In the spring of 1780, General Clinton and his 2nd in Command, Lord Cornwallis had successfully captured Charleston, South Carolina after which, Clinton sailed back to New York leaving Cornwallis in charge of the British southern army. Feeling confident Cornwallis began a long pursuit of American General Greene north through the Carolinas. It would be a long hard chase for both sides. Eventually in February of 1781, Greene and his men reached the Dan River that snaked between the border of North Carolina and Virginia. Cornwallis' main force was just miles behind the Americans when they secured the only available ferries that could cross the the deep running Dan River leaving Cornwallis south of the river and forced to look for other means of crossing the river. Greene's army was safe.
During his pursuit of Greene, Cornwallis had expended or left behind, much of his supplies, all with nothing to show for his efforts. His army was exhausted. What he did gain was improved esteem in the eyes of southern Tory supporters. Cornwallis' pursuit of Greene was a good sign of things to come in their eyes. This enthusiasm increased the number of militia flocking to Cornwallis. However, the enthusiasm was short lived.
Cornwallis failing to engage Greene in a decisive conflict retreated from the Dan River and located his headquarters in Hillsboro. Although earlier he had promised the locals he would spare their storehouse of goods and livestock, Cornwallis' army was in desperate need of food. They scavenged the area taking everything they could find.
At the same time a group of 400 newly formed Tory militia encountered some American cavalry they mistook as being British since both cavalry wore green uniforms. It was an unfortunate mistake and almost the entire militia force, being poorly armed and trained, were either killed or wounded when they refused to surrender.
The goodwill Cornwallis had garnered from his pursuit of Green and the massacre of the Tory militia had dampened the enthusiasm. Cornwallis was no longer welcome in the area that he was seeking refuge.
Although this would not be the last battle before the Siege at Yorktown, it would play a decisive role in the outcome of the war. Cornwallis had been chasing the southern American military, trying to inflict a fatal blow. Not far from Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina, the Americans decide this particular area was a good ground to make a stand and confront Cornwallis.
The trap was set: the mostly untrained militia would form the center of the main battle line. On either flank were cavalry, riflemen and Continental soldiers. To the rear was a large contingent of Continentals. When Cornwallis arrived on the field he immediately identified the unreliable militia occupying the center, which was the main thrust of the climatic battle scene in the movie "The Patriot".
In the movie, Gibson's character convinced the much maligned militia to stand against the well-trained British regulars and fire off 2 rounds before retreating. This did happen. What was not told is that the second line of American forces were ordered to shoot any of the militia that fled the field before firing their two rounds.
In the movie at the end of the battle it appears that the Americans had won, but in reality rather than risk what was at that time the entire southern forces, in continuing the battle and risk losing all, they withdrew from the battle when they could have soundly defeated Cornwallis on the field at that time. Cornwallis did take credit for the victory, but found himself in an indefensible position, without supplies and without hope of finding any relief without a 100 mile march. It would be a costly march that would take a heavy toll on his remaining forces.
It is difficult to project what might have happened if General Greene had pursued Cornwallis at this point instead of retreating. Cornwallis would most likely have been defeated in short order, but the results of that defeat would not have been so dramatic nor as important as what would happen six months later at Yorktown. By the fall of 1781 Cornwallis had been resupplied, re-armed, with fresh troops. No longer was he a defeated General with less than 2000 fighting men. He was in command of a major British force in the heart of the American colonies commanding a major shipping point.
May 14, 1781: Crosses into Virginia from North Carolina at Hicksville
May 20: Arrives in Petersburg
May 24 - 26: Westover
June 4: Charlottesville
June 7-15: Point of Fork
June 23: New Kent Courthouse
June 26 - July 4: Williamsburg (received orders from Clinton: go to Portsmouth and prepare for return to NY)
July 6: Jamestown crossing - Battle of Green Spring
July 10 - 17: Moved to Portsmouth Virginia
July 20: Received new orders from Clinton to establish a fortified naval station at a place of his choosing
July 30 - Aug. 1: Cornwallis forces (army and navy) arrive at Yorktown
September 28: Engaged combined American-French forces
October 19: Surrender of British forces to Washington