Author Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank Bradley L. Carter, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Military History, United States Army Command and General Staff College, for his guidance with this manuscript.
The Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the Battle of Saratoga are all names and images we, as a nation, are familiar with regarding the American Revolutionary War. The annals of history have left a sparse imprint on our national collective memory of the importance of the Southern Theater of the American Revolution. The ingenuity of our past leaders, their skill variance, and agile foresight are gold nuggets of lessons learned that can be mined. I believe that the role of Southern Theater in the War of Independence was the most important, particularly the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and two major events that preceded it.
Despite being victorious at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, the heavy losses General Cornwallis suffered were irreplaceable. Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Operation Planning, defines culmination as “that point in time and/or space at which the operation can no longer maintain momentum.” I submit that The Battle of Guilford Court House was the culmination that led to the defeat of General Cornwallis at Yorktown. I will focus heavily on the operational level of war.
My discussion will emphasize three key events coupled with General Nathanael Greene’s application of irregular warfare, namely: the Battle of Cowpens, the Race to the Dan, and the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. I will review the actions and implications of Cornwallis’ and Greene’s decisions, nest the key events in my review and culminate with the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Finally, I will discuss why events that took place over 200 years ago remain very important today. At major points, I will interject with the relationship covered in the three key events between our current efforts in counterinsurgency operations.
Although considered a tactical victory, Cornwallis’ singular application of regular warfare led him to lose the Battle of Guilford Courthouse at the operational level. The British had a general understanding of unconventional warfare; they simply had not taken measures to mitigate its effects. In turn, unconventional warfare played an important role in curtailing British operational reach.
British General Charles O’Hara described the asymmetric nature of the American forces in the following manner, “It is a fact that beyond a doubt that their own Numbers are not materially reduced, for in all our Victories, where we are said to have cut them to pieces, they are very wisely never staid long enough to expose themselves to those desperate extremities.” How did General Greene’s application of unconventional warfare shape the American tactical defeat at Guilford Course into a decisive point for the Americans and culmination for the British? This is illustrated by three important factors preceding The Battle of Guilford Courthouse: the division of Greene’s army, his exploitation of resources, and his task organization of forces.
Cornwallis’ certainty that Greene’s Continental Army was the American center of gravity was probably his biggest misjudgment. If we were to apply the accepted definition that a center of gravity is source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or the will to act; it is clear the true American center of gravity was the combined force (the Continental Army, the Militia, and the Partisans)., Cornwallis’ shortfall was that he only attempted to directly target what he sensed was the American center of gravity, the Continental Army. This shortfall led to failure in achieving the British military end state.
When Greene assumed command of the combined force in the Southern theater, he divided his force based on short supplies and perceived opportunity, or per Greene “partly from choice and partly from necessity.” In doing so, Greene applied economy of force over mass. Greene created a “Flying Army,” commanded by General Daniel Morgan, with instructions to “employ either offensively or defensively [against the British] as your own prudence and discretion may direct, acting with caution and prudence and avoiding surprises.” These forces were able to garner Partisan and Militia support and Greene tasked them to threaten British targets in the South Carolina backcountry.
This action by Greene caused Cornwallis to detach Tarleton in order to protect British outposts, namely Ninety-six. Greene took the remainder of his force east which created the implication and possibility of the Americans advancing toward Charleston, South Carolina, a British stronghold and logistical center.
Greene noted that by dividing his forces “It makes the most of my inferior force for it compels my adversary [Cornwallis] to divide his, and holds him in doubt of my own line of conduct.” Greene prevented Cornwallis’ advance into Virginia to extend British influence and forced Cornwallis to engage two separate enemy forces that threatened his north (Morgan) and east flanks (Greene).
After dividing his forces, Greene applied and exploited resources to attrit Cornwallis’s forces and leverage the friction of war. He leveraged four key resources: the Militia and Partisans, intelligence, rivers, and logistics. By coalescing with Militia and Partisans, he was able to extend his operational reach and flex mass upon British forces interdicting them as targets of opportunity in the Carolina backcountry.
