Kings Mountain, South Carolina
Kings Mountain, South Carolina
KINGS MOUNTAIN, SOUTH CAROLINA. 7 October 1780. Central to the British strategy of shifting the war to the South was the conviction, deeply held by Whitehall's planners, that the two Carolinas and Georgia offered a large and untapped reserve of Loyalists. There needed only the introduction of British forces to bring such men flocking to the King's standard. So mobilized, the Loyalists—just as the British had hoped since the beginning of the war and at each new place they came to—would become a substantial element of the crown's military effort. The raising of Loyalist forces in the form of militia and quasi-regular provincial units could only improve the odds for the British, becoming, perhaps, the deciding factor in the war. At the least, after five years of struggle, new numbers of Loyalist troops would prove useful at a point when the ranks of the British army's regulars were spread from North America and the Caribbean back to the Old World and out to India. Loyalist militiamen and provincials would operate alongside the redcoats, garrison key outposts, and assist in the overall pacification effort.
To this end, after the fall of Charleston (12 May 1780), Sir Henry Clinton appointed Major Patrick Ferguson of the Seventy-first Foot (Fraser's Highlanders) to the position of Inspector of Militia in the Southern Provinces. This appointment placed Ferguson in charge of any Loyalist forces to be raised. It would also, when the invasion of North Carolina came to be contemplated, place him in charge of the western wing of the army commanded by Major General Charles Lord Cornwallis following Clinton's departure for New York. Assisted by Major George Hanger (until 6 August, when the latter assumed the position of second-in-command to Banastre Tarleton), Ferguson proceeded into the backcountry of South Carolina, that region where the British believed that Loyalists were particularly concentrated. He soon raised some four thousand Loyalist militiamen in the vicinity of Ninety Six, reckoned by both sides the Tories' backcountry stronghold. Ferguson next started pushing north, intending to extend operations that had every appearance of fulfilling British hopes for the potential of the Loyalists. In this same period the Tory leaders Morgan Bryan and John Moore were able, in the Catawba District near the border of the two Carolinas, to bring into the field an additional fifteen hundred men. These Loyalist efforts to raise militia forces were, however, matched by ones on the rebel side, and the rebels extended theirs over a wide area indeed. As Thomas ("Gamecock") Sumter commenced his partisan operations in South Carolina and Colonel Charles McDowell his in North Carolina, a call for assistance was sent to the far side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to the settlements containing the so-called Over Mountain Men. Recently beleaguered by British-supported Indian attack, these frontiersmen were located in farms and outposts scattered along the valleys of the Holston, Nolichucky, and Watauga rivers in what is now Tennessee. While the Over Mountain Men prepared to answer the call for assistance and the various forces on the two sides continued to form up, a series of raids and skirmishes ensued in the region between the Catawba and Ninety Six. (The principal ones are covered in "Military Operations in the Southern Theater," and only those connected with activities leading to the Battle of Kings Mountain are mentioned here.)
Soon joining Charles McDowell were Colonel Isaac Shelby, with an initial detachment of some six hundred Over Mountain Men, and Colonel Elijah Clarke of Georgia, leading a combined force of Georgia and Carolina militia. Shelby captured Thicketty Fort, South Carolina, on 30 July. Then, on 8 August, in two minor engagements around Wofford's Iron Works (Cedar Springs, also referred to as Old Iron Works), Clarke and Shelby gained no advantage, but soon handed the Loyalists a sharp defeat at Musgrove's Mill on 18 August. They were considering an attack against Ninety Six, about thirty miles away, when news of Horatio Gates's defeat at Camden, on 16 August, prompted them to beat a hasty retreat lest the British forces trap them and bring them to battle. Indeed Ferguson, with his newly raised Tory militiamen, got to within thirty minutes' march of them as they fell back, only to be stopped by a message recalling him to Camden. It was upon reaching that point that Ferguson was briefed by Cornwallis regarding the forthcoming invasion of North Carolina.
