In October 1775, the Continental Army besieging Boston was in desperate need of supplies, primarily gunpowder. From spies in England, Continental Congress learned of supply ships that traveled regularly from London to Nassau in the Caribbean and authorized the purchase and outfitting of two ships to capture them. They purchased the Philadelphia merchantman, Black Prince, from Continental Congressman Robert Morris on 13 October (birthday of the US Navy), renamed her the Alfred, and outfitted her as a ten gun sloop-of-war.
To differentiate American warships from British warships, the 13 Colonies needed a flag. In November, Continental Congress adopted the red British Ensign with the addition of 13 white stripes on the red field and called it the Grand Union Flag. The optimistic thinking behind the design was that it allowed American crews of captured British vessels the ease of creating a new flag to fly over their prize by just sewing white stripes on the captured British ensigns. In any case, it was the first American national flag, and it was raised for the first time on 3 December 1775 at the commissioning ceremony of the Alfred. LTG George Washington would raise the Grand Union Flag for the first time at the Continental Army encampment outside Boston on New Year’s Day 1776.
After the failure to capture Colonel Francis Marion in Ox Swamp the week before, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and his Loyalists of the British Legion, reinforced by the 1st battalion of the 71st Regiment of Foot (Fraser’s Highlanders), headed into the South Carolina backcountry to find and defeat Brigadier General Thomas Sumter. Sumter’s large force of Patriots threatened the loyalist stronghold at Ninety Six. Sumter’s men had recently defeated Major James Wemyss and his 63rd Regiment of British regulars at the Battle of Fishdam Ford, and Tarleton mounted them and incorporated the remnants into his British Legion to ride with the dragoons. Tarleton attempted to surprise Sumter, who was on his way to Ninety Six, and got within a day’s march undetected. However a deserter from the 63rd, who had probably never ridden a horse before, informed Sumter of the imminent danger about midnight on 20 November 1780.
In the predawn hours, Sumter moved to Blackstock’s Plantation on the Tyger River. The plantation’s buildings were on a sharp hill above a pasture over which any attack must come. Sumter placed his barely trained militia, most of whom had just recently joined him, among the buildings and fences. Blackstock was a strong position that gave Sumter’s raw militia confidence against the coming attack by the Legion’s dragoons, the Highlanders of the 71st, and the 63rd’s regulars.
About 4 pm, Tarleton was informed that Sumter was at Blackstock’s Farm, and immediately set off with all of his mounted troops to surprise Sumter. It probably would have worked because even though Sumter’s men were assigned positions that morning, by late afternoon the untrained militia were scattered about the farm buildings, many not within easy reach of their positions. Sumter’s officers would have had a hard time reorganizing the men if 350 British horsemen charged down the lane while they were lounging about. Fortunately, a small patrol spotted Tarleton’s imminent approach and fired a shot which warned Sumter’s main position. When Tarleton arrived at the edge of the pasture, he saw that surprise was lost and dismounted the regulars.
Sumter was concerned that Tarleton was waiting for artillery, which would play havoc with his militia, so he decided to force the battle. He sent forward a strong skirmish line of Georgia riflemen and South Carolina volunteers to harass Tarleton as he formed, with orders to gradually withdraw in the face of any advance. The 63rd took up Sumter’s challenge and pushed the riflemen and volunteers back at bayonet point. As the dragoons of the British Legion watched the regulars advance as if they were at a show, 100 South Carolina mounted riflemen under Col. Edward Lacey snuck on the 63rd rapt audience and launched a volley from the woods into their flank. Though the Legion chased them away, they took casualties they could ill afford. About that same time, the 63rd’s sweep of the skirmishers approached too closely to the hill and Carolina riflemen checked their advance with witheringly accurate fire from the barn. The sharpshooters killed or wounded most of the 63rd’s remaining officers, including its commander Major John Money. Despite the fire, Tarleton rode in to save Money and barely escaped with Money’s body draped over his saddle. With his friend dying, Tarleton desperately charged Sumter’s position with every mounted man remaining under his command in a last attempt to salvage the battle. Tarleton’s charge barely made it up the lane before he was attacked by militiamen from the reverse slope screaming Indian war whoops. With his horse shot out from under him, Tarleton withdrew from the battlefield when his men could no longer charge because the lane was blocked by dead and dying men and horses felled by the deadly fire from the top of the hill. Tarleton fell back about two miles to reorganize and attack again in the morning with his Highlanders and Legion light infantry.
