Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley
General Greene recrosses the Dan—Cornwallis leaves Hillsborough—Williams, Pickens, and Lee, detached to harass Cornwallis—They encounter and baffle Colonel Webster—Encounter with Colonel Webster near Wetzel's mill—His extraordinary escape from Lee's sharp-shooters.
GENERAL GREENE, in pursuance of his plan, passed the Dan on the 23d, strengthened in a small degree by the corps of militia under Stevens, and took a direction towards the head waters of the Haw river. He was highly gratified by the success of his advanced troops, officially communicated to him after he had entered North Carolina; and was pleased to estimate the destruction of Pyle and his loyalists as more advantageous in its effects than would have been a victory over Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton.
Soon after Tarleton returned to Hillsborough, the British general quitted his position,—moving with his whole force to the country from which Tarleton had been just chased, for the purpose of giving complete protection to his numerous friends inhabiting the district between the Haw and Deep rivers, whose danger in attempting to join him while so distantly situated, had lately been fatally exemplified. As soon as this movement on the part of his lordship was known to General Greene, he again resorted to his former expedient, of placing a strong light corps between him and the enemy.
Colonel Williams was of course entrusted with its direction, who, moving towards his lordship, directed Pickens and Lee, a part of his establishment, to join him. Colonel Preston, still continuing with Pickens, now made a part of Williams's force. The return of Greene to North Carolina, and the destruction of Colonel Pyle's loyalists, baffled the hopes so long entertained by the British general, and fast realizing after his possession of Hillsborough; where, in the course of one day seven independent companies of loyalists were raised. Lord Cornwallis's project of filling up his ranks with the youth of North Carolina, which he pressed by every means in his power, although suspended by the late event, was not abandoned. Determined to effect it, he had, as we have seen, left Hillsborough, and placed himself among his friends, whose spirits he wished to revive by some decisive success.
Encamped upon the Almance, he held himself ready to seize any opportunity which might be presented, and heard with pleasure of the approach of our light corps under Colonel Williams. This officer was his first object; the next was to force Greene to battle, which he believed would be risked by the American general to save his light troops. In the opinion of many, General Greene committed himself to much hazard in his newly adopted system. It was asked, why not continue in his safe position on the north of the Dan until, receiving all his expected succor, he could pass into North Carolina, seeking, instead of avoiding, his enemy. This safe and agreeable course was relinquished from necessity.
Greene, penetrating Cornwallis's views, foresaw their certain success, if he remained long out of the state, waiting for reinforcements himself. He discerned the probability, that his enemy would acquire a greater proportionate strength: with the essential difference, that what we obtained would be mostly militia, a fluctuating force; whereas, that gained by the enemy would stand to him throughout the contest.
To arrest the progress of this scheme, pursued with pertinacity by the British general, it was necessary again to risk himself, his army, and the South. He therefore passed the Dan as soon as it was in his power; depending on the resources of his fertile mind, and the tried skill and courage of his faithful, though inferior, army.
Crossing the Haw, near its source, the American general established himself between Troublesome creek and Reedy fork. And changing his position every day, sometimes approaching Colonel Williams, and then falling back upon the Troublesome, he held Cornwallis in perfect ignorance of his position, and stopped the possibility of sudden interruption. Showing himself in so many different quarters, he considerably augmented the fears of the loyalists, who had not yet recovered from the consternation produced by the slaughter of their associates. Williams pursued the same desultory game, preserving correspondency in his movements with those of Greene.
As yet Lord Cornwallis had not been able to find any opportunity to execute his purpose. Williams, more and more satisfied of his safety from his superiority in the quality of his cavalry, and wishing to take a distance whence he could conveniently interrupt the British parties while collecting provisions and forage, placed himself a few miles on the east side of Reedy fork, having the Almance creek between him and the enemy. Lord Cornwallis well knew the superiority of our horse; feeling it daily in the counteraction of his efforts to obtain intelligence, so important in military operations. Indisposed to such a near neighborhood with us, he moved from his camp at three o'clock on the 6th of March, and passing the Almance, pushed forward under the cover of a heavy fog, with the expectation of beating up Williams's quarters.
The left of the light troops were composed of militia, who had lately joined under Colonel Clarke, one of the the heroes of King's Mountain, relieving Brigadier Pickens and the corps who had so faithfully adhered to General Greene during the trying scenes just passed. Clarke's militia were part of the conquerors of Ferguson; better suited for the field of battle than for the security of camp. In this quarter, through some remissness in the guards, and concealed by the fog, Lieutenant Colonel Webster, commanding the British van, approached close before he was discovered.
The alertness of the light troops soon recovered the momentary disadvantage; and the legion of Lee advancing to support Clarke, the enemy's van was held back, until Colonel Williams, undisturbed, commenced his retreat, directing the two corps above mentioned to cover his rear. Having crossed the Reedy fork, Williams made a disposition, with the view of opposing the enemy's passage. Clarke, following Williams, joined on the opposite bank,—the infantry of the legion proceeding in the rear of Clarke, followed by the cavalry, which corps continued close to the enemy's advancing van.