Cornwallis's plan was to lead the main portion of his field army north from Camden to Charlotte and Salisbury, a line of march selected because it ran through an area in which the strongest rebel resistance was expected. Cornwallis was also aware that additional concentrations of Loyalists were located around Cross Creek (now Fayetteville) on the Cape Fear River, over a hundred miles east of Charlotte. The main idea of his plan was thus to effect a link-up of the various Loyalist elements. Certainly there were strong groupings of Loyalists west of the Catawba and in what was then Tryon County, North Carolina. By this northward movement with his main force Cornwallis expected to gain control of a key corridor. He reckoned that joining up the two Loyalist sections to each other would make it possible to establish control over the rest of North Carolina.
Ferguson had previously penetrated as far as Gilbert Town, just across the line from South Carolina, and believed that he had sufficient Loyalist support in the region to dominate it. Cornwallis therefore authorized him to move with an independent force into this area. The British commander, however, had enough misgivings about the plan to express them in a letter to Clinton: "Ferguson is to move into Tryon County with some militia, whom he says he is sure he can depend upon for doing their duty; but I am sorry to say that his own experience, as well as that of every other officer, is totally against him."
This concern notwithstanding, on 8 September Cornwallis marched north with his main body east of the Wateree, and with Tarleton's Legion, reinforced by one gun and a body of light infantry, on the western side of the river. His objective was Charlotte, with Hillsborough to follow. Two weeks into their march, the British ran into resistance. First surprising and then defeating the westernmost British force, Colonel William Davie and a militia force drawn from both Carolinas next fell back to contest Cornwallis's capture of Charlotte, 26 September. The army then stopped to wait for Ferguson to join them from the west. It was from this point in their operations that the British plan for mobilizing the Loyalists began to unravel.
On 7 September Ferguson and a detachment of his force—wearing the red coats of the British army, newly issued, and equipped with muskets and bayonets—crossed into North Carolina and proceeded on to Gilbert Town. His earlier assessment of the locals' Loyalist leanings appeared correct, as many of them came in to take the British oath of allegiance. That not a few of them may have done so as a temporary expedient to protect their property little dissuaded Ferguson from his course. On 10 September he withdrew south to rejoin his main body in an attempt to intercept Clarke, who was leading an expedition against Augusta, Georgia (14-18 September), and whom the British next expected to withdraw into North Carolina. By 23 September Ferguson was back in Gilbert Town, having meanwhile moved about twenty-two miles northwest of the town to Old Fort, near the source of the Catawba in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Ferguson now boldly announced that the rebellion was finished in his area. Yet trouble was brewing. Before withdrawing on 10 September, he had paroled one Samuel Phillips, a captured rebel, and sent him across the Blue Ridge with a warning to Shelby, the Over Mountain Men's commander. Ferguson's message was brutally simple. If the rebels 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." For the Over Mountain Men, having already decided they needed to go after Ferguson before he could come over the mountains to pursue them, this message could only serve to accelerate their efforts. Moreover, the rebel leaders, although many of their men had had to scatter and were suffering from malnutrition, were considerably advanced in their plans for raising a force from both sides of the mountains. Calls had gone out in all directions for volunteers to rally and stop the invaders. Shelby, meeting with Colonel John Sevier, another Over Mountain leader, made final preparations. Indeed the two men pledged themselves to cover the money taken from the public treasury in order to finance the operations they were about to undertake. Sending out a final call for men, they appealed to Colonel Arthur Campbell in Virginia and Colonels Charles McDowell and Benjamin Cleveland along the North Carolina border. The rendezvous for these various groups was set for 25 September at Sycamore Shoals, on the Watauga River near modern Elizabethton, Tennessee.
More than a thousand men showed up, most of them mounted and carrying the long-barreled rifle of the American frontier. Arthur Campbell's brother-in-law, Colonel William Campbell, so tall and powerfully built he was regarded as a giant, came with four hundred Virginians. Sevier and Shelby arrived with their own groups of Over Mountain Men, and there were as well the little groups of friends and relatives who had gathered to see them off. To send a force back across the mountains to fight Ferguson was risky in the extreme. Some of the Over Mountain Men had to be left behind to defend against Indian attacks, a scourge from which the settlements had already greatly suffered.
