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The Battle of Wetzell's Mill

March 6 , 1781 at Weitzel's Mill, Guilford County, South Carolina
(aka Wetzell’s Mill, Whitesell’s Mill)

American Forces Commanded by
Col. Otho Williams
Strength Killed & Wounded Missing / Captured
700 50 ?
British Forces Commanded by
Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton
Strength Killed & Wounded Missing / Captured
1,200 21 ?
Conclusion: British Victory

The situation of Cornwallis was full of peril. The country around Hillsborough was speedily stripped of provision by his army, 18 and he found it expedient to fall back and take a new position upon the south side of the Allamance, west of the Haw.

On February 27, Brig. Gen. Henry Lee and ?? Pickens, with their respective forces, joined the main body of the American light infantry, and the whole corps crossed the Haw, a little below the mouth of Buffalo Creek. Greene, with the main army augmented by the North Carolina militia, crossed above Buffalo Creek the next morning [Feb. 28.], and encamped between Troublesome Creek and Reedy Fork. It was an ineligible place; and, hoping to gain time for all his expected re-enforcements to come in, Greene constantly changed his position, and placed Colonel Williams and his light corps between the two armies, now within a score of miles of each other. Tarleton occupied the same relative position to the British army, and he and Williams frequently menaced each other.

On March 2, the latter having approached to within a mile of the British camp, Tarleton attacked him and a brief but warm skirmish ensued. This encounter was sustained, on the part of the Americans, chiefly by Lee’s legion and Preston’s riflemen. About 30 of the British were killed and wounded. The Americans sustained no loss. In the mean while, Greene’s constant change of position, sometimes seen on the Troublesome Creek, and sometimes appearing near Guilford, gave the impression that his force was larger than it really was, and Cornwallis was much perplexed. Well knowing that the American army was augmenting by the arrival of militia, he resolved to bring Greene to action at once. On March 6, under cover of a thick fog, he crossed the Allamance, hoping to beat up Williams’s quarters, then between that stream and Reedy Fork, and surprise Greene. Williams’s vigilant patrols discovered the approach of the enemy at about eight o’clock in the morning, on the road to Wetzell’s Mill, an important pass on the Reedy Fork. Lee’s legion immediately maneuvered in front of the British, while Williams withdrew his light troops and other corps of regulars and militia across the stream.

A covering party, composed of 150 Virginia militia, were attacked by Webster, with one thousand British infantry and a portion of Tarleton’s cavalry. The militia boldly returned the-fire, and then fled across the creek. The British infantry followed, and met with a severe attack from Campbell’s riflemen and Lee’s infantry. Webster was quickly re-enforced by some Hessians and chasseurs, and the whole were supported by field-pieces planted by Cornwallis upon an eminence near the banks of the stream. The artillery dismayed the militia, which Williams perceiving, ordered them to retire. He followed with Howard’s battalion, flanked by Kirkwood’s Delaware infantry and the infantry of Lee’s legion, the whole covered by Washington’s cavalry.
The day was far spent, and Cornwallis did not pursue.

It was claimed the British were not able to follow up the victory due the Americans’ superiority in cavalry. Tarleton, however, later criticized Cornwallis’ not continuing and resuming the action. Col. William Preston’s and Col. Hugh Crockett’s Virginia militia left Greene’s army after the battle based on the charge that Williams deliberately exposed them to protect his Continentals. The check forced Greene: “to retire over [to] the [north side of] Haw river, and move down the north side of it, with a view to secure our stores coming to the army, and to form a junction with several considerable reinforcements of Carolina and Virginia militia, and one regiment of eighteen-months men, on the march from Hillsborough to High Rock. I effected this business, and returned to Guildford court house.” Greene to Washington, 10 March 1781. Tarleton states the Americans lost 100 men killed, wounded and taken, while the British suffered 30 killed and wounded. Joseph Graham, who was present, gave American casualties as 2 regulars killed, 3 wounded and between 20 and 25 militiamen killed or wounded. Boatner speaks of each side losing 50. Webster, as he passed over Reedy Fork with his men, almost miraculously, escaped being shot by some of Campbell’s riflemen -- who had been posted in a log hut close by -- only to be mortally wounded at Guilford Court House a few days later.

Order of battle for Weitzell’s Mill as given in Guilford Courthouse 1781: Lord Cornwallis' ruinous victory, (Osprey Books), by Angus Konstam. p. 53. While certainly an informative and useful roster, its accuracy with respect to certain units and their strength -- as is often the case with such modern constructions -- is open to question. It is unlikely for example that Washington’s cavalry numbered 100, or that the South Carolina and Georgia cavalry were even present during the fighting. Konstam’s book, incidentally, contains a very nice map of the engagement. Strengths given here are rank and file.

