The Battle of Wetzell's Mill
March 6 , 1781 at Weitzel's Mill, Guilford County, South Carolina
The Battle of Wetzell's Mill (the name may also be spelled Weitzell, Weitzel, Whitesell, or Whitsall) was a skirmish fought between detachments of Major General Nathanael Greene's Continental Army and Colonel Banastre Tarleton's Loyalist provincial troops.
Greene was trying to avoid encounters with the larger British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis' larger army while awaiting the arrival of additional troops, and had sent Williams and several hundred men on reconnaissance to watch Cornwallis' movements. Cornwallis learned where Williams was on March 4, and, realizing he could be trapped because he was separated from Greene's army by Reedy Ford Creek, sent Tarleton and 1,200 men toward the ford at Wetzell's Mill.
Early on March 6, Tarleton's men tried to sneak up on Williams' position, then about ten miles south of the ford. After a brief skirmish, the two forces raced toward the ford. Williams kept Brigadier General Harry "Light Horse" Lee in the rear to cover their retreat, and reached the ford ahead of Tarleton. His army crossed, at which point he decided to make a stand at the crossing.
Tarleton's first attempt to cross was repulsed, but the second succeeded, and Williams retreated.
Facts about the Battle of Wetzell's Mill
- Armies - American Forces was commanded by Col. Otho Williams and consisted of about 700 Soldiers. British Forces was commanded by Lt. Col. Banastre Tarlton and consisted of about 1,200 Soldiers.
- Casualties - American casualties were 50 killed/wounded. British casualties were 21 killed/wounded. The battle was part of the Southern Theater 1780-83.
- Outcome - The result of the battle was Inconclusive. The battle was part of the Southern Theater 1775-82.
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 River.
On February 27, Lee and Colonel Andrew 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.
On February 28, Greene, with the main army augmented by the North Carolina militia, crossed above Buffalo Creek that morning, 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 8:00 AM, 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. Colonel William Preston’s and Colonel 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."