All told, the Over Mountain Men made up less than half of the force marching against Ferguson, contradicting a frequently encountered claim that the expedition principally or even solely comprised frontiersmen from Tennessee. In fact, once the Over Mountain Men were joined by several hundred South Carolinians as well as additional North Carolina and Virginia men, the overall force comprised men from up and down the mountains as well as over them.
That said, the Over Mountain portion of the force, leaving its Sycamore Shoals rendezvous on 26 September, the next day plowed through deep snow on the crest of the mountains. On 30 September they reached McDowell's Plantation at Quaker Meadow (near modern Morgantown, North Carolina), where Charles McDowell's 160-man Burke County militia was assembling. While taking a day's rest after a difficult ninety-mile march, they were joined by Colonel Benjamin Cleveland and Major Joseph Winston, who brought 350 North Carolina militia from the upper Yadkin (Wilkes and Surry Counties of North Carolina). They also learned that Colonel James Williams was raising forces to join them farther south. As they continued toward Gilbert Town, where Ferguson was reported still to be, on 1 October the expedition leaders sent Charles McDowell to confer with Gates, the American commander in the South, in Hillsboro. McDowell's mission was to ask that Gates assign either Daniel Morgan or William Davidson to command them. Meanwhile, having gotten their senior militia officer off the scene, on 2 October they elected William Campbell temporary commander of the combined forces. Major Joseph McDowell assumed command of his brother's regiment.
Meanwhile, on 27 September Ferguson started withdrawing south from Gilbert Town. Agents had by now informed him of the rebels' approach. To what extent this news alarmed him will never be known for certain; it is, however, known that days earlier he had received a message from Lieutenant Colonel John Cruger, British commander at Ninety Six, that Elijah Clarke's forces were on the move. Cruger reported that Clarke and his Georgians might be heading north from Augusta to reinforce this new rebel expedition. On Green River, on 30 September, Ferguson encountered James Crawford and Samuel Chambers, two rebels who had deserted to join the British. From them he gained further information about the expedition, and he sent urgent requests to Cornwallis and Cruger for reinforcements. On 1 October Ferguson turned east toward Charlotte. His purpose in taking this new direction was to deceive the rebels, who would expect him to continue south toward Ninety Six. From Tate's Plantation on Buffalo Creek, ten miles west of Kings Mountain, Ferguson wrote Cornwallis on 5 October: "I am on my march towards you, by a road leading from Cherokee Ford, north of Kings Mountain. Three or four hundred good soldiers, part dragoons, would finish this business. [Something] must be done soon. This is their last push in this quarter and they are extremely desolate and [c]owed."
At this point Ferguson, like Cornwallis, was still not concerned as to his situation. Certainly he had marched only four miles on 2 October, having apparently decided there was no chance of cutting off Clarke. On 6 October he wrote Cornwallis again, stating that he had stopped his retreat and was planning to make a stand. "I arrived to day at Kings Mountain," his message said, "& have taken a post where I do not think I can be forced by a stronger enemy than that against us." What he did not know when he made this decision was that the British could send him no support. Cruger had written Cornwallis that he did not have enough men to garrison Ninety Six properly, much less to send reinforcements to Ferguson. Tarleton had been desperately ill with malaria the past two weeks. Then, after leading the Legion into Charlotte, his second-in-command, Hanger, had succumbed to the same disease. Moreover, Cornwallis was himself by now incapacitated by a "feverish cold." On 6 October he responded to Ferguson's message of the preceding day by writing that "Tarleton shall pass at some of the upper Fords, and clear the Country; [but] for the present both he and his Corps want a few days rest."
The rebel force—Over Mountain Men, North and South Carolinians, Virginians, all—entered Gilbert Town on 3 October. Next, fooled by Ferguson's change of direction, they lost his trail at Denard's Ford on the Broad River. The night of 4 October they camped at this place, where Ferguson himself had camped three nights before. On 5 October the rebels camped twelve miles farther south, at Alexander's Ford on Green River, where Ferguson had stopped five nights earlier. The next day they picked up the scent, however, and marched twenty-one miles to Cowpens. Colonel James Williams, who had been raising militia from both Carolinas since the previous month, joined the expedition at Cowpens with about four hundred men; his subordinate leaders were William Hill, Edward Lacey, James Hawthorne, Frederick Hambright, William Chronicle, and William Graham. Another reason why Ferguson's change of route might have deceived the rebels was that some of Williams's South Carolinians wanted Campbell's army to keep pushing south and desist from their move against Ferguson; attacking Ninety Six would aid in protecting the property of Patriots in that region from the Loyalists.
