Prelude to Guilford Courthouse: Clapp’s Mill

This March brings the 241st Anniversary of the pivotal battle of Guilford Courthouse, NC. While this battle is of immense importance to the Southern Campaign, several smaller battles leading up to it have been largely overlooked. Through February and early March of 1781, detachments of the American and British armies maneuvered across the modern-day counties of Alamance, Guilford, Orange, Chatham, and Caswell. The is the second in a series of three articles.  

            Pyle’s Defeat on February 25, 1781 was a public relations disaster for the British. The next skirmish fought between the opposing forces was at Clapp’s Mill on March 2nd and has also been called the Battle of Alamance. On February 27th, Cornwallis’ army moved from Hillsborough to the Haw River, camping on the south side of Alamance Creek at an important crossroads.

            The same day, Colonel Otho Williams, with the Maryland and Delaware light infantry, Pickens’ militia, Washington’s and Lee’s legions, and Virginia riflemen under Maj. Thomas Rowland, moved to the north side of Alamance creek, just a few miles from the British. Greene’s main army set up camp at Speedwell Ironworks on Troublesome Creek, to the north. For the next ten days the armies were never still: maneuvering and marching across the wooded countryside. Captain Robert Kirkwood of Delaware recorded in his journal that his men marched 230 miles in this time period, including 60 miles in two days.

Otho Holland Williams, Benson Lossing Sketch.

            Williams now took his turn to try and bait Tarleton, attempting a trap along the lines of Cowpens two months earlier. Williams took his force to Clapp’s Mill on Alamance Creek and deployed his militia in front, with his Continental troops in the rear. The arrangement was a mirror image of Cowpens, and he hoped for the same result: drawing in the British and weakening them as they attacked. Greene had moved forward with the main army, within supporting distance.

            Clapp’s Mill, possibly in operation for up to twenty years, was built with eight-to-ten-foot local rock with smaller stones filling the gaps. The farm included a double barn, house, and various outbuildings. This area was settled largely by German immigrants, who built prosperous farms and tried to stay neutral during the war. Several fields with what may have been worm (zigzag) fencing stood around the buildings.

            Early on the morning of March 2nd, a British patrol was foraging from their camp and spotted the American militia in front of them at Clapp’s farm. Tarleton describes the action next:

The British cavalry were ordered on the 2d of March to forage about three miles   in front of their encampment.  Captain Hovenden, of the legion, who commanded    the covering party, observing some of the American dragoons in the neighborhood of the plantations where he was directed to collect forage, rode    forwards to examine more closely; when, perceiving the enemy’s infantry, he dispatched the foragers to camp without their burdens, and, on his return, reported the circumstances he had discovered.  This intelligence induced Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton to make a patrole with his whole corps, which     consisted of the cavalry, a few mounted infantry, the light company of the guards,            and one hundred and fifty men of Colonel Webster’s brigade, after having conveyed to Earl Cornwallis, by express, his reason for such a proceeding.

            Captain Graham describes the American front line deployment:

The whole of Lee’s Cavalry with Major Rudolph and some Catawba the cavalry and Riflemen were divided 20 of each placed 100 yards on the right of the road under Capt. Simmons and the same number the same distance on the left side of the road under Capt. Graham  Those officers were instructed when meeting the Enemy the Cavalry & Riflemen should protect each other alternatively if circumstances should require it  6 Cataba Indians & 4 or Lee’s troopers and a sergeant kept the road 30 poles in front of Major Rudolph Graham & Simmons were instructed to keep an equal front with the indians 100 yards from the road  Major Dickson of Lincoln led 200 mounted infantry on the left in the rear of Grahams party & Colo. Preston the same number of Virginia Riflemen in the rear of Simmons . . .   

The American front line was deployed in and around the barn, house, and outbuildings of Barney Clapp. Tarleton picks up the action again,

The approach to the ground where the enemy were described to have been proving unfit for the operations of cavalry, Tarleton directed the infantry to form for the advance, and to explore the thick woods upon the flanks with great attention.  The light company of the guards, commanded by Captain Dundass, led   the column, the light infantry of the line followed the guards, and the cavalry brought up the foragers in the rear, till the country would allow the dragons to move on to the front.  When the British drew near to the plantations which were to furnish the forage, a heavy fire from some thickets on each side of the road discovered the situation of the enemy.  The guards formed with the usual alacrity, and Captain Ingram, of the 33d regiment, who commanded the hundred and fifty men of Webster’s brigade, was directed to dress his left by their right, whist the cavalry moved to his right, where the country appeared most favourable for their exertions.  The gallantry of the British troops, after a short conflict, dislodged and dispersed a corps of eight hundred men, composed of Lee’s legion, Washington’s dragoons, and Preston’s backwoodsmen; the continentals retreated early, and did not wait the charge of the British dragoons, who were much impeded in their advance by a thick wood and high rails, which prevented the action from being more general and decisive.