The Battle of Blackstocks was a great patriot victory against one of the most dreaded loyalist commanders of the American Revolution. However, Sumter was one of the very few casualties the Americans suffered. Sumter was shot in the chest with five balls of buckshot, and a sixth lodged next to his spine. Sumter turned command over to Georgia militia Col. John Twiggs. That night after policing the battlefield of anything useful the British left behind, Twiggs, in the fashion of Washington, kept the campfires burning and slipped across the Tyger River. When Tarleton returned in the morning, he found the farm abandoned. Unfortunately for the Patriots, what Tarleton couldn’t do on the 20th, Twiggs did on the 21st. Without Sumter, the militia disbanded, just as it did after the victory at King’s Mountain. Sumter spent the winter recovering from his wounds. Any attempt to capture Ninety Six would have to wait until spring.
Lord Cornwallis dispatched Banastre Tarleton and his British Legion to chase down Francis Marion and secure his lines of communication to Charleston. Tarleton was eager to finally have his chance at Marion, who had defeated every Loyalist commander he came across. Tarleton learned that Marion had a camp on Jack’s Creek, so he headed to the Widow Richardson’s farm nearby. Mrs. Richardson was the widow of a brigadier general of South Carolina militia and the mother of a paroled militia officer. Tarleton figured he could force Marion’s location from them. When the interrogation failed, Tarleton set a trap. His men built large bon fires, which Tarleton assumed would attract Marion. He was right.
When Marion’s men reported the bonfires on the night of 7 November, 1780, Marion, close by, began infiltrating his men into position to attack what looked like another small militia encampment. Fortunately, Widow Richardson’s son snuck away from the farm and warned Marion of the size Tarleton’s ambush, and his two hidden cannon. Marion immediately withdrew to the safety of his camp at Richbourg’s Mill on Jack’s Creek. However, in the confusion, one of the loyalists Marion captured at Tearcoat Swamp escaped and made his way to Tarleton.
On the morning of 8 November 1780, the Loyalist informed Tarleton of Marion’s whereabouts, and Tarleton took off in the chase with his Green Dragoons, with the light infantry to follow as fast as possible. With no chance in a stand up fight against the British Legion, Marion’s men desperately stayed just ahead of their pursuers. Marion’s rear guard under Major John James fought a series of valiant delaying actions as Marion’s men rode hard into the swamps at the head of Jack’s Creek and then down the Pocotaligo River. For nine hours, Tarleton chased Marion through the swampy thickets of the South Carolina wilderness. Marion headed for Benbow’s Ferry on the Black River, where he planned to turn and ambush Tarleton. Tarleton never got there.
As dusk was rapidly approaching that evening, Tarleton’s British Legion came to the end of a trail, one that Marion was on just minutes before, beyond which was the watery morass of Ox Swamp. Not wishing to get lost in the darkness of the swamp, Tarleton called off the chase. He said to his exhausted and battered troops, “Come my boys! Let us go back and we will find the Gamecock [Sumter]. But as for this damned old fox, the devil himself could not catch him!”
Tarleton’s moniker stuck – Francis Marion would go down in history as the “Swamp Fox”.
After the Loyalist defeat at King’s Mountain in October of 1780, Lord Cornwallis attempted to salvage the situation in South Carolina by quickly defeating its two most prominent militia leaders, Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter. He dispatched his most trusted subordinate Banastre Tarleton to kill or capture Marion and Sumter. Tarleton could only go after one at a time and chose Marion. Marion operated in a much smaller area, and routed some Loyalists at Tearcoat Swamp at the end of October. This left Major James Wemyss and his 63rd Regiment of British regulars to parry Sumter in the backcountry. Wemyss, with loyalist militia, his regulars, and some of the dragoons of the British Legion, was tasked with guarding the mills along the Broad River upon which Cornwallis relied upon to feed his army.