When a scout named Joseph Kerr confirmed previous reports of Ferguson's location, nine hundred of "the best horsemen" immediately started forward at 8:00 p.m. on the evening of 6 October. The less-well-mounted horsemen and those on foot were left behind to follow as fast as possible. Speed was everything; the rebels knew that Ferguson had gone to ground, and they were hungry for the kill.
Their enemy's decision to make a stand is a mystery, since he undoubtedly could have retreated to the safety of Cornwallis's main army at Charlotte, some thirty miles away. Ferguson did not know that Cornwallis was unable to send him any appreciable amount of assistance beyond one detachment; aside from that, probably the best explanation for Ferguson's decision is that he thought he had found a position where he could defeat a large rebel force in battle. He had trained his force to fight in the British manner, with reliance on musket fire and closing with the bayonet on the enemy. The spot he chose to put this technique to the test was a rocky, relatively treeless ridge with steep, heavily wooded, boulder-strewn slopes. It was shaped roughly like a human footprint that pointed to the northeast. Rising 60 feet above the surrounding country, it varied in width between 120 and 60 yards. The slopes were so rugged that Ferguson was content to rely on nature's gifts; he made no effort to improve his position by field fortifications. Next, while he made preparations to defend the entire perimeter of the ridge, he established his camp in parade ground fashion on the broad, northeastern portion. He also sent out about two hundred men to gather forage from the surrounding area. These men would therefore be absent on the morning of the battle, leaving his available strength on Kings Mountain at eight hundred militia and one hundred picked men drawn from the Kings American Rangers, the Queen's Rangers, and the New Jersey Volunteers. These three comprised provincial units made up of Americans, just as was the case with Ferguson's newly raised South Carolina Loyalist militia force. The only man on either side during the battle who was not American would prove to be Patrick Ferguson himself. Thus it is somewhat amusing to see the subsequent action referred to as a battle between "the British" and "the Americans"—it was far more a civil-war encounter fought between Americans.
Having marched all night and all the next morning through rough country—not to mention the preceding movement to Cowpens—the attackers began to lose the fine edge of their enthusiasm by noon of 7 October. It had rained during the night, and a light drizzle kept up after daylight. About noon Shelby had to veto the proposal that the expedition halt for a rest. Interest quickened, however, when they captured two enemy scouts and a messenger. The prisoners confirmed Ferguson's position and furnished an interesting detail that was disseminated through the ranks: the enemy leader could be identified by a checkered shirt, perhaps in a Scottish tartan pattern, worn over his uniform. The rebels also knew that Ferguson could be spotted by a crippled right arm, his elbow having been shattered by an American musket ball at Brandywine three years before.
They had by now followed Ferguson's route to the vicinity of Tate's Plantation near Buffalo Creek. Expecting to find enemy outposts to detect or contest their crossing of the Broad River, they detoured south to Cherokee Ford about two and a half miles below Tate's. They then followed the Ridge Road past present-day Antioch Church, thence north to a point on the modern state boundary some four miles west-northwest of Kings Mountain, and then toward their objective. About a mile away they halted, hitched their horses, and broke up into four columns. These began moving toward positions, previously assigned, around the ridge. So skillfully was the approach conducted—or so lax Ferguson's security measures—that Shelby's column was within a quarter-mile of the ridge before Loyalist sentries fired their first shots. Ferguson was completely surprised.
