How many troops did Cornwallis actually bring to the Battle of Guilford?

The War Years (1775-1783)

May 10, 2017
by Ian Saberton Also by this Author


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A re-evaluation in the light of The Cornwallis Papers

Works about the Revolutionary War are littered with references to troop numbers, whether to rank and file or not, and betray some confusion between the two.  On analysing British and British American regimental returns I discovered that the proportion of officers, staff, non-commissioned officers and drummers was consistently 17.5% of all ranks.  I apply this factor to rank and file returns in order to calculate Tarleton’s total force at the Battle of Cowpens,[1] Cornwallis’s remaining force for the winter campaign,[2] and use it in attempting to re-assess Cornwallis’s total force at the Battle of Guilford ― all of which had previously been uncertain.  That the factor is accurate is borne out by the correlation of the two returns, one for rank and file appearing in The Cornwallis Papers, and the other for all ranks provided by Johnston, that capitulated at Yorktown.[3]

So how many troops did Cornwallis actually bring to the field at Guilford?  If we take the return of rank and file fit for duty on March 1,[4] we find that due to attrition the figure (excluding artillery) had decreased from 2,440 to 2,213 in one month, a loss of 227 men.  If we then allow proportionately for continuing attrition between then and March 15, the date of the battle, we arrive at a figure of 2,137, giving, when we extrapolate by the factor of 17.5%, the figure of 2,511 for all ranks.  Yet before the battle Cornwallis had detached the Royal North Carolina Regiment (221 rank and file as proportionately reduced by attrition), 100 infantry and 20 cavalry with the waggons and baggage towards Bell’s Mill on Deep River.  If we increase the total by 17.5% to cover all ranks, we arrive at an overall figure of 341, leaving Cornwallis with a total of 2,170 men (excluding artillery) brought by him to the battle.  On the other hand, according to the return of troops who fought there, the number for all ranks was 1,924 (including 50 artillery), leaving, when we subtract the artillery, 296 men unaccounted for.  Quite simply, the two returns do not correlate.[5]

Can we then resolve the impasse?  I believe so.  In his dispatch of April 10, 1781 Cornwallis reports to Clinton that his force was 1,360 infantry, rank and file, and about 200 cavalry.[6]  When writing to Phillips on April 26[7] Clinton remarks that he was totally at a loss to conjecture how Cornwallis’s numbers were so reduced, and indeed there are solid reasons for questioning whether an astute battlefield commander like Cornwallis would ever have been prepared to risk a general action in which his force was so depleted.  While the figure for Tarleton’s cavalry is accurate,[8] that given for Cornwallis’s rank and file cannot fail to be suspect.  So what can have led to it?  Well, in the eighteenth century there was a marked similarity in the way in which “3” and “8” were written, so much so that, if “8” was written badly, it was at times easy to confuse the two.  A copyist may well have made this mistake when preparing for signature Cornwallis’s dispatch to Clinton.  In that event the correct figure should have been 1,860 (presumably including artillery) which, when we extrapolate by using the factor of 17.5%, gives a combined figure of 2,185.  When added to the figure of 200 for cavalry,  Cornwallis’s total force would have amounted to 2,385, not too far from the figure of 2,220 (2,170 plus 50 artillery) calculated by me above on the basis of the first return mentioned there.

Problem solved?