Major James Wemyss was the second most hated man in South Carolina in 1780. Though Tarleton is remembered for his ruthlessness and brutality in the Southern Theater of the American Revolution, Wemyss was no less so. In September of 1780, when Cornwallis and Tarelton were in Charlotte and Ferguson was unsuccessfully attempting to secure the Carolina back country, Wemyss was securing Cornwallis’ lines of communication back to Charleston on the coast. Wemyss did so by torching a 75 mile long by 15 mile wide swath along the Peedee, He fired 80 houses and plantations, including a church, imprisoned the families of patriot soldiers and militiamen, threatened the children of known patriot commanders, and he “gifted” captured slaves to Loyalists. In early November 1780, a patrol reported Sumter’s camp at Fishdam Ford on the Broad River, named for a prehistoric Indian fish weir. On the 8th Wemyss moved out to attack. About midnight on the 9th Wemyss arrived outside Fishdam Ford, and his scouts reported the Patriots’ fires high and bedded down for the night. Wemyss decided to immediately attack despite Cornwallis specifically ordering him not to conduct operations at night.
Wemyss would have been completely surprised had newly promoted Brigadier General Thomas Sumter’s subordinates listened to him. Sumter was convinced the British and Loyalists would not conduct a night attack, probably because he knew of Cornwallis’ order forbidding it. Colonels Thomas Taylor and Richard Winn weren’t so sure. While Sumter lounged in his tent that evening and eventually turned in for the night, Taylor and Winn pushed out extra pickets, rehearsed alerts where their men moved from their bed rolls to formation, and even had their men sleep next to their loaded muskets and rifles. Taylor specifically built up his campfires, then deliberately had his men sleep away from them in the woods. The men grumbled, but the preparations paid off.
When the first picket fired at the approaching British and Loyalists, the only Patriot who acted surprised was Sumter. Half-dressed and barely awake, Sumter took off for the riverbank, assuming he had been surprised and defeated just as he had at Fishing Creek in August, where only his quick escape and nimbleness in the saddle prevented his capture. Sumter’s men, however, were prepared.
Winn and Taylor’s men formed up along a fence at the edge of the wood line just outside of the firelight. Upon receiving fire from the pickets, Wemyss immediately charged with his dragoons and ordered the infantry to follow up as fast as they could. As soon as the horsemen entered the circle of firelight, the Patriots unleashed a devastating volley which brought down at least twenty dragoons, including Wemyss. Command of the British and Loyalists fell to a lieutenant in the 63rd who ordered a bayonet assault with the remaining dismounted dragoons and the regular infantry. But they too met the same fate as the previous charge as soon as they entered the fire light. (As anyone who has been to CTC can tell you: never follow the blinking yellow lights.) Nevertheless, the 63rd decided to make a fight of it. With the bayonet assault stymied by the fence, the 63rd reformed and traded volleys with the Patriots in the woods. The British seemed to have the upper hand until the patriot companies from Col. Edward Lacey’s outlying camp converged on the fire fight and began firing into the flank of British formation. The Battle of Fishdam Ford lasted only twenty minutes before the British and Loyalists broke.
The Patriots, satisfied in a job well done, went back to sleep.
About two hours after sun rise, Sumter returned to find the captured British and loyalist wounded around the camp fires, guarded only by one of his sergeants major. Sumter paroled the prisoners, including Wemyss, and told them to spread the tale of the British defeat. Despite fleeing at first contact and not participating in the Battle of Fishdam Ford in any capacity whatsoever, Sumter declared he had won a great victory over not just Loyalists, but British regulars. Sumter’s command swelled to over a thousand once the news of the victory spread through the countryside.
Though Sumter had a slightly toxic and abrasive leadership style, his subordinates for the most part didn’t seem to mind, or didn’t mind enough to not fight for him. Some of his subordinate regimental commanders came and went when they wanted, but Sumter stalwarts such as Taylor and Winn stayed with him throughout the war. They managed and mitigated Sumter’s peculiar leadership style, and recognized that despite his flaws, Sumter’s charisma and energy were necessary to continue the fight for South Carolina. Lacey, Taylor, and Winn fully credited Sumter with the victory at Fishdam Ford, even though the victory was through their and their men’s efforts alone.
