The Ides of March is always an ominous day, but on March 15, 1781, it marked the date of a battle that changed the course of the American Revolution.
Ill-clothed, poorly equipped, unpaid, and hungry, the ragged southern Patriot Army, led by Nathanael Greene, one of Washington’s finest generals, assembled outside the small North Carolina town of Guilford Courthouse, present-day Greensboro. The British general Cornwallis had been pursuing Greene’s army for months, and he thought he saw the opportunity to strike a mortal blow to the Patriot forces. Greene was ready. He positioned his men in several lines of defense backstopped by the elite troops of the 1st Maryland (Washington’s Immortals). Designed to bleed the advancing army, the “collapsing box” defense would slowly give way to the enemy while inflicting as many casualties as possible.
With the massive vanguard of the British army forming for battle several hundred yards in front of him, Light Horse Harry Lee, the father of the South’s greatest general, Robert E. Lee, rode out in front of the lines of Patriot soldiers minutes before the fighting began. Lee appeared “in a great rage for battle,” as he brandished his sword, still bloodied from an earlier skirmish with British cavalry led by Banastre Tarleton, a notorious officer with a reputation for brutality. Lee’s rousing battle cry reverberated throughout the American ranks: “My brave boys, your lands, your lives and your country depend on your conduct this day—I have given Tarleton hell this morning, and I will give him more of it before night.”
Washington’s Immortals, a new bestselling book published this month, is the first Band of Brothers treatment of the Revolution and captures the most important parts of the battle.
In the early morning mist of the 15th, the British advanced. Fierce fighting ensued as the British charged forward, while the Patriot lines fired numerous deadly volleys. The first and second lines of Patriot defense retreated as the British juggernaut continued to close in on Greene’s final defense—the Marylanders.
Central to the fight was an encounter between two of the most decorated and valiant units of the war. On the Patriot side were the Marylanders, the first elite unit in the Continental Army. As Washington’s Immortals chronicles, these trusted soldiers made an epic stand against Cornwallis in Brooklyn, which allowed a large portion of the American army to escape before going on to battle in Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, Stony Point and Cowpens. At Guilford, they faced off against a British unit known as the 2nd Guards. As the two elite units closed to within yards of each other, the Marylanders’ line erupted with a tremendous volley of fire. “They fired at the same instant, and they appeared so near that the blazes from the muzzles of their guns seemed to meet,” recalled one participant. The Marylanders’ shots had an immediate and deadly impact on the Guards, who “were thrown into confusion by a heavy fire.”
In a microcosm of the fighting between the two units, two officers dueled valiantly. The acting commanding officer of the Guards, Lieutenant Colonel James Stewart, attacked Baltimore scion Captain John Smith of the 1st Maryland. According to a close friend of Smith, “Smith and his men were in a throng, killing the Guards and grenadiers like so many Furies.” Stewart, seeing the damage the Marylanders were doing, approached and slashed at Smith with his sword. “The first that Smith saw was the shining metal like lightning at his bosom. He only had time to lean a little to the right, and lift up his left arm so as to let the polished steel pass under it.” Luckily for Smith, Stewart happened to step on the body of one of the men Smith had just killed, which caused him to stumble and barely miss running Smith through. Next, “the Guards came rushing up very strong. Smith had no alternative but to wheel round to the right and give Steward a back handed blow over or across the head on which he fell.” First one sergeant and then another tried to take Smith down, but to no avail. Finally, a third sergeant shot the Marylander in the head. “Smith now fell among the slain but was taken up by his men and brought off. It was found to be only a buckshot lodged against the skull and had only stunned him.”
In the larger battle, the Marylanders appeared to be winning. Marylander and hero of the battle of Cowpens, John Eager Howard recalled, “The whole were in our power.” The Guards were about to be destroyed, but Cornwallis fired into the melee with grape and canister from his guns, tearing into the ranks of Patriot and Crown soldiers alike. Greene’s 2nd Maryland Regiment, made up largely of inexperience levies—not the elite troops of the 1st Maryland—broke in battle. The battle turned, and the American line began to falter.
Greene, having accomplished his mission of badly damaging Cornwallis’s army and causing enormous casualties, wisely decided to leave the field. He left scores of bleeding and dying in his wake. Cornwallis’s commissary general Charles Stedman captured the carnage, “The night was remarkable for its darkness accompanied with rain which fell in torrents. Nearly fifty of the wounded, it is said sinking under their aggravated miseries, expired before the morning. The cries of the wounded and dying, who remained on the field of action during the night exceeded all description. Such a complicated scene of horror and distress, it is hoped, for the sake of humanity, rarely occurs, even in military life.”
Too weak to pursue Greene’s intact army and unable to hold British outposts in North Carolina, Cornwallis moved his battered army to Wilmington, NC, for resupply. After licking his wounds, he fatefully decided to invade Virginia, ultimately ending up at Yorktown and putting his army—and the outcome of the war—at risk. As a result, Greene and the Marylanders marched back into South Carolina, and defeated each British outpost, effectively clearing the state of the British and ultimately bottling up the British in Charleston.
While neither the British nor the Americans realized it at the time, Guilford Courthouse altered the course of the war. It changed the strategy of both sides: it halted a potentially disastrous pending Patriot attack on New York, stopped the British conquest of the Carolinas, and set the stage for a stunning defeat of a British army at Yorktown.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of ten books. Washington’s Immortals is his newest book. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickODonnell.com @combathistorian