For his part, Shelby refused to let his men return fire until they had worked their way well up the slope. Campbell was meanwhile closing in from the opposite side. So also were the other forces moving, Indian fashion, into position. (See map.) The weakness of Ferguson's planning now became apparent: rather than constituting an obstacle to the attackers, the trees, boulders, and ravines on the slopes furnished ideal terrain for their infiltration tactics. Ferguson, the man who had devoted so much effort to introducing the rifle into the British army—who had invented the first true military, as opposed to hunting, rifle, and who was regarded as the best marksman in that army—had made another fatal error: he had decided to defend Kings Mountain with the bayonet-and-volley fire tactics of British regulars. First he sent his men in a bayonet charge against Shelby, who gave ground but whose Over Mountain Men thinned the Loyalist ranks as they fell back. Meanwhile, Campbell's Virginians made their way up the opposite side of the ridge and attacked. "Here they are, boys!" shouted their leader. "Shout like hell and fight like devils." The air was filled, in addition to the crack of long rifles and the ragged musket fire of the Loyalists, by the frontiersmen's yells that were probably the counterpart to the Confederate Yell of eight decades later. In all this the Loyalists tried to charge Virginians just as they had Shelby's Over Mountain Men. These, too, like their comrades, dropped back, firing and inflicting casualties as they did so. Soon Sevier's men reached the crest, and the Loyalists found themselves being pushed back from the "heel" and across the "arch" by the combined forces of three rebel columns. This in turn pushed them back toward the other rebel forces. Ferguson galloped from one threatened point to the next, signaling the attack with a silver whistle that he carried and trying to rally his beleaguered Loyalists. Soon, though, he was having to cut down white flags that started to appear. By the time the defenders had been driven back to their camp area, where Ferguson had hoped to make a successful stand, they found themselves in the open and surrounded by riflemen firing almost at pistol range. When Ferguson suddenly tried to break through the rebel lines with a few officers, he was shot from the saddle. A certain Robert Young claimed that his personal hunting rifle, "Sweet Lips," brought down Ferguson, but there were at least seven other bullets in the dying chieftain.
Captain Abraham de Peyster, a Loyalist officer, stepped forward to take command of the hopeless situation. From the disorganized mass huddled around the wagons there came shots from those who tried to fight back and white flags from those who tried to surrender. De Peyster finally put up a flag; only with great difficulty did Shelby and Campbell finally stop the rebel firing.
As in other "massacres" (Haw River, Paoli, and Waxhaws, for example), it is hard to determine where the battle ended and the butchery began. The official report of the battle says benignly that after De Peyster's flag went up, the rebels immediately ceased firing and the enemy laid down their arms, most of which were loaded. Another account says that either the surrendered men or some returning foragers fired a shot that mortally wounded Colonel James Williams, and that Campbell then ordered the riflemen around him to shoot into the prisoners; a young officer is quoted as saying, "We killed near a hundred of them and hardly could be restrained from killing the whole." Unquestionably, atrocities were committed by the rebels, but the most balanced version, between the two extremes mentioned above, appears to be the following explanation by Shelby:
It was some time before a complete cessation of the firing on our part could be effected. Our men who had been scattered in the battle were continually coming up and continued to fire, without comprehending in the heat of the moment what had happened; and some who had heard that at Buford's defeat [Waxhaws], the British had refused quarters … were willing to follow that bad example.
The action had lasted about an hour. On Sunday, 8 October, the victors left their camp on the battlefield and headed for Gilbert Town. Here thirty prisoners were tried and convicted by an impromptu court. Of these, twelve were condemned to death and nine were actually hanged. These last appear to have been individuals who had been conspicuously brutal in their prosecution of the Loyalist effort in the backcountry's civil war. The other prisoners were entrusted to Cleveland's command and marched to Hillsboro. The rest of the militia army broke up and went home.
