Revolutionary War Historical Article
The Battle of Kings Mountain
By Mel S. Hankla
Reprinted by Permission from the SAR Magazine, Fall 2005
Many historians consider the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780 to be the turning point in America's War for Independence. The victory of rebelling American Patriots over British Loyalist troops completely destroyed the left wing of Cornwallis' army. This decisive battle successfully ended the British invasion into North Carolina and forced Lord Cornwallis to retreat from Charlotte into South Carolina to wait for reinforcements. This triumphant victory of the Overmountain Men allowed General Nathanael Greene the opportunity to reorganize the American Army.
Throughout the 225th anniversary year (2005) of this so very important event in America's history, I wish to encourage us to remember and honor the "Heroes" of the Battle of Kings Mountain: all 1,400 or so men who took a stand against Patrick Ferguson and his troops of British Loyalists. I also want to commend Lyman P. Draper for all of his efforts accurately documenting so much of our nation's history with writings from personal interviews of individuals "who were there" and to also say "thanks" for allowing me to borrow the title of his book for my exhibit of artifacts belonging to and in honor of, the men that fought heroically in this significant battle.
BY WAY OF BACKGROUND
Following the defeats of Gen. Benjamin Lincoln at Charleston in May and then Gen. Horatio Gates at Camden, British Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis appeared to have a clear path all the way to Virginia. In September, Cornwallis invaded North Carolina and ordered Major Patrick Ferguson to guard his left flank. On September 2, Ferguson left for Western Carolina with seventy of his American Volunteers and several hundred Tory soldiers. He arrived at Gilbert Town, North Carolina, on September 7th. Ferguson paroled a captured rebel and sent him with a message, "that if they did not desist from their opposition to the British arms, and take protection under his standard, he would march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword. "
THIS THREAT PROVED TO BE HIS UNDOING!
A call to arms went out and they gathered at Sycamore Shoals. David Ramsey, in his history of South Carolina, written in 1808, said, "hitherto these mountaineers had only heard of war at a distance, and had been in peaceable possession of that independence for which their countrymen on the seacoast were contending. They embodied to check the invader of their own volition, without any requisition from the Governments of America or the officers of the Continental Army. Each man set out with a knapsack, blanket, and gun. All who could obtain horses were mounted, the remainder afoot. " On Sept. 25th, Colonels William Campbell, Charles McDowell, John Sevier and Isaac Shelby left Sycamore Shoals in pursuit of Ferguson. The thoroughfare of their mission followed the only roadway connecting the backwater country with the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge in North Carolina.
Leaving Sycamore Shoals, the column marched up Gap Creek to its headwaters in Gap Creek Mountain, and there turned eastward and then south, following around the base of Fork Mountain to Toe River, and on up that stream to one of its tributaries. Here the route continued in a southerly direction until the top of the mountain was reached, between Roan High Knob and Big Yellow Mountain. From the mountaintop, descent was made along Roaring Creek to the North Toe River. It is stated in the diary of Ensign Robert Campbell that "the mountains were crossed and descent to the other side was carted before camp was made for the night. Snow was encountered in the highlands, for an elevation of 5,500 feet was reached in this march. On the top of the mountain there was found a hundred acres of beautiful tableland, and the troops were paraded, doubtless for the purpose of seeing how they were standing the march, which was about 26 miles to this point". Campbell's diary states that the second night, that of the 27th, they rested at "Cathey's" plantation. Draper places this at the junction of Grassy Creek and North Toe River. Tradition has it that on reaching Gillespie Gap the troops divided, one group including Campbell's men, moving southward to Turkey Cove, the other going easterly to the North Cove on the North Fork of the Catawba. Ensign Campbell's diary gives the information that the fourth night, the 29th, Campbell's men rested at a rich "Tory's", near Turkey Cove.
The following day the men who had camped at North Cove marched southeast down Paddy Creek, while those from Turkey Cove marched southerly down the North Fork and then hastily down the Catawba near the mouth of Paddy Creek. They continued down the Catawba to Quaker Meadows, the home place of the McDowells, and promptly made camp. During the five days that had elapsed since leaving Sycamore Flats, about 80 miles had been covered. On September 30th, Colonel Cleveland joined the marching column of 1,040 men at Quaker Meadow with the men from Wilkes County and Major Winston with the men from Surry County. An additional 30 Georgians, under the command of William Candler, joined the Patriot force at Gilberts Town, making for a combined strength of approximately 1,400 men.
CAMPBELL BECOMES COMMANDER
The seven Colonels chose Co!. William Campbell to act as overall commander. The Overmountain Men moved south in search of Major Patrick Ferguson. From the Rebel spy Joseph Kerr, they learned that Ferguson was thirty miles to the north, camped at Kings Mountain. It is said that Isaac Shelby was especially delighted to learn that Ferguson was quoted as saying, "He was on King's Mountain, that he was King of that mountain and that God Almighty and all the Rebels of Hell could not drive him from it." Shelby was very familiar with the Kings Mountain region and knew that it could prove to be an almost impossible position to defend.
