by C. Leon Harris 2006
The militiamen referred to here as the Botetourt Riflemen were a relatively small number of men, and quite often boys, who served during a short but crucial time in the Revolutionary War in the late winter of 1781. As with most militiamen, their sacrifices all but forgotten. They might be entirely lost to history except for the pension acts passed by Congress in 1818 and 1832, which asked the veterans to recount their experiences from four or more decades in the past. Much of what we know about the Botetourt Riflemen is preserved in the pension application made by John Tate in 1832 (see reference at the end of this report for a transcription).
As Tate explained, the Botetourt Riflemen came into existence because Lord Cornwallis “made very active exertions to take the prisoners taken at the Battle of the Cowpens in January 1781.” To understand this we have to go back to 12 May 1780, when Charleston SC fell to the British and the entire southern patriot army was surrendered. At that point it the British commander, Gen. Henry Clinton, decided it was safe for him to return to the northern colonies, where the Revolutionary War had been stalemated since the patriot victory at Saratoga. Clinton therefore left Georgia and the Carolinas in the care of Lord Cornwallis. Cornwallis had other ambitions, however. Considering Virginia to be the keystone of the rebellion, because of its central location and as a provider of men, materiel, and leaders, he soon marched his army northward. At Camden SC on 16 August 1780 Cornwallis encountered a hastily formed army under Gen. Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga, and easily sent it fleeing. This second victory over an entire southern army could only have emboldened Cornwallis. Moreover, he was certain that most Carolinians were loyal to the King and would defend the southern colonies against any further insurrection.
Three events took the wind out of Cornwallis’s sails. The first was that Gates was replaced as commander of the southern army by the brilliant General Nathanael Greene, who quickly began recruiting and equipping yet a third southern army. The second event grew out of Maj. Patrick Ferguson’s pronouncement that any citizen who aided the patriots would be killed and have their property destroyed. The frontiersmen of the western Carolinas and Virginia, who had been largely uninvolved in the Revolution until then, responded with a collective “we’ll see about that.” On 7 Oct 1780 about 1100 of these “over mountain men” surrounded and defeated an equal number of Ferguson’s Loyalists at King’s Mountain SC. The demonstration of disloyalty to the Crown, as much as the military defeat, came as a shock to Cornwallis. The final blow came on 17 January 1781 at the Battle of Cowpens, not far from King’s Mountain, when American troops under Gen. Daniel Morgan defeated Cornwallis’s most able subordinate, Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton. The defeat of Tarleton’s green-coated mounted Legion provided a much-needed boost to patriot morale, especially so because of Tarleton’s reputation for brutality, fictionalized by the arch-villain Tavington in the film The Patriot.
Knowing that Cornwallis would try to recapture his 600 soldiers taken at Cowpens, Morgan marched them and his men toward North Carolina. Greene was already in North Carolina with his army, undermanned and unequipped to the point that some were literally naked. In order not to present an inviting target to the British, he had sent many of his troops to winter quarters in the hills near Cheraw SC. As soon as Greene got word of Cornwallis’s plans, however, he hurried to reinforce Morgan and ordered the troops from Cheraw to join them as soon as possible. Greene knew that even their combined forces would be too weak to engage the British, but he hoped to lure Cornwallis even farther away from his supply lines and to weaken him by attrition while his own troops recovered their strength.
Greene led his army toward the relative safety of Virginia north of the Dan River. On Valentine Day 1781 the “race for the Dan” ended when the last of Greene’s army crossed near South Boston just hours ahead of Cornwallis. With the spring flooding and all the boats on Greene’s side of the river, Cornwallis was forced to retire to Hillsborough to rest and resupply his troops after the frantic chase. On February 22nd Greene crossed back into North Carolina, frequently moving camp to avoid attack. It was during this time that the Virginia militias drafted and recruited large numbers to reinforce Greene. Among the hundreds who responded was 20-year-old James Tate, who enlisted under Captain David May as part of the Botetourt Riflemen.
One of the unusual aspects of the Botetourt Riflemen was that they were armed with rifles. Contrary to the myth promoted in such fictional works as The Patriot, there would have been no advantage for most American soldiers in the Revolutionary War to hide behind trees shooting rifles while the Red Coats stood in rows firing back with muskets. Although rifles were more accurate because the spiral groove inside the barrel gave the bullet a gyroscopic stability, they took a full minute to load and fire, and they lacked bayonet mounts. Troops armed with muskets could get off three rounds while riflemen were reloading, and then they could charge with the most lethal weapon, the bayonet. Before he died at King’s Mountain, Maj. Ferguson had invented a breech-loading rifle that might have changed all that, but the British military resisted this innovation from the Scotsman.
Tate and other Botetourt Riflemen had rifles because their previous expeditions had been against Indians, who were also armed with rifles and fought from behind cover instead of in exposed rows. British soldiers were awed by the legendary marksmanship of frontier riflemen, so the arrival of the Botetourt Riflemen in North Carolina probably gave them some concern. It probably also gave American commanders some concern, because they had to figure out how to use them. That task fell upon Col. Otho Holland Williams, who replaced Gen. Morgan after he took leave to recover from chronic rheumatism. Under Williams was Lt. Col. Henry Lee, an able commander now best remembered as the father of Robert E. Lee. As implied by his nickname, “Light Horse Harry” Lee commanded a legion of about one hundred cavalrymen. Besides his legion, Lee also had under him a company of Catawba Indians, more than a hundred North Carolina militiamen, and more than four hundred Virginia militiamen. The majority of these Virginians were the Botetourt Riflemen, who were commanded by Col. William Preston, formerly from Botetourt but then living in Montgomery County. According to Tate, their immediate commander was Maj. Thomas Rowland. Tate’s pension declaration also states that the Botetourt Riflemen were divided into at least six companies commanded by Captains David May, John Cartmill, Matthew Wilson, John Bollar, William McClenahan, and a Capt. Holston. (All but Holston are listed in the reference by O’Kelley cited below.)
