Prelude to Guilford Courthouse: Weitzel’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 third in a series of three articles.  

            The last of the skirmishes occurred at Weitzel’s Mill, also spelled as Wetzel’s, and Wiley’s. Cornwallis was becoming more determined to strike at the Americans to either force a general battle, which he felt his veteran army could win, or destroy the isolated detachments operating near him. 

            Colonel Otho Holland Williams, along with the Virginia militia, light infantry, and dragoons of Lee and Washington, had taken post near Weitzel’s Mill on the Reedy Fork. Sergeant Lamb of the British 23rd Regiment recalled that, “In this situation, Lord Cornwallis gave orders to eat up the American post at Reedy Fork, in order to compel them to a greater distance, or perhaps allure Greene, who lay in the direction of Guilford Court-house, to a general engagement.”

            At 3 a.m. on March 6th, Cornwallis sent a strike force out to aggressively engage the Americans. The troops crossed Alamance Creek and moved quickly towards the Americans in front of Weitzel’s Mill.

            Luckily, Otho Williams had sent out a scouting party that morning, who reported the British approach.  Williams quickly had his troops in motion, pulling back to cross the creek at the mill. It became a desperate race. Williams reported to Greene that, “I detach’d an Officer with a small party designing under cover of the Fogg to have Surprized and brought off one of the Enemys parties station’d at a Mill about a mile from their Camp.  Soon after I was inform’d by one of my reconnoitering Officers that the Enemy had Decamped early in the morning and had taken a rout leading to my left. We were instantly in motion.”

            Williams continues, “I immediately ordere’d the Troops to march to Wileys Mill and soon after was inform’d by two Prisoners that the Enemy were marching for the same place on a road parallel to that in which we were.  We annoy’d them by Light flanking parties and moved briskly to the Mill, but were so closely press’d by Coll Webbsters Brigade & Lt Coll Tarltons Legion that I found it absolutely necessary to leave a covering party under the Command of Coll Preston. The rest of the Troops pass’d the Reedy Fork and from’d on the north shore without interruption.”

            Thus for several miles leading up to Weitzel’s Mill a running fight occurred between the American and British forces. This would have been ragged, confused fighting: quick ambushes and counterattacks by isolated detachments in the woods and fields along the road. It was a tactic that was ideally suited to slowing the British down, but the race was close. The Americans made a more determined stand just below the mill and ford.

            Washington wrote that,

Colonel Tarleton and corps were within one hundred yards of the front of their infantry, and though so many opportunities offered for attacking scattering parties of militia coming in on the flanks, he never attempted to charge or pursue them.  The appearance of Lee and Washington before him must have prevented him from improving such advantages as frequently offered in the course of the day.  Washington and Lee superintended the rear alternately in person.  The pursuit continued in this manner for ten miles.  Washington’s cavalry and Graham’s reduced squad of militia dragoons, one hundred yards on the right, and rather in the rear of Williams’ line.  A column of the enemy’s infantry, which had not yet been brought into line, came on to the ford, and Tarleton with his cavalry came through. In the rise of the hill, he sounded his bulge.  As soon as it was heard, Colonel Washington yet in his position on the right, about forty poles from Talreton, sounded his bulge also, and Major Rudolph, at the head of Lee’s corps on the left sounded his.  Upon this, Washington and Lee’s cavalry went off at a canter, meeting each other in the road, about twenty poles from Tarleton’s front.  As they met, they wheeled up the road in a gallop (though in good order), after Colonel Williams.  Tarleton was halted on the hillside, and suffered them to pass without moving. The infantry on the opposite hill kept firing until they were out of view.  When Washington and Rudolph came to Williams’ rear, they turned out of the road, about sixty steps on each side, along his flanks.  His men were arching briskly, and the cavalry officers gave orders that if the infantry was charged by the enemy in the rear they should wheel and take him in each flank.  Washington himself and eight of his troopers took the rear.  At such parts of the road as a view could be had, two of them were stationed, who, on seeing the front of the enemy, galloped up and reported. . .

            Williams wrote of the fighting south of the creek that “. . . a brisk fire began on Coll Prestons Party which they return’d with great Spirit; in the meantime Coll Campbell who had previously, in concert with Lt Coll Washington, served as a covering to the retireing Troops pass’d the Creek above the Mill.  The ground on this side being very unfavourable I waited only ‘till Coll Preston cross’d and then ordere’d the Troops to retire.  The Enemy pursued some distance but receiving several severe checks from small covering parties and being cow’d by our Cavalry he thot proper to halt.”

Author Map.

            Thus Campbell’s Virginia riflemen, along with the dragoons of Washington and Lee, formed a rear guard that held off Webster until the American regulars had crossed. North Carolina militia officer Joseph Graham wrote of the fighting below the mill: “The day was still cloudy, a light rain falling at times; the air was calm and dense. The riflemen kept up a severe fire, retreating from tree to tree to the flanks of our second line.  When the enemy approached this, a brisk fire commenced on both sides . . . The ford was crowded, many passing the watercourse at other places. Some, it was said, were drowned.”

            Lee wrote of the action south of the creek, “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 counteracted by the celerity and precision with which the Legion horse manoeuverd . . .”

