The American Revolution in North Carolina

Speedwell's Furnace

February 13, 1781

Patriot Cdr:

Col. Otho Williams
Loyalist Cdr:

Brigadier General
Charles O'Hara






Original County: 

Guilford County
Present County:

Rockingham County

aka Troublesome Iron Works, aka Buffington's Iron Works*.

Keeping ahead of the British, Col. Otho Williams and his "Light Corps" found a good location to defend against the approaching enemy - near Speedwell's Furnace. Per his standing orders, his objective was to delay the British as much as possible.

Within his Light Corps, Col. Williams had an Irishman from Guilford County named Tom Archer. He was a large man who would "fight his weight in wildcats" and "hardly ever missed his aim at any distance within two hundred yards."

When the British brought up their field pieces to fire on the Patriots, Tom Archer stepped into the middle of the road and yelled, "Hallo there Mister, I wish you would take that ugly thing out of the road, or it may cause some trouble yet before all is over." Turning to a nearby officer Archer said, "Captain, may I shoot that cussed rascal? for he has no business here, no how."

The captain told Archer to wait until they applied the match, for they needed to detain the enemy as long as possible. When the British were ready to fire, Archer stepped into the middle of the road again and yelled, "Hallo there Mister, I say you had better take that thing out of the road, or I'll be hanged if I don't shoot some of you." Then turning to the officer he asked again, "Captain, may I shoot the cussed rascal now, for tellin' don't do him one bit o' good?" His captain just nodded and smiled.

Archer placed his rifle against a tree to steady it and fired - hitting the distant artilleryman holding the match.

The Patriots mounted up and rode away before the cannon crew could recover and fire at them. Lord Cornwallis and his army was delayed another two hours as a result.

Later that day, Lt. Col. Henry Lee moved across the Irwin Ferry and stopped his weary men so they could eat. As they began, the British vanguard under Brigadier General Charles O'Hara appeared and fired at his pickets. Lt. Col. Lee quickly formed his men and moved away from the enemy, who was equally startled and halted, requesting orders on what to do.

Lt. Col. Lee used the delay to get his infantry away, but the British were soon closing in hot pursuit. Both armies were covering thirty miles a day. Now, into the cold night the race went on. As they moved forward, Col. Otho Williams saw campfires in the road ahead and sent a man to hurry there and to warn Major General Nathanael Greene that the British were near.

The man quickly returned informing Col. Williams that this was Greene's camp from two days ago, and a few men had remained behind to let them know that fact.

The British could not keep up the pace with Col. Williams, so they halted for the night. The Patriots eventually also stopped, but at midnight they were awakened because the British were moving again. A heavy frost had fallen on the deeply rutted road, making walking quite difficult and very noisy.

Lord Cornwallis thought he had Major General Greene just where he wanted him - backed up to the Dan River. A recent rainfall had raised the level of the river making it impossible to cross except by boat. Greene had been prepared for this and had readied his crossing before he even reached the river. Boats had been waiting for him when he got there.

On the afternoon of February 14th, Col. Otho Williams received word that Major General Nathanael Greene and his army had crossed the Dan River and made it safely into Virginia. Col. Williams marched his men to Irwin's Ferry, where he found boats waiting for him to take his men across into Virginia. They crossed over at sunset, having covered forty miles in sixteen hours.

The British arrived after sundown to discover that the Americans had already crossed and that the river was too swollen to attempt fording it. The "Race to the Dan River" was over - Lord Cornwallis had lost.

*By 1770, an early colonial ironworks had been established on Troublesome Creek in present-day Rockingham County. The ironworks, initially called the Speedwell Furnace, played a significant role in the Revolutionary War. Before and after the Battle of Guilford Court House on March 15, 1781, both British and Patriot troops camped at the site. George Washington retraced Major General Nathanael Greene’s retreat from Guilford Court House during his southern tour in 1791, and visited the ironworks at that time. The original site was partially destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1915.

Joseph Buffington, an experienced Quaker iron master originally from Chester County, PA, constructed Speedwell Furnace on Troublesome Creek. He purchased the “mine hill” in southern Rockingham County, as well as the land for the iron works. Additionally, Buffington constructed a rock dam to create water power, a bloomery for pig iron, and an iron forge for finishing items. Unfortunately, Buffington soon discovered that the iron deposits in the area contained far too much titaniferous dioxide to produce valuable iron. He sold the works in 1772, and the site passed through the hands of various people through the course of the Revolutionary War.

In February of 1781, Major General Nathanael Greene led his Patriot troops over the Dan River into Virginia, as Lord Cornwallis’s British forces pursued them, camping overnight at the Troublesome Creek works. Soon after, Greene’s forces returned to North Carolina, where they camped at various locations including Speedwell Furnace. Greene created earthen fortifications and gathered ammunition. After the Battle of Guilford Court House on March 15, 1781, Major General Greene continued to plan for a second attack by Lord Cornwallis, returning his troops to the works at Troublesome Creek. For five days Patriot forces camped at Speedwell Furnace, then pursuing Lord Cornwallis to Ramsey’s Mill.

After the Revolutionary War, three Patriot veterans purchased the ironworks: Lt. Colonel Archibald Lytle of Hillsborough, and brothers Peter and Constantine Perkins from Virginia. In 1782, the new owners established a grist and flour mill at the site. Purchasing the site in 1790 were George Hairston and John Marr of Virginia, who hired Benjamin Jones to manage the works. Jones managed the facilities between 1790 and 1792, hosting President George Washington for breakfast at the works in 1791. The Troublesome Creek Ironworks continued to operate under various owners through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, producing low-grade iron ore and other goods. In 1954, local historian James McClamroch purchased the site and donated it to the Rockingham Historical Society.

Lindley S. Butler, “Speedwell Furnace: The Ironworks on Troublesome Creek,” Rockingham County Historical Society pamphlet (1972). Patrick O’Kelley, "Nothing but Blood and Slaughter, III" (2005). Archibald Henderson, "Washington’s Southern Tour, 1791" (1923). William S. Powell, ed., "Encyclopedia of North Carolina" (2006).

Several Patriot pensioners later asserted that there was a small skirmish at Buffington's Iron Works around the same timeframe as the battle at Camden, SC (August 16, 1780), but to date there have been no official records of this skirmish.

Josiah Martin of Lincoln County recounted in his 1832 pension statement (W1047):

"A company of horse from Ferguson's army pursued & overtook us the next day about 12 o'clock near Buffington's iron works. We repulsed them & drove them back to the main army. We then returned to McDowell's headquarters. This skirmish was about the time of Gates' defeat. A few were killed on both sides."

Known Patriot Participants

Known British/Loyalist Participants
Col. Otho Williams, with unknown number of men
Brigadier General Charles O'Hara, with unknown number of men

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