Wetzell's Mills (or Mill), North Carolina

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Wetzell's Mills (or Mill), North Carolina

WETZELL'S MILLS (OR MILL), NORTH CAROLINA. 6 March 1781. The day after General Charles Cornwallis started withdrawing from the Dan River toward Hillsboro, North Carolina (17 February 1781), General Nathanael Greene sent over his advance elements with the intention of harassing the British until he had received reinforcements and could face Cornwallis in a pitched battle. The opposing forces clashed first at Clapp's Mills, 2 March. At 3 a.m the morning of 6 March, Cornwallis undertook a movement by which he hoped to surprise Colonel Otho Williams's advance element, which was guarding a large supply of food at Wetzell's Mills on the Reedy Fork, and draw Greene into a general engagement. By 8 a.m. the British were within two miles of Colonel William Campbell's detachment of about 150 Virginia militia when their presence was detected. Sending Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee's Legion and Colonel William Washington's dragoons to support Campbell, Williams started withdrawing along Reedy Fork from his camp at High Rock Ford to the ford at Wetzell's Mills.

Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton's cavalry and a thousand infantry of Lieutenant Colonel James Webster's Brigade (Twenty-third, Thirty-third, Seventy-first, Light Infantry Company of the Guards, and some jägers) pushed forward aggressively, while Cornwallis followed with the main body. Colonel William Preston commanded a covering force of Virginia militia while Campbell, Lee, and Washington made good their retreat across the ford at Wetzell's Mills. Seeing that the numerically superior British had too many opportunities to turn him out of a defensive position along Reedy Fork, Williams ordered Campbell, Lee, and Washington to delay as long as possible at Wetzell's Mills while the rest of the light corps continued their retreat toward Greene's camp. The delaying force was directed to withdraw when faced with the danger of being overwhelmed.

Lee posted a company of Preston's riflemen to cover the ford, deployed the Legion infantry in a line parallel to the creek, and placed Campbell's men and the remainder of Preston's in some heavy woods so that their left flank tied in with the right flank of the Legion infantry. Lee's cavalry were to the rear where they could protect the militia horses and also be prepared to cover the retreat of the first line.

The Guards led Webster's Brigade in an attempt to force a crossing of the creek at the ford. When they were driven back by well-aimed fire from Preston's riflemen, Webster rode up to lead them across. The British infantry then stormed the high bank on which the defenders were deployed, and Tarleton's cavalry splashed across the ford and got into a position to cut off the Americans if they did not withdraw promptly. Covered by the Legion cavalry, the delaying force withdrew five miles while the British maintained pressure. Cornwallis then accepted the fact that his attempt had failed and withdrew. Williams had been able to extract his entire force from a well-coordinated British attack and to bring away all the foodstuffs stored at Wetzell's for use by the Continentals. Greene had marched the main body to the ironworks on Troublesome Creek.

Losses were about fifty killed and wounded on each side. The next encounter between Greene and Cornwallis was the major engagement at Guilford Courthouse, 15 March 1781.

SEE ALSO Clapp's Mills, North Carolina; Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina; Marksmanship; Southern Campaigns of Nathanael Greene.

                        revised by Michael Bellesiles