Battlefields, Bites, and Brews Review
Guilford Courthouse National Military Park
On a warm, sunny afternoon in April, I took a southern battlefield tour from Virginia by driving south to Greensboro, North Carolina. I plugged Guilford Courthouse National Military Park into the GPS. Just like General Nathanael Greene, I crossed the Dan River at South Boston, VA. The only slight difference was that I was not riding a horse and didn’t carry a musket. I drove my 2015 Prius and carried a camera i.e. my iPhone. Yes, you read that correctly. My battlefield tour was in a Toyota Prius, which I call my combat Prius.
When I was stationed at Camp Pendleton, CA, I broke new ground in the infantry community. In a parking lot full of pickup trucks, my combat Prius stood alone. My fellow officers made fun of me to my face. The enlisted Marines made fun of me behind my back. Did I care? Not with gas prices stretching north of $5 and my commute being an hour and half each day. My combat Prius continues as my battlefield cruiser to this day!
Let’s dive into the battlefield.
Guilford Courthouse Battlefield Orientation
In February 1781, General Nathanael Greene’s Continental Army eluded British General Cornwallis during the famous Race to the Dan. For several days, Greene’s army consolidated their strength, gathered fresh troops, and supplies in a town called Halifax, Virginia. In March, they re-crossed the Dan River back into North Carolina. The stage was set for an epic showdown at a tiny village in Guilford, North Carolina near present day Greensboro, North Carolina.
During the battle on March 15, 1781, Greene arranged his army in three separate lines and placed American militia forces in forward positions. He decided to use the same tactics that General Daniel Morgan had used at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781. However, the battlefield was densely wooded, and it made command and control more difficult in the tough terrain.
As the battle progressed, the British pushed through the woods and swamps toward the Continental line. Artillery shells shattered through the trees and rained down upon both British and American positions. Soldiers dropped in the swamps and blood chilling cries could be heard amidst the cracks of musket and rifle fire. Thick smoke swirled through the trees, which created a literal fog of war.
The militia broke their lines and fled to the rear. When the British reached the third line of Continentals, the fighting turned into bitter hand to hand combat along a ridge just below the courthouse. At the end of the battle, the British controlled the field and could claim victory. However, it was a costly win. The British suffered 25% casualties and Cornwallis desperately needed to rest and regroup. After the battle, he would take his army to Wilmington, NC. After Wilmington, Cornwallis’s army left for Yorktown in Virginia.
Lessons Learned from Guilford Courthouse: Tactics and Strategy
The Battle of Guilford Courthouse had a major strategic impact on the southern theater and the Revolutionary War overall. The British won. However, they were badly wounded. When the British decided to move to Wilmington, they left South Carolina wide open for Greene’s army to move back into South Carolina. Meanwhile, Cornwallis’s next move would be north into Virginia at Yorktown.
From a tactical point of view, the battle is a lesson in the use of defense in depth. This was the same tactic used by Daniel Morgan at Cowpens. However, the question to consider is why Morgan was successful and Greene did not win a decisive victory. The answer has to do with the terrain, which frustrated Greene’s ability to command and control his troops on the battlefield. In fact, people can see a distinct difference between the terrain at Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse. Walking through the woods of Guilford Courthouse battlefield, it is easy to see why it would have been a difficult fight. However, the defense in depth was successful enough to cause significant damage to the British and ultimately disrupt their follow-on operations. As a result, this is a perfect battle to understand how an army can win a tactical victory, yet suffer a strategic defeat.
About the Battlefield
The battlefield is exceptionally well maintained by the National Park Service (NPS). There is a lot of natural beauty throughout the battleground even though it is near subdivisions and shopping centers. There are two primary roads, which run through the battlefield at the beginning of the walk from the visitor center. However, when you walk on the trail past the Nathanael Greene statue, the battlefields meander through the woods and pockets of open ground. Visitors can appreciate the dense vegetation and the low lying swamps where the British pursued the militia and eventually battled the Continentals on the high ground.
The visitor center has helpful exhibits and a video overview of the battle. These 15–30-minute movies are standard at most NPS battlefields. Pro Tip: Watch the video in advance. Spend as much time as possible on the exhibits and walking the battlefield. Check out the video(s) here.