[1]   If we take Tarleton’s total force at Cowpens, I accurately calculate it as 1,150 men (Ian Saberton ed., The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War (Uckfield: The Naval & Military Press Ltd, 2010) (“CP”), 3: 11).  Whereas the likes of Higginbotham, Waring and Ward agree with me, others such as Hunter, Schenck and Treacy put the figure as low as 850.  By contrast Bass, Carrington, Fortescue, Graham and the Wickwires are among those who specify a figure of 1,000 (Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1952), 2: 755; M. F. Treacy, Prelude to Yorktown: The Southern Campaigns of Nathanael Greene 1780-81 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 111; Robert D. Bass, The Green Dragoon: The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson (reprint of 1958 edition, Columbia SC: Sandlapper Press Inc, 1973), 143, 147, 159; Sir John Fortescue, A History of the British Army (London: Macmillan & Co., 1902), 3: 359; Franklin and Mary Wickwire, Cornwallis: The American Adventure (Boston MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1970), 256; Alice N. Waring, The Fighting Elder: Andrew Pickens (1739-1817) (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1962), 47; Henry B. Carrington, Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781 (5th edition, New York, 1888), 542; Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), 130; Cyrus Lee Hunter, Sketches of Western North Carolina … illustrating principally the Revolutionary Period (Raleigh NC, 1877), 333; David Schenck, North Carolina 1780-81 (Raleigh NC, 1889), 219; James Graham, The Life of General Daniel Morgan (New York, 1856), 277-8).

[2]   Accurately calculated by me as some 2,850 men by extrapolating by a factor of 17.5% from a return for rank and file (CP, 3: 12 and 4: 61-2).

[3]   According to Johnston, the besiegers numbered 5,500 Continentals, 7,500 French, and 3,000 militia ― a total of 16,000, and he calculates the besieged to be 7,500, though they were in fact 225 fewer.  Of those that capitulated, the return of October 18 appearing in the CP lists 5,950 rank and file, and when we extrapolate by using the factor of 17.5% to cater for officers etc., we arrive at a figure of 6,991 for all ranks.  If from the return of October 27 provided by Johnston we subtract the staff of the public departments, followers of the army, pioneers, and odds and sods not listed in the former return, the figure is 6,949 for all ranks, so that the two returns correlate, as it is reasonable to assume that some of the severely wounded had died in the interval before the latter return was prepared.  Not accounted for in the above figures are some 800 marines (CP, 6: 6 and 116-7; Henry P. Johnston, The Yorktown Campaign and the Surrender of Cornwallis 1781 (reprint of 1881 edition, Williamstown MA: Corner House Publishers, 1975), 164-5).

[4]   CP, 4: 61-2.

[5]   CP, 4: 61-3.

[6]   CP, 4: 109.

[7]   CP, 5: 51.

[8]   CP, 3: 11.


  • This article illustrates the dire shortage of manpower that beleaguered British operations in the South. The apparent discrepancy of 296 men between two troop returns is important because it represents about 15% of Cornwallis’s total force at Guilford Courthouse – a difference of 296 men could really affect our understanding of the battle. A discrepancy of 296 men at some battles in the North, like Brandywine for example, would’ve been just 2% of the British force, barely worth mentioning.

  • For others attempts at this question, below is an excerpt from my “Calendar and Record of the Revolutionary War in the South:1780-1781,” pages 432-433, available at .pdf (and with full citation footnotes, omitted here) at:
    My own calculation of Cornwallis’ force at Guilford, including officers and NCOs, comes to about 2,380.

    In his letter to Clinton of April 10th, at Wilmington, Cornwallis stated: “Our force was one thousand three hundred sixty infantry, rank and file, and about two hundred cavalry.”
    In a return made on the morning of 15 March he gave his rank and file strength as 1,638, and his total effectives as 1,924.
    His rank and file losses since 1 February were listed as 11 killed, 86 wounded and 97 missing, or 194 total. His losses for officers were 1 killed, 2 wounded, 3 missing. The combined total losses for both rank and file, and officers then was 200.
    On the other hand in the return for 1 February, Cornwallis gave his rank and file strength as 2,440, though this, of course, includes Hamilton and the 20 dragoons assigned to the baggage. Bryan’s N.C. Volunteers were not included in Cornwallis’ official returns. If we subtract the losses since 1 February given in this morning of 15 March return, he would have had 2,246. If we allow Hamilton a strength of 200 and the 20 dragoons, this would then have made Cornwallis’s Guilford army (approx.) 2,026 rank and file.

