The Battle of King’s Mountain

In May 1780, Major Patrick Ferguson was appointed Inspector of Militia by Lord Cornwallis and charged with recruiting Loyalists in Georgia and the Carolinas. He had some initial success and his loyalist militia did well against patriot militia around Ninety-Six in Georgia that summer. But after the Battle of Waxhaws, and especially after the Battle of Hanging Rock and the losses of Carey and Thicketty Forts, his recruits dried up, and the countryside turned increasing against the British and Loyalists. Nonetheless, Ferguson did have some success, but only when he was in charge. The patriot partisan bands, rarely larger than a few hundred, had all of their success against the small isolated loyalist outposts, and they fled whenever Ferguson and his main body of provincial regulars and local militia were nearby. This gave rise to the perception that the loyalist militia was of dubious dependability unless under direct British command, either his or Cornwallis, as they were at his victory at Camden.

Major Patrick Ferguson was a natural leader of men, a decorated veteran of the Seven Year’s War, and an expert marksman and gunsmith. He was arguable the finest shot in the British Army at the time. He invented the breech loading Ferguson Rifle that was 80 years ahead of its time, but only 200 were made because the British Army saw no need to replace the beloved Brown Bess smoothbore musket. In Ferguson, the loyalist militia found a patron, friend, and benefactor, and an imaginative leader that actually listened to them, at a time when almost all British officers despised, distrusted, and discounted loyalist militia.

Unfortunately for the loyalist cause in the South, Ferguson suffered from the conceit, so common in British officers of the time, of pride. His devotion to the standards and conduct of an honorable and distinguished British officer and gentlemen sometimes got in the way of his military judgement and efficacy. At the Battle of Brandywine, then-Captain Ferguson refused to shoot two officers on a leader’s reconnaissance, one dressed as a hussar, and another with a cocked hat riding a tall bay horse, even though he “could have lodged half a dozen balls in or about him, before he was out of my reach”. Ferguson said it was “not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual, who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty—so I let him alone.” The two officers were Casimir Pulaski and George Washington.

In September 1780, Ferguson was proud of what he had accomplished. None of the setbacks could be attributed directly to him, and he personally had driven out all of the patriot militias in western South Carolina and Georgia. He had chased Isaac Shelby over the mountains after Musgrove Mill, and banished Col Charles McDowell to the same, after the Battle of Cane Creek on 10 September. But he was proud, not foolish. He only had 300 provincial regulars of the King’s American Regiment from New York and the New Jersey Regiment, and 800 Southern loyalist militia, which was not enough to engage the Overmountain Men mustering across the Blue Ridge. Ferguson would need more men, and assumed clearing the area of patriot partisans would encourage recruitment. He was wrong. Ferguson’s victories in Georgia were old news and although his advances and skirmishes pushed Shelby and McDowell into the Watauga Association, they lacked the gravitas of crushing victories that the American partisans produced. Loyalist militia companies defeated at Hanging Rock et al, did not reform, and the scattered remnants of those defeated commands rarely returned to fight. With the exception of Fishing Creek, Ferguson’s victories just displaced the patriot partisans, and didn’t destroyed them. Nonetheless, they were on the other side of the mountains or in North Carolina now, and Ferguson’s army withdrew to Gilberton, North Carolina where he established a base camp on 10 September. There he would recruit and train, and await reinforcements from the expected loyalist uprising spawned by Cornwallis’ imminent invasion of North Carolina.

Ferguson could have probably accomplished his mission of protecting Cornwallis’ flank from the Overmountain Men without doing much else but build his strength at Gilberton. The various Overmountain Men mustering camps were not coordinated and rare was the camp that had more than two or three hundred men. They lacked supplies for any sustained offensive over the mountains against Ferguson and Cornwallis, and the various commanders would more than likely just continue to muster and gather their strength well into the winter. There was little chance of them moving before the New Year. That is, until 12 September when Ferguson brazenly called for the Patriots to lay down their arms or he would “march over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay waste to their country with fire and sword.”