The first opportunity to see what the Botetourt Riflemen could do against regular British soldiers came at a place called Clapp’s Mill on Stinking Quarter Creek in Alamance County around March 4. (The exact date is uncertain.) The two legions of Lee and Tarleton had been in constant motion, with Lee watching for any movement by Cornwallis, and Tarleton trying to locate Greene’s camp so that Cornwallis could attack while the patriots were still weak. Col. Williams had sent Lee’s Legion, some of the mounted North Carolina militia, and the Botetourt Riflemen south across Alamance Creek, leaving the remainder of Lee’s troops behind as a reserve. In the meantime, Cornwallis, short of food and eager for battle, moved north and west toward Greene’s camp. Tarleton, having received word that some of Greene’s troops were in the area, set out with perhaps several hundred mounted troops. Lee’s scouts detected them, whereupon Lee directed the Botetourt Riflemen to lie in ambush behind a rail fence. Tarleton rode his men into a volley of rifle fire, but quickly regrouped. He had some of his troops fix bayonets while his cavalry stood ready to slash with swords any rifleman flushed out of hiding. Lee’s cavalry was helplessly deployed in thickets. After an exchange of rifle and musket fire, some 20 British soldiers and only two Americans lay dead. (Exact numbers are unclear.) Yet the British kept advancing with bayonets. The militiamen, few of whom had seen such disciplined troops, began to give ground, but Lee managed to turn a potential panic into an orderly retreat.
After learning that Cornwallis was advancing, Williams retreated to join Greene for the inevitable battle. Cornwallis pursued rapidly, trying unsuccessfully to beat Williams to Reedy Fork Creek in Guilford County. After crossing Reedy Fork on March 6, Williams left a rear guard at Rocky Ford near Wetzel’s Mill. On the north bank of the creek was Lee’s Legion, other mounted troops under Lt. Col. William Washington (a cousin of the American Commander-in-Chief), militiamen from the Carolinas and Georgia, and 60 militia riflemen from Washington County VA under Col. William Campbell (the commander at King’s Mountain). On the south bank of the creek Williams left the Botetourt Riflemen under Preston. When the British vanguard arrived and began to cross the ford, the Botetourt Riflemen fired a volley that sent them fleeing in disarray. The riflemen then crossed the ford themselves and waited for the larger British attack they knew would follow. Cornwallis sent about half his infantry under Col. James Webster. Seeing the reluctance of his men to cross the creek in plain view of the riflemen, Webster slowly crossed on his horse ahead of them while Campbell’s riflemen fired 32 shots at him. Amazingly, Webster reached the other side unscathed. In the face of the unwavering advance of the British line, followed by the arrival of Tarleton with cannons, the American rearguard retreated. In this skirmish the Americans are believed to have lost eight killed, all Botetourt Riflemen. British losses are unknown, but there is little doubt that some of the American riflemen hit their targets.
Most of the Americans rejoined Williams in his march to Greene’s camp, but many militiamen decided they’d had enough. As Tate swore in his pension application, “Captain May and all his officers of his company and all his men, except myself and thirteen others, left the field of Battle and came home.” At a court martial held later to determine if the Botetourt Riflemen were to receive credit for their service, 49 of them testified that they came home because they had crops to plant. (See Davies under references below.) They may also have shared the feeling of militiamen from South Carolina and Georgia, who went home because they thought Williams had used them as cannon fodder to cover his own escape. Tate himself declared that he remained another day, then having been deserted by his army, he too went home.
If O’Kelley is correct, by the time of the Battle of Guilford Court House on October 15, the Botetourt Regiment somehow regenerated to 200 men under Maj. Thomas Rowland. If the Botetourt Riflemen did survive, however, it was in name only. Most of its members would have to have come from other counties, and few if any of them would have been the original Botetourt Riflemen. So the brief history of the Botetourt Riflemen lasted only a few weeks. During its brief existence, however, it helped slow the British advance, allowing time for Greene’s army to swell to some four thousand troops. Cornwallis, with half as many men, managed a narrow victory, but it was so costly that he had to take his army to Wilmington to recover before resuming his journey to destiny at Yorktown. That delay in turn allowed time for the French fleet and George Washington’s northern army to arrive in time for the final victory on October 19, 1781.
Buchanan, J. The Road to Guilford Courthouse. New York: John Wiley, 1997.
Davies, William, Col. Letter dated 8 Aug 1781 to Gov. Thomas Nelson ordering a court martial to sit in Botetourt County to determine amount of credit for a specific tour of militia duty.
O’Kelley, P. Nothing but Blood and Slaughter: The Revolutionary War in the Carolinas: Volume Three 1781. Booklocker.com. 2005.
Tate, John. Pension application S6191. John Tate
CLAPP'S MILL MEMORIAL
2704 Huffman Mill Rd.
Ronald W. Young, Sr. provided me with these Images, and here is some history that I found on-line about the battle at Clapp's Mill.
Scroll to Map & Points of interest.
Burlington, NC Battle of Clapp's Mill. Pyle's Massacre and Battle of Lindley's Mill. Commemoration at 2:00 pm, Allamance Battleground.
Sponsored by Alamance Battleground Chapter, NCSSAR.
G-111 BATTLE OF CLAPP'S MILL: Troops led by Henry Lee ambushed British cavalry of Banastre Tarleton one mile north, Mar. 2, 1781. Americans retreated under heavy British fire. NC 62 at SR 1135 (Porter Sharpe Road) southwest of Alamance. ALAMANCE 1992