Cornwallis was furious with Wemyss’ loss at Fishdam Ford. First Ferguson and now Wemyss – Cornwallis was running out of trusted and competent subordinates. He recalled Banastre Tarleton from his hunt for Francis Marion in the swamps along the Santee River to defeat Sumter. Cornwallis feared Sumter would seize Ninety Six, one of the few remaining loyalist strongholds in the south. Cornwallis would never be able to subdue the South without Ninety Six. Finally, the Battle of Fishdam Ford and the unsuccessful attempts to capture Marion forced Cornwallis to withdraw his main army from North Carolina back into South Carolina to secure enough supplies to feed his men through the winter. The sodden British camp at Winnsborough during the winter of 1780 has been compared in misery to Washington’s camp at Valley Forge three years earlier in 1777.
Toward the end of the Age of Enlightenment, the game changed. Though Enlightenment principles were celebrated in the salons of Europe, the aristocracy and their power structures were too entrenched to torment radical change. It took the revolt by Britain’s thirteen North American colonies, an ocean away from the Empire’s power base in England, to show that governance by Enlightenment ideals was possible. It also took a little over a decade of war and a failed experiment called the Articles of Confederation, before the disciples of the Enlightenment could look upon the countries of the world for a success story. The American Revolution, the adoption of the US Constitution, and the impending inclusion of amendments protecting individual rights sent shock waves throughout the world where small aristocracies still held most of the power. Just the idea that all men are equal in the eyes of the law was a radical notion that directly resulted in bloody revolution in many countries. America’s “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” not only inspired the “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” in France, but also the “For Our Freedom and Yours” of Poland. But whereas France’s revolution devolved into an internal bloodbath, Poland’s was relatively peaceful, at least internally.
In the late 18th century, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was ripe for constitutional revolution. The Commonwealth was the only country in Europe who already enjoyed “democracy of the nobility” where all nobles, no matter their wealth and status, were equal in the eyes of the law (if only in theory). Still, it was not beyond the realm of belief to take this concept to the next logical step and apply this equality under the law to all citizens. Furthermore, the super wealthy magnates, and their foreign backers, had sabotaged the political process to the Commonwealth’s detriment, through the abuse of the ”liberum veto”. The abuse was so obvious, and the corruption so blatant, that reform was obviously needed, and desperately desired by the rest of the szlachta (petty nobility), the burghers, merchants, peasants, and clergy. Finally, the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian Empires sensed the weakness, and encroached on Polish territory — partitioning off pieces of the country in 1772. In the Commonwealth, rule by the super wealthy aristocracy and their elected King was obviously not working.
In 1784, after the end of the American Revolution, Continental Army general and godfather of the US Army Engineer Corps, Tadeusz Kościuszko, returned to his Polish homeland. His arrival sparked the action necessary for Commonwealth to pass the Constitution of 1791 — the “world’s second oldest constitution”, and a near mirror of the US Constitution with the Bill of Rights. (Though the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was adopted in France in 1789, it was not a governing document; the new French Constitution wasn’t passed until September 1791). Unfortunately the autocratic and aristocratic Empires of Austria, Prussia, and Russia could not abide a nation of free men on their borders. They invaded, overwhelmed, and partitioned Poland a second time just a year later. Tadeusz Kościuszko led an uprising against Russia in 1794, and though initially successful, the country was again overwhelmed. The great empires of Eastern and Central Europe were tired of the rebellious Poles. Kościuszko’s rebellion saved the French Revolution by diverting resources from the victorious First Coalition campaign against the French which allowed the French revolutionaries just enough breathing room to reorganize and call the mass levy. The “Polish Question” needed a permanent answer.
On 24 October 1795, the foreign ministers of the three empires assembled in St Petersburg and formally dismembered the remains of the newly formed Commonwealth of Poland. There would be no Polish rump state as there had been for the previous two partitions. Poland was to be wiped from the map of Europe. They found that a Polish rump state served only to inspire revolution and give sanctuary to radicals. Finally, the subversive Polish culture was to be eradicated. The three foreign ministers abolished all Polish institutions, divided up the country, and declared the official suppression of Polish language and culture.
Poland would not exist as a state again until after the First World War, 123 years later.