The use of unconventional tactics at the Battle of Cowpens allowed Greene to gain a marked advantage over Cornwallis. In the early morning of 17 January 1781 in a battle that lasted about 45 minutes in a cow pasture, British forces would suffer a dramatic defeat by one of Greene’s subordinates, General Daniel Morgan and his “Flying Army”.
Banastre Tarleton’s guidance from Cornwallis was to protect a British outpost, Ninety-six located in South Carolina, and defeat Morgan. Tarleton began his pursuit of Morgan about a week prior to the battle when he learned that Ninety-six was not in danger of an American attack. In his pursuit of Morgan, Tarleton and his force forded five rivers and continued to push north through South Carolina out of reach of supplies and Cornwallis’ ability to provide reinforcements.
Morgan on the other hand was moving north toward supplies while being reinforced with men en route. Morgan in preparation for meeting Tarleton was able to set conditions for battle, properly organize and consolidate his force, and conduct a hasty rehearsal. The battle that took place and the outcomes of that morning shaped conditions for future operations. This fact is important because it showed the tenacity and ingenuity of American forces during the conduct of split operations.
At Cowpens, British losses were 86% (378 killed or wounded and 587 captured [n=1,150]) while American forces suffered minimal losses (12 men killed and 60 wounded (n=800]). Cornwallis’ comments after the dramatic losses were “The late affair almost broke my heart.” British forces were caught in a double-envelopment by the combined American force, a tactic not used in British regular warfare. In later documentation of the battle, Banastre Tarleton wrote, “They fire on both sides” referring to the double-envelopment his forces were caught in at Cowpens.
The indirect consequence of Cowpens was a major blow to the British physically and a psychological boon to the Americans. The direct effect was a loss of Cornwallis’ light troops. This blow infuriated Cornwallis causing him to pursue Greene’s forces without a full understanding of the operating environment. Cowpens also served as a decisive point for the Americans that sparked the Race to the Dan.
The loss at the Battle of Cowpens impaired Cornwallis’ judgment leading him to overextend his force at the cost of his logistical train. This ultimately limited his operational reach in order to seek retaliation in his pursuit of the Americans following Cowpens. Cornwallis sacrificed logistics by burning his supply train and keeping only essential supplies in order to obtain a positional advantage against the American forces.
Upon hearing of Cornwallis’ desperate actions, Greene’s response was “…if he persists in his mad scheme of pushing through the country, and it is my earnest desire to form a junction…”. Cornwallis then began maneuvering his forces through an area that the Americans, supported by Partisans, had cleared of food and supplies. Cornwallis did not realize that the asymmetric American force was leading his forces into a planned logistical trap.  “The key to effectiveness as guerilla warriors was their mobility, but now they were engaged in joint operations with regulars.” 
Greene’s use of intelligence coincides with the use of rivers as key terrain and logistical lines of communication. Based on actionable intelligence, Greene ingeniously initiated a supply system from upstream to downstream via the Carolina river system ensuring that American forces were always higher upstream that the British. This foresight allowed resupply of Greene’s forces.
Concurrently, Greene was operating on interior lines. He built and prepositioned boats along a natural backstop (the Dan River), on the American near side in the event of retrograde operations. Greene later used these boats after reconsolidation of his forces as transport to sanctuary for force reorganization in what is known as the “Race to the Dan”.
At this point in the American Revolution, the War of Movement phase was well underway. The task organization of Greene’s joint force expertly follows insurgent doctrine. Greene intelligently used his joint force, auxiliary, and underground to achieve his end state.
Greene maximized his combined force by synchronizing the Continental Army, Partisans, and Militia. The fighting force Greene commanded was mobile, flexible, and able to rally at predetermined locations when needed. One example of Green’s joint force was Francis Marion, a Partisan leader, tasked with collecting intelligence and harassing Cornwallis. 
