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Battle of Kings Mountain


Thomas Jefferson referred to the Battle of Kings Mountain as “The turn of the tide of success.” On October 7, 1780, some 900 “Overmountain Men,” residents of the Carolina Backcountry and the Appalachian Mountains, achieved a crucial victory over Loyalist militiamen on a rocky hilltop in western South Carolina known as Kings Mountain. The battle was the first significant Patriot victory in the South since the British capture of Georgia’s major port of Savannah in December 1778. It was also one of the few major battles of the Revolutionary War that was fought entirely between Americans.

British Southern Strategy operated under the assumption that many southerners remained loyal to the British and would rally behind the Crown, but most Americans were very divided and people in the South were no different from the rest of the colonies. Some took up the fight for independence and others loyally fought for the British. The struggle between Patriots and Loyalists is a reminder that the American Revolution was “a civil war just as real and as bitter as the one which broke in 1861,” as the late historian Bruce Catton noted.

After the British victory at the Battle of Camden in August 1780, General Charles Lord Cornwallis invaded North Carolina to tighten the Crown’s control in the region. He dispatched Major Patrick Ferguson into the mountainous regions of the South to track down Patriot sympathizers and to protect the region’s Loyalists. Ferguson issued a warning to the Patriots, stating that if there were continued support against the British, his army would march “…over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.” In response to this threat, several local Patriot militias united to destroy Ferguson’s force. These Patriots were brought together and led by men such as Isaac Shelby, Samuel Phillips, John Sevier, William Campbell, Arthur Campbell, Charles McDowell, and Andrew Hampton.

The Gathering of Overmountain Men by Lloyd Branson. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On October 7, 1780, Ferguson’s Loyalist troops were dug in on a small sixty-foot hill two miles inside the South Carolina border. A Patriot scouting party discovered the situation and provided the intelligence that was needed to plan an attack. Early that afternoon, the American militiamen moved towards Ferguson’s fortified position. After the firing began, the Patriots attacked the Loyalists from all sides.

The Battle of Kings Mountain only lasted an hour. The Patriot riflemen fought with a relentless fervor as they surrounded the Loyalists. Ferguson, the only Englishman present, attempted to lead his men in a breakout, but while mounted on his horse, he made a perfect target and met his end on Kings Mountain. His men tried to surrender, but the fighting ended in confusion, resulting in "a near-massacre before all the victors were brought under control and induced to stop firing," as the late historian James L. Stokesbury noted. When the smoke cleared, the Loyalists had suffered over 200 killed; some 160 wounded, and nearly 700 were taken prisoner. Patriot losses were around 28 killed and 62 wounded.

Kings Mountain by Don Troiani. (Photo: dontroiani.com)

The victory at Kings Mountain provided a desperately needed boost to the morale of southern Patriots. As the year 1781 dawned, Continental troops operating in the South under the command of General Nathanael Greene, George Washington's most trusted commander, used this momentum to their advantage. In January, Greene and one of his capable commanders, Daniel Morgan, achieved another significant victory over the Crown at the Battle of Cowpens. Following the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in March, General Cornwallis was eventually compelled to move the main British army in the South to Yorktown, Virginia. After falling under siege by American troops led by General George Washington and French forces led by the Comte de Rochambeau, Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. Nearly a year after the Battle of Kings Mountain, the Patriots were closer to securing independence than ever before.

Sources

A Short History of the American Revolution by James L. Stokesbury.

American Battlefield Trust: Kings Mountain.

American Battlefield Trust: The Overmountain Men.

American Heritage History of the American Revolution by Bruce Lancaster.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon: British Southern Strategy.

National Park Service: Kings Mountain.

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