Who Served Here?
General Nathanael Greene
Now in the hour of tragedy and distress, Congress turned to Washington and asked him to name the successor to the defeated Gates. Washington knew the time was short if the British were to be restricted in their advance. Washington accepted the request of Congress and appointed Greene to go to the southern theater of war. Greene accepted the orders and proceeded at once to fulfill them. From reports only a skeleton of an army existed in the south. Congress had very little money and supplies for a new army were almost negligible. Greene moved south as rapidly as possible and placed key men as leaders in several states to secure supplies of all kinds and likewise recruits. He came to the army camp at Charlotte, North Carolina, December 2, 1780. Then in the weeks ahead Greene was busy building up his forces and endeavoring to have a workable army. However he was in no condition to confront the enemy. At last Cornwallis with his well trained army began to press Greene. However, Greene, by careful planning eluded him. Greene's force was much inferior, having a large number of prisoners, baggage and supplies. Nevertheless, he was able to escape Cornwallis's forces. Indeed Cornwallis could well be confused. Greene's strategy was to keep rivers and streams between his army and the enemy. It was the season when the rivers and streams could rise rapidly and these conditions were beneficial to Greene. Greene knew the time would come and perhaps very soon that he would be compelled to fight Cornwallis. After the American army crossed the Yadkin River, he held the British back for a time.
Greene now resolved upon the unfolding of his strategy, if he could lure Cornwallis to Guilford Court House, North Carolina, he would have a battleground of his own choosing for his inferior army and at the same time Cornwallis would be unusually distant from his main base of supplies at Wilmington. Greene sent word to all American detachments to consolidate and meet at Guilford Court House. At this time Greene wrote to Washington that his retreating was almost at an end as he hoped to give battle to Cornwallis on ground of his own choosing. Washington wrote to Greene from New Windsor, New York, on March 21, 1781 (a few days after the battle of Guilford Court House and of course Washington had no word of the battle) in part as follows:
"I returned the last evening from Newport, to which place I had been upon a visit to Count de Rochembeau. Your last letter has relieved me from much anxiety, by informing me you had saved all your baggage, artillery and stores, notwithstanding the hot pursuit of the enemy, and that you in turn were following them. I hope your reinforcement may be such as will enable you to prevent them taking a part in the upper country, and hinder the disaffected from joining them. You may be assured that your retreat before Cornwallis is highly applauded by all ranks, and reflects much honor on your military abilities."
On March 14, 1781, Greene prepared his army for battle. His forces had been increased by militia and volunteers who were men without battle experience, although he had about 1,500 Continental soldiers. During these weeks Greene had kept up the morale of his army and his self-sacrificing spirit gave confidence to his army. On the other hand Cornwallis's troops were well disciplined and the majority were seasoned veterans. In this area amid forest and brush and hills and not much clearing, Greene made his stand to fight and the British were compelled to accept the ground or retreat. Cornwallis resolved to fight. Greene arranged his army in three lines. The first line made up of untrained militia gave way. The second line was also militia but under the command of seasoned officers. The third line was composed of continental soldiers. The second and third lines rendered good service but not sufficient enough to give Greene a victory. In the early part of the struggle Greene lost his artillery, but the artillery would not have helped much in the heavily wooded section. However, the British forces were stopped, crippled and in a serious situation. The British lost (killed, wounded and missing) 633 men. The American losses were much lower than the British. The enemy losses were so heavy because of the accurate marksmanship of the American riflemen. After the battle the British were in serious straits. Shortly after the battle Cornwallis began to retreat and Greene started in pursuit, but he was so short of ammunition that he could not accomplish very much. Consequently, he gave up the pursuit and his army was reduced in size since the terms of the militia expired. Cornwallis continued a rapid retreat to Wilmington in their march into Virginia. Greene had freed the State of North Carolina from the major forces of the British army and that he was able to accomplish this with an inefficient and poorly equipped army, reveals that a moral as well as a military victory was on his side.
Washington wrote a letter to Greene on April 18, 1781, from New Windsor in part as follows:
"Your private letter of the 18th ultimo came safe to hand. Although the honors of the field did not fall to your lot, I am convinced you deserved them. The chances of war are various and the best concerted measures, and the most flattering prospects, may and often do deceive us; especially while we are in the power of the militia. The motives which induced you to seek an action with Lord Cornwallis are supported upon the best military principles; and the consequences, if you can prevent the dissipation of your troops, will no doubt be fortunate. Every support, that it is in my power to give you from this army, shall cheerfully be afforded; but if I part with any more troops, I must accompany them or have none to command, as there is not at this moment more than a garrison for West Point, nor can I tell when there will be."