            Graham explains the American perspective:

The columns advancing under Major Dickson & Colo. Preston instantly dismounted tiyed their horses at the fence and advanced in line Major Rudolph put Lee’s Dragoons in Column behind the double Barn  while these arrangements were making the Indians and Riflemen kept up a desultory fire in front.  As the American line advanced Graham & Simmons had their men to oblique to the flanks out of their way  the woods were so thick the foe could not be seen until they came within 60 or 70 steps of him  when a heavy fire commenced on both sides the Indians who had hitherto been very alert could not stand it turned and run off like a Turkey . . . the saplings and bushes were so thick the bark and twigs     were continually flying hit men on the cheeks shoulders or kept them dodging and to the neglect of their own business of loading and firing as fast they might have     done after firing about 3 rounds (The enemy still in their first position) they became panick struck evidently from the twigs and bark flying about and the whole line turned neatly at once without orders and retreated.

Sketched by Joseph Graham, this map shows troop positions and physical details of the Clapp’s Mill battlefield.  Rollin M. Steele Jr., The Lost Battle of the Alamance.  Burlington, NC: Powell Enterprises, 1999, 223.

            As the militia and cavalry withdrew, the Continentals under Kirkwood and Oldham became engaged.  Graham wrote that they “were drawn up on the rise about 80 yeards before opened a brisk fire on the enemy over the heads of the retreating troops caused their Cavalry to recede a little back until their infantry arrived.”

            He explains that the British did not advance further, the action taking about 20 minutes. As before, several pension statements mention the battle, but do not go into great detail. Jacob Smith, for example, testified that “at a place called the Old Regulation ground again met the British and these had another skirmish with them- three of our men were killed, their names were Archy Hill, Phillip Watkins, and William Harvey, then marched on to Guilford”

            Apparently several of the Virginia militia, from Botetourt County, were hit in the action.  Robert Harris, of this detachment, suffered several cuts on his head and had one hand cut off. Such wounds indicate close action with Tarleton’s saber-wielding cavalry.

            William Seymour of the Delaware Regiment summed up his view of the battle: “having set down a party of militia to draw them out, we having formed the line of battle at some distance off, the militia meeting with and firing on them, upon which were several shots exchanged on both sides with various successes, when the militia retreated and in regular form, thinking to draw on them, which however they thought proper to decline.”

            Otho Williams wrote to Greene that, “We skirmished about fifteen minutes with the enemy. . .”  Going into more detail, he explains “I advanced Lt Col Lee with the Legion & Major Rowlands Rifle Battalion early in the morning & he was joined by a small detachment of General Picken’s mounted Riflemen about nine o’clock.  We lay upon our arms ready to advance or retire as circumstances might require.” When contact was made with the enemy, Williams observed that, “. . . the Infantry of the Legion were making a handsome defense, when I ordered a gradual retreat which was well enough effected considering the irregularity of the order. I believe very few fell on either side. We have about 10 or 12 wounded.”

Battle of Clapp’s Mill, Author. The topo maps shows the area before the damming of Alamance Creek and the creation of Lake McIntosh. The area marked monument has several historic markers and monuments about the battle.

            Tarleton broke off the action and the battle ended. Most of the American commanders make little, if any, mention of the battle of Clapp’s Mill, including Lee, Washington, Greene, Williams, and Kirkland- perhaps because it was a disappointment. In a letter to General Greene, Otho Williams only say “Colonel Tarleton appeared, but kept at a due distance.”

            Cornwallis wrote simply that, “I directed Lieutenant-colonel Tarelton to move forward with proper precautions, and endeavor to discover the designs of the enemy. He had not advanced far when he fell in with a considerable corps, which he immediately attacked and routed; but being ignorant of their force and whether they were supported, with great prudence desisted from the pursuit. He soon learned from prisoners that those he had beat were Lee’s legion, three or four hundred back mountainmen under Colonel Preston, with a number of militia; and that General Greene, with a part of his army, was not far distant.”

            Was Tarleton more gun-shy after the Cowpens fiasco? Possibly. Or perhaps he sensed there was more to this than met the eye. Either way, Tarleton did not push and instead broke off the engagement. Clapps’ Mill had the potential to destroy a significant portion of the British army if Talreton had fully engaged, a disaster given the weak state of Cornwallis’ already outnumbered army. If the fighting had escalated here, there very likely would have been no battle at Guilford Courthouse. 

            Casualties are difficult to estimate. British losses were about 21 killed and wounded; the Americans lost about 8 killed and at least two prisoners (John Mitchell and John Stinson, both of Graham’s unit and taken by Tarleton’s Legion). The next day British troops buried sixteen of their men at the farm, and placed a killed officer into a wagon to take back to camp. Several wounded were also taken back in wagons.

            Graham’s militia also returned to the scene the next day.  He wrote that, “The plantation was open ground I left half the force back to support if pursued until the other half explored and found the enemy were gone  They then came forward by a signal.  our dead were on the ground in number 8 two of whom were Grahams men . . . saw a large grave where the enemy had buried their dead in which Mr. Clap stated he seen them put 16 and an officer they had carried off to bury at headquarters.”

Monuments at Clapp’s Mill battlefield. Author photo.

            The mill and other buildings no longer stand, but their locations have been identified by local researchers.  Today the site has been partially flooded by the construction of Lake MacIntosh. To reach the Clapp’s Mill battlefield, take Exit #143 off Interstate-85, Huffman Mill Road, and proceed south until you cross the lake. Turn left into the marina to find an impressive memorial with several monuments and maps.

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