Battle of Whitesell’s Mill

Continentals are Almost Caught

Location


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Coordinates: 36.1771, -79.5772.

Type: Stop
Tour: Guilford Battle
County: Guilford

Access LogoDifficult

Most of this battlefield is hidden from public view on private property, or there is no safe place to park; otherwise it would be a full-blown “Sight.” One option is to read down to the start of “Crossing the Creek” (or have someone read it as you drive) and then approach up Highway 61, north from I-40/85. That way you can imagine the opening scenes of the battle as you pass those spots on your way to the coordinates.

The coordinates are at the dead end of a road off the highway, Woellners Way. Small vehicles can park there, but larger ones should park further back so they don’t block driveways at the end. This is the old highway, which means public right-of-way continues straight from the end of the road to the creek. Be aware most of the open area to the right is private property.
 

Mug with a fortifications map saying, "Wilmington 1781"

 

 
Small boy in a blue shirt that says, "Do Whig Out!"

Description

The Situation

Continental Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene withdrew his Continental army to Virginia in early 1781 until he was ready to confront the British army chasing it, a campaign now called the “Race to the Dan.” Soon after, he returned to North Carolina and moved near Guilford Court House in today’s Greensboro, having recognized it during the Race as an excellent defensive position for a battle. However, he knew more part-time soldiers (“militia”) were coming to join him, so Greene was changing his position frequently in hopes of delaying that confrontation. Greene sent infantry under Col. Otho Williams and the cavalry of Col. “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, a total of about 700 men, to the east to watch for and slow down the British.

Painting of a man in a fancy military uniform with epaulets
Otho Williams

Williams’ force was camped about 10 miles south of the coordinates, on this side of Alamance Creek (Lake Mackintosh today, near Burlington). That meant Reedy Fork Creek at the coordinates was between him and the main Continental Army. The British commander, Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis, was trying to catch Greene and learned about Williams’ detachment while camped further south, on the Alamance battlefield from the War of Regulation. On Tuesday, March 6, 1781, he sent cavalry commander Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton to try to trap Williams. Meanwhile, Cornwallis followed Tarleton with more of his army, providing a total force of about 1,200.

The Chase to Battle

As you near the coordinates from the south, you will see a large farm complex ahead of you on the left shortly after passing Huffline Mill Road, also on the left. This section refers to that property. Unfortunately there is no safe public place to pull over within view of it.

Tarleton was spotted by scouts just two miles out from Williams’ camp. He gave chase as Williams sped to safety via the closest ford over Reedy Fork, really three fords around Whitesell’s Mill. Meanwhile, Lee’s cavalry tried to fend off the British.

As you drive up Highway 61, you are following the route of both Williams and Tarleton. At the time the area was covered in open forest, with a wagon road that forked to the left around where you can first see the farm buildings. It ran toward two fords directly behind the current buildings and a third to the right of them. The weather was cloudy but calm, with an intermittent light rain. Williams placed a company on each side of that road, in the vicinity of the modern buildings, facing south. Another militia line was about 150 yards behind them, perhaps near today’s tree line.

Photo of farm buildings in the distance behind fields, with a two-lane road in the foreground
(AmRevNC photograph)

No more than 12 minutes later, the British infantry under Lt. Col. James Webster arrived and deployed, which took a while because their column had stretched out during the chase.[1] As they formed their lines, their light infantry at the front exchanged potshots with the Patriot (“Whig”) militia at long distance. Once the Redcoats were in formation, they advanced slowly up the road, wheeling left at the fork onto today’s farmland. The first line of militia fell back tree to tree, stopping to fire, while angling to go around both ends of the second line. Heavy smoke filled the air, due to the lack of wind.

The British continued toward the Patriot militia. The Redcoats appeared from under the smoke and the second American line began firing coordinated volleys. The British halted around where the modern buildings are and began extending their line in both directions. This allowed them to shoot at the ends of Williams’ line, a dangerous “flanking fire.” The second line fired another volley and then fell directly back, again slowly and tree to tree. Once the front-line militia had gotten around them, the second line fired five or six more volleys and then peeled up the road, by unit in good order, toward the middle ford. The British advanced again, stopping to fire a volley.

Crossing the Creek

Follow the directions under “Location.” Once parked, notice the house at the top of the driveway to the right, and then walk to the creek using the left edge of the open space, within the public right-of-way.

The old bridge supports rest on the horse ford of 1781, meaning it was too deep for people to cross easily on foot, but shallow enough for equines. On the right was Whitesell’s Mill.[2] The gray structure visible now is probably too new a construction to be the mill, but it may be on the same spot.

Upstream, where the creek curves out of sight to the right, was the main ford. It was narrow with steep hills on either side, the road to it “steep and narrow.” The Continental infantry and more militia had already crossed that ford and taken positions on the high ground above it before the British arrived at the front lines. Williams’ regular-army Continental infantry formed a line about where the modern house is. After their earlier action, the front-line militia ran down the far side of the ford, appeared under the smoke, and splashed across. Others crossed here at the horse ford, running past where you are standing, and the occasional man waded or swam across wherever he could.

Lee’s Continental cavalry formed a line above where the modern road curves to the right behind you, along with more militia. Out of sight upstream, past the curve of the creek, Lt. Col. William Washington’s cavalry “dragoons” and more militia overlooked the third ford.