    Lee: 2,400, both officers and rank and file. “Lord Cornwallis’ army engaged is put down at one thousand four hundred and forty-nine infantry; the cavalry has generally been estimated at three hundred. Allowing the artillery to make two hundred, it will bring the British force nearly to two thousand, probably the real number at Guilford Court-House. Lieutenant-Colonel [John] Hamilton, with his own regiment, one hundred infantry of the line, and twenty dragoons, was left with the baggage sent off on the evening of the 14th to Bell’s mill. The British force in toto may be put down as two thousand four hundred: one hundred less than it was when Cornwallis destroyed his baggage at Ramseur’s mill, notwithstanding the companies of infantry raised while he lay at Hillsborough, and other small accessions.”

    William Johnson: 2,000 rank and file. Cornwallis initially claimed 1,360 rank and file as his strength at Guilford. However, as Johnson points out, Cornwallis admits a loss of 500 killed and wounded at that battle, yet in his return of 1 April gives a total of 1723. “Deduct from this number, Hamilton’s loyal regiment, which does not appear to have been in the action, and there will remain more than 2000, exclusive of the artillery. It is also observable, that Colonel Tarleton admits his cavalry to have amounted to 200, and yet the whole legionary corps is set down, in Cornwallis’ account, at 174. By the returns of the 1st of March, it appears that his total was 2213, which will leave 2000 after deducting Hamilton’s regiment.”

    Caruthers: “How many of the British were engaged in the battle [of Guilford Court House] is uncertain. There may have been a good many Tories, and in this way the discrepancies between the British and American authorities might be reconciled; for his lordship, from prudential considerations, makes no mention of that class, except the passing notice in his Order Book, which he did not expect would ever be seen in this country. They had some from the Scotch region [of N.C.]; for I have been told that Colonels Ray and McDougal [Duncan Ray and Archibald McDougald] were there; but how many men they had was never known. It is probable that Colonel Field and [Samuel] Bryan were there with their respective corps; for it is said that Col. Field continued with them until they surrendered at Yorktown. How many men they had we cannot tell; but, when mentioned in the Order Book, they had each of them men enough to have a special, separate and important service assigned them. Hardly any of the American historians estimate his force at less than from two thousand to twenty-four hundred, and counting the Tories, it may have been considerably more.”

    Schenck: “It is also observable that Colonel Tarleton admits his cavalry to have amounted to 200, and yet the whole Legionary corps is set down in Cornwallis’ account at 174. By the army returns of the 1st March, it appears that his total was 2213, which will leave 2000 after deducting Hamilton’s regiment. Sir Henry Clinton supposes that Lord Cornwallis ought to have had with him, after the affair of the Cowpens, 3000 men, exclusive of cavalry and militia, and General Greene constantly insists that his force, when at Hillsboro, as ascertained from his daily rations and other means resorted to by military men, exceeded 2500 and approached 3000. No author, that we recollect, ventures to state it at less than 2000.”

    Lumpkin: The British force is not known with certainty, but estimated between 1,981 and 2,253, both officers and rank and file.

    Hugh Rankin: 2,192 rank and file. Cornwallis claimed his strength at time of battle was 1,360, but his return of April 1, 1781 gives 1,723 rank and file fit for duty; while his casualties at Guilford were listed as 469 killed and wounded. Rankin estimates his force at “around” 2,192 exclusive of officers and non-commissioned officers.

    Thomas Baker: 1,924 troops total effectives.

  • William, always interesting to read your views. As to your and other assessments based on “The Cornwallis Papers” (“CP”), I am of opinion that they are superseded by my own based on the same source, being a published source that I did in fact edit. As regards assessments from American primary, secondary or tertiary sources, they cannot be otherwise than approximate. The only persons who knew for sure how many of Cornwallis’s troops came to the field was Cornwallis, his immediate staff, and his commanders. It is therefore in The CP that we need to delve (as I have done) to find the definite answer. I do believe that in the article I have come up with it. Nevertheless, it is good to see that there is only a discrepancy of 5 between my figure of 2,385 (at the end of the article) and yours of about 2,380 (at the beginning of your contribution above). Good work!

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