The auxiliary provided Greene’s forces with much needed shelter and supplies. LTC ‘Light Horse’ Harry Lee, a Continental Calvary commander serving under Greene, commented about the “wholesome and abundant supplies of food in the rich and friendly county of Halifax”.  Underground operatives provided timely intelligence regarding terrain and the status of British forces. The ability Greene had to collect intelligence played a crucial role in the strategic setting and understanding his operational environment.  By creating unity of effort with his base, Greene was able to shape, on-demand, joint force functions that flexed mass between economy of force, and sustained his strategic effort.
After the British defeat at Cowpens, Cornwallis attempted to recapture his men, cut off American supplies that were flowing into the Carolinas from the north, and battle Greene while the Americans were divided. The Race to the Dan was ultimately a pre-battle maneuver by Greene that set conditions for the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Cornwallis, in pursuit of Greene’s forces, extended to operate on exterior lines and maneuvered 250 miles, engaging in multiple skirmishes that created a loss of resources and men.
The Race to the Dan River took place from 18 January 1781 to 15 February 1781. During that month, Greene ordered his Continental troops to move north into Salisbury, North Carolina while he moved west with a guide and three dragoons in order to link up with Morgan and his “Flying Army”. Greene and his men moved over one hundred miles across south-central North Carolina without making contact with British forces or Loyalists. It is unclear how Greene accomplished this journey, but he probably received aid and intelligence from the American insurgent network.
On 01 February 1781, after linking up with Morgan, Greene held a war council with his generals and decided on a simple plan. The American force would still conduct split operations holding main river crossing sites as long as possible in order to prevent British encirclement. They would rendezvous in Salisbury, consolidate and reorganize, and Greene would move his force north toward Guilford, North Carolina. Until the American rendezvous at Guilford on 07 February 1781, Cornwallis and the Americans had multiple skirmishes that caused further attrition of British forces. This also drew Cornwallis further north away from his logistical hub in Charleston, South Carolina.
The American Army was reunited at Salisbury and Greene decided to “avoid a General Action at all events, and that the Army ought to retreat to over the Roanoke River.” Greene felt that if his force met Cornwallis now, they may fail and the American cause would be lost. Greene then established a blocking force of 700 men, under the command Colonel Otho Holland Williams, with orders to harass and delay Cornwallis allowing the Americans time to reach the Dan River.
On 13 February1781, Greene’s Army began crossing the Dan River at three ferry points, Dix’s Ferry, Irwin’s Ferry, and Boyd’s Ferry. Over the course of the day and night, a small flotilla of boats conducted this massive river crossing of 2,000 men. The last to cross was the detached blocking force fording the river under torchlight.
The British arrived twelve hours after the Americans had crossed. Greene utilized deception, screening, and information operations to get his force across in multiple serials. Tarleton, who rarely spoke well of the Americans stated, “Every measure of the Americans, during their march from the Catawba to Virginia, was judiciously designed and vigorously executed.” The American force moved north into Halifax, Virginia and rested.
On 19 February 1781, an advance party of Greene’s Army reentered North Carolina and Greene gave the order to reengage the British in harassment operations. After a week of rest, Greene’s Army began to cross the Dan River bringing the fight back into North Carolina. While Greene was absorbing reinforcements en route to Guilford Courthouse and continuing his war of small attrition against Cornwallis, Cornwallis was attempting to keep his army fed and stocked. In a letter to the Duke of Grafton, a British officer wrote they were “completely worn out, by the excessive Fatigues of the Campaign…and three or four ounces of unground Indian Corn.”
On 15 March 1781, the Battle of Guilford Courthouse took place in a location Greene predetermined on his previous reconnaissance by prior knowledge. Greene positioned his men in based on the same tactics Morgan used at Cowpens. The force was formed in three lines about 300 and 600 meters respectively apart facing west with their flanks covered. Reconnaissance elements were placed to the front in anticipation of Cornwallis. These reconnaissance elements were under the command of LTC Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. Lee further detached LT James Heard with the following instructions “[to] place himself near the British camp, and to report from time to time what occurrences might be heard.”