British: Lieutenant-General Charles, Earl Cornwallis

  • Von Bose (reserve) 313
  • Royal Artillery, x4 three-pounders, 73 men

Tarleton

  • British Legion Cavalry - 174
  • Jager detachment - 94 men
  • Lt. Inf. Companies, Foot Guards - 80

Lieut. Col. Webster's Command

  • 23rd - 258 men
  • 33rd Foot - 322
  • 2nd Bn., 71st - 212

Americans: Col. Otho Williams

  • Maryland and Delaware Lt. Inf - 226
  • Major Rowland's Virginia Rifle Corps - 114
  • Col. Crockett’s Va. Rifle Battalion - 232
  • Lieut. Col. Harrisons' NC militia - 50
  • Col. Washington's dragoons - 100
  • Col. William Campbell. Pickens Brigade
  • Campbell's Va Rifle Corps - 54 men
  • Col. Preston's Va Rifle Bttn - 124
  • Lieut. Col. Williams NC militia - 36
  • Col. [William] Moore's NC militia - 45
  • Col. McCall's cavalry - 120
  • Lee's Legion - 90 cav, 90 inf

Joseph Graham: “Pickens, Lee, Williams, and Washington kept up their game of checker-moving, in the district of country between Alamance, Haw River, and Reedy Fork, continually changing their quarters, and appearing to act separately, but yet connected in their plans. Lord Cornwallis could not get intelligence of their position to come at them. Genl. Greene after his return from Virginia [i.e. re-crossing of the Dan], a little behind them, kept manoeuvering in the same manner. It was the best way of supplying the army, to march where supplies were to be had, as the means of transportation from a distance, in the existing state of incertitude was difficult and hazardous, besides the doubtfulness of where the army might be, when they should arrive. The British General discovered that if the present system was continued it must prove ruinous to him…he adopted the most eligible plan of annoyance by making a rapid and to them unexpected march. If they had any place of concentration, he would thus separate them, and pushing them beyond it, make them fight in detail, or overtake Williams, or perhaps Genl. Greene himself. He was sure there could be no hazard, at any point; for the Americans taken unawares, could not bring their united forces to bear upon him. Wit h these views, it was on the 6th or 7th of March [actually the 5th], in the night, he broke up his Camp at Hawkins’ and passed the Alamance shortly after daylight in a cloudy morning.”

Tarleton: “Early in the morning he passed the Allamance: The light troops led the column, supported by Colonel Webster's brigade: The regiment of Bose was followed by the brigade of guards; and Hamilton's corps, with the waggons, brought up the rear. The British dragoons soon pushed Colonel Lee's cavalry from their advanced situation: They retired to Wetzell's mill on the Reedy fork: Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton discovered the enemy to be in force at that place, and reported the circumstance to Earl Cornwallis, who directed Colonel Webster to form his brigade in line with the light company of the guards and the yagers. This disposition being made, the front line advanced, the rest of the King's troops remaining in column. The enemy did not oppose the right wing of the British so steadily as the left: The 23d and 71st moved forwards to the creek without any great impediment; and the ardent bravery of the 33d and the light company of the guards soon dislodged them from their strong position. The infantry mounted the hill above the creek, and dispersed the Americans so effectually, that the cavalry could only collect a few stragglers from the woods in front. The militia who guarded this pass had upwards of one hundred men killed, wounded, and taken. The killed and wounded of the British amounted to about thirty.”

Davie: "Col. Williams was reproached [presumably by Greene] for suffering so important a movement of the Enemy to take place without observing it, 'till he had scarce time to escape himself, altho' he commanded a party of observation, and the salvation of the Army depended on his vigilance."

Lee: “In this quarter, through some remissness of the guards, and concealed by the fog, Lieutenant-Colonel Webster, commanding the British van, approached close before he was discovered.