The Colonels wanted to catch up with Ferguson before he reached Charlotte and Lt. General Charles Cornwallis' protection, so they chose 900 of the best men and quickly made their way north. The combined force of Overmountain Men arrived at Kings Mountain the afternoon of October 7, 1780.
Having little insight into the methods and philosophies of warfare of the southern frontiersmen, Ferguson had chosen the position feeling no enemy could fire upon him without showing themselves. The Patriot force decided to surround the mountain and use continuous fire to slowly close in like an unavoidable noose.
The force was divided into four columns. Col. Isaac Shelby and Col. Wm. Campbell led the interior columns, with Shelby on the left and Campbell on the right. Colonel John Sevier led the right flanking column and Colonel Benjamin Cleveland the left. They moved into their respective positions and began moving toward the summit. The battle commenced at 3 o'clock with the middle two columns exchanging fire with Major Ferguson for fifteen minutes while the flanking columns moved into position. Ferguson used Provincial Corps to drive back Colonels Campbell and Shelby with a bayonet charge, but then his troops had to fall back from under sharpshooter fire.
Ferguson was right in believing that his attackers would expose themselves to musket fire if they attempted to scale the summit. But he did not realize that his men could only fire if they went into the open, rendering themselves vulnerable to returning rifle fire. Most all of the Patriot troops were skilled hunters, woodsmen and above all, "riflemen" who routinely killed fast moving animals to feed themselves. Most were veterans of many years of frontier Indians war and were experts on "tree to tree" no rules combat. On this day, Ferguson's men would find escaping an impossible task.
Because of their exposed position, Major Ferguson's men were being overwhelmed. The sharpshooters were picking them off from behind rocks, trees and brush that surrounded the summit; while the Loyalists' aim was high, a common sighting problem when shooting downhill. The Overmountain Men gained a foothold on the summit, driving back the staggering Loyalists. The noose was quickly closing in. Major Ferguson's bold and final attempt was to try and personally cut a path through the Patriot line so his forces might possibly escape, but this heroic effort failed as Ferguson fell from his horse, his body riddled with bullets. Some accounts say he died before he hit the ground; others say that his men propped him against a tree, where he died. Ferguson was the only British soldier killed in the battle, all others were Americans, either Loyalist or Patriot.
Ferguson's second-in-command, Capt. Abraham DePevster, bravely continued to fight for a brief time, but the confusion was so great and his followers in such a vulnerable position that he realized further resistance was suicidal. He quickly raised the white flag of surrender. He surrendered his sword to Major Evan Shelby, Jr., younger brother of Kentucky's first Governor Isaac Shelby. Gen. William Campbell was the commanding officer of the day, but it is said that he had removed his tattered coat "and with open collar", not recognized as the commander. Despite the call for surrender by the Loyalists, the Patriot Colonels could not immediately stop their men from shooting. Many Patriots remembered that the notorious "Tarleton" had mowed down Patriot troops at Waxhaws despite the fact they were trying to surrender. But eventually...the fighting at Kings Mountain diminished.
AFTERMATH OF THE ENCOUNTER
The battle had lasted a little over an hour and not a single man of Ferguson's force escaped. Though the number of casualties reported varies from source to source, some of the most commonly reported figures are that 225 Loyalists had been killed, 163 wounded and 716 were captured, while only 28 Patriots were killed, including Colonel James Williams, and 68 wounded. When General Cornwallis learned of Major Patrick Ferguson's defeat, he retreated from Charlotte, North Carolina back to Winnsborough, South Carolina.
Historians agree that the Battle of Kings Mountain was the "beginning of the end" of British rule in its former colonies. In less than one hour of battle, the Overmountain Men not only captured the day but also undermined the British strategy for keeping America under its control. A defeat so crushing as that suffered by Major Patrick Ferguson is rare in any war. Although skewed, his position on Kings Mountain was thoughtfully selected using much experience and consideration. The plateau of the mountain was just large enough to serve as a battleground for his command and to provide space for his camp and wagon train. Water was near and plentiful. The slopes of the mountain would hinder the advance of the attackers. When attacked he expected that any retreat would be rendered perilous by flanking or encircling detachments, a condition he desired as his militia would be put to the task to stand and fight instead of having the choice to flee. From Patrick Ferguson's point of view, a better position on which to take a stand could not have been found.
It can be assumed without a shred of doubt that Patrick Ferguson utterly underestimated the courage of the mountain men. Their apparent advantage in numbers did not discourage him from offering battle; otherwise he would have continued his march on October 7th in the direction of Charlotte and Cornwallis. But had he known that these Overmountain Men would so aggressively stand and fight with a fierceness and conviction never before experienced in his southern campaign, I'm sure he would have been much more cautious and considerably less heroic.