The Battle at Guilford Courthouse

guilford battle

On March 15, 1781 Major General Nathanael Greene and his army of 4,400 Americans contested the British invasion of North Carolina at Guilford Courthouse. Lt. Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis, commanded the tough professional force of 1,900 British soldiers. Greene deployed his men into smaller groups to take advantage of the terrain.

battle at guilford courthouse
American militia firing at the British infantry from behind a split rail fence during the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, March 15, 1781

The Courthouse battle was fierce. The veteran British troops were severely crippled. Cornwallis lost a quarter of his army and almost a third of his officers. Greene lost only six percent of his men. With greatly diminished ranks and depleted supplies, Cornwallis withdrew to the coast, 200 miles away.

The battle fought at Guilford Courthouse was the largest and most hotly contested action of the Revolutionary War’s Southern Campaign. It is considered the high-water mark of that campaign in that it changed the course of the war and contributed to the eventual American victory at Yorktown seven months later.

Several objects featured in this exhibit are directly associated with the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. The other objects are dated to the Revolutionary War period but are not directly associated with the battle.


guilford courthouse battle drumThe drum and fife regulated the Revolutionary War soldier’s life. By commands of music, the soldier was notified when to awake in the mornings, when to attend drill, when to stop for meals, and when to report for pay. While on the march, music assisted with cadence and order, helping men to march in time. Music encouraged soldiers to press a march or attack with vigor.

Orders were also given using whistles, blowing horns, and bagpipes. Music and songs in camp lifted soldiers’ spirits following exhausting duty. They helped build fellowship in the regiments.

Drums have been used to convey commands since ancient times. They provide distinct sounds that can be heard for great distances. The drum was the very voice and tongue of the commander. After the adoption of firearms, the fife came into use. Its peculiar piercing sound transcended the noise of men and gunfire, and added melody to the drumbeats. By the Revolution, armies had adopted a system of commands given by the drum and fife, which could rapidly communicate orders to whole armies at one time.

Weapons of War


light dragoon pistol
Light Dragoon Pistol

A soldier’s survival depended on his weapons. During the American Revolutionary War, weapons and equipment were often in short supply. Iron foundries, such as Hopewell Furnace, produced weapons for the Continental Army. However, many soldiers and officers provided their own weapons and household items. They also carried the equipment needed to fight, such as shot molds, tinder lighters and cartridge boxes.

Revolutionary War period smoothbore muskets were quite inaccurate. Soldiers lined up in long lines and fired massive amounts of lead balls at each other. Commanders hoped these deadly volleys would break holes in the enemy line. Once the enemy line was breached, soldiers with bayonets could rush in to create panic and break the enemy’s formation. Cavalry could then ride in and hack at the panic-stricken opponents. At that point demoralized soldiers might ask for quarter and surrender their weapons.

spontoon head
Spontoon Head

The flintlock musket was the most important weapon of the Revolutionary War. It represented the most advanced technological weapon of the 18th century. Muskets were smooth-bored, single-shot, muzzle-loading weapons. The standard rate of fire for infantrymen was three shots per minute. The rifle, although slower to load, was more accurate than the musket. However, riflemen were at great disadvantage in close-quarters fighting against disciplined infantry armed with muskets and bayonets. Cavalrymen and officers used pistols. Pistols were effective only at close range.

Edged weapons played a critical role in the Revolutionary War. Battles like Guilford Courthouse were decided in bloody hand-to-hand combat where bayonets, swords, and axes were used. Riflemen, having no bayonets, relied on knives and tomahawks. Swords were widely used during the war. Infantrymen used hangers, while their officers carried short sabers. Cavalrymen carried heavier and longer sabers. Officers’ small swords were light, straight, and slender. Hunting swords were short, cut-and-thrust weapons used by the German Jaegers, American riflemen, and officers of both sides. Pole arms served both as combat weapons and symbols of rank. The bayonet was the most widely used edged weapon of the war. It transformed the musket into a spear. It was a terrifyingly effective weapon when used by an experienced soldier. Inexperienced troops often fled in the face of bayonet charges.

Peter Francisco: One Man Army

peter francisco
Peter Francisco

Peter Francisco was one the best-known enlisted men in the American army. Abandoned on a wharf in Virginia in 1765, he was taken in by the Winston family of Hunting Tower, Virginia. Francisco joined the 10th Virginia Continental Line as a sixteen-year-old. An officer noted Francisco never entered battle without distinguishing himself eminently. Fellow soldiers testified he did the fighting of six or eight men.

At Camden in 1780, Francisco saved his colonel’s life by running his assailant through with a bayonet. He was wounded in the leg at Brandywine, received a nine-inch stomach wound at Stony Point, and was hit by a British musket ball in the right thigh at Monmouth. At Guilford Courthouse Francisco killed four men in the presence of Colonel Washington, and suffered a bayonet wound that ran from his knee to his hip.

After the war Francisco set up a blacksmith’s shop and repaired saddles, shoes, boots, belts and other leather items. He founded the community of Curdsville, Virginia. He became a farmer, married three times, and fathered eight children. In his later years he was sergeant-at-arms of the Virginia House of Delegates, a post he held until his death in 1831.

Powder Horns

powder horn
Powder Horn

During the American Revolutionary War, the powder horn was essential equipment for the soldier who used a firearm. The rifleman carried his firelock, hunting pouch, and a horn to carry gunpowder. Hunters and militia used powder horns. They were usually made from cow or ox horn.