It was soon confirmed that Cornwallis’ entire army was moving west toward Greene. Lee did a quick terrain analysis and realized that he could draw Cornwallis through a choke-point and began his withdrawal toward Greene. Three skirmishes took place between Lee and Cornwallis’s men in the span of about two and a half hours. Lee’s delaying tactics bought time for Greene to deploy his men.
The first line, comprised mainly of North Carolina militia, did as Greene ordered. When Cornwallis approached, the militia were to fire two volleys and then retire beyond the second line. Because of the opening volley, “one half of the Highlanders dropped on the spot.” One North Carolinian described the British casualties like “the scattering stalks of a wheat field, when the harvestman has passed over it with his cradle.”
After the first line of the American force withdrew, the flanking force that Greene had positioned began to fire into the British. The British advance toward the second line, compromised of Virginia militia, was through a dense wooded area that prevented practical use of bayonets and well-ordered British lines. The battle at the second line turned into multiple engagements between small parties.
As the British approached the third line, about an hour and a half had elapsed. The fresh Continentals who formed the final line could not see the battle but they could hear the British approach through the woods. The British battle line had been broken onto six separate elements that would engage the third line in different intervals. At this point in the battle it was anyone’s game. Tarleton wrote, “at this period the event of the action was doubtful, and victory alternately presided over each army.” During the melee that ensued, Cornwallis fearing a repeat of the events at Cowpens, ordered artillery shot directly into the mass of fighting men, both British and American. This action caused forces from both sides to disperse.
After over two hours of being engaged in significant fighting, Greene ordered a withdrawal to a predetermined rally point three miles from the Guilford Courthouse “where our baggage was previously ordered…” and proceeded another 10 miles. The British forces, too exhausted to keep pace with the Americans, remained on the battlefield with their dead and wounded, and exposed to a cold deluge.
Secondary to Greene’s withdrawal, Guilford Courthouse was a tactical victory for the British but cost Cornwallis 25% of his fighting force, comparatively Greene lost only 6% (British recorded casualties totaled 506 [n=2,000], 93 KIA and 413 WIA. American recorded casualties totaled 263[n=4,000], 79 KIA and 184 WIA). A British Parliamentarian replied, “Another such victory would ruin the British Army” when he heard of the losses. Guilford Courthouse demonstrated that the Americans could, and would, stand and fight, inflicting significant, non-replaceable, casualties on the British.
Two months of active British maneuver in pursuit of Greene’s men through the Southern Theater wore on Cornwallis’ forces. There are multiple references to the poor condition of Cornwallis’ force such as “completely worn out…”, and “At this time the scarcity of our provisions was so great…”. This battle marked a culminating point beyond which Cornwallis could not persevere.
After The Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Cornwallis maneuvered his forces to British-occupied Wilmington, North Carolina in order to consolidate and reorganize his tired men. En route, he found the Carolina countryside filled with patriot militias further degrading British perseverance. Greene and his force re-entered South Carolina to continue the offensive and control much of the Southern Theater.
Cornwallis decided to move north into Virginia under the belief that to control Greene and the Southern Theater, he had to control Virginia. Cornwallis thought that he could split the South by controlling Virginia and terminate the supply networks that maintained Greene. Cornwallis was “…firmly persuaded that until Virginia was reduced we could not hold the Southern provinces…”
While trying to control Virginia, Cornwallis was slowly being driven from Charlottesville, then to Richmond, fortifying himself in Portsmouth, and finally abandoning the stronghold for Yorktown, Virginia. All the while Lafayette’s light infantry, dispatched by General George Washington to protect Virginia, had penetrated Cornwallis’ lines threatening his supply lines. On 17 October 1781, seven months after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.