The alertness of the light troops soon recovered the momentary disadvantage; and the Legion of Lee advancing to support Campbell, the enemy’s van was held back, until Colonel Williams, undisturbed, commenced his retreat, directing the two corps above him to cover his rear. Having crossed the Reedy Fork, Williams made a disposition, with a view of opposing the enemy’s passage. Campbell following Williams, joined on the opposite banks – the infantry of the Legion proceeding in the rear of Campbell, followed by the cavalry, which corps continued close the enemy’s advancing van. During this movement, Webster made several efforts to bring the rear guard to action, having under him the British cavalry. All his endeavors were successively counter-acted by the celerity and precision with which the Legion horse manoeuvred: establishing evidently in the face of the enemy their decided superiority. As soon as Lieutenant-Colonel Lee was apprised of the rear infantry’s passage over the river, he retired by troops from before Webster in full gallop; and reaching Reedy Fork, soon united with Colonel Williams unmolested. Their being convenient fords over the creek, above and below, after Williams had safely brought over his corps, he determined no longer to continue in his position. Resuming retreat, he left the Legion supported by Colonel Campbell, with orders to retard the enemy as long as practicable, without hazarding serious injury. Lieutenant-Colonel Lee, having detached a company of Preston’s militia to guard the pass at Wetzell’s Mill, a little distance on his left, drew up his infantry in one line, with his right on the road, and its front parallel with the creek; while the riflemen under Colonels Campbell and Preston occupied a copse of heavy woods on the right of the road, with their left resting upon the right of the Legion infantry.

The horse formed a second line in a field well situated to curb the progress of the British cavalry, should it press upon the first line when retiring, and to protect the horses of the militia, tied at some distance back, agreeably to usage. On the first appearances of the enemy Colonel Williams dispatched a courier to Greene, communicating what had passed, and advising him of the course he should pursue after crossing the reedy Fork. Unwilling to approximate Greene, this officer moved slowly, waiting the disclosure of the enemy’s intention. Should he halt on the opposite side of the creek, Colonel Williams would take his night position within a few miles of Wetzell’s Mill, giving time to the troops to prepare food before dark; but should the enemy advance to the hither side, he would necessarily continue his retreat, however much opposed to his wishes. The state of suspense lasted but a little while. The British van appeared; and after a halt for a few minutes on the opposite bank, descended the hill approaching the water, where receiving a heavy fire of musketry and rifles, it fell back, and quickly reascending, was rallied on the margin of the bank. Here a field-officer [Webster] rode up, and in a loud voice addressed his soldiers, then rushed down the hill at their head, and plunged into the water, our firing pouring upon him…The stream being deep, and the bottom rugged, he advanced slowly…Strange to tell, though in a condition so perilous, himself and his horse were untouched; and having crossed the creek, he soon formed his troops, and advanced upon us. The moment that the head of his column got under cover of our banks, Lieutenant-Colonel Lee directed the line to retire from its flanks, and gain the rear of the cavalry. In the skirmish which ensued in our center, after some of the enemy ascended the bank, three or four prisoners fell into our hands. The enemy’s column being now formed, soon dislodged our center; and pushing Lee, came in front of the cavalry. Here it paused, until the British horse, which followed the infantry, passed the creek, and took post on the enemy’s right -– the nearest point to the road, which we must necessarily take. This attitude indicated a decision to interrupt our retreat; at all events, to cut off our rear.

Lee ordered [Capt. John] Rudulph to incline in an oblique direction to his left; and gaining the road, to wait the expected charge. Tarleton advanced with his cavalry, followed by Webster. The Legion infantry, close in the rear of the riflemen, had now entered the road, considerably advanced toward Colonel Williams, still waiting in his position first taken for night quarters, and afterward held to protect the rear-guard. Rudulph, with the cavalry, was drawn off, moving slowly, with orders to turn upon the British horse if they should risk a charge. It was now late in the evening, and nothing more was attempted. The British halted on the ground selected for our use, which he had abandoned. Having proceeded some miles further, he encamped on the northeast side of a range of hills covered with wood, some distance from the road…”

On March 10th, Charles Magill, a liason officer for Gov. Jefferson, serving at Greene's headquarters, wrote to Jefferson: “On the late Skirmish of which an account was given in my last, the Riflemen complained that the burthen, and heat, of the Day was entirely thrown upon them, and that they were to be made a sacrifice by the Regular Officers to screen their own Troops. Full of this Idea, the greater number left the Light Troops. Some rejoin'd their Regiments with the main Body and others thought it a plausible excuse for their return home.... Preston and Crocket soon despaired of finding and convincing any sizeable number of their Virginia riflemen to remain for the impending battle [Guilford Court House] and left the army. Colonel Preston wrote to Governor Jefferson over a month later on April 13th....we did hard duty, under Genl. Pickens, twelve or fourteen days, on the Enemy's lines, greatly straitened for provisions. Part of the men were in one action and the whole in a second; in both overpowered by numbers, and in the last broken and dispersed with the loss of their blankets. After which no arguments that could be made use of by myself, or the other officers, could induce the remaining few to remain another week; the time Genl. Green requested. After staying a few days at the Moravian Town, to have the wounded taken care of, Colo. Crocket and myself came home, accompanied by only two or three young men.....”

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