This park is a history buff’s dream — right here in good ol’ Greensboro, the general famous for losing America to the Revolutionaries eked out a Redcoat victory at Guilford Courthouse, a win so hollow that a member of Britain’s House of Commons declared “another such victory would ruin the British Army!”
The general: Charles Cornwallis. His goal: Crush the Southern resistance to the King’s rule. He arrived at Guilford Courthouse on the morning of March 15, 1781, with 1,900 rugged regulars and Hessians. Waiting to spoil his plans were 4,400 militiamen and Continental Army regulars.
Get this: the Brits marched 10 miles with no breakfast in full battle dress before the first shot was fired. They blasted through two lines of inexperienced Colonial militiamen before the Continental Army veterans slowed them down long enough to organize a safe retreat to fight another day.
Cornwallis lost a quarter of his army and third of his officers, and had to abandon the Courthouse within days. Seven months later he surrendered to U.S. and French forces at Yorktown, Virginia, handing the Revolutionary War to the Americans.
A 3-mile loop trail passes most of the key sites in the battle. Interpretive signs explain some of the battle’s details, but the best way to find out what happened is to stop in on the Visitors Center, which has a museum of Revolutionary War artifacts and videos explaining the pertinent details (the 10-minute order-of-battle video best explains how the fight unfolded; the 30-minute movie is pretty cheesy by grown-up standards, but it’ll help the kids make sense of the combat).
The walk is pretty basic: just follow the signs from one numbered attraction to another. Highlights:
Close-up of General Greene, the hero of Guilford Courthouse.
First Line Trail near Greene’s first point of defense: a row of green North Carolina militiamen. He knew they stood zero chance of stopping the Brits, so he issued orders along the lines of: fire three volleys at most, then haul ass out of there.
A few hundred yard away, the Second Line had the same plan in mind. What was it like for the enemy? I’m thinking slow-motion meat grinder.
Black cut-outs near the Visitors Center depict the Americans fleeing the British attack.
Greene saved his most seasoned Continental Army veterans for the Third Line, which laid into the British not far from this wide open field. An obelisk on this end honors the Americans.
Smaller monuments on the other side of the field honor the Brits.
An artilleryman’s view of the woods, which were no doubt even thicker when this area was old-growth forest.
First thing I learned about Guilford Courthouse was that it had nothing to do with the Civil War. Well, almost nothing: one hero of the battle was a cavalry officer named Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate forces in the Civil War.
There’s something oddly arresting about this picture, drawn on the side of a battle drum that appears on signs around the park.
Cannonballs at the park entrance. Speaking of ammo, at one point Cornwallis fired grapeshot to stop an American advance, killing many of his own men in the process.
There’s a cemetery next to the battlefield today. Seems somehow appropriate.
Links for this hike:
- EveryTrail GPS tracks.
- Wikipedia article on the battle.
- Danny Bernstein’s National Parks Traveler article.
- U.S. Park Service site.
View 2-20-11 Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in a larger map