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  • James Houser

March 17, 1781 - The Carolinas Campaign of the American Revolution

Updated: Jun 4, 2021

March 17, 1781. General Charles Cornwallis considers his options. Stuck in enemy country and facing a stronger Rebel army, he can accomplish nothing in North Carolina. He can pursue his American foe, or retreat to the coast to resupply and reinforce. When Cornwallis makes the decision to retreat, he has lost the American Revolutionary War – he just doesn’t know it yet.


Okay, I cheated. The Battle of Guilford Court House happened on March 15, but I really wanted to write about both that event and the Newburgh Conspiracy. It’s just my bad luck that two of the most critical events in the American Revolution happened on the same day. Not my fault! Sue me. This is one of my favorite campaigns in military history, and I’ll be damned if some crappy Italians and their crappy calendar stop me from talking about it.


By 1779, the British had been thrown out of New England and the Mid-Atlantic Colonies by George Washington and his Continental Army. The American Revolution was on the upswing. To make matters worse, the French had entered the war against Britain, soon to be followed by the Spanish and Dutch. The British generals decided to try a new strategy that centered on alleged Loyalists in the southern colonies – the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia. If the British could peel these colonies away from the Rebellion, they could finally win the war in the Americas.


In 1779, the British conquered Savannah, Georgia, and repulsed a valiant American attempt to reconquer it. After a long and terrible siege in 1780, they secured Charleston, South Carolina, the most important port on the southern coast, and began to move inland. The British forces in the south were under the command of Charles Cornwallis, an able veteran with years of experience against the American rebels. Cornwallis’s forces pushed into South Carolina but were met by heavy guerrilla resistance, causing them to disperse their forces.

Carolinas Campaign, 1778-1781

A small force of American troops under General Horatio Gates had been detached from Washington’s army to defeat the British. On August 16, 1780, this force was demolished by Cornwallis at the Battle of Camden - despite outnumbering their foes by two to one. Gates, a rival of Washington and unjustly credited with victory at Saratoga, was thoroughly shamed by the defeat and forced into near-retirement. He was replaced by Washington’s most trusted general, Nathanael Greene.


Nathanael Greene is a man I will fight for. He was one of the most unsung heroes of American military history, a near-genius who understood how to win the war he was fighting. Greene had been a division commander under Washington as well as the Continental Army’s quartermaster. This had given him an understanding of logistics and above all strategy. Greene knew the stakes: the independence of America. He also understood that winning battles wasn’t as important as defying the British and wearing them down. No matter how many times the Americans lost, the fact that they stood up and fought time after time mattered more in the long run. His motto was “Fight, get beat, rise, fight again.”

Portrait of Nathanael Greene by Charles Wilson Peale, 1783

When Greene took charge of the Continental Army forces in the south, he quickly scrubbed them into fighting shape. To break the British hold on South Carolina, he detached a small force under Colonel Daniel Morgan to draw off the British mobile forces. When Morgan brilliantly defeated this force at the Cowpens (January 17, see my post for that day), he wrecked British hopes to retain South Carolina.


Cornwallis, though, was no idiot. Once he realized that Greene had sent part of his army off into the wilds of the Carolina mountains, he came after his American opponent with his entire army. Greene faced a sudden crisis. He had to retreat in the face of a British foe that was better armed, better disciplined, and better supplied – and he had to pick up Morgan’s force first, or it would be isolated and forced to surrender. When he realized that Cornwallis’s force was hot on Morgan’s heels, Greene marched his army quickly to link up with Morgan. Cornwallis, eager to catch his opponent, stripped his army of excess baggage and supplies and charged north, raring to capture and destroy the last American army in the south.


On February 9, the race began. Greene was marching pell-mell to the north through North Carolina to reach the Dan River before Cornwallis, who was hot on his heels. Greene had to fend off the British attacks while his men force-marched over 30 miles a day. With the British close behind them, constantly trying to catch the retreating Americans and skirmishing with the rear guard, Greene carefully managed the retreat and escaped just ahead of the British. The “Race to the Dan” cost the British nearly 2,000 men killed, wounded or captured across central North Carolina. By February 14, five days later, Greene’s Revolutionaries had crossed the Dan River into Virginia and safety, burning the bridges and the boats behind them.


This was a predicament for both sides. Cornwallis was stranded deep in hostile territory, greatly outnumbered by his opponent, and low on supplies. He needed something to show for his campaign or his career was toast. Greene, even though he had saved his army from possible destruction by his magnificent retreat, could not abandon the Carolinas to the British without a fight. Greene was reinforced by Virginia militia and Continental regulars, and felt strong enough to challenge Cornwallis.