In the summer and early autumn of 1775, General William Howe, the commander of the British Army in Boston, could not feed his troops. Besieged by the nascent Continental Army under General George Washington since April, Howe could not purchase or even forage from the prosperous farms of the Massachusetts’ countryside around the city. The task of supplying the Redcoats and the loyalist population of Boston fell to Vice Admiral Samuel Graves of the Royal Navy, whose squadron’s guns provided vital fire support for Howe.
Graves sent ships to American ports along the Atlantic seaboard to purchase the food and supplies necessary for Howe to maintain the garrison in Boston. However, many towns refused to do business with the British, and a few were openly hostile: several ships were captured by the Americans and many more were driven off. One of these was the HMS Canceaux, a sixteen gun sloop under the command of Lieutenant Henry Mowat. In May, 1775, Mowat was captured in Falmouth, Massachusetts (present day Portland, Maine) by Patriot militia while he attended church services ashore. Mowat was released, but when the 600 Patriot militia threatened to storm the Canceaux, Mowat set sail, to the cheers of the militia. He never forgave the citizens of Falmouth for his ignoble departure.
Incidents against Graves’ ships and crews occurred up and down the New England coast all summer. The HMS Margaretta was seized by the citizens of Machias, Massachusetts in June, and battle was had between the HMS Falcon and militia of Gloucester in August. In early October, the HMS Rose was forced to fire on Bristol, Rhode Island, to convince the townspeople to surrender 40 sheep. Even worse, reports suggested that rebel pirates were starting to operate out of these small ports. Graves decided to cow the Americans with fire and sword, and destroy the wretched hives of scum and villainy whom dared defy the authority of the British Crown. And he knew just the man to do it.
On 6 October 1775, Graves gave command of a squadron of five small ships to Lieutenant Mowat with the Canceaux as his flagship. Mowat’s orders were to “lay waste, burn and destroy such Sea Port towns as are accessible to His Majesty’s ships.” Mowat sailed directly to Falmouth. On 17 October, he anchored his flotilla in Falmouth Bay. The next morning, Mowat sent one of his officers ashore to address the townspeople. The officer proclaimed they had two hours to evacuate the town before the British ships opened fire. The citizens pleaded for mercy and Mowat offered amnesty if they took an oath of allegiance to the Crown. None did, and the townspeople fled Falmouth.
At 0930 on 18 October, 1775, Mowat’s flotilla opened fire on Falmouth. The ships continued to bombard the town until the sun began to set that evening. In the growing twilight, British shore parties landed by torchlight to fire any buildings that remained standing after the bombardment. They were met by Patriot militia. Lacking cannon to come to grips with the British ships, they sat impotently and watched the destruction of their town. Heavily reinforced by the furious townspeople, the militia unleased their rage on the Redcoats who came to finish the job. The landing parties managed to set fire to several more houses, whose conflagration spread throughout the town, but at the cost of several killed and wounded, as they battled the militia in the streets of Falmouth on their way back to the ships and safety.
Satisfied with the destruction of Falmouth, Mowat attempted to continue the punitive expedition, but his small ships were not sturdy enough to repeat the bombardment. Many of his cannon broke off their mounts and though the Americans didn’t fire on his ships, they were nonetheless damaged by the shock of nearly eight hours of continuous cannon fire. With the weather worsening, Mowat raided some farms further up the coast and then returned to Boston.
Mowat left one thousand Americans homeless out of Falmouth’s 2500 inhabitants, including about 160 families. 15 ships were either captured or sunk in the harbor, and nearly 400 buildings were damaged or destroyed by the bombardment and subsequent fire. Massachusetts rallied to help the citizens of Falmouth, and both Patriots and former Loyalists pitched in to rebuild the town. The Continental Congress authorized the issue of letters of marque turning New England’s pirates into privateers which eventually expanded the war onto the Seven Seas. The Burning of Falmouth shocked and outraged the Thirteen Colonies. It brought many fence sitters over to the American cause and greatly troubled many Loyalists for the indiscriminate nature of the destruction. For many Americans, there was now no possibility of reconciliation with British Crown. Even members of the British Parliament abhorred the raid – Graves was eventually fired, and Mowat was ostracized for the rest of his career.