Though certainly bluster from the honorable Ferguson, these were not idle threats to the Patriots. The American civil war between Patriots and Loyalists in the backcountry of the South was a brutal affair. Rumors of the ongoing destruction of the Black River settlements had already reached over the mountains, in particular the torching of the Presbyterian Church in Indiantown by Major James Weymess, which he called a “seditious shop.” Ferguson’s threats galvanized the Overmountain Men to action. North Carolina patriot leaders Isaac Shelby and Jon Sevier agreed to “march with all the men we could raise, and attempt to surprise Ferguson, by attacking him in his camp, or at any rate before he was prepared…”

Shelby and Sevier sent out runners to all of the smaller Overmountain Men mustering camps to gather at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River. They further invited Virginian Col William Campbell at Abingdon to join them, whom promptly agreed. Campbell summoned Col Benjamin Cleveland’s Wilkes County North Carolinian patriots to meet them on the way to Ferguson. Legend has it that at the summit of Rendezvous Mountain, Cleveland blew a horn which summoned his men for the march on Ferguson. Cleveland’s brother-in-law Joseph Martin treated with the Cherokee, who eventually promised not to attack the Overmountain Men’s homes which greatly encouraged the Patriots to move on Ferguson. McDowell’s “refugee militia” arrived at Sycamore Shoals, and his men would lead the march back over the mountains to his cousin’s home at Quaker Meadows, which was on the way to Gilberton.

Ferguson dismissed the rumors of the Overmountain Men consolidating against him. It wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last, an adversary underestimated the inhabitants of the American backcountry. Many Overmountain Men lived up to their derisive “rustic” reputation, though many more did not. Most were men of conviction, religion, family, property, and even education in many instances, who spent the entirety of their lives defending themselves on the frontier. Marylander Isaac Shelby, a colonel in the North Carolina militia would go on to be Kentucky’s first governor. William Campbell was Patrick Henry’s brother in law. Jon Sevier became the first governor of both the short-lived state of Franklin and the future state of Tennessee. Joseph McDowell would serve as one of North Carolina’s future senators. Their daily rituals may have been different, but these men weren’t the ignorant rustics as claimed by Ferguson and Cornwallis.

On 25 September, 1780, the same day that Cornwallis’ captured Charlotte, 1100 Overmountain Men departed Sycamore Shoals to engage Ferguson’s Loyalists. Heavy rains plagued the march, and “Keep your powder dry!” was a common warning along the route. They moved under the assumption that Ferguson was already advancing against them, as per his threat which they took with deadly seriousness. On 28 September, they split their force to cover both routes Ferguson might take to prevent him from getting behind them, gambling that their knowledge of the terrain would allow them to encircle Ferguson before they were defeated in detail. Their concerns were for naught: on 30 September both columns reached McDowell’s cousin’s home at Quaker Meadows where they met Cleveland and his 300 strong band of militia. Patriot militia from all over western Virginia and North Carolina were converging on Ferguson, attacking his foraging parties and recruiting and reconnaissance patrols. Another thousand patriot militia from South Carolina and Georgia rushed to join the attack on Ferguson. At Quaker Meadows, they learned Ferguson hadn’t even departed Gilberton and had no plans on doing so, at least no plans to advance west.

Ferguson was completely ignorant of the Overmountain Men’s advance, until the 28th when two deserters described in great detail the overwhelming number of Patriots enroute. For reasons lost to history, Ferguson spent three more days at Gilberton before acting. Whether he was confident of defeating the patriots conveniently coming to him and then had a change of heart, or he was awaiting reinforcements that never came and prudence was the better part of valor, on 1 October 1780, Ferguson’s command decamped and marched, first south then east, toward Charlotte, Cornwallis, and safety.

On 4 October 1780, the Overmountain men and patriot militias arrived at Gilberton and for the first time, the patriot leaders realized their true strength. With the various groups nearby, they were nearly 3000 strong. But with each small regiment boasting a colonel, a chain of command had to be worked out. After a senior leader conference, Cols. Isaac Shelby, Jon Sevier, William Campbell, Charles McDowell, and Benjamin Cleveland were chosen as co-commanders for the approach. For the actual battle, the five would elect one of their own to command. Charles McDowell was the senior but was the least respected of the five for their military acumen. He was sent to Gates at Hillsboro with a request for a brigadier general to command them. With McDowell gone, and his place taken by his cousin Major Joseph McDowell, the five elected William Campbell to lead them in the actual battle. The next morning they also set off south and east after Ferguson.