The fight at Kings Mountain in an instant dealt a fatal blow to British hopes for mobilizing and employing a substantial force of Loyalists in the Carolinas. There would be no outpouring of Loyalists after Kings Mountain. Subsequent efforts by Cornwallis to rally men of Loyalist persuasion to his camp would prove a failure. The British might later attempt to reorganize remnants of various Loyalist militia and provincial units into new forces, but these efforts enjoyed little success. Kings Mountain effectively cowed backcountry Loyalists into submission, just as they had been cowed into submission by rebel actions in the first part of the war and prior to the introduction of British forces in strength into the region. The battle was thus a death knell for a major component of the British strategy for shifting the war to the South: the idea of raising a powerful force of Loyalists that could tip the balance as well as playing a key role in the pacification effort. The results were far-reaching indeed. Sir Henry Clinton called Kings Mountain "the first link of a chain of evils that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America." The battle was, with the other partisan actions and the complete tactical defeat achieved against British regular forces at Cowpens three months later, the turning point of the war in the South. Certainly Kings Mountain shifted forever the balance of rebel-Loyalist armed support in favor of the rebel cause, and it made Cornwallis withdraw into South Carolina (Winnsboro) and delay his new offensive into North Carolina by three months. Ultimately, it enabled Nathanael Greene, immediately upon assuming command of the American army in the South (3 December 1780), to gain time for rebuilding that army and indeed to seize the initiative—and keep it—until the successful conclusion of his southern campaigns.
The rebel commanders—a particularly able and seasoned body of men—demonstrated a striking ability to assemble men from both sides of the mountains and, in a matter of weeks, concentrate them against a potent British threat. Individual differences in point of view yielded quickly to unity of command. The various bands of rebel riflemen acted as a highly mobile force of mounted infantry. They rode their horses to the battle but fought dismounted, where their marksmanship and woodcraft skills were at a premium. British infantry—to include Ferguson's corps of South Carolina Loyalist militia—lacked the mobility to keep up with their mounted opponents; and Cornwallis had insufficient numbers of cavalry to chase down the rebels or to screen his movements. Cornwallis and Ferguson were both able tacticians. It is thus difficult to account for Cornwallis's failure to come to Ferguson's aid—except, of course, for the fact that Ferguson never expressly sent his commander a message stating that he was in peril. Indeed, two days before the battle, he had reported to Cornwallis that the rebels thereabouts appeared cowed. The British error was in misreading the depth and extent of rebel strength—and that rebel commanders could so quickly bring to bear an overwhelming force against Ferguson. That officer, out of hubris or perhaps a misguided faith that he could defeat the rebels at a kind of warfare in which they had gained much recent experience against both Indians and Loyalists, apparently regarded his position as a defensible one. He failed to fortify that position, however, and, trusting in the light-infantry tactics in which he had trained his Loyalists, looked to draw the rebels into a fight he believed he could win. As Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee put it, Ferguson had tried to defend a position that was "more assailable by the rifle than defensible by the bayonet." For this miscalculation Ferguson paid with his life.
NUMBERS AND LOSSES
The rebel commanders brought some 900 men to the foot of Kings Mountain in the mid-afternoon of 7 October. These were the best-mounted of the rebel force; additional rebel forces numbering some 500 to 800 men had been left behind at Cowpens in order to hasten the pace of the march on Ferguson's position. In a battle that lasted approximately an hour, the rebels lost 28 killed and 64 wounded. Ferguson's force is estimated at 1,018, a figure that, if correct, includes the foraging party that probably returned toward the end of the battle. Losses on the British side amounted to 157 killed (including, of course, Ferguson), 163 wounded, and 698 marched off as prisoners of war. Of this last group, most managed to escape on the march toward Hillsboro or shortly thereafter, the rebels being less skilled in security measures than in handling their rifles. Most accounts agree that the rebels captured some 1,400 individual weapons. A possible explanation for this number of muskets being greater than the number of killed or captured Loyalists is that Ferguson may have carried extra stands of arms for the purpose of equipping new recruits along the way.
SEE ALSO Augusta, Georgia (14-18 September 1780); Charlotte, North Carolina; Clarke, Elijah; Clinton, Henry; Cornwallis, Charles; Cowpens, South Carolina; Cruger, John Harris; De Peyster, Abraham; Ferguson, Patrick; Haw River; Musgrove's Mill, South Carolina; Ninety Six, South Carolina; Over Mountain Men; Paoli, Pennsylvania; Southern Campaigns of Nathanael Greene; Southern Theater, Military Operations in; Sumter, Thomas; Tarleton, Banastre; Thicketty Fort, South Carolina; Waxhaws, South Carolina.
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revised by John Gordon