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A True American Fight: The Battle of Kings Mountain


The late historian Bruce Catton offered a compelling reminder of the harsh divisions that underlined the American Revolution when he wrote, “For behind the great struggle with the professional armies of Great Britain was the unending struggle between patriot and Loyalist, a civil war just as real and as bitter as the one which broke in 1861.” Long before the blue and the gray battled each other at places like Shiloh and Gettysburg, prior generations of divided Americans fought each other just as ferociously and passionately over their own competing beliefs and visions. The intense clashes between Patriots fighting for independence and Loyalists faithfully rallied behind the British Crown had a major influence on the direction of the Revolutionary War, especially in the South. One of the most significant actions that pitted American against American took place on a long, narrow ridge with wooded and rocky slopes on the border between North and South Carolina. It was here at Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780 that the final road to victory for the Patriots in the American Revolution truly began.

The defeat and surrender of British General John Burgoyne’s army to the Northern Department of the Continental Army under General Horatio Gates in October 1777 changed the course of the war in America. The triumph at Saratoga, New York brought France openly into the conflict on the side of the United States. With the emergence of Britain’s ancient enemy into the struggle, the American Revolution became a world war. Now, with much more than just the American colonies at stake, the British were forced to adopt new measures to protect their vast empire. To rely on the seemingly overwhelming support for the Crown in the South and bring the war in America to an end in order to focus on the French threat, the British turned their military attention to Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Virginia. The war in America would indeed be decided by events in the South, but circumstances did not quite end the way the British hoped they would.

General John Burgoyne surrenders to General Horatio Gates at Saratoga, New York on Friday, October 17, 1777. (Photo Credit: Architect of the Capital)

For a long time, the British Southern Strategy seemed to be paving the way towards victory. By February 1779, Georgia was in British hands. After the fall of Charleston in May 1780, the Crown also managed to conquer South Carolina. The blows to the fight for independence continued to land heavily. For a time, it was only the resilience of partisan leaders like Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion, who took to the forests and swamps across the Carolinas, that kept the fight against the British alive.

For those who did stand up to the Crown, the dangers were overwhelming. In late May 1780, a British force under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton massacred a column of 350 Virginians near the border of North Carolina at the village of Waxhaw. Despite attempts by the Virginians to surrender, nearly all were cut down. “One hundred and thirteen were killed on the spot,” wrote a British officer. He added that around 150 were also “badly wounded” and that “the virtue of humanity was totally forgot.” It was a “scene of indiscriminate carnage never surpassed by the ruthless atrocities of the most barbarous savages,” recounted an American eyewitness. Tarleton’s reputation for cruelty would continue to grow in the South, leading many to take up arms to defend themselves and further enflaming bloody partisan warfare between American Patriots and Loyalists.

On August 16, 1780, the fight for independence suffered another demoralizing setback in the South after British General Charles Lord Cornwallis and his troops handily defeated the army of General Horatio Gates at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina. As American Revolution historian Benson Bobrick records, after Camden, “From the Potomac to southern Georgia the British rode triumphant, and, except in forests and morasses, there was nowhere for a patriot to hide.” Many jumped at the opportunity for clemency when Cornwallis offered it and swore allegiance to the king, but men like Marion, nicknamed the “Swamp Fox,” and Sumter, who earned the moniker, the “Carolina Gamecock,” continued to lead their partisan groups, using their knowledge of the land to evade and conduct guerrilla warfare against the enemy.

Marion's men trading fire with British cavalry. Patriots like the ones depicted in the artwork above lived in what Bobrick describes as "a bewildering landscape of land and water, mazelike canals, oxbow lakes, and tangled vines." (Photo Credit: Pinterest.com)

An atmosphere of endless slaughter and retaliatory raids between Patriots, also known as Whigs, and Loyalists, additionally referred to as Tories, pervaded the deep South. As General Nathanael Greene, who took over the Southern Department of the Continental Army after Gates’ defeat at Camden, described the volatile scene, “The animosity between the Whigs and the Tories renders their situation truly deplorable. Some thousand have fallen in this way in this quarter, and the evil rages with more violence than ever. If a stop can not be put to these massacres, the country will be depopulated in a few months more, as neither Whig nor Tory can live.”

Following his victory at Camden, Cornwallis moved into North Carolina. Protecting the left flank of his army was Major Patrick Ferguson, Cornwallis’s inspector of militia. Ferguson led his Tory battalion, composed of the King’s American regiment, the Loyal American regiment, and the American volunteers, on a fighting and recruiting expedition through the state. His numbers swelled as additional Loyalists rallied behind him. During Ferguson’s operations, the major warned those in the Carolina backcountry that if they did not “desist from their opposition to British arms,” he would “march over the mountains, hang their leader, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.” His message was indeed received, but rather than being intimidated, bands of rugged frontiersmen decided they would do some marching of their own and take the fight to Ferguson himself.

On September 25, 1780, around 840 “over-mountain men,” frontiersman from the western part of the Carolinas and the present state of Tennessee, assembled at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River in what is currently the “Volunteer State.” Out of the several partisan leaders who brought their men here for this gathering, Colonel William Campbell of Virginia was selected to lead the unified force as it set out after Ferguson. As Minister Samuel Doak told the men, “The enemy is marching hither to destroy your homes…. Go forth, then, in the strength of your manhood to the aid of your brethren, the defense of your liberty and the protection of your homes.”