            As the British approached the Americans braced for a major attack. Lee’s memoirs provide the best overview of the action:

Lieutenant-Colonel Lee, having detachd a company of Preston’s militia to guard   the pass at Wetzell’s Mill, a little distance upon his left, drew up his infantry in   one line, with its right on the road, and its front parallel with the creek; while the riflemen under Colonels Campbell and Preston occupied a copes of heavy woods on the right of the road, with their left resting upon the right of the Legion infantry.

            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 rode up, and in a loud voice addressed his soldiers, then rushed down the hill at their head, and plunged into the water, our fire pouring over him.  In the woods occupied by the riflemen stood an old log school-house, a little to the right of the ford.  The must stuffed between the logs had mostly fallen out, and the apertures admitted the use of the rifles with ease.  In this house twenty-five select marksmen, of King’s Mountain militia, were    posted by Lee, with orders to forego taking any part in the general resistance, but to hold themselves in reserve for particular objects.  The leading officer, plunging into the water, attracted general notice; and the school-house party, recollecting its order, singled him out as their mark.  The stream being deep, and the bottom rugged, he advanced slowly; his soldiers on each side of him, and apparently some of them holding his stirrup leathers.  This select party discharged their rifles at him, one by one, each man sure of knocking him over; and having reloaded, eight or nine of them emptied their guns a second time at the same object.  Strange to tell, though in a condition so perilous, himself and the 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 the cover of our banks, Lieutenant-Colonel Lee directed the lie to retire from its flanks and gain the rear of the cavalry.  In the skirmish which ensued in our centre, 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 centre; 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.

            Lt. Col. James Webster had survived an incredible charge, with some of the best marksmen in the American army aiming at him. His bold dash into the creek inspired his men and forced the issue with the defenders; it was truly remarkable and an uncommon act of bravery. Webster would be killed just days later at Guilford Courthouse. 

            Tarleton wrote his perspective of the action:

Early in the morning he passed the Allamance: The light troops led the column, supported by Colonel Websters 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 circumstances to Earl Cornwallis, who directed Colonel Webster to form his brigade into 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 easily 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.

            Graham observed that the fight was “equal to anything that had been seen in the war.” A significant statement, given the actions that Graham participated in during the conflict. Another militiaman recalled it as “a smart skirmish, in which a great many Tories were sent to the lower region.”

American view of the action, looking south. Author Photo.

            Casualties were vaguely reported by both sides. The Americans lost a little over twenty: Graham estimated two Continentals killed and three wounded, and twenty to twenty-five militia killed and wounded.  Tarleton wrote of “about thirty” British killed and wounded.

British view of the action, looking north. Here the 23rd and 71st Regiments attacked across the ford. Author Photo.

            One last incident must be mentioned, which sets the tone for the campaign. Two days after the fight at Weitzel’s Mill, Captain Kirkwood with the Delaware company and forty riflemen approach Tarleton’s forward camp at about 1 a.m. This was a routine patrol, no different from others the armies had sent out lately.

            According to Kirkwood, the British sentries “challenged very briskly and no answer being made . . . they immediately discharge their pieces and ran in to their guard.” The Americans captured one guard who showed the way to the Tarleton’s main camp. Kirkwood’s men took position, “Upon which we fired very briskly upon them.” Tarelton’s startled dragoons retreated to the main camp of the British army, two miles away.  Along the way, in the darkness, they met a group of Loyalist militia, “and mistaking them for our militia, he charged on them very furiously, putting great numbers to the sword. On the other hand, they taking Colonel Tarleton for our horse and infantry, there commenced a smart skirmish in which great numbers of the Tories were sent off to the lower regions.”

            It was Pyle’s Defeat all over again, yet this time the tragedy was a case of friendly fire. If the rout of Pyle’s column had not done enough to hurt the prospects of Loyalist in the region, this surely did. For the second time in as many weeks, local Loyalists, turning out in good faith, were deceived and paid a heavy price for it.

            Kirkwood continues the action, writing, “We marched for camp which we reached about daybreak, after a very fatiguing journey, having marched all night through deep swamps, morasses, and thickets, which rendered our marching unpleasant and tiresome, twenty six miles.”

            One result of this action was the departure of Pickens’s Carolina and Georgia militia. They felt they had been misused at Weitzel’s Mill, and Pickens explained as much to Greene in his letters. They had also been in the field for a long time and were serving far from home. Pickens wrote that they were also “miserable” for want of good clothing. Militia rarely served so long and so far from their local region. The loss of Pickens, with his valuable leadership, and the experienced militia, would hurt Greene in the coming battle at Guilford Courthouse.

            These three little known battles, Pyle’s Defeat, Clapp’s Mill, and Weitzel’s Mill, set the stage for the larger battle at Guilford Courthouse just a few days later. Anxious to attack Greene’s army, Cornwallis pushed his weary troops rapidly towards the American position.  

To view the site of the battle of Weitzel’s Mill, take Route 61 north from I-85 at exit #138. The battlefield is about eleven miles north.  As you approach Reedy Fork, bear in mind that you are on the road used by Webster as he approached the mill, with heavy skirmishing. Unfortunately, there is no marker or place to pull over here.

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