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Setting the Stage


The Revolutionary War began at Lexington, Massachusetts in April 1775. For the next three years most of the heaviest fighting occurred in the northern colonies. This situation was altered when, in the aftermath of a surprising American victory at Saratoga, New York, France became America’s first significant ally. Knowing that French aid would make it more difficult to defeat the Americans, the British changed their strategy.

Beginning in 1778, the British stopped actively pursuing their Northern Campaign and directed most of their efforts toward subjugating the southern colonies. In large measure, this decision was based on the mistaken belief that most Southerners were loyalists who would actively help the redcoats. Although this assumption proved false, the British did win many significant victories before fortune turned against them. They took the two greatest seaports in the South, Savannah and Charleston, and also destroyed two American armies.

American fortunes began to improve in late 1780 when Gen. George Washington sent his best subordinate, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island, to take command in the South. Knowing that the resistance in the South would collapse if he could destroy Greene’s army, the British commanding general, Lord Charles Cornwallis, struggled to bring on a climactic battle. General Greene, equally determined to avoid a battle until his army had reached its peak strength, temporarily gave up great areas to British occupation to buy time. Finally, Greene decided that his army, consisting of 4,400 troops, was ready to confront Lord Cornwallis and his 1,900 redcoats. The place chosen for this engagement was Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, and the date was March 15, 1781.

In the months that followed, the results of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse became clear. Serious losses of manpower left the British too weak to occupy even outposts in North Carolina. Further, they were unable to pursue the defeated, but essentially intact, army of Nathanael Greene. Instead, after burying their dead and collecting the wounded, they marched away on March 18 toward the British outpost at Wilmington, North Carolina, where they hoped to find provisions shipped to them from Charleston. While at Wilmington, Lord Cornwallis made the fatal decision to lead his army into Virginia, where seven months later he would meet final defeat at Yorktown. Meanwhile, the "defeated" Americans at Guilford Courthouse marched south and fought battles that liberated South Carolina and Georgia from British control.

 

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