The "over-mountain men" on the move. (Photo Credit: Richard Luce)

After learning that a force “of some consequence” was coming for him, Ferguson attempted to fall back to Charlotte, North Carolina to link up with General Cornwallis, but there would be no grand reunion. Instead, Ferguson chose to make a stand at Kings Mountain. On this plume of ground on the border between North and South Carolina, Bobrick describes that forested slopes “culminated in a fortresslike escarpment of jagged rocks.” Ferguson placed his men atop the crest, behind the rocks, and bunched his supply wagons together for added protection to exposed points of his line. The major was confident in his chosen position. As he wrote to Cornwallis, “I have taken a post where I do not think I can be forced.” Ferguson also told his men that this ground could be defended against “God Almighty and all the rebels out of hell.” On the afternoon of Saturday, October 7, 1780, Ferguson’s words were put to the bloody test.

After traveling for thirty-six hours without rest, the “over-mountain men” reached Ferguson’s position at about 3 p.m. on October 7. As Bobrick notes, some of the men “had gone without food for two days,” but refused to slow down, pausing “only long enough to strap their blankets to their saddles and tether their horses among the trees." The force of Patriots numbered around 1,400 and moved up the slope to confront Ferguson’s 1,100 men hunkered down atop Kings Mountain. Another great historian of the American Revolution, Thomas Ferling, writes, “Save for Ferguson, every man about to go into combat was an American. Most were dressed alike, too, wearing long hunting shirts and wide brimmed hats….” To avoid confusion, the Loyalists placed pine twigs in their hats to distinguish themselves from the enemy. Similarly, the Patriots added pieces of white paper to their headwear to help with identification. Although Bobrick records that Ferguson might have had 150 British regulars with him, that possibility does not change the fact that at its heart, the clash at Kings Mountain was a true American fight.

The Battle of Kings Mountain by Dan Nance.. (Photo Credit: Dan Nance)

Shouting the hair-raising battle cry they had learned from fighting Indian braves and repeating the process of taking cover, firing, and reloading before moving forward, the Patriots battled their way up three sides of the hill. Although Ferguson believed the high ground would give his men the advantage, the forested slopes and hillside boulders actually helped the “over-mountain men” by sheltering them as they advanced. As a Loyalist officer wrote, “In fact, after driving in our pickets, they were able to advance . . . to the crest . . . in perfect safety, until they took post and opened an irregular but destructive fire.” The Patriots were repulsed twice, but established themselves atop the crest on the third attempt.

Mounted on a white horse and wearing a plaid hunting shirt over his British uniform, Major Ferguson attempted to cut his way out and lead his men down the hill in a charge, but he made a perfect target for the crack Patriot marksmen. As the young rifleman James Collins recorded, “On examining the dead body of their great chief [Ferguson], it appeared that almost fifty rifles must have been leveled at him at the same time. Seven rifle balls had passed through his body, both of his arms were broken, and his hat and clothing were literally shot to pieces.”

The death of Major Ferguson. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Ferling writes that after Ferguson’s death, the Loyalists “began to throw down their arms and plead for mercy,” but for some Patriots, there was no room for clemency. Shouts of “Tarleton’s quarter!” rang out from the victors, a clear reference to British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s massacre at Waxhaw earlier that May. Revenge was indeed exacted until Patriot officers were able to restore order. The hour-long battle had cost the Loyalists around 225 killed, 185 wounded, and around 700 were taken prisoner. Patriot losses numbered some 28 killed and 60 wounded. “The dead lay in heaps on all sides,” wrote Collins, “while the groans of the wounded were heard in every direction. I could not help turning away from the scene before me with horror, and, though exulting in victory, could not refrain from shedding tears. . . .”

Since the fall of Savannah, Georgia in late December 1778, the fight for independence had suffered setback after dispiriting setback in the South, but after Kings Mountain, everything changed. “That glorious victory,” said the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and future third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, “was the joyful annunciation of that turn in the tide of success which terminated the Revolutionary War.” British Commander-in-Chief Sir Henry Clinton also recognized the significance of the battle, describing it as “the first link in a chain of evils that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America.”

After the triumph at Kings Mountain, a new flame of revolutionary spirit burned inside Patriots throughout the South. With General Nathanael Greene appointed to command the Southern Department of the Continental Army on October 14, the right man was put in place to carry the momentum earned at Kings Mountain forward. In January 1781, Greene’s second-in-command, General Daniel Morgan defeated a British force under the hated Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina, another victory that strengthened Patriot morale even further. Later that March, the armies of Greene and Cornwallis clashed at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina. Although Cornwallis retained the field, he lost over 25 percent of his army and eventually felt compelled to abandon his campaign against Greene in the Carolinas. The British commander proceeded to march his troops northwards into Virginia, where his world would be turned upside down.

At Yorktown, Virginia, Cornwallis and his army fell under siege by a combined American and French army under the command of General George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau. Trapped on land and with his escape by water cut off by the French Navy, Lord Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781. As British Prime Minister Lord Frederick North repeatedly exclaimed in despair after receiving news of the defeat at Yorktown, “Oh God! Oh God! It is over! It is all over!"

The surrender of Lord Cornwallis and his army to Washington and Rochambeau's Franco-American force at Yorktown, Virginia on Friday, October 19, 1781. (Photo Credit: Architect of the Capitol)

It had taken a true American fight to turn the tide of the Revolutionary War. The clash at Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780 was indeed the moment when the final road to victory for the Patriots truly began. One year and 13 days later, that road effectively ended at Yorktown. With the finalization of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783, the independence that the “over-mountain men” and so many other Patriots had fought and bled for was finally attained. Recognized as an independent nation, the United States of America was now free to shape its own destiny.


Sources

Almost A Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling.

American Battlefield Trust: The Overmountain Men.

Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution by Benson Bobrick.

Encyclopædia Britannica: Battle of Kings Mountain.

George Washington's Mount Vernon: British Southern Strategy.

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