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Battle of Guilford – Cornwallis’ Account

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol II.  Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

In pursuance of my intended plan, I had encamped on the 13th instant, at the Quaker Meeting, between the forks of Deep River. On the 14th I received information that General Butler, with a body of North Carolina militia, and the reinforcements from Virginia, said to consist of a Virginia State regiment, a corps of Virginia eighteen-month men, three thousand Virginia militia and recruits for the Maryland line, had joined General Greene, and that the whole army, which was reported to amount to nine or ten thousand men, were marching to attack the British troops. During the afternoon intelligence was brought, which was confirmed in the night, that he had advanced that day to Guilford, about twelve miles from our camp. Being now persuaded that he had resolved to hazard an engagement, (after detaching Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton with our wagons and baggage, escorted by his own regiment, a detachment of one hundred infantry, and twenty cavalry, towards Bell’s Mill, on Deep River,) I marched with the rest of the corps at daybreak, on the morning of the 15th, to meet the enemy, or attack them in their encampment. About four miles from Guilford our advanced guard, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton, fell in with a corps of the enemy, consisting of Lee’s legion, some back mountain men, and Virginia militia, which he attacked with his usual good conduct and spirit, and defeated; continuing our march, we found the rebel army posted on rising ground, about a mile and a half from the Court House. The prisoners taken by Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton, having been several days with the advanced corps, could give me no account of the enemy’s order or position, and the country people were extremely inaccurate in their description of the ground. Immediately between the head of the column and the enemy’s line, was a considerable plantation, one large field of which was on our left on the road, and two others, with a wood of about two hundred yards broad between them, on our right of it; beyond these fields, the road continued for several miles to our right. The wood beyond the plantation in our front, in the skirt of which the enemy’s first line was formed, was about a mile in depth, the road then leading into an extensive space of cleared ground about Guilford Court House. The woods on our right and left were reported to be impracticable for cannon; but, as that on our right appeared to be most open, I resolved to attack the left wing of the enemy, and whilst my disposition was making for that purpose, I ordered Lieutenant-Colonel McLeod to bring forward the guns, and cannonade their centre. The attack was directed to be made in the following order:

On the right, the regiment of Bose, and the 71st regiment, led by Major-General Leslie, and supported by the 1st battalion of guards; on their left the 23d and 33d regiments, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Webster, and supported by the grenadiers and 2d battalion of guards, commanded by Brigadier-General O’Hara; the Yagers and light infantry of the guards remained in the wood, on the left of the guns, and the cavalry in the road, ready to act as circumstances might require. Our preparations being made, the action began about half-past one in the afternoon. Major-General Leslie, after being obliged by the great extent of the enemy’s line, to bring up the 1st battalion of guards to the right of the regiment of Bose, soon defeated every thing before him. Lieutenant-Colonel Webster having joined the left of Major-General Leslie’s division, was no less successful in his front, when, on finding that the left of the 33d was exposed to a heavy fire from the right wing of the enemy, he changed his front to the left, and being supported by the Yagers and light infantry of the guards, attacked and routed it; the grenadiers and 2d battalion of guards moving forward to occupy the ground left vacant by the movement of Lieutenant-Colonel Webster.

All the infantry being now in the line, Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton had directions to keep his cavalry compact, and not to charge without positive orders, except to protect any of the corps from the most evident danger of being defeated. The excessive thickness of the woods rendered our bayonets of little use, and enabled the broken enemy to make frequent stands with an irregular fire, which occasioned some loss, and to several of the corps great delay; particularly on our right, where the first battalion of guards and regiment of Bose were warmly engaged in front, flank, and rear, with some of the enemy that had been routed on the first attack, and with part of the extremity of the left wing, which by the closeness of the woods had been passed unbroken. The 71st regiment and grenadiers, and 2d battalion of guards, not knowing what was passing on their right, and hearing the fire advance on their left, continued to move forward, the artillery keeping pace with them on the road, followed by the cavalry. The 2d battalion of the guards first gained the clear ground, near Guilford Court House, and found a corps of Continental infantry, much superior in number, formed in the open field on the left of the road. Glowing with impatience to signalize themselves, they instantly attacked and defeated them, taking two six-pounders, but pursuing into the wood with too much ardor, were thrown into confusion by a heavy fire, and immediately charged and driven back into the field, by Colonel Washington’s dragoons, with the loss of the six-pounders they had taken. The enemy’s cavalry was soon repulsed by a well-directed fire from two three-pounders just brought up by Lieutenant McLeod, and by the appearance of the grenadiers of the guards, and of the 71st regiment, which, having been impeded by some deep ravines, were now coming out of the wood on the right of the guards, opposite to the Court House. By the spirited exertions of Brigadier-General O’Hara, though wounded, the 2d battalion of guards was soon rallied, and, supported by the grenadiers, returned to the charge with the greatest alacrity. The 23d regiment arriving at that instant from our left, and Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton having advanced with part of the cavalry, the enemy were soon put to flight, and the two six-pounders once more fell into our hands; two ammunition wagons, and two other six-pounders, being all the artillery they had in the field, were likewise taken. About this time the 33d regiment and light infantry of the guards, after overcoming many difficulties, completely routed the corps which was opposed to them, and put an end to the action in this quarter. The 23d and 71st regiments, with part of the cavalry, were ordered to pursue; the remainder of the cavalry was detached with Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton to our right, where a heavy fire still continued, and where his appearance and spirited attack contributed much to a speedy termination of the action. The militia, with which our right had been engaged, dispersed in the woods; the Continentals went off by the Reedy Fork, beyond which it was not in my power to follow them, as their cavalry had suffered but little. Our troops were excessively fatigued by an action which lasted an hour and a half; and our numerous wounded, dispersed over an extensive space of country, required immediate attention. The care of our wounded, and the total want of provisions in an exhausted country, made it equally impossible for me to follow the blow next day. The enemy did not stop until they got to their iron works on Troublesome Creek, eighteen miles from the field of battle.

