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Battle of Guilford Courthouse, March 15th 1781

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse

In the early morning hours of March 15th, 1781, a 19-man detachment of the 7th Royal Fusiliers found itself on the march along the Great Salisbury road hoping to confront Maj Gen Greene’s American army of just over 4,000. Led by Lt. Gen Lord Cornwallis the army with the Fusiliers consisted of the Brigade of Guards, 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers, 33rd Regiment, 71st Highlanders, Tarleton’s Legion, guns of the Royal Artillery, the Hessian Regiment Von Bose, and a detachment of Jager’s. Numbering just over 2,000 this force had crossed into NC in early Feb and chased the American army out of NC only to have it return to confront His Majesty’s forces.

Around 9am the Army’s advance units consisting of Tarleton’s Legion and the Guards fought a short sharp action at New Garden meeting house with Lee’s legion. Both sides inflicted minor casualties and being conscious of each other’s main force chose to withdraw.

Following the skirmish, Cornwallis continued the march uninterrupted until the lead elements of the army encountered an American battle line drawn up in a wood, opposite a cleared field at the Hoskin’s farm. American Artillery from Singletons Battery, deployed on the road, opened a continuous fire as the regulars formed for battle. The Royal Artillery soon answered and a prolonged dual between American and British guns inflicted casualties on both sides. Deploying to the left of the Royal Artillery the 33rd and 23rd RWF of Webster’s Brigade formed. To the right the 71st Highlanders and the Regiment Von Bose formed for battle. Jager’s supported the far left with the Brigade of Guards forming the reserve. Opposing them stood mostly untested NC militia but in the center with Singleton’s battery stood 70 men of Capt Yarborough’s NC Continentals. Tarleton mistook them for the Delaware’s Regiment due to their clothing and yellow trimmed hats. On the left flank of the NC line stood Lee’s legion and on the right were Kirkwood’s Delaware Coy, and Washington’s 3rd Continental Dragoons.

At 1:30 PM, Cornwallis ordered the advance. At roughly 150 yards from the NC line the Americans opened fire. The volley ripped through the British ranks and caused the assault to pause. Looking around Lt. Col Webster cried out “COME ON MY BRAVE FUSILIERS”! His brigade with a shout surged forward as British volleys answered in kind followed by a general charge. Closing rapidly with the Americans who fired a 2nd volley, British forces reached the American positions and overwhelmed the American defenders.

Advancing into the wood, the army encountered stiff resistance from Virginia militia, many who were former Continentals and were positioned about 400 yards behind the NC line. Sporadic and intense firefights broke out with unit cohesion becoming increasingly difficult. The firefight in the wood becomes one of small groups encountering one another as the British pressed their advance. The 71st and Von Bose were drawn further to the right and were soon out of sight from the 23rd and 33rd forcing Cornwallis to bring up the Guards to fill the gap in his line. A disjointed advance resumed.

The 33rd and 23rd soon arrived at a clearing and viewed the main Continental defense. Drawn up on a steep rise were two new regiments of Virginia Continentals supported by two guns, to their left stood the elite 1st MD Regiment, Singleton’s battery with Yarborough’s NC Continentals, and out of view stood the newly raised 2nd MD. The 23rd and 33rd advanced into range and a sharp firefight developed between the opposing lines. Trading multiple volleys with the two VA and 1st MD regiments the action lasted several minutes before the 1st MD, in a daring and bold maneuver, wheeled down the hill to pour a devastating fire into the right flank of the 23rd RFW causing a general withdraw of both regiments.

Simultaneously, the 2nd BN of the Guards emerged from the wood to the sound of the firefight and to see the 2nd MD Regiment opposite them. Firing a volley and pressing in with the Bayonet the 2nd MD broke without firing and fled from the field. The Guards rushed on and wheeling to the left overtook and captured Singleton’s battery inflicting multiple casualties upon Yarborough’s NC continentals at bayonet point. Having gained the hilltop the Guards looked down upon the 1st MD Regt, which had just routed the 23rd and 33rd, and proceeded to deliver a volley into them. Facing about, the 1st MD received the Guards volley and responded in kind followed by a bayonet charge. One of the fiercest and deadliest close actions of the entire war now took place. The 1st MD closed in and supported by Washington’s Dragoons proceeded to eradicate the Guards 2nd Battalion, inflicting approximately 90 percent casualties upon the Guards. Hit from the front by MD and the rear by Washington’s Dragoons the Guards resisted valiantly but ultimately broke. Streaming down the hill pursued by Washington, Cornwallis ordered the Royal Artillery to fire into the Dragoons. The artillery fire halted their pursuit and saved the remnants of the 2nd Guards Battalion.

Both sides were equally bloodied but the 71st, Von Bose, and the 1st Guards Battalion were soon on hand to resume the assault. Greene, viewing the condition of his force, chose to withdraw and fight another day, thus ending the engagement. The battle inflicted some 500 British casualties, including several from the Royal Fusiliers. The Americans lost approximately 1,300 to include all of Greene’s Artillery. The British had won the day, but not having eaten, marched 12 miles, and fought a general engagement, they could do no more. The battle had cost Cornwallis 1/4th of his army and was viewed as a pyric victory for British arms. Commenting on the battle several weeks later in Parliament Charles James Fox quipped, another such victory would ruin the British Army.

(Editor’s Note: No record has yet been uncovered to indicate with whom or where the 7th Royal Fusiliers detachment fought at during the battle of Guilford Courthouse. Some historians have opined they were attached to the 23rd, as both are Fusilier Regiments, or that they may have served with the flank Companies of the Brigade of Guards. The simple truth is we do not know. What we do know is that they suffered killed and wounded at Guilford Courthouse and remained a distinct entity throughout the Carolina campaign, eventually being amalgamated with the 7th’s Light Infantry Company during the Virginia campaign later that spring.)


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