When news of the Burning of Falmouth reached Europe it was initially dismissed as rebel propaganda. After the events were confirmed, Europeans recoiled at Britain’s barbarity and brutality. The French Foreign Minister, Count De Vergennes, commented, “I can hardly believe this absurd as well as barbaric procedure on the part of an enlightened and civilized nation.”
After conferring with King Louis XVI, Vergennes began exploring options about how to send covert aid to the American patriots. He dispatched a secret envoy to the American Continental Congress, who arrived in December, and lifted the boycott on France’s Caribbean colonies from selling gunpowder to the Americans in rebellion to the British Crown. More immediately, he quietly reversed a recent order preventing American ships from loading war material in French ports
If the Battles of Lexington and Concord were “The Shot Heard Round the World”, then the Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold’s capture of Fort Ticonderoga in the summer of 1775 was the shock wave that shook the world. With its fall, Britain’s enemies: the Dutch, French and Spanish, all began to take the rebelling colonies seriously. The news caused King George III and the British Parliament to officially declare the Thirteen North American colonies “In Rebellion against The Crown”. Fort Ticonderoga was the gateway to Canada its capture left Canada open to invasion. Even worse, Canada was filled with mostly French speaking settlers and Indians who were hostile to the British Crown just ten years before. Moreover, the entire province of Quebec had but 800 English defenders. Most were at Fort St Jean, south of Montreal, with small 30-40 man garrisons at Trois-Rivieres, Montreal City, and Quebec City.
Lieutenant General George Washington wasted no time in exploiting this weakness and ordered Brigadier General Richard Montgomery to assemble a force to invade Canada. In August 1775, Montgomery did so with 2,000 New York and Connecticut militiamen, several hundred Canadian militia who wanted to make Canada a 14th rebellious colony, and Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys. Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, one of the victors at Ticonderoga, felt slighted that he wasn’t given command of the invasion so he left for Maine, then part of Massachusetts, to start his own invasion of Quebec (We will hear more of him later). Montgomery’s force entered Canada and began the Siege of Fort St Jean on 5 September, 1775. On 20 September, the impetuous Ethan Allen took fifty of his Green Mountain Boys and sixty Canadian militia to bypass the fort and seize Montreal in a surprise attack, then defended only by 30 British regulars. On 24 September, 1775, they landed at Longue Pointe on Montreal Island.
Unfortunately, Montreal was warned of Allen’s approach, and due to his rough reputation, its inhabitants thought that he had come to burn the city to the ground. The 30 British regulars were joined by 40 British Indian agents and Indians, and more than 200 Montreal militia determined to defend their homes from the Barbarian of Vermont. They attacked Allen’s small force the next morning and overwhelmed them. Pinned against the shore line and unable to escape, Ethan Allen was captured and would spend the next few years on prison ships in Great Britain. In an ironic twist of fate, it was his reputation that saved him from hanging: the British didn’t want to make him the first American martyr. Nonetheless, America lost one of its most competent and aggressive commanders in the early days of the War for Independence.
Whether or not the inhabitants of Montreal would have defended themselves with such fervor and in such numbers had another American commander been in charge is subject to much debate. The answer to that academic debate stopped mattering as soon as the first shot was fired: Ethan Allen’s defeat was the first time English and French speaking Canadians fought together against a common foe, and the shared pride in victory laid the seeds of Canadian nationalism, distinct from the American nationalism in the Thirteen British colonies to the south. The opportunity to bring Quebec into the American Revolution against the Crown was rapidly slipping away, and the Battle of Longue Point made that task exponentially harder.
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.”
Colonel Francis Marion’s victory at Blue Savannah put a mark on him and his men’s heads. Marion and his band of partisans withdrew into the White Marsh on the border with North and South Carolina. Loyalist militia, which should have been marching west to join Ferguson, put to the torch patriot houses and settlements in eastern South Carolina, and established a string of outposts to protect the British lines of communication from Marion as Cornwallis invaded North Carolina. At the end of September 1780, Marion, with just sixty men remaining, emerged from the White Marsh to gather more patriot partisans, get revenge for the loyalists’ depredations, and harass the new loyalist outposts.