The Americans outnumbered the British two to one, but most of them were poorly trained and poorly motivated militia. Most of Greene’s officers tried to talk him out of confronting Cornwallis. But Greene understood that it was important that Americans come out to fight. The United States, so newly born, had to be able to confront its foes in the open instead of constantly retreating. Sometimes, the stand you take is more important than the outcome.


On February 22, Greene led his army back over the Dan River to challenge the British in North Carolina. He had over 4,000 men to Cornwallis’s 2,000, but all of Cornwallis’s troops were battle-hardened regulars, while Greene’s were mostly state militia. Greene was determined to fight, though, and formed his forces just north of modern Greensboro, North Carolina at a place called Guilford Court House.


Greene built his tactics on defense in depth, trying to repeat the tactics Morgan had used at the Cowpens. The North Carolina and Virginia militia held the first two lines of defense, while his Continental Army regulars held the third. Cornwallis decided to crush Greene and his American scum with all his might.


On March 15, 1781, Cornwallis moved against Greene. At Guilford Court House, Cornwallis’s forces deployed and assaulted the American line. The first American line fired, then retreated into the next line. The next line held up a bit longer and continued to resist until the British finally drove them back.

"Placing the Guards" by Pamela Patrick White

The third line of regulars, reinforced by the retreating militia, held out to the end. Cornwallis ordered attack after attack but failed to penetrate, thrown back by the musket fire of the American troops and counter-charges by the cavalry of Henry Lee (father of Robert E. Lee). The fighting was incredibly close and bloody, and Cornwallis himself was in the thick of it, having a horse shot out from under him. He was no pampered British aristocrat; Cornwallis was a soldier's general, always finding his way into the thick of it.


Finally, Greene’s left flank began to fall apart, with men panicking and retreating. Greene ordered a total retreat, though his men fired their last rounds and rolled back their artillery under fire. Even as the British advanced over the corpses, the Americans did not turn their backs, but withdrew under heavy pressure until they were out of range. The Battle of Guilford Court House only ended with darkness.

"The Battle of Guilford Court House" by H. Charles McBarron

Cornwallis had *technically* won the Battle of Guilford Court House, but only technically. A quarter of his army was out of action – 25% casualties for a battle that ultimately meant nothing. Even if Greene did not win the battle, he had won the campaign. Out of supplies, with heavy casualties and with Greene’s force still intact and waiting for him to try something, Cornwallis surveyed the situation and realized he had no choice.


On March 17, 1781, Cornwallis accepted the inevitable, abandoned his positions in upper North Carolina, and retreated to Wilmington.


Even though Greene had lost the Battle of Guilford Court House, he had gained a strategic victory – and that was his intention all along. Nathanael Greene never won a battle in his life, but the British were never able to enjoy their victories. After every battle, the British had to retreat. After Cornwallis’s withdrawal, Greene’s path was clear to move back into South Carolina to peel it away from British control. Each time he confronted the British in South Carolina, he lost the battle – but forced the British to withdraw back towards Charleston.


Every time Greene fought the British, winning was never the point – he only sought to weaken them enough to force them to retreat, which is what happened at Hobkirk’s Hill in April 1781 and Eutaw Springs in September. By the end of 1781, Nathanael Greene and the Continental Army in the south had driven the British almost completely out of the Carolinas (they only retained Charleston) without winning a single battle. The battles were never the point – Greene had his eye on the true goal of the campaign the whole time.


As for Cornwallis, he decided that Virginia would be an easier target than the Carolinas. The Carolinas were full of guerrillas and “that devil Greene,” while Virginia was full of soft plantations ripe for the plucking. Cornwallis would travel north for his final campaign…and within a few months would hand his sword to George Washington at Yorktown, trapped with no hope of escape.


Washington may have won Yorktown and the Revolution, but it was Nathanael Greene and the ragtag southern army that had made it possible. By driving Cornwallis and the British from the Carolinas without even winning a battle, Greene proved one major rule of strategy – the outcomes of battles only matter as to how they affect the war. It is possible to lose every battle, and still win the campaign. It is possible to win every battle…and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life. (Jean-Luc Picard, for the rest of you nerds.)


Nathanael Greene lies to this day in a square in Savannah, where the Spanish Moss that he so hated refuses to grow. (He apparently held the erroneous belief that it caused Yellow Fever.) If you ever pass by his square, perhaps give a salute to the man who saved the Revolution in its final moment of peril.


Book Recommendation: The best book by far on my beloved Southern Campaign is John S. Pancake's This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1985).


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