Friday, March 1, 2013

Some notes on the Battle at Weitzel's Mill


Weitzel’s Mill, March 6th, 1781

A few days after The Battle at Clapp’s Mill Cornwallis, determined to bring Greene to battle, launched his own light forces northward to cut Greene’s line of retreat to Virginia.  Greene gave him the chance to do so by maneuvering too far west along Buffalo Creek, his moat.  Greene’s light troops were camped a few miles north of Clapp’s Mill, along Buffalo Road, on Great Alamance Creek, Cornwallis’ moat.  They were all that stood between the overextended Greene and his main line of maneuver. 

On March 6th, very early as was his style, Tarleton, leading a flying column of Cornwallis light forces, marched on the Americans.  Alert pickets picked up the British movement and warned Otho Williams and Henry Lee of the approaching enemy and Williams ordered a retreat to Reedy fork, about ten miles to the north.  The ford at Weitzel’s Mill on Reedy Fork was the only defensible ground between the British and the American line of retreat.  The race was on.

The race to Weitzel’s must have been something to see.  Contemporaries said that at times the armies, marching on parallel tracks, overlapped and could see one another doing so.  The Americans, though, pulled away and reached Weitzel’s some minutes ahead of the British.



The drawn line from Clapp's to Weitzel's is just over seven miles long. 
At Weitzels the Americans occupied and fortified the mill that covered one ford and a nearby schoolhouse that overlooked the main ford above the mill pond.  Pickens Militia formed on the road atop the bluff on the south side of Reedy Fork to oppose and delay the British advance to the fords.[1]  Pickens South Carolina militia suffered forty percent casualties successfully screening the Continentals’ retreat over the ford.  Lee and Howard had used them thusly before and after this bloodying they vowed never again fought for Greene.  Pickens sought permission from Greene to retire with his troops as a means of keeping the disgruntled militiamen under control as they made their way home with no commissary.

Safely across Reedy Fork, Williams formed his Continentals in an open field downstream from the Mill, and Lee took his horse to a hilltop overlooking the mill site where he could also provide some protection for a fortified schoolhouse north of the mil pond.

Tarleton’s regulars, equipped with two “grasshopper” cannon, having pushed past Pickens’ militia, formed up on the heights above the mill on the south side of the creek and then they  filed down the road to the mill ford determined to force a crossing . 

 

This initial movement proved problematic as the mill was indeed a fort, the ford was indeed an obstacle, and the ford approach road was a deeply cut death trap.  After failing to force the ford, the British regrouped and took stock of their terrain. 

They found that there were, in fact, three fords available; the mill ford, the schoolhouse ford, and a seldom-used horse ford about two hundred yards downstream from the mill.  They attacked the schoolhouse ford and, when American attention was riveted there, they hastened troops across the horse ford.  The Americans were flanked and forced to retreat. 

In the end, the British held the ford and the field of battle but failed to force a general engagement.  It is believed that Cornwallis expended too much ammunition forcing the ford to risk a full blown engagement with Greene.  Commanders on both sides chose to minimize the fight in their memoirs (though their subordinates did not) even though each side lost perhaps as many as a hundred men killed in this action.  Actual numbers of casualties were hard to come by, but when Somers cut the race to his new mill seat,  downstream from the fortified mill, a few year after the revolution, his slaves kept disinterring British soldiers buried where they fell along the stream bank.

Perhaps the most important outcome for the day was that Pickens SC militia, no longer trusting Greene and his subordinates, left the army.  Days later, at Guilford Courthouse, Greene lost his chance to destroy Cornwallis and end the war with a single battle for want of decent, experienced, disciplined militia.

The following map is the product of field work performed by Elon University students in 2007.   They found the course of the red line, south of the creek by transecting the likely line of the road with metal detectors.  Flagged metal sensed by the detectors defined the old road perfectly from its deviation from the current road line to the creek.  All of this was and remains on Doug Sockwell's farm, and we're obliged to him for allowing us to play on his land.



Figure 1 Likely Road Courses in 1781

trm - March, 2013




A Short Note on Clapp’s Mill,



Prelude to the Battle at Weitzel’s Mill


The fight at Clapp’s Mill had an effect disproportionate to the event itself.  It convinced General Cornwallis that American forces had finally achieved sufficient strength to be aggressive, and that pushed him to force a battle before American forces opposing him grew any stronger.

The battle came about when Otho Williams, with Greene's permission, attacked the British in their camp.  William’s  cavalry commander, “Light Horse” Harry Lee argued that the British should be attacked on the march.  A compromise of sorts apparently was made for the Whigs approached Tarleton's Legion early in the morning and fired on his pickets with the idea in mind of drawing Tarleton into an ambush.  Everything went fine until Tarleton didn't take the bait.

The net result was strategically painful for the Whigs as a portion of the militia, perceiving (perhaps rightly) that they'd first been put out at risk in front to draw the enemy and then been used to screen the retreat of the regulars, decided to step out for home.  Tarleton could reasonably claim a victory.

Up to this point Cornwallis had been content to maneuver in friendly lands while waiting for the Whigs to err and give him a chance to cut them up.  Perceiving that Whigs now were strong enough to attempt aggression while, he, Cornwallis was slowly losing strength, determined to have a battle.  Thus when his scouts located Greene at Guilford and Lee crowded his forces, he launched his light forces northward to cut Greene’s line of communication with Virginia, his supply base.  .

[The author drew most of this summary from Rollin M. Steele Jr.  The Lost Battle of the Alamance Also known as The Battle of Clapp's Mill: A Turning Point in North Carolina's Struggle with Their British Invaders in the Very Unusual Year of 1781.  Alamance County, NC: Rollin M. Steele, Jr, 1995]

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Bibliography


John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1997.

Kenneth R. Haynes, Jr, “The Race to Weitzel’s Mill, 6 March 1781, Gorget & Sash: Journal of the Early Modern Warfare Society, Voume III, Number 1,  pp1-14.

Algie Newlin, The Battle of lindley’s Mill, Burlington: Alamance Historical Association, 1975.

Rollin M. Steele Jr.,  The Lost Battle of the Alamance Also Known as The Battle of Clapp’s Mill: A Turning Point in North Carolina’s Struggle with Their British Invaders in the Very Unusual Year of 1781 (3rd Printing), Burlington: Powell Enterprises, 1999.

George Troxler, Pyle’s Massacre: February 23, 1781 . Burlington: Alamance County Historical Association, 1973.





[1] We have yet to understand the geography of the approach to battle and where Pickens’ men actually held the British at bay.  We are not even certain where the roads were that the two armies used to get to the battle.  What we do know is where the roads were in the area of the battle.  So, once again, Pickens men get short shrift for want of a voice.