In our last episode, the Overmountain men had assembled a force of about 1400 patriot militia who were moving in early October 1780 to confront the loyalist militia under British Major Patrick Ferguson near Gilbert Town, North Carolina.
|King's Mountain - Death of Ferguson
The obvious apparent commander of this army should have been General Thomas Sumter. But Sumter had left his army to go find South Carolina Governor, who had fled into North Carolina and had granted someone else overall command of the militia. Sumter could not command this army until he got Sumter’s permission, and had ridden off to get that resolved. Instead, there was no single commander. Various militia colonels including Benjamin Cleveland, James Johnson, William Campbell, John Sevier, Joseph McDowell, John Williams and Isaac Shelby operated more as a committee, trying to decide by consensus how to attack the enemy.
Meanwhile, the British commander Ferguson heard about the enemy’s approach. Fearing that the patriots might have large numbers, he opted to move east where he could link up with General Cornwallis’s army occupying Charlotte. When the enemy got too close, however, Ferguson moved to some high ground at a place called King's Mountain. From there, he expected he could defend against any attack. Even if outnumbered, the loyalists could hold out until General Cornwallis sent reinforcements from Charlotte, which was about a day’s march away.
Approaching King's Mountain
On October 4, the patriot militia reached Gilbert Town, where Ferguson and the loyalists had their headquarters a few days earlier. The column continued marching to Cowpens two days later. They learned that Ferguson was only a few miles to the east, and that his men were trying to link up with Cornwallis before they could catch him. The patriots began a night march trying to catch up with their foe before the enemy could link up with the main British army.
|Gathering at Sycamore Shoals
Enoch Gilmer volunteered to scout out the enemy while the army caught a few hours of rest out in the open in the miserable rain. After some time, he returned to inform the leaders that they were still about 15 miles from the enemy at King's Mountain. The army began moving again, stopping only for breakfast which consisted of raiding a local cornfield and eating raw ears of corn. Most of the locals in this area seemed to lean Tory, so they were little help. The commanders seized two local Tories and ordered them to guide the army to King's Mountain or be hanged.
As they got within a few miles, Colonel Williams of the Virginia militia spotted the scout, Enoch Gilmer’s horse, in front of a Tory home. Gilmer had been pretending to be a loyalist looking to join up with Ferguson, so Williams played into that lie. He entered the home with several of his soldiers, holding a noose and threatening to hang Gilmer as a loyalist. Gilmer was enjoying a breakfast with the two women of the home. He played along and begged for mercy.
The men removed Gilmer from the home and took him far enough away to give his report without blowing his cover. The loyalist women had sold some chickens to Ferguson personally the day before at his camp on King's Mountain, so their information was pretty accurate and up to date.
As they approached, they captured a few more loyalist scouts who were forced to give the locations of their pickets. They also captured a 14 year old courier who Ferguson had sent with a message for Cornwallis to send reinforcements immediately. The boy informed his interrogators that Ferguson was wearing a checkered shirt over his red officer’s coat.
The officers decided on a simple plan. They were going to surround Kings Mountain, which was really more of a wooded hill, and move toward the enemy from all sides at once.
By the afternoon of October 7, the patriot militia had surrounded King’s Mountain. The attackers numbered about 900. They were facing about 1100 loyalists who maintained the high ground. Again, there was no single American commander coordinating the attack. The attackers divided into eight separate units of a little over 100 men each. They took different positions around the mountain and agreed they would all advance at the same time.
In the loyalist camp on top of the hill Major Ferguson had not bothered to build any entrenchments or other defenses. He planned to rely on his trained militia and their use of bayonets to take out any attackers. Ferguson knew that the patriot militia had no bayonets and could not take a massed force of soldiers standing in line with bayonets. In any direct confrontation, the patriots would be compelled to give way.