On 6 October they reached the Cowpens (the site of the future battle) in northern South Carolina where they were met by more Georgia and Carolina militia, bringing their numbers up to well over 3000. However, their strength might not matter: they learned from patriot spies, who had come directly from Ferguson’s camp, that the loyalists had stopped at King’s Mountain, less than a day’s march from Charlotte. Marching at foot speed, the Patriots would never catch Ferguson’s 1200 Loyalists before they reached Charlotte. They mounted about 1400 men on horseback, and left the rest to follow as fast as they could. Despite riding all night in the driving rain, the mounted Patriots didn’t reach King’s Mountain until early afternoon on the 7th. They were surprised to see Ferguson still there.

In the cutthroat world of etiquette and parlor politics among eighteenth century British Army officers, Ferguson didn’t want to be seen as fleeing in the face of the enemy without first giving battle. The shame of entering Charlotte without first fighting the Overmountain Men, no matter the odds against him, would be too much to bear. So Ferguson chose the best defensive position he could find, King’s Mountain, of many good ones in the upper Piedmont, which was as close to Cornwallis as he dared. There on the border between North and South Carolina he waited for reinforcements from Charlotte, less than a day’s march away, with whom Ferguson was sure he could defeat any attack by any number of ignorant Americans from over the mountains.

King’s Mountain was a 600 yard long foot shaped rocky and pine covered hill with a high narrow heel in the southwest and a clearing atop the wide flat ball of the foot to the northeast. The patriots surrounded the hill and attacked. Ferguson and the Loyalists were completely surprised. They weren’t expecting the patriot force for at least another day. Campbell’s men were the first to attack. He shouted, “There they are! Shout like hell and fight like devils!” The first Ferguson and his men learned of the attack were from the nerve wracking war whoops yelled by the Overmountain Men, which they copied from the Indians they fought with on the frontier. Ferguson’s men quickly formed an all-round defense along the edge of the clearing around the perimeter of the camp.

Despite electing Campbell as the overall commander, each patriot commander fought his own battle. Campbell’s only orders were to surround the hill, advance, and attack as soon as you come into contact. The lack of formal coordination didn’t matter, the objective for each was the same: defeat the loyalists and prevent them from withdrawing off the hill. With the focus on Ferguson and the Loyalists at the top of the hill, the coordination came naturally. In fact Campbell chose the most direct route from the approach march’s release point and attacked before the other leaders’ commands were in position. Shelby attacked from the opposite side immediately thereafter. Campbell’s only guidance before the battle was, “Let each man be his own officer. If in the woods, shelter yourselves and give them Indian play!”

The Patriots advanced up the hill, moving from tree to tree firing their deadly accurate rifles and reloading behind cover, while Ferguson’s provincial regulars and militia maintained their lines and volley fired into the trees. Few battles in the American Revolution actually conformed to the widespread myth that the British were defeated because they used Old World linear tactics while the plucky individualist Americans smartly took cover in the trees and shot the British to pieces with impunity. That however is precisely what happened between the Patriots and Loyalists at the Battle of King’s Mountain.

The battle devolved into a series of actions, all following the same pattern: The Americans advanced up the hill, firing from the trees into massed loyalist lines. The Loyalists volley fired in response, which proved ineffective because of the trees and when firing downhill they routinely overshot their targets. The Loyalists then fixed bayonets and charged down the hill at the Patriots. With no bayonets of their own (Pennsylvania long rifles couldn’t fit one), the Patriots gave way to the Loyalist charge and withdrew down the mountain. The Loyalists, now exposed on the hillside and receiving fire from the Patriots to their flanks, quickly retreated back up the hill before they were cutoff, and reformed in the clearing. The Patriots then advanced back up the hill and the process began again.

Above the din, one could hear Ferguson’s shrill whistle which he used to coordinate the bayonet charges, but the pattern of fire, charge, withdraw, reform, and fire again took a huge toll on the Loyalists, both in casualties and morale. After about 45 minutes it was obvious to Ferguson that he needed to break out of the cordon around King’s Mountain. The Patriots had climbed the high ground on the heel of the mountain and were firing directly into the exposed camp, at ranges his muskets had no chance of matching. The loyalist militia recognized the futility of their defense and were wavering. In a vain and deliberately disingenuous attempt to rally his men, he yelled “Hurrah, brave boys, the day is ours!” and led a forlorn charge of the remaining provincial regulars to break out.

