Spirit and Valour: The Guards at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse

As part seven in our series on the Brigade of Guards' 1781 "Road to Yorktown", this article continues the narrative of their Spring 1781 North Carolina campaign with the Guards' actions during the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 15. As in previous entries, it is adapted heavily from research by Linnea M. Bass and William M. Burke available on the 4th Company's website as well as the excellent book Long Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse by Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard. Photos of the re-created 4th Company are courtesy of Jenny Wise.

Having learned on March 14 that Nathaniel Greene and his army were encamped near Guilford (called Guildford at the time) Courthouse, Lord Cornwallis - then 12 miles to the southwest - hoped to initiate a surprise attack on the rebels the following day. Greene's ranks, swollen by the arrival of Virginia and North Carolina militia, numbered some 4,300.  Cornwallis had less than half of that - probably 1900 or so - at his disposal.

In the early morning hours of the 15th, the British commander sent off his army's baggage to be guarded by 100+ soldiers (including 35 privates and four NCOs from the Guards) and formed his advance column commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton. This vanguard was comprised of Jaegers, the Guards' Light Infantry Company (which this 4th Company had been re-organized into), and Tarleton's British Legion cavalry. The remainder of Cornwallis' forces, including two battalions of the Brigade of Guards and the Guards' Grenadier Company, were to march with the main force at 5:30am.

The Guards' Light Company Skirmishes on New Garden Road

About an hour after sunrise (probably 7:30am), Continental dragoons under Lieutenant-Colonel Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee encountered the British advance force five miles to the west of the Courthouse along New Garden Road. Tarleton's horses were ahead, and after suffering several casualties, fell back toward the New Garden Meeting house under Lee's pursuit. Here, the remainder of the British advance column met Lee's cavalry, and the Guards' Light Infantry Company gave the horses a close general fire.

Shortly thereafter, Lee's light infantry arrived to engage the Guards in a 30 minute skirmish, after which Lee fell back. During the action, Captain Goodricke (First Guards) was fatally wounded. Altogether, the British lost 30 men killed or wounded.

Action in the Center with the Guards' 2nd Battalion

Taking his strategy from Daniel Morgan's victory over the British at Cowpens in January 1781, Greene set up his defense "in depth" with three lines west of the Guilford Courthouse. When the main British force arrived around 1:00pm, they first encountered a line of roughly 1,000 North Carolina militia protected by a rail fence line, and who Greene had ordered to fire twice before retiring through the second line 300 yards behind them. In the initial advance, the Guards were held in reserve as the British line crossed 400 yards of a muddy plowed field toward the militia.

Engraving by Stedman showing the three lines of American defense. Published in his History of the American War in 1791.

The militia's first volley at 150 yards was remarkably effective, but the British pressed home the attack with bayonets and the North Carolinians fell back. As the left half of the British line (including the 33rd and 23rd Regiments of Foot) advanced on the chase, a gap opened in the line's center. The Guards' Grenadier Company and 2nd Battalion, commanded by Brigadier General Charles O'Hara, were called up to fill the opening. They fixed bayonets and advanced into the tree line. The difficulties in maintaining a uniform line forced the conflict into a series of irregular skirmishes with the Rebel second line, which was comprised of roughly 1200 Virginia militia.

Members of the re-created 4th Company, Brigade of Guards and the 71st Regiment of Foot, Fraser's Highlanders (Sutherland's Company) advance in open order in a 2019 re-enactment against the American second line at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.

The Guards, alongside the 33rd, broke through the second line and turned its flank. But their success was not without its sacrifices. O'Hara was wounded in the thigh, and command devolved to Lieutenant-Colonel James Stewart (Stuart). Around the same time, Captain William Home, the 2nd Earl of Dunglass, "collapsed from a severe wound while leading the grenadiers" and was replaced in command by Captain Napier Christie. Captain Thomas Swanton was also wounded, and Captain William Schutz was "shot through the bowels". (Babits and Howard, pp. 122, 126)

A private in the 4th Company's re-created Coldstream Guards (center) "takes to tree" during the advance on the second line.

Following their breakthrough, the Guards emerged from the woods "glowing with impatience" to see the third Rebel line comprised of some 1400 veteran Continental troops atop a hill with their backs to another stand of trees. Directly in front of the Guards battalion was the 2nd Maryland Regiment and a battery of Singleton's Continental artillery. The Guards charged and quickly routed the 2nd Maryland, capturing the cannons in the process.

However, the 1st Maryland Regiment - which had been hidden from the Guards' view - unleashed heavy fire at close distance. Turning to face them left the Guards' flank open, and Washington's 3rd Continental Light Dragoons - as well as the Marquis de Bretigny's North Carolina and Thomas Watkin's Virginia horsemen - seized the opportunity. A cavalry charge devastated the disordered Guards, who then were attacked by the 1st Maryland's bayonets.

William Washington's Light Dragoons charge the Guards as they were engaged with the 1st MD Regiment.