On 28 September, Marion received word that Col John Ball, his relative, had about fifty loyalist militia encamped at Patrick Dollard’s respectable Red House Tavern at Shepherd’s Ferry on the west bank of Black Mingo Creek. Though they had ridden hard through treacherous cypress swamps for the past 48 hours, Ball’s small exposed encampment was a perfect target for his diminished force. If he hurried, he could catch the loyalists drinking that night in the tavern.
Around midnight on the 29th, Marion’s men crossed Black Mingo Creek at Willtown Bridge about a mile north of Red House Tavern. Unfortunately, an alert sentry heard the horses’ hooves pounding on the bridge’s wooden planks, and fired a warning shot. Ball’s men, enjoying a tankard of ale packed in the tavern’s common room, spilled out into an adjacent field and prepared to meet Marion’s assault.
Surprise lost, Marion, in desperation, decided to attack anyway. He expected Ball to defend from the tavern, and divided his men up into three groups to surround the building. The loyalists, who could hear Marion’s men dismounting in the distance, waited patiently in the darkness, steadied by Ball’s leadership. As the center group approached the tavern, the fire from the loyalists’ initial volley lit up the night from less than thirty yards away and laid low several of Marion’s men and officers. The Americans fell back into the trees and nearly broke, but Marion and Major John James rallied the wavering partisans. Using the trees as cover, the center group advanced and fired on the loyalists exposed in the field. With the loyalists transfixed by the center group, the right group advanced along the creek bank and engaged Ball’s men from the flank. Taking fire from two directions and unable to adequately respond to either, it was now the loyalists’ turn to waver. When Marion’s left group skirted around the tavern and appeared behind the loyalists, they broke and fled into the morass of the Black Mingo Swamp.
Marion captured all of the loyalists’ supplies, including most of their guns, powder, baggage, and horses, including Ball’s own mount. The spirited sorrel gelding was a magnificent animal and claimed by Marion himself. Marion cheekily named him “Old Ball” and rode him for the rest of the war. More importantly, though less than 120 men were involved in the Battle of Black Mingo and it was over in less than 15 minutes, the battle cemented Marion’s aggressive, but tolerant, reputation in South Carolina. Five of the loyalist captives, including an officer, joined Marion’s band and Marion graciously accepted their services without reservation. Marion’s magnanimity was in stark contrast to the actions of the British and loyalists, who had recently torched every property owned by patriots or not sufficiently active loyalists on a 15 miles wide by 70 mile swath along the Black River.
Marion wanted to continue on and attack the next nearby loyalist encampment at Black River Church, but it was larger, nearly a hundred loyalists, and the men balked. They had heard stories of what happened to their homes, so Marion released all who wanted to see to their families and hopefully bring in the harvest. With just seventeen men, Marion withdrew to Snow Island just below the confluence of the Lynches and Great Pee Dee Rivers. Hidden, hard to get to, and naturally defensible, over the next few months Marion turned Snow Island into a supply depot, recruiting station, and sanctuary from which he would strike the British and loyalists anywhere in Eastern South Carolina.
The dispersal of his men after the Battle of Black Mingo had the unexpected side effect of further spreading Marion’s reputation far and wide. Patriot recruits sought him out and loyalists turned coat on Marion’s generous and fair reputation towards former loyalists. Those loyalist recruits who didn’t join the American cause stayed local to protect their homes and settlements. Once his men returned, no British supply convoy from Charleston was safe and few got through to Cornwallis. After the Battle of Black Mingo, the British temporarily abandoned the construction of a string of fortifications across Eastern South Carolina, which subsequently broke Cornwallis’ lines of communication back to the coast.
Despite the outsized effects of his victory at Black Mingo, Marion understood how close he came to being the one caught in a crossfire in the dark outside Red House Tavern. For the rest of the war, whenever Marion approached a British or loyalist force he planned to surprise, he never crossed a bridge without first placing blankets over the planks.
In September 1780, Charlotte was the first stop in North Carolina for patriot families, Catawba Indians, and other refugees fleeing the British and loyalists to the south. The remains of the Continental Army gathered at the town after they were defeated at Camden the month before. Lord Cornwallis decided to invade North Carolina to destroy those remnants and support what he expected to be a large loyalist turnout. In the face of the Cornwallis’ advance, the reformed Continental Army of the Southern Department withdrew from Charlotte to Salisbury, and then Hillsboro. The North Carolina militia under Colonel William Davie remained, with orders to delay Cornwallis as long as possible.