From our own observation, and the best accounts we could procure, we did not doubt but that the strength of the enemy exceeded seven thousand men; their militia composed their line, with parties advanced to the rails of the field in their front; the Continentals were posted obliquely in the rear of their right wing. Their cannon fired on us, whilst we were forming, from the centre of the line of militia, but were withdrawn to the Continentals before the attack.

I have the honor to inclose your lordship the list of our killed and wounded. Captain Schutz’s wound is supposed to be mortal, but the surgeons assure me that none of the officers are in danger, and that a great number of the men will soon recover. I cannot ascertain the loss of the enemy, but it must have been considerable; between two and three hundred dead were left upon the field; many of their wounded that were able to move, while we were employed in the care of our own, escaped and followed the routed enemy; and our cattle drivers and foraging parties have reported to me, that the houses in a circle of six or eight miles round us are full of others; those that remained we have taken the best care of in our power. We took few prisoners, owing to the excessive thickness of the woods facilitating their escape, and every man of our army being repeatedly wanted for action.

The conduct and actions of the officers and soldiers that composed this little army, will do more justice to their merit than I can by words. Their persevering intrepidity in action, their invincible patience in the hardships and fatigues of a march of about six hundred miles, in which they have forded several large rivers and numberless creeks, many of which would be reckoned large rivers in any other country in the world, without tents or covering against the climate, and often without provisions, will sufficiently manifest their ardent zeal for the honor and interests of their sovereign and their country.

I have been particularly indebted to Major-General Leslie, for his gallantry and exertion in the action, as well as his assistance in every other part of the service. The zeal and spirit of Brigadier-General O’Hara merit my highest commendations, for, after receiving two dangerous wounds, he continued in the field whilst the action lasted; by his earnest attention on all other occasions, seconded by the officers and soldiers of the brigade, his Majesty’s guards are no less distinguished by their order and discipline, than by their spirit and valor.

The Hessian regiment of Bose deserves my warmest praise for its discipline, alacrity, and courage, and does honor to Major Du Buy, who commands it, and who is an officer of superior merit.

I am much obliged to Brigadier-General Howard, who served as volunteer, for his spirited example on all occasions. Lieutenant-Colonel Webster conducted his brigade like an officer of experience and gallantry. Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton’s good spirit and conduct in the management of his cavalry, was conspicuous during the whole action; and Lieutenant McLeod, who commanded the artillery, proved himself upon this as well as all former occasions, a most capable and deserving officer. The attention of my aide-de-camp, and of all the other public officers of the army, contributed very much to the success of the day.

I have constantly received the most zealous assistance from Governor Martin, during my command in the southern district. Hoping that his presence would tend to excite the loyal subjects to take an active part with us, he has cheerfully submitted to the fatigues and dangers of our campaign; but his delicate constitution has suffered by his public spirit, for, by the advice of the physicians, he is now obliged to return to England for the recovery of his health.

This part of the country is so totally destitute of subsistence, that forage is not nearer than nine miles, and the soldiers have been two days without bread; I shall therefore leave about seventy of the worst of the wounded cases at the New Garden Quarter Meeting House, with proper assistance, and move the remainder with the army to-morrow morning, to Bell’s Mill. I hope our friends will heartily take an active part with us, to which I shall continue to encourage them, still approaching our shipping by easy marches, that we may procure the necessary supplies for further operations, and lodge our sick and wounded where proper attention can be paid to them.1


1 London Gazette, June 5, and Rivington’s Gazette, August 11.