By applying the principles of modern joint warfare to an 18th century asymmetric force, we can conceptualize how Greene was able to cause the British army to culminate at Guilford Courthouse. Principally, Greene had unity of command and effort, synchronized with economy of force. Greene maintained the offensive even when in the defense, and clearly communicated his objective. He synergized these principles with joint functions that dimensionally enveloped the British.
Why does this matter today? By understanding that our Independence was won by unconventional warfare carried out by agile leaders, we will gain a greater understanding of counterinsurgency operations. In planning for current and future counterinsurgency operations, we need to analyze the insurgency from the insurgent perspective. Studying smaller, well-recorded military operations, leads to a broader dimensional understanding of our operating environment. Both of these insights can be applied today in our current global counterinsurgency efforts.
The Battle of Guilford Court House was the culmination that led to the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown. Overlooking the tenacity of the Patriot Army and Militia as a center of gravity was in Cornwallis’ error. Combat, spanned continuously over space and time, leveraged with the application of irregular warfare and coupled with degradation of logistical support, can cause a superior, better trained, and better-equipped force to culminate. These lessons taught by our founding patriots need to be revisited and impressed upon our current and future military leaders.
Babits, Lawrence E. A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998,
Babits, Lawrence E., Howard, Joshua B. Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Baker, Thomas E. Another Such Victory: The Story of the American defeat at Guilford Courthouse that helped win the War for Independence. New York: East Acorn Press. 1981. (Baker 1981). Online at <http://books.google.com/books?id=0zwOAQAAMAAJ&q=Baker,+Thomas+E.+Another+Such+Victory:+The+Story+of+the+American+defeat+at+Guilford+Courthouse+that+helped+win+the+War+for+Independence&dq=Baker,+Thomas+E.+Another+Such+Victory:+The+Story+of+the+American+defeat+at+Guilford+Courthouse+that+helped+win+the+War+for+Independence&hl=en&sa=X&ei=N-IpT5jWA4ro2QXF2t23CA&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAA> ; accessed on 01 Feb 2012.
Buchanan, John. The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas. New York: John Wiley& Sons, Inc., 1997.
Hairr, John. Guilford Courthouse; Nathaniel Geene's Victory in Defeat March 15, 1781. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2002.
Stephenson, Michael. Patriot Battles: How the War of Independance Was Fought. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.
US, Department of the Army. JP 5-0, Joint Operation Planning. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. August 2011.
 Department of the Army, JP 5-0, Joint Operation Planning (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. August 2011), pp. III-34.
 John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas (New York: John Wiley& Sons, Inc., 1997), p. 336. “It is a fact that beyond a doubt that their own Numbers are not materially reduced, for in all our Victories, where we are said to have cut them to pieces, they are very wisely never staid long enough to expose themselves to those desperate extremities.” British General Charles O’Hara describing the asymmetric nature of the American forces.
 Department of the Army, op. cit, p. xxi.
 Buchanan, op. cit., p. 366 “The key to effectiveness [American] as guerilla warriors was their mobility, but now they were engaged in joint operations with regulars.”
 Buchanan, op. cit., p. 292 “partly from choice and partly form necessity” Greene’s comments on his choice to divide his force. Greene applied the principle of economy of force over mass in support of his end state.
 Stephenson, op. cit., p. 326.
 Babits, 1998, op. cit, p. 7. This action caused Cornwallis to detach Tarleton to protect British outposts.
 Buchanan, op. cit., p. 295.
 Buchanan, op. cit., p. 295.
 Buchanan, ibid., p. 302. Examples of British targets of opportunity were engagements at Hammond’s Store and Fort Williams.
 Michael Stephenson, Patriot Battles: How the War of Independance Was Fought. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), p. 331. “The late affair almost broke my heart”. Cornwallis’ comments regarding the British at Cowpens. Lawrence E. Babits, A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens.( Chapel Hill: The Univesrsity of North Carolina Press, 1998), p. 143.
 Buchanan , op. cit., 323 “They fire on both sides,” wrote Banastre Tarleton, British Commander at Cowpens referring to the battle.