An Overmountain man, Robert Young, took note of Ferguson’s conspicuous black and white checkered shirt on top of the gallant charger, directing his troops with his saber, leading the attack. He casually said to a friend taking cover behind the same tree, “Let’s see what ‘Sweet Lips’ can do”. Young raised “Sweet Lips”, the pet name for his rifle, to his cheek and put a ball into Ferguson’s chest. Ferguson fell off his horse, which sent his men into a panic.

Ferguson was the heart of the defense. With Ferguson down, his second, Captain Abraham de Peyster, immediately sent an emissary with a white flag of surrender. But emissary was shot and the fighting continued. Many of the Overmountain Men didn’t know what the white flag symbolized; there were no white flags fighting Indians, and they continued to fire. Many more knew exactly what it symbolized and didn’t care: shouts of “Tarleton’s Quarter!” and “Buford’s Play” could be heard, referring to massacre of surrendering Patriots at the Battle of Waxhaws in late May. Many surrendering Loyalists were shot and their wounded stabbed or scalped on the ground before the patriot officers could restore order, and then only after de Peyster sent a second flag of surrender.

At the Battle of King’s Mountain, the Overmountain Men and patriot militia suffered 28 killed and 64 wounded, while the Loyalists suffered 157 killed, including Ferguson, 163 wounded, and 698 captured. The number of Loyalists killed increased over the next few days: the wounded were left on the field to die, and Cornwallis’ army was too sick from Yellow Fever and too fixed by patriot partisans to retrieve them. There are a few records of some of them surviving, but not many. Furthermore, the Patriots held tribunals over the next few days which imposed death sentences on those Loyalists who had deserted patriot militias to join Ferguson, with their former comrades testifying against them. Nine were hanged before a stop was put to the tribunals by their officers. Finally, Ferguson was correct regarding the Patriots’ supply situation – in their haste to attack, the Overmountain Men left their cattle and wagons of provisions behind. After the Battle of King’s Mountain, they simply couldn’t feed themselves, much less the prisoners, as they withdrew away from Cornwallis. Most of the loyalists prisoners escaped as the Overmountain Men’s discipline was lax in guarding them, particularly as they led them in single file lines over the narrow mountain trails. With the pressure of Ferguson’s threat gone, the army of Overmountain Men dispersed and went back to their homes.

The American victory at the Battle of King’s Mountain enflamed Patriot sentiment across the South, possibly exacerbated by the escaped prisoners and their tales of the battle and aftermath, and emboldened patriots partisans and their attacks on British and loyalist outposts and convoys. The dispersed patriot militias and partisans returned to their respective areas, and made British and loyalists operations difficult, if not impossible. The commanders of loyalist strongholds at Ninety-Six in Georgia, and Cheraw and Georgetown in South Carolina reported being “strangled” by patriot partisans and were in danger of falling. This was exactly what Cornwallis personally was seeing in Charlotte and North Carolina, where once vocal Loyalists were now stunningly silent.

Though there was only a single British officer at Kings Mountain, Major Patrick Ferguson, his loss at King’s Mountain changed the nature of the American Revolution in the South. The chance of a loyalist uprising in support of the Crown, as envisioned by Henry Clinton the year before, was gone forever. On 14 October 1780, Cornwallis accepted the inevitable and withdrew from Charlotte and back into South Carolina to Winnsboro. His invasion of North Carolina would have to wait until after the New Year, and the remnants of the Continental Army at Hillsboro were given a reprieve.

On 15 October, 1780, Major General Nathaniel Greene, Washington’s most competent subordinate, was appointed by the Continental Congress, on Washington’s recommendation, as the new Commander of the Southern Department to replace Gates. As Greene traveled south, the British and Loyalists were embroiled in a vicious guerilla war in Georgia and the Carolinas from which Cornwallis could find no escape. Greene, and a coterie of trusted subordinates such as Daniel Morgan and Thaddeus Kosciuszko, arrived at Hillsboro to take command on 3 December. Nathaniel Greene was Horatio Gates’ opposite in almost every way. That he had any army at all to fight with could be directly attributed to the American victory at King’s Mountain.

British Commander in Chief Sir Henry Clinton later said of the battle, “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.”

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