During this movement Webster made several efforts to bring the rear guard to action, having under him the British cavalry. All his endeavors were successively counteracted by the celerity and precision with which the legion horse manœuvred; establishing evidently in the face of the enemy their decided superiority.[note 1]
As soon as Lee was apprised of the rear infantry's passage over the river, he retired by troops from before Webster in full gallop; and reaching Reedy fork, soon united with Colonel Williams, unmolested. There being convenient fords over the creek, above and below, after Williams had safely brought over his corps, he determined no longer to continue in his position. Resuming retreat, he left the legion supported by Colonel Clarke, with orders to retard the enemy as long as it was practicable, without hazarding serious injury.
Lee, having detached a company of Preston's militia to guard the pass at Wetzell's mill, a little distance upon his left, drew up his infantry in one line, with its right on the road, and its front parallel with the creek; while the riflemen under Colonels Clarke and Preston, occupied a copse of heavy woods on the right of the road, with its left resting upon the right of the legion infantry.
The horse formed a second line in a field well situated to curb the progress of the British cavalry, should it press upon the first line when retiring, and to protect the horses of the militia, tied at some distance back, agreeably to usage. On the first appearance of the enemy, Colonel Williams despatched a courier to Greene, communicating what had passed, and advising him of the course he should pursue after crossing the Reedy fork. Unwilling to approximate Greene, this officer moved slowly, waiting the disclosure of the enemy's intention. Should he halt on the opposite side of the creek, Colonel Williams would take his night position within a few miles of Wetzell's mill, giving time to the troops to prepare food before dark; but should the enemy advance to the hither side, he would necessarily continue his retreat, however much opposed to his wishes.
This state of suspense lasted but a little while. The British van appeared; and after a halt for a few minutes on the opposite bank, descended the hill approaching the water, where, receiving a heavy fire of musketry and rifles, it fell back, and quickly reascending, was rallied on the margin of the bank.
Here a field officer rode up, and in a loud voice addressing his soldiers, he rushed down the hill at their head, our fire pouring upon him, and plunged into the water. In the woods occupied by the riflemen, stood an old log school-house, a little to the right of the ford. The mud stuffed between the logs had mostly fallen out, and the apertures admitted the use of rifles with ease.
In this house twenty-five select marksmen, of King's Mountain militia, were posted by Lee, with orders to forego taking any part in the general resistance, but to hold themselves in reserve for particular objects.
The leading officer plunging in the water, attracted general notice; and the school-house party, recollecting its order, singled him out as their mark. The stream being deep, and the bottom rugged, he advanced slowly; his soldiers on each side of him, and apparently some of them holding his stirrup leathers. This select party 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 a second time at the same object.[note 2] Strange to tell, though in a condition so perilous, himself and horse were untouched: and having crossed the creek, he soon formed his troops, and advanced upon us.
The moment that the head of his column got under cover of our banks, Lee directed the line to retire from its flanks, and gain the rear of the cavalry. In the skirmish which ensued in our centre, after some of the enemy ascended the bank, three or four prisoners fell into our hands. The enemy's column being now formed, soon dislodged our centre; and pushing Lee, came in front of the cavalry. Here it paused, until the British horse, which followed the infantry, passed the creek and took post on the enemy's right,—the nearest point to the road, which we must necessarily take. This attitude indicated a decision to interrupt our retreat; at all events to cut off our rear.
Lee ordered Rudulph to incline in an oblique direction to his left; and, gaining the road, to wait the expected charge. Tarleton advanced with his cavalry, followed by Webster. The legion infantry, close in the rear of the riflemen, had now entered the road, considerably advanced towards Colonel Williams, still waiting in his position first taken for night quarters, and afterwards held to protect the rear guard. Rudulph, with the cavalry, was drawn off, moving slowly, with orders to turn upon the British horse if they should risk a charge.
It was now late in the evening, and nothing more was attempted. The British halted on the ground selected by Williams for our use, which he had abandoned. Having proceeded some miles further, he encamped on the northeast side of a range of hills covered with wood, some distance from the road: thus our fires were concealed from view, while the margin of the road and every avenue to our camp was vigilantly guarded.
General Greene, as soon as he was advised in the morning of the enemy's advance, retired and passed the Haw; repeating, in his answer, his order to Colonel Williams to avoid action, which he well knew was very practicable, unless our cavalry should meet with disaster. As soon as all appearance of further contest ceased, the prisoners, as was customary, were brought to the commandant; who, among other inquiries, asked, what officer led the enemy into the creek, and crossed with the leading section of the column? He was told, that it was Lieutenant Colonel Webster; and that he had passed unhurt.
Inscrutable are the ways of Providence. That superior soldier, whose life was in such imminent danger, was now safely shielded, though doomed to fall in a very few days.