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Traveler's Checklist: Guilford Courthouse National Military Park

GUCO - Nathanial Greene Statue

General Nathanael Greene, Commander of the Continental Army in the South on a horse. The obelisk is a statue to the British soldier. Photographs by Danny Bernstein

Who would have thought there would be a national military park that recognizes a Revolutionary War defeat?

Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in North Carolina commemorates a significant two-and-a-half hour battle that ended in a tactical loss by the Americans. But it was the British who suffered the most in the battle.

Tucked away among shopping malls, upscale residences and close to Interstate 40, the 230 acres surrounding Guilford Courthouse in Greensboro offer a fascinating blend of entertaining history and footpaths that lead you across the battlefield.

You don't have to be knowledgeable in the American Revolution or appreciate war strategy to enjoy a visit to Guilford Courthouse. The importance of the battle is well explained.

A Short History of the Battle

The British, feeling that the war was stalemated in the northern colonies, decided to head south where there might be more support for the British cause. When the French joined the American forces, the Brits expected that Tories -- American Loyalists faithful to the crown -- would take up arms to defeat the rebels. They soon discovered, though, that they had an inflated view of the support they would find in the South.

"In the South, the British found timid friends, and inveterate enemies," said Lt. General Charles Earl Cornwallis, commander of the British forces in the South.

Gen. Cornwallis received orders to secure South Carolina and carry the British campaign north. But, according the film in the park's Visitor Center, not everyone in the British Parliament was in favor of fighting to keep the American Colonies. Some argued that, “They will bleed us white," while others wondered "How can we afford this war halfway around the world?” and “How can we ask the public to send their sons to war?”

The British chased the Patriots all over the South - Cowpens and Kings Mountain, both in South Carolina and now in the small hamlet of Guilford County. General Nathanael Greene, who commanded the Continental Army's Southern Department, was ready. In Guilford County, Gen. Cornwallis wanted to defeat Gen. Greene much more than he needed to hold the land.

The battle came to a sleepy little community of farms that were settled about the 1740s. The county of Guilford was formed in 1771, and nearby was a settlement of Society of Friends, Quakers, that would play a role in the battle's aftermath.

On March 15, 1781, about 1,900 British regulars met Gen. Greene and his 4,400 men, a force of both Continental Army soldiers who were well-trained, long-term soldiers, and state militia mostly from the south. The Americans slaughtered the Redcoats - the British lost a quarter of their men and a third of their officers. But the British captured the land around the Guilford Courthouse.

"So was it a victory or defeat for the Patriots?" I asked Ranger Dan Kahl staffing the desk at the Visitor Center.

"Well," Ranger Dan said. "I'm a military man. The British took control of the land so they technically won. But with the massive British loss of life, it's not so clear."

Nancy Stewart, an Eastern National salesperson who has steeped herself in Revolutionary War history, added, "The British said that it was a 'victory with all the hallmarks of a defeat'."

The battle itself was as choreographed as a classical ballet.

Gen. Greene placed the North Carolina militia in the front line. The inexperienced volunteers were expected to fire one or two volleys and retreat. The North Carolinian militia ran as the British advanced.

The second line was comprised of soldiers of the Virginia militia, who were considered more experienced. They lured the Brits into deep woods, but the British broke through the second line.

In the third line was the Continental Army, veteran soldiers who shot at point-blank range. But the British troops fired their cannons and the Americans retreated. Most of Gen. Greene's men survived. The general deployed his troops in defensive posture and knew “when to hold them, and knew when to fold them”.

When the Americans surrendered the grounds to the British, they abandoned their war dead on the battlefield, much to the disgust of British officers. The British took the wounded of both sides and brought them to the Quaker settlement. The Quakers, who abhorred war and avoided conflict, tended to everyone.

After the battle of Guilford Courthouse, with a weakened British Army, Gen. Cornwallis abandoned the Carolinas hoping for a turnaround in Virginia. At Yorktown, seven months after his victory at Guilford Courthouse, Gen. Cornwallis surrendered to the Americans under Gen. George Washington.

Today there's quite a bit to see in and around the courthouse. Here are some pointers to help you enjoy your visit.

* See the 30 minute movie that explains the battle in context of the whole Revolutionary War. Soldiers on both sides tell their stories. A black slave explains that he's fighting instead of his master. He's been promised his freedom at the end of the war. "Britain was my country," says a white North Carolinian farmer and militia member, "but no more."

* Attend the Battle Map Program and follow the detailed movements of the troops in battle in a 10-minute film. The British, represented by red lines, and Patriots by blue lines march, shoot, and retreat. When the rangers start the film, they pass around a map of the battle drawn by British engineer officers and submitted with Gen. Cornwallis' report to his commander, Sir Henry Clinton. The Brits knew how to document well.

* Walk through the exhibit that includes short videos and displays contemporary dress of the day and implements of war such as rifles, muskets, powder horns and various bags. There's also an array of military musical instruments.

* Walk, bike, or drive the 2.5-mile loop road around the field. The eight stops display statues and information boards explaining the battle details. The road is flanked by modern houses, churches, and a civilian cemetery. Note the hilly topography and streams that contributed to heavy British losses. The last stop honors Gen. Greene and the soldiers of the Southern Army.

Guilford Courthouse connects to Greensboro Country Park and Tannenbaum Historic Parkfor more walking and history.

* Attend special interpretive programs on or close to March 15, the anniversary of the battle. Events are also offered on Memorial Day, Independence Day, and at other times during the year. Check the park's website under special events.

Traveler postscript: Guilford Courthouse Today

Locals use the park to walk, run, and exercise their dogs. It's a little incongruous to see Baggit stations holding plastic bags for pet waste on the military park road. Many visitors don't realize that they are in a national military park where kite flying and sunbathing are not allowed. If visitors complain, Ms. Stewart asks them, “Would you sunbathe at Arlington Cemetery?”

The battleground was saved from oblivion by the efforts of David Schenck, a 19th century lawyer and Revolutionary War enthusiast. Through the years, the abandoned battle site turned into a mess of old fields and tangled vegetation. When David Schenck moved to Greensboro, he decided to “rescue the battlefield from oblivion." In 1887 Mr. Schenck created the Guilford Battleground Company to preserve the battlefield. Prominent citizens raised money to erect monuments and build roads. In the custom of the day, they created a “Battleground Museum” filled with artifacts found on the field and items purchased and donated. Some of these statues can be found on the side of the Visitor Center.

Ironically, you will not find a statue of David Schenck on the loop road, just a memorial plaque. According to Nancy Stewart, “Schenck asked that a statue not be put up.”

By 1915, the Company decided that the site would be better protected by the federal government. At this time, several national military parks had already been established for battlefields of the American Civil War. In March 1917, the United States Congress established Guilford Courthouse National Military Park as the first national park to preserve a battlefield of the American Revolution.

The Guilford Battleground Company still operates as a Friends Group for the Military Park, offering financial support and help in interpretation.

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Hi Danny,
Came across this article reading your post about Kings Mountain. I grew up half an hour from Guilford Courthouse, and we used to go to the battle re-enactment pretty regurlarly (a very popular history-club field trip). They have cannons and horses and everyone is dressed up, and they recreate the battle-ballet you described, usually with someone interpreting what's going on through a microphone for the audience. Alot of the re-enactors camp out, and you can visit folks in their little campsites. It's alot of fun!
It always seems a little funny to be celebrating a battle the Americans lost, but they are sure to emphasize the British quote, "Another such 'victory' would ruin the British army!"
Never realized I was visiting a national park all that time!

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