of the bayonet attack. It seems to have been a running, ragged fight, little bands on both sides slamming away as best they could in the smoky confusion. On both flanks the nature of the fighting was clearer. On the American left Lee’s command had not been swept away with the Carolinian tide. Lee’s men along with the Virginia rifles wheeled to their right and cut up Leslie’s advance in a deadly enfilade. Leslie was quick to whistle up the 1st Guards Battalion in support, and after a spell of hard fighting the Guards managed to push Lee’s people back on high ground in their rear. They would be effectively out of the fight until the contest was decided. On the American right, Washington’s horse and foot had seen the same opportunity and wheeled left to enfilade the flank of Webster’s advance, pouring it into the redcoats with a will. But Webster was as cool and capable as Leslie across the way. He shifted his leftmost units to meet this threat and called on his light infantry supports to strike out from the woods and pitch in. Washington, like Lee, was forced to fall back, withdrawing all the way to the courthouse hill where he could reform behind the Line.
With his flanks secure again, Cornwallis now rode into the thick of the fighting in the center, at one point nearly becoming either a casualty or a prisoner of war in the wild, running melee. He called up O’Hara’s grenadiers and the 2nd Guards on his center now and pushed his whole, disjointed line forward once more. The Virginians, many of whom had been so badly used at Camden, were putting up a stiff fight in the gloomy, smoky woods, but at length one of Webster’s regiments broke through on the British left. With this blow the Americans’ second line collapsed, not in panic but broken as an organized fighting force. The redcoats had now overrun two lines of the Patriot defense, quite a piece of work for men who had hiked twelve hard miles just to reach the battlefield. But they had by no means won the battle. Up ahead were the best of Greene’s command, four regiments of the Line, Virginians on the American right and Marylanders on the left. The British surged forward once more on Webster’s front where the breakthrough had come, but if they thought they were pursuing broken and beaten rebels, they were suddenly and sadly disabused of that notion. The Continentals let them come into killing range, gave them a galling volley, and then did as their enemies would have done: they drove down the slope in a savage bayonet attack. It may be that this counterattack presented the brightest opportunity of the day for Greene. As the British streamed back down the slope in confusion, one more push all along the line might have broken the weary redcoats for good and all. But Greene hesitated and the redcoats reformed.
Now the battle blew up in its final fury. The 2nd Guards Battalion and O’Hara’s grenadiers pitched in once more, and by chance hit the only untested Line regiment, the 5th Maryland, which fled without firing a shot. The 1st Maryland stepped up smartly to wheel right on the Guards and strike them on their right flank and slow their headlong advance. At about the same time Washington’s cavalry drove dead ahead in a fierce charge. It was enough to close the gap but not enough to win the battle. Indeed, it was no organized battle now (if any battle ever is). It was a great clamorous cauldron of violence in a small space, most of it at close quarters. In all this shooting and stabbing the Americans were gaining the upper hand bit by bloody bit. For one thing the weight of numbers here was with the Patriots; for another the very crush of the fighting deprived the redcoats of their chief strength, their ability to maneuver tactically in cohesive units. Cornwallis saw the inevitable outcome of this unequal struggle as clearly as any man on the field. The responsibility was his, and he acted with remorseless will. He had two three-pounders posted on the Great Road some 250 yards to the right. He now ordered his crews to fire grapeshot into the seething and heaving mass of redcoats and rebels. The slaughter was indiscriminate, but it achieved his end. The combatants drew apart. Greene’s men fell back up the hill; Cornwallis’ men back down the hill. The British, showing both their gristly toughness as well as their thorough training, were first to reform and return to the attack. Greene now remained faithful to his conviction that the preservation of his army was infinitely more valuable than possession of a field. He had done sufficient bloody work this day and sundown was drawing near. He ordered a retreat. He was compelled to leave his wounded and his guns behind, but he withdrew, as one Briton admitted, “with order and regularity.”
Cornwallis made a show of pursuing his beaten foe north up the Reedy Fork Road, but his men were frankly fought-out for one day. And what a destructive day it had been for the victors: Cornwallis counted 93 dead, 413 wounded, and 26 captured, more than a quarter of his entire command. Greene had lost 79 dead and 185 wounded. Two days after the battle Cornwallis loaded his wounded in wagons and started them southeast for Cross Creek. (Lt. Col. Webster, who had performed so well at Guilford was among the wounded who died along the way.) On 19 March Cornwallis followed with the main body. At Cross Creek, however, he discovered that there was no food to be had in the neighborhood, and American partisans operating along the Cape Fear River made resupply from Wilmington by water a dicey thing. He might of course move cross-country to join Lord Rawdon at Camden, but doing so invited partisans along that route to dig at the flanks of his already spent command. It might even provoke Greene into marching down from the north once more. In the end Cornwallis concluded that he had no choice but to hike on for the coast. His 1,400 survivors reached Wilmington on 7 April and went into camp, having little to show for their hard-fought victory. Still, victory it was, at least in light of the ideals of eighteenth-century honor, and Cornwallis represented the battle as such in his dispatch to Lord Germain. Some in London were not so sanguine. As Horace Walpole said, “Lord Cornwallis has conquered his troops out of shoes and provisions and himself out of troops.” Charles James Fox of the opposition was equally acerbic: “Another such victory would ruin the British army.” Privately, Cornwallis was grimly realistic about his long, wearing campaign in the Carolinas. As he wrote to a close friend and confidant, Major General Phillips, “I am quite tired of marching about the country in quest of adventures.” In the end, Greene put it best: “The Enemy got the ground the other Day, But we the victory. They had the splendour, we the advantage.”