On March 6, 1781, Cornwallis’s army clashed at Adam Weitzell’s Mill with advance elements of Nathanael Greene’s Southern Army commanded by Col. Otho Holland Williams. Greene had crossed the Dan River back into North Carolina in the third week of February. He dispatched Williams with the army’s light infantry, mostly Maryland and Delaware Continentals, as well as several hundred Virginia riflemen led by William Preston and Hugh Crockett, to reconnoiter Cornwallis’s location. Cornwallis similarly dispatched a light corps, consisting of 1,000 infantry and cavalry jointly led by Lt. Col. James Webster and Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton.
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The British determined Williams’s position on March 4, after the engagement at Clapp’s Mill. Cornwallis’s men realized that Williams was separated from Greene’s army by the waters of Reedy Fork Creek. If the British positioned their forces between Williams and the ford at Weitzell’s Mill, they could effectively eliminate a large portion of Greene’s force.
In the early morning hours of March 6, under the cover of a thick fog, Stewart and Tarleton advanced on Williams’s position. However, alert sentries spotted the enemy movement, and Williams began a race with the British for the ford. “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s Legion and the Virginia riflemen provided covering fire for Williams, allowing his Continentals to retreat the ten miles to the ford from their starting position.
Having crossed the ford, Williams decided to make a defensive stand. The Continentals provided the main line of defense while the Virginia riflemen and dragoons from Lee’s Legion and the 3rd Continental Light Dragoons protected the flanks. The first British assault across the creek failed, but a second, personally led by Lt. Col. Webster, forced the Americans to retreat. In his memoirs, Lee stated that the Virginia riflemen, who could “hit an apple on a ramrod at 150 yards,” fired multiple times at Webster at only thirty paces without killing him. The fighting left thirty British soldiers lying wounded or killed. Lee’s Legion lost two killed and three wounded, while eight Virginians died and seventeen were wounded.
In the aftermath of the skirmish, the Virginia militia, who felt they had been used as cannon fodder simply to save the Continentals, began leaving Greene’s army in droves. Their claims appear justified, as eight of the ten dead Americans were Virginia riflemen. However, Williams followed express orders from Greene to protect his Continentals at all costs. Nevertheless, William Preston and Hugh Crockett’s Virginia riflemen, as well as a party of South Carolina and Georgia militia under Andrew Pickens went home in the two days after the engagement.
Nine days later, Williams and Webster met again on the field at Guilford Courthouse. In the decisive final moments of the battle, Williams’s Maryland Continentals and Webster’s 33rd Regiment of Foot engaged in hand-to-hand combat before the American forces withdrew. Webster received severe wounds to both his thigh and chest from which he died two weeks later. Williams survived the battle and the war, and served as a naval customs officer in Baltimore until his death in 1794.
There has been considerable debate over the correct spelling of the mill owner’s name. Although Lee gave the name as Wetzell, all other sources refer to the family as Weitzell or Weitzel. The name was later Anglicized to Whitesell. Henry Weitzell, Adam’s son, commanded a company of Guilford County militia during the Revolution, and owned the mill after the war.
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina History (2006)
William H. Hoyt, ed., Papers of Archibald D. Murphey, II, 289-294
Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States (1827)
Walter Clark, ed., State Records of North Carolina, XVII, 1000-1001
David Schenck, North Carolina, 1780-1781 (1889)
John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse (1997)