A melee ensued, during which the Guards' Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart famously "dueled" Captain John Smith of the 1st Maryland:
Smith and his men were in a throng, killing the Guards and Grenadiers like so many Furies. Colonel Stewart, seeing the mischief Smith was doing, made up to him through the crowd, dust, and smoke, and made a violent lunge at him with his small sword...[upon encountering Stuart], Smith had no alternative but to wheel round to the right and give Stewart a back handed blow over or across the head on which he fell...(Babits and Howard, p. 158, adapted from the account of William R. Davie)
Amidst the confusion and the cavalry charge, the 2nd Battalion briefly faltered. But O'Hara successfully rallied them to retake Singleton's guns, and the Continentals - outnumbered now by the arrival of the Guards' Grenadiers and the 71st and 33rd Regiments of Foot - withdrew.

The Guards' Light Company and the Fighting on the Far Left Flank

In response to attempted flanking attacks by the Washington and Lynch on the British left, the Guards' Light Infantry Company, along with the Jaegers, was ordered to form to left of the 33rd Regiment of Foot. Pushing through the second line on the American far right, they exited the woods into a ravine before Greene's third line. The Company subsequently engaged Hawe's Virginia Regiment, while the 33rd faced the 1st Maryland (who were themselves devastating the Guards' 2nd Battalion at the time).

The 4th Company's Captain and Lieutenant-Colonel (left) leads the First (center) and Coldstream (right) Guards through the North Carolina thicket.

The Continentals held their fire until the relatively small British force was quite close, after which a volley shattered the 33rd's Lieutenant-Colonel James Webster's knee and the British units fell back across the ravine.

The Far Right with the Guards' 1st Battalion

As the Guards' 2nd Battalion was filling the gap in the British center, the 1st Battalion was moving to the far right. There, a quarter mile from the main battle, they took heavy flanking fire while ascending a wooded hill against the extreme left of the American second line. After the Guards rallied to drive Major Alexander Stuart's Virginia militia from their positions on top of the hill, Lee's Legion infantry and the Virginia Rifle Battalion under Colonel William Campbell outflanked them on their right and threatened to surround them. It was during this fierce fighting that so many of the Guards' officers fell, and the battalion briefly broke. As Babits and Howard write:
Every company-grade officer [of the Guards] was struck down. Capt. Augustus Maitland was wounded, retired to the rear, had the injury dressed, and returned to the battle line. Captain Maynard, wounded in the leg, asked Sgt. Maj. Robert Wilson, the battalion adjutant, for his horse, to ride to the rear. In mounting the horse, 'another shot went through his lungs, and incapacitated him'. Ens. John Stuart, Maitland's second in command, lay nearby, bleeding profusely from a horrible wound to the groin and lower abdomen. (Babits and Howard, p. 131)
Luckily for them, the arrival of Regiment von Bose (with their stubborn adherence to close order formations) covered the Guards as Lieutenant-Colonel Chapple Norton sought to rally them. This extra time was enough. Even though the rebels drove the Guards back twice, and the fighting in the woods became confused with the Guards seemingly attacked on all sides, they had regained their order.

Drummers of the re-created Coldstream (left) and First (right) Guards providing battlefield communication and assisting with the wounded.

And while Norton attempted to maneuver the 1st Battalion back to the main British line (although new evidence suggests this might not have been the case), Lee's own movement northward (either to follow the Guards or simply to retire toward the American third line) left the remaining Campbell and his Virginians vulnerable to a cavalry charge by the arriving Tartleton and his Legion dragoons. The American ranks subsequently broke.

A Pyrrhic Victory

Technically, Cornwallis had won the day. The routing of the 2nd Maryland by the Guards' 2nd Battalion convinced Greene to order a withdrawal, and the British held the field at the close of March 15th. But after suffering at least a 25 percent casualty rate, Cornwallis' forces were devastated. For the Guards, the "butcher's bill" included:
  • 37 killed
  • 157 wounded
  • 22 missing
  • Officer casualties:
    • Brigadier General Charles O'Hara (wounded)
    • Brigadier General John Howard (wounded)
    • 1st Battalion
      • Lieutenant and Captain William Maynard (mortally wounded)
      • Lieutenant and Captain Augustus Maitland (wounded)
      • Ensign John Stuart (wounded)
      • Adjutant James Colquhoun (wounded)
    • 2nd Battalion
      • Captain and Lieutenant-Colonel James Stuart (killed)
      • Lieutenant and Captain William Schutz (mortally wounded)
      • Lieutenant and Captain Thomas Swanton (wounded)
    • Light Infantry Company
      • Lieutenant and Captain John Goodricke (killed)
    • Grenadier Company
      • Lieutenant and Captain William Home (mortally wounded)
Cornwallis would stay at Guilford for three days caring for his wounded before embarking for Wilmington, North Carolina. As he would write to Lord Germain two days after the battle:
His Majesty's Guards are no less distinguished by their order and discipline than by their spirit and valour. (Cornwallis to Germain, 17 March 1781)