 Buchanan, ibid., p. 329. The direct effect of Cowpens was a loss of Cornwallis’ light troops and the undesired effect was the boost of American morale.
 Buchanan, ibid., pp. 340-342. Cornwallis burned his supply train and kept only enough wagons for essential supplies. Greene’s response to Cornwallis’ actions was “…if he persists in his mad scheme of pushing through the country, and it is my earnest desire to form a junction…”
 Lawrence E. Babits, Joshua B. Howard, Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), p. 11. In pursuit of Greene’s force, Cornwallis maneuvered his forces through an area that the Americans, supported by Partisans, had cleared of food and supplies.
 Buchanan, op. cit., p. 366
 Buchanan, op. cit., p. 288 Greene tasks three officers for reconnaissance, commissary, and brown-water operations.
 Department of the Army, JP 3-24, Counterinsurgency Operations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, October 2009), pp. II-15-II-19. Insurgencies follow three phases, Latent and Incipient, Guerilla Warfare, and finally War of Movement.
 Buchanan, ibid., 290, p. 302. Greene tasks Francis Marion, a Partisan, with collecting intelligence and harassing Cornwallis. Within three days after Morgan established camp after being detached form Greene, 950 mixed forces linked up with him at a rally point.
 Buchanan, ibid., p. 360. “wholesome and abundant supplies of food in the rich and friendly county of Halifax” LTC ‘Light Horse’ Harry Lee a Continental Calvary commander.
 Buchanan, ibid., 289-290. Greene’s ability to collect intelligence played a crucial role in the strategic setting and understanding his operational environment.
 Babits, 2009, ibid., p. 11.
 Babits, 2009, ibid., p. 12.
 Babits, 2009, ibid., p. 28. Greene reunited his forces and crossed the Dan River on 14 Mar 1781. Greene utilized deception, screening, and information operations to get his force across in multiple serials. Cornwallis, in pursuit of Greene covered 250 miles and fought multiple skirmishes costing him men and resources.
 Babits, 2009, ibid., p. 16.
 Babits, 2009, ibid., p. 29.
 Babits, 2009, op. cit., p. 35.
 Babits, 2009, op. cit., p. 49.
 Babits, 2009, op. cit., p. 51.
 Babits, 2009, op. cit., p. 56.
 Stephenson, op. cit., p. 337.
 Stephenson, op. cit., p. 337.
 Buchanan, op. cit., p. 377.
 Buchanan, op. cit., 378.
 Buchanan, op. cit., 379.
 Babits, 2009, op. cit., 171.
 Babits, 2009, op. cit., 218. British recorded casualties totaled 506 (n=2,000), 93 KIA and 413 WIA. American recorded casualties totaled 263(n=4,000), 79 KIA and 184 WIA.
 Thomas E. Baker, Another Such Victory: The Story of the American defeat at Guilford Courthouse that helped win the War for Independence. New York: East Acorn Press. 1981. (Baker 1981). Online at <http://books.google.com/books?id=0zwOAQAAMAAJ&q=Baker,+Thomas+E.+Another+Such+Victory:+The+Story+of+the+American+defeat+at+Guilford+Courthouse+that+helped+win+the+War+for+Independence&dq=Baker,+Thomas+E.+Another+Such+Victory:+The+Story+of+the+American+defeat+at+Guilford+Courthouse+that+helped+win+the+War+for+Independence&hl=en&sa=X&ei=N-IpT5jWA4ro2QXF2t23CA&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAA> ; accessed on 01 Feb 2012. Remarks by Charles James Fox, Whig, British Parliament.
 Babits, 2009, op. cit., p. 49. There are multiple references to the poor condition of Cornwallis’ force “completely worn out…”, “At this time the scarcity of our provisions was so great…”
 Ibid., p. 180.
 Babits, 2009, op. cit., p. 186.
 Babits, 2009, op. cit., p. 188.
 Department of the Army 2009, op. cit., p. II-10. The analysis must be from the insurgent perspective, rather than that of the counterinsurgent.