The visitor center building is a little dated but does the job. There is a bookstore and gift shop. The staff is helpful and friendly. When I visited, several of the staff members had been working at the battlefield park for many years and genuinely love their work at the park. There is plenty of parking. Finally, there is no admission fee to the park.
The battlefield is not a hard walk. There is a driving route around the perimeter with eight stops. The drive is only 2.25 miles. But I recommend walking this one. It’s mostly flat, well-marked, and isn’t more than two miles inside the perimeter of the park
Where to get a bite and brews
You won’t have to drive far to get a cold brew. Craft City Sip In is a half mile from the park. They have craft beers, wine, and liquor. They are located along New Garden Road, which is the historic road in which Cornwallis’s troops marched into battle against Greene’s army. Across from the brewery, there is a large shopping center with a lot of fast-food chains like Chick-Fil-A and The Habit Burger Grill.
If you are stopping through and getting lunch, I recommend getting a sandwich at The Sub Spot. You can order online as you drive, pick it up, then drive three more minutes to the park. If it’s a nice day, eat lunch outside then walk through the park. After walking through the park go to Ozzie’s Ice-Cream Shop, which is located along Old Battleground Road. This is the road that cuts through the park and intersects with New Market Road. Ozzie’s is a fun place to hang out and relax after walking the battlefield for a couple hours.
Finally, the original Village Tavern is only a mile from the park. Take Old Battleground Road to Westridge Rd. The Village Tavern is a great place to sit down and have specialty cocktails, wine, or and beer. They have a full menu with steaks and burgers. This is a great place to sit down after a long day running around Greene’s old lines. Pretend to send Cornwallis reeling down to Wilmington, then reward yourself with an Oaked Old Fashioned, tavern nachos, and a Bacon Jam Burger. You earned it!
The visitor center exhibits are in depth. If you want to read all the materials, then plan a half an hour at the exhibits. Walking through the park will take no more than an hour and a half including stopping to read the markers and take pictures. Blocking out two hours at the park is plenty. With lunch and ice cream, plan up to three hours. Revolutionary War battles were not on the same scale as Civil War battles. The bulk of the fighting took place over the course of an hour. As a result, Revolutionary War battlefields are typically more condensed and easier to walk than Civil War battlefields. Guilford Courthouse National Military Park fits into the category of condensed space and easy to walk.
Driving and Travel
Guilford Courthouse is very accessible by car. The closest big city is Greensboro, NC, which is six miles south. Winston-Salem, NC is only 37 minutes away by car. Raleigh, NC is about 1.5 hours by car. The park is right off I-840 (East-West route) and Rt 220 (North-South route). Both are major roads in the area. Bottom line is that you won’t be off roading way out in the boonies to get there. The combat Prius came away unscathed.
Ready to take your Revolutionary War adventure to the pro level? Drive an hour and twenty minutes northeast to the Boyd’s Ferry Crossing Site on the Dan River in South Boston, Virginia.
If you want to plan another historic stop that is not military history, then check out The International Civil Rights Center and Museum. Greensboro was the site of one of the most well-known Civil Rights sit-ins at F.W. Woolworth’s Lunch Counter. It is worth a visit.
Every battlefield deserves to be seen and studied. Guilford Courthouse National Military Park is on the list. It is a fun battlefield. Learn about General Nathanael Greene’s leadership. Take a moment to appreciate the courage and sacrifice of the brave American soldiers, who fought and died for American independence. Discover what led the British to Yorktown. From Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, you can follow the British path to Wilmington and then up to Yorktown. Or you can go further south and follow Greene’s army back into South Carolina.
While you are driving on your Revolutionary War battlefield tour in the South, check out our American Guerillas podcast series. We discuss many of the key battles that took place in the Carolinas.
- American Guerillas (Part One): War in the Carolinas
- American Guerillas (Part Two): The Sword of the Lord and Gideon
- American Guerillas (Part Three): The Old Wagoner’s Revenge
Battle of Guilford Courthouse: A Most Desperate Engagement by John R Maass
Long, Obstinate, and Bloody by Lawrence E. Babits
The Road to Guilford Courthouse by John Buchanan