Photo of a narrow road curving uphill between trees
Ford road route toward Lee’s position (AmRevNC photograph)

The British tried to cross at the middle ford, but fell back before the Patriot guns. The two sides exchanged heavy fire, described by veteran N.C. militia Maj. Joseph Graham as “‘equal to anything that had been seen in the war… ’”[3]

Photo of driveway leading up a grass-covered hill seen through a narrow break in the trees, with part of a house visible on the left
(AmRevNC photograph)

British lines formed across the high ground on either side of, and in, the main ford road. German mercenaries called “Hessians” in dark green coats arrived and entered the lines nearest to you. Shortly thereafter, four small brass cannons appeared on the rise directly across the creek from you, to the right above the horse ford.

Lee recounts in his memoir a curious story from this point in the battle. He says there was “an old log school-house” just the other side of the main ford. “The mud stuffed between the logs had mostly fallen out, and the apertures admitted the use of rifles with ease.” Lee said he posted 25 of his Virginia riflemen inside, former Overmountain Men, with orders to withhold fire until a good target presented itself. Lee says they were selected for their marksmanship: “It was not uncommon amusement among them to put an apple on the point of a ramrod, and holding it in the hand with the arm extended,” let the others shoot at it, “when many balls would pass through the apple…”

Webster plunged his horse into the water to inspire his men. “The stream being deep, and the bottom rugged, he advanced slowly,” Lee continues. Some of the Redcoats went with him, “apparently holding onto his stirrup leathers” to steady themselves. The Virginians “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 again at the same object. Strange to tell, though in conditions so perilous, himself and his horse were untouched.”[4]

The British gained the near shore and formed a line. The militia reacted nervously to them and the artillery, so Williams ordered a withdrawal. The Continental infantry marched into and up the 1781 road that continued near today’s house. The nearby cavalry then wheeled into the road behind them.

The British cavalry began to cross at the main ford. Tarleton rode up the hill, perhaps to around the modern house. He raised his bugle to his lips and blew. From behind you, Lee answered him, and then his cavalry disappeared as well. The British infantry still on the heights on the other side continued to fire at the retreating Americans over their own cavalry’s heads. Shortly afterward they marched across the ford, too. Meanwhile some of the British, including a unit of Scottish Highlanders, began to cross here at the horse ford.

Photo of a stone bridge support standing in shallow rapids in a wide creek
The horse ford (AmRevNC photograph)

By now it was dusk and Cornwallis had arrived at the creek. He decided it was too dark to continue. Tarleton’s cavalry pursued Lee and Washington about a mile and then broke it off.

The Aftermath

Militia continued to straggle into the Patriot columns in clumps over three to four miles. Many of the militia complained afterwards about being put into exposed positions on the far side of the creek, and some went home as a result. In fact, greater damage was done to the Continental Army by Patriots after the battle than the British during it. Already angered by Greene ordering them to send their horses home due to the extra food they required, many of the Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia militia units went home.

The British suffered heavily despite their victory: 30 killed plus an unknown number of wounded. The Continentals and militia had eight killed and 12 wounded. Historians consider this skirmish far more important than the number of troops or casualties indicate. One wrote, “If WilIiams had allowed his corps to be pushed aside or trapped into an engagement with the superior British main force, then Cornwallis might have been able to move the British army between Greene and his reinforcements and the British could have destroyed each force in detail.”[5]

More Information

  • Babits, Lawrence, and Joshua Howard, Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009)
  • Barefoot, Daniel, Touring North Carolina’s Revolutionary War Sites (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1998)
  • Graham, William A. (William Alexander), General Joseph Graham and His Papers on North Carolina Revolutionary History (Raleigh, N.C.: Edwards & Broughton, 1904) <http://archive.org/details/cu31924032738233> [accessed 27 March 2020]
  • Hairr, John, ‘Wetzell’s Mill, Battle Of’, NCpedia, 2006 <https://www.ncpedia.org/wetzells-mill-battle> [accessed 20 December 2019]
  • Kalmanson, Arnold W., ‘Otho Holland Williams and the Southern Campaign of 1780-1782’ (Salisbury University, 1990) <http://mdsoar.org/handle/11603/11437> [accessed 13 May 2020]
  • Lee, Henry, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, Second Edition (Washington, DC: Peter Force, 1827)
  • Lewis, J.D., ‘The Battle of Whitesell’s Mill’, The American Revolution in North Carolina, 2011 <https://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/revolution_battle_of_weitzells_mill.html> [accessed 19 December 2019]
  • Magnuson, Tom, ‘Beaten Paths’ <https://blog.tradingpath.org/2013/> [accessed 18 April 2020]
  • Rankin, Hugh F., The North Carolina Continentals (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1971)
  • Sherman, Wm. Thomas, Calendar and Record of the Revolutionary War in the South: 1780-1781, Tenth Edition (Seattle, WA: Gun Jones Publishing, 2007) <https://www.americanrevolution.org/calendar_south_10_ed_update_2017.pdf>

[1] Graham 1904.

[2] The mill owner’s name was spelled many ways by different witnesses over the years, so you will see slight variations if you read other sources. One based on primary documents (Lewis 2011) states that the mill was owned by Capt. Henry Whitesell, part of the Guilford County Patriot militia, so we use that spelling.

[3] Lewis 2011.

[4] Lee 1827.

[5] Kalmanson 1990.

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