Join Ranger Jason in our Virtual Tour series of ten videos that break down the battle into pivotal points. These videos show the terrain and include a superimposed map that explains the action of each American Line as they fought the Crown Forces.
Long before the dawn of March 15, 1781, Nathanael Greene's American headquarters at Guilford Courthouse had been busy. Intelligence reports indicated the whole British army was advancing toward Guilford Courthouse. Greene, lacking confidence in his militia, and concluding that attacking would be too risky, determined to let Cornwallis come to him.
Greene deployed his troops in defensive postures that took advantage of the terrain along New Garden Road. The advancing redcoats would have to face strong American positions on three ridgelines – the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Lines.
To a degree, Greene’s plan threw away the overwhelming American advantage of numbers. Instead of encountering 4,400 Americans in a body, the 1,900 British would face smaller aggregations of 1,500 at the first line, 1,200 at the second line, and 1,700 at the third line. Greene seemed intent on crippling – rather than conquering – the redcoats.
American First Line
On March 15, 1781, about 12:30 in the afternoon, through the forest the North Carolina Militia was posted across the Great Salisbury Road (New Garden Road) in expectation of the advancing British Army. Following a thirty-minute artillery duel, the redcoats charged the milita who fired one volley before fleeing through the woods.
American Second Line
1,200 Virginia Militia were posted on the American Second Line, 400 yards behind the North Carolina Militia. These militiamen had a large proportion with Continental veterans within their ranks. Edward Stevens led the southern portion of this line, and Robert Lawson led the northern portion. Stevens commanded at Camden, and witnessed the flight of his men from British infantry attack. Stevens placed eighty sentienals behind his soldiers to intimidate his men to stand against the British, rather than flee. This tactic worked, leading to a prolonged firefight.
Lawson was eager to engage the enemy, and pushed his flanks forward, causing exposure on the flanks. The 33rd, 23rd, and the Guards passed the Virginia flanks, leading to an almost total collapse of the northern portion of the line.
American Third Line
Background of the Continental Army
In 1775 the Continental Congress first used the term "American Continental army." Soon American regular soldiers became known as "Continentals." These professional soldiers were placed by Greene on the American Third Line, before the courthouse.
The Continentals comprised about one-third of the American soldiers who served in the Revolutionary War. They enlisted to support the new nation, earn a living, accompany friends, or find refuge. Most were young, unmarried men with no property. Free Africans were also recruited. Continentals enlisted for a minimum of three years, or stayed for the duration of the war. When the war began, their arms, equipment, and training were lacking, but that improved by 1779.
Continental officers were mostly American-born and upper class. Few started as military geniuses. They learned by experience, good sense, and dogged endurance; enabling them to lead their men to one of history’s most significant victories.
Ebenezer Finley was a Continental artillery officer who commanded the two 6 pounders on the northern side of the American third line. But in addition to this duty, Finley also carried unique collateral job. He was the chief Judge Advocate General for the Southern Theater. That means that while his primary duty was to command artillery, he side job was being the chief Army lawyer for Continental forces in the southern colonies.
Much like the well known 1st Maryland, Kirkwood’s Delaware Continentals were a long serving battle hardened unit and dressed in a similar fashion to the Marylanders, with blue coats that had red facings. However, the Delaware unit was distinct in their dress by the yellow binding of their hats. By the time this Delaware unit made it to Guilford Courthouse, they had been reduced to less than 100 men formed in two companies and acted as light infantry on the north side of the American army, falling back and fighting at each defensive line.
Their commander, Robert Kirkwood, started as a lieutenant in the unit at the beginning of the war. Affectionately known as “Captain Bob” by his soldiers, Kirkwood was well liked even though he was also a noted disciplinarian. A veteran of numerous battles in the north, as well as the battles of Camden and Cowpens in the south, Robert Kirkwood was an experienced and effective combat leader.