Owners often incised initials, names, portraits, patterns, scenes and maps onto the horn to make them their very own. Engraved scenes often provide us with an immediate and vivid connection to events in the soldier’s life.

Guilford Courthouse has a large collection of American Revolutionary War period powder, and other horns, some of which are featured here.

Traveling The Back Roads


It was easy for travelers to lose their way on back roads. A compass was an essential tool for anyone venturing far from the established larger settlements.

Maps featuring rivers and mountains ensured that military forces reached their targeted destination. Engineers provided maps and data on routes, rivers, and fords. Officers were required to report distances covered each day of a campaign.

Leisure Hours


The war consisted of long encampments interspersed with marching and fighting. When a soldier completed drilling and duties for the day, he would hunt and fish to supplement his diet. He also spent time reading and writing.

Playing games, drinking, smoking, telling stories, sewing, or repairing equipment helped pass the time. Soldiers celebrated holidays with parades and gun salutes.

Spirits enlivened camp life. Officers, particularly the British, would serve other beverages, such as tea, to colleagues or civilian visitors in the afternoon or at dinner in the evening.

Keeping Up Appearances

Shaving brush and soap holder
Shaving Brush and Soap Holder

European fashion shaped how the Revolutionary War soldier looked. Men had to be clean-shaven, with neatly trimmed hair. Personal cleanliness was not well known. Each soldier wore shoes, shirt, waistcoat (vest), and breeches, trousers, or overalls.

Continental regiments wore blue or brown coats with facings of red, white, or other colors. Artillery uniforms for both the Continental and British armies were blue with red facings. British cavalry wore either red or green coats, while the American cavalry wore blue, green, or white. Militia regiments usually did not have a uniform and wore a variety of clothing from home or state stores.


“The cries of the wounded and dying who remained on the field of action during the night exceed all description. Such a complicated scene of horror and distress, it is hoped, for the sake of humanity, rarely occurs, even in a military life.” – Charles Stedman

medical careRecords indicate that few of the practicing doctors in Colonial America had formal training. Many prescribed calomel, mercury and quinine. Some applied Native American herbal remedies. Bleeding, sweating, cupping and blistering, cold baths, and laxative use were common treatments. There were few, if any, dentists. Soldiers injured on the battlefield had little chance of recovery. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse proved to be particularly deadly

The aftermath of all battles was dreadful. However, the battle of Guilford Courthouse was particularly bad. Dead and dying lay over a thousand acres of ground. Shortly after the last shots were fired, torrential rain fell. The rain complicated locating and caring for the wounded. Doctors and medicines were in short supply. With the help of neighboring Quakers and others, the British cared for both sides. A British surgeon amputated arms and legs, extracted lead balls, and set broken bones. Guilford Courthouse and houses within an eight-mile radius were used as hospitals. Many wounded died from infections and blood poisoning. A smallpox epidemic claimed more lives after the battle.

“I never did and I hope that I never shall experience two such days and nights as those immediately after the battle. We remained on the very ground on which it had been fought, covered with dead, with dying and with hundreds of wounded, rebels as well as our own. A violent and constant rain that lasted above forty hours made it equally impracticable to remove or administer the smallest comfort to our wounded.” – General Charles O’Hara, British, Crown Forces

Food and Spirits


Feeding the army was an enormous undertaking. Congress and the states had a difficult time raising funds to purchase enough supplies for the Continental Army. It was said that General Washington estimated that the army needed 100,000 barrels of flour and 20 million pounds of meat to feed 15,000 men for a year.

Farmers supplied the military with staples. Many local settlers owned small farms, and raised crops and livestock. Towns and cities provided a market for the settlers’ cattle, hogs, and wheat. Hunting and fishing supplemented the diet. What the army could not supply, it often requisitioned by force.

Soldiers unlike their civilian counterparts were issued food rations. Army food was usually provided in raw form. Staples consisted of flour, corn meal, or bread, and beef, pork, or fish. Sometimes beans or peas were provided. At Guilford Courthouse, the Virginia militia was supplied with bacon, beef, mutton, flour, corn, and corn meal.

Soldiers cooked their own food in pots, kettles, Dutch ovens, grills, and broilers. Families often accompanied their men into the field. Women assisted with cooking, sewing, washing clothes, and tending the sick. Children carried firewood or water. Both British and American officers brought their own home necessities, such as tea strainers, that they used to ease the hardships of battle. Each man supplied his own utensils. These included a spoon, cup, fork, knife, and wood or metal plate. Strong spirits were usually provided.

During his Southern Campaign, Nathanael Greene wrote, Without spirits the men cannot support the fatigues of a long campaign. In the Guilford area the citizens of North Carolina and Virginia supplied Greene’s men with brandy and rum.


Women participated in the American Revolution on many fronts. Some were politically active. They raised funds to assist soldiers and sewed clothing for the troops. Several women from prominent and affluent families supported the cause by providing their homes as meeting places.

Rural women tended crops and livestock when their men fought the war. Very often, women accompanied men into the field. They assisted with cooking, sewing, and washing clothes, and tended the sick. Women not only sewed clothing for their husbands and sons, they often spun the yarn and wove the fabric. Officers’ wives also joined their husbands at the front. Martha Washington spent time with her husband at the winter encampments of Valley Forge and Morristown. American women, from all walks of life, played a critical yet largely unheralded role in achieving independence.

Early accounts refer to Carolina women as being bred to the Needle and Spinning as well as to the dairy and domestic affairs, while standing ready to help and assist their Husbands in any Servile Work.

revolutionary war woman