Davie shadowed Cornwallis and made a point to harass and capture prisoners the moment Cornwallis’ army stepped foot in North Carolina on 25 September. It was the first sign that Cornwallis was mistaken about the loyalist presence in this part of the country. The next day Cornwallis ordered the British Legion under Major George Hanger to conduct a reconnaissance of Charlotte.
In 1780, Charlotte was a crossroads town of about twenty houses centered on the Mecklenburg County Courthouse. A chest high wall existed between the pillars of the courthouse, and Davie placed his best men behind it under his adjutant, Captain Joseph Graham. With their horses picketed nearby, Davie had additional companies behind the houses to each side of the courthouse. Hanger’s men nonchalantly galloped toward the town.
Hanger was Banastre Tarleton’s second in command, and with Tarleton sick with Yellow Fever, sought to emulate the aggressive and infamous commander of the British Legion. When Davie’s pickets fired their first shots at the advancing redcoats, Hanger ordered his Legion cavalry to charge. As soon as they got within sixty yards of the courthouse, Graham’s men, hitherto hidden behind the courthouse wall, rose and fired, devastating the cavalry. Hanger withdrew and reformed, and when he saw Graham’s men withdraw from the wall, charged again. This time his charge was broken up by fire on both flanks, from the Patriot militia behind the houses next to the courthouse. By this time, the Legion’s light infantry were working around Davie’s men, and Cornwallis arrived with the 33rd Regiment’s light infantry. Cornwallis, surprised and appalled by Hanger’s decision to charge into such an obvious ambush, especially when the main body further up the road could have taken the town with few casualties, admonished the loyalists, “Legion, remember you have everything to lose, but nothing to gain!”
Not willing to be decisively engaged by the Legion’s light infantry (whom Graham was withdrawing away from when Hanger mistook it for a retreat) and especially not the regular light infantry, Davie ordered his men to mount up and move north. Davie waited just outside of town along Kennedy Creek, and when a British infantry platoon appeared, let loose another devastating volley. The Americans were gone before the British could react. With all of Davie’s men mounted, British and loyalist infantry simply couldn’t bring their superior firepower to bear, a source of constant frustration for Cornwallis, Tarleton, and Hanger. Hanger, sure that the Americans were withdrawing for real this time, attempted to resurrect his reputation in the eyes of Cornwallis. He set off in pursuit with what remained of his cavalry and his light infantry.
Graham, with part of Davie’s command, attempted repeat the Kennedy Creek ambush at Sugar Hill Church, but became fixed by the Legion light infantry in a prolonged 30 minute firefight. As the Americans returned fire, Hanger charged the Americans, and after a brutal melee where no quarter was given, scattered them. Almost all of the American casualties in the Battle of Charlotte occurred at Sugar Hill Church, with Graham badly wounded and left for dead by Hanger. In total, the Americans suffered five dead and six wounded, while the British suffered over fifty casualties, mostly their precious cavalry.
Shot three times, and with saber wounds to his side, neck, and head, which exposed part of his brain, Graham crawled to a nearby creek. He was found and taken to a Patriot leaning farm whose occupants hid him from the British and loyalists, and nursed him back to health. Five months later, Captain Joseph Graham was back in the fight.
Cornwallis was wrong about Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Solidly patriotic, there was no loyalist uprising in this part of North Carolina. After the Battle of Charlotte, the British and loyalists had an outbreak of Yellow Fever, and while they recovered, Davie and his men constantly harassed the British. Cornwallis referred to the area as a “hornet’s nest”, a name the citizens of Charlotte take great pride in. With Patriot partisan activity in South Carolina increasing, and the same occurring in North Carolina, Cornwallis’ lines of communication were not secure enough to continue his advance north. He decided to wait on Major Patrick Ferguson to reinforce him after he dealt with the Overmountain men before continuing on to Hillsboro. Though a small engagement in terms of numbers, Davie’s stand at Charlotte bought the Continental Army at least another few critical weeks to reorganize.