Ferguson saw the enemy approaching and organized his men into defensive positions around the camp. According to one account, he told his men:
Unless you wish to be eat up by an inundation of barbarians, I say, if you wish to be pinioned, robbed, and murdered and see your wives and daughters in four days abused by the dregs of mankind, in short, if you wish or deserve to live and better the name of men, grasp your arms in a moment and run to camp. The backwater men have crossed the mountains. If you choose to be pissed upon forever and ever by a set of mongrels, say so at once and let your women turn their backs upon you and look out for real men to protect them.
By this time in the war, there was no sympathy for those on the other side. There had been too many massacres, executions of prisoners, destroying people’s homes and crops, and attacks on families, for either side to accept trying to live together. One side had to die. The countersign, the patriots used that day was “Buford” a reference to Colonel Abraham Buford, the commanding Continental officer whose men had been massacred by the loyalists after trying to surrender. It was a reminder to all that this was not about taking prisoners. It was about killing the enemy.
The advance up the mountain began about 2:00 PM. The attackers let out a blood curdling high-pitched war whoop similar to those used by native warriors going into battle. It was also a forerunner of the so-called rebel yell used by southerners during the Civil War. The yells unnerved the loyalist defenders, but they held their lines.
As William Campbell’s Virginia militia advanced toward the summit, Ferguson ordered his loyalists to charge them with bayonets. The attackers, who only had rifles without bayonets, withdrew back to the bottom of the mountain with the loyalists chasing them. Then the loyalists had to pull back up the mountain because of advances led by Isaac Shelby coming from the other side of the mountain. Ferguson’s loyalists then ran a bayonet charge against Shelby’s men, forcing them to retreat back down the mountain as well.
Ferguson had hoped that once his loyalists had chased the enemy down the mountain, that the men would continue to run away, as they had a Camden. That did not happen. As soon as the loyalists withdrew from the attack on Campbell’s patriots, they reassembled and advanced again. When the loyalists went after another group of attackers, they could chase them away, but only temporarily. They could not chase the men too far or the attackers would become isolated from the main force of defenders and leave themselves vulnerable.
For most of the next hour or so of fighting was loyalists pushing one group of patriots down the mountain, then returning to push another group, only to have the first group reform and start back up the mountain.
Ferguson was correct that the Americans would not fight the loyalists in a straight up hand to hand battle. They would get close enough to use their rifles to pick off loyalists from a distance, pull back when attacked, then return, taking cover behind rocks and trees to resume their shots at the enemy.
|Militia Advance on King's Mountain
Isaac Shelby recalled seeing two brothers take aim at each other from opposite sides of the fighting. Both fired at the same time and both fell, presumably killing each other. There were numerous stories of brothers shooting at their brothers, or men targeting those they knew on the other side. Although the patriots tried to avoid hand to hand combat, there were times when it was inevitable, and the fighting grew fierce. Many patriot riflemen got close enough to fire on the loyalist camp, decimating their ranks. They also killed a number of civilians in the camp. Ferguson had a woman with him named Virginia Sal. She was killed by a rifle bullet while in the camp.
After about an hour of fighting, the loyalists realized that they could not chase off the rebels and that they were increasingly becoming sitting ducks for the patriot riflemen surrounding their camp. Several units tried to surrender, only to have Major Ferguson knock down their flags and order them to continue fighting. Eventually, Ferguson realized that the battle was not going to go in his favor, and he had no interest in trying to surrender. Instead, he and a few of his officers mounted horses and tried to rush through the enemy lines to make their escape.
|Militia shoot Ferguson
After Ferguson’s death, the defenders did not last long. A few minutes later, the second in command, Captain Abraham De Peyster agreed to surrender. Some of the attacking patriots were not ready to accept a surrender and continued to fire on the enemy anyway. Several patriot officers reported having to ride up and knock the guns out of the hands of their own men to force them to stop firing on the surrendering enemy.
Just as things were getting under control a loyalist foraging party that had been away from camp during the battle returned and opened fire on the Americans. They killed Colonel Williams. Many patriot soldiers thought the prisoners were trying to rise up and opened fire on their prisoners. Once again, the officers had to stop the men from killing.
Once the killing stopped, there was still the need to deal with the surviving loyalists. About 150 had been killed, with another 163 wounded and the majority 668 taken prisoner. The patriots had lost only 28 killed and 60 wounded. Many loyalists, both dead and living, had their property taken from them including their clothing. Many were handled roughly and even beaten. Many of the dead were buried in shallow mass graves.
Many of the wounded loyalists were simply left where they lay, dying slowly from blood loss or lack of water. Over the coming nights, wolves and wild dogs feasted on the corpses and the badly wounded men who were left on the field. For months afterward, many locals refused to eat hogs from the area because it was believed they had also feasted on the corpses of the men left on King’s Mountain.
For the prisoners still able to travel, many did not fare much better. After having their shoes and coats taken, they were marched over forty miles without any food. The lack of food was a problem for both the prisoners and the victors, many of whom had not eaten for several days. During the march, the patriots continued to assault, abuse, and even kill some of the prisoners. The Americans managed to capture a cache of muskets on King’s Mountain. They forced each prisoner to carry two muskets (with the firelocks removed of course) during the march to prison.
|Marker where militia hanged prisoners.
A week after the battle, during the march away from King’s Mountain, the patriots decided to hold trials for some of the prisoners, accusing them of treason, deserting from patriot militia to join the enemy, or other crimes. The court martial found thirty-six prisoners, mostly loyalist officers, guilty and began hanging them, three at a time. After the executions of nine of the prisoners, other patriot officers put a stop to the executions, in part because they needed to get moving again after rumors that Colone lTarleton’s cavalry was on its way to intercept them.
The march continued up to Salem, North Carolina. Along the way more than 100 of the prisoners escaped. Many made their way to Charleston or Fort Ninety-six where they rejoined loyalist units. A few unlucky prisoners attempted to escape, but were captured and then executed. Eventually, the force reached Salem by early November where the remaining prisoners were held.
Following the destruction of the Loyalist Army under Ferguson, General Cornwallis determined that his position in Charlotte, North Carolina was simply untenable. The hostility that his occupation army continued to face when it ventured outside of town, and the inability to recruit any new loyalist militia in North Carolina after the loss at King’s Mountain, meant that the presence of the British in North Carolina only subjected them to attack.
Instead of continuing his advance into North Carolina, Cornwallis opted to secure his position in South Carolina for the rest of the winter. Even though there was no longer an organized Continental Army in North Carolina, the local hostility had proven too difficult to overcome.
Concerned that even a defensive position in South Carolina would prove too tempting for an attack, to help bolster his position, Cornwallis ordered General Alexander Leslie, who was engaged in a series of raids in southern Virginia, to stop his raids and to sail down to Charleston, South Carolina to support British control of the colony. Leslie did not want to end his successful raids in the Chesapeake, which had only begun. But after confirming with General Clinton that he needed to follow Cornwallis’ orders, Leslie complied. However, given delays in communications and Leslie’s initial reluctance, he did not reach Charleston until mid-December.
Back in New York, British General Henry Clinton did not receive word of the loss at King’s Mountain until November. Clinton later criticized Cornwallis for moving into North Carolina without proper support, and for giving the rebels a victory that would bolster their morale and damage efforts to recruit more loyalist militia.
For the Americans, the victory at King’s Mountain put an end to any immediate threat of further British offensives into North Carolina. General Thomas Sumter returned to the militia army with orders from Governor Rutherford giving him undisputed command over the South Carolina militia. But since his chief rival, Colonel Williams, had been killed at King’s Mountain, the pre-battle dispute had been rendered moot anyway.
Most of the Overmountain men returned to their homes on the frontier. Indeed, many of them had left even before the army got their prisoners to Salem. The men had marched and fought without food and supplies. Many were sick and on the verge of starvation. Despite the victory, they were eager to return home for the winter.
Once again, neither side had much of an army in North Carolina. It would be several more months before the Continentals could send a new commander to replace Horatio Gates. General Nathanael Greene would not take command until December.
Next time: we head back to update New York, where the loyalists and Iroquois continue to fight for control of the