History & Culture

The War in the Southern Colonies

British strategy in the War of American Independence shifted after France formally allied itself with the rebelling colonies in 1778. Great Britain now had to defend its imperial lands around the world, and in order to do so, they had to commit less men and less resources to the war effort in North America.

The Southern Strategy was the British plan to recruit loyalists in order to bolster their numbers in the South and reclaim the profitable colonies of the region. If all went well, the momentum of victory could be pushed out of the Carolinas and into Virginia.

Starting with the capture and defense of Savannah in 1778-79, major operations began in 1780 when Sir Henry Clinton led an expedition that captured Charleston and the American army defending the city. Momentum continued into the summer of 1780 as the British army under the command of Lord Charles, Earl Cornwallis, established fortified posts throughout South Carolina, and achieved another crushing victory at the Battle of Camden in August 1780.

From this point though, the British tide began to slow. Cornwallis would be fiercely resisted in Charlotte, North Carolina by both American militia and by camp fever in the ranks. British supply lines and outposts were mercilessly harassed by partisan forces in South Carolina. And with the loss of his most competent body of loyalists at the Battle of Kings Mountain, things came to a grinding halt.

Turning the Tide in the Southern Campaign

Many years after the war Sir Henry Clinton, the British Commander in Chief during the Southern Campaign, referred to the battle of Kings Mountain as "an Event which was immediately productive of the worst Consequences to the King's affairs in South Carolina, and unhappily proved the first Link of a Chain of Evils that followed each other in regular Succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America."

King’s Mountain, Cowpens, and Guilford Courthouse were the “chain of evils” that shifted the tide of war in the south and made the shocking victory at Yorktown possible.

In October 1780, a loyalist force under Major Patrick Ferguson was annihilated at the Battle of Kings Mountain. This was a major blow to British recruiting efforts, and left Cornwallis’ army vulnerable to threats from the western backcountry.

In December 1780, General Nathanael Greene arrived in the south to take over command of American forces in the region. He split his smaller army and sent a portion under General Daniel Morgan into western South Carolina. This was done to make it easier for the American forces to acquire food and forage during the winter months, and the force was meant to protect and enliven the patriots of the backcountry. To the British, it appeared as a significant threat their fort at Ninetysix, South Carolina and the vulnerable western areas.

In January 1781, Col. Banastre Tarleton was sent west to counter the threat posed by Morgan’s force. His aggressive tactics which had served him well up to this point in the war, would lead Tarleton into disaster at the Battle of Cowpens. Almost all of his force of 1,100 was killed wounded or captured. It would also serve as the catalyst for the Guilford Courthouse Campaign.

Five men sit in a room wearing formal suits from the last 1800s
The original Founders of the Guilford Battleground Company: (from left to right) J.W. Scott, Julius A. Gray, David Schenck, Thomas B. Keogh, D.W.C. Benbow


Preserving the battlefield

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse did not deter settlement patterns in the Guilford Courthouse community, rather a small community of Martinville developed after the battle took place in 1785. The community declined however with the creation of Greensboro in 1808, and its population growth. The battlefield remained as a forested area with little recognition by the local community.

In 1882, Judge David Schenck arrived in Greensboro, NC for a position with the Railroad, and became deeply interested in the history of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. However, he discovered that “out of the population of 3,000 people in Greensboro he could not find a half dozen persons who could point out to him the scene of the battle.”

In a quest to uncover the historical battlefield, Schenck founded the Guilford Battleground Company, which preserved the first portions of what would become a National Park. Read more about the preservation of the battlefield through the years on our Park Preservation webpage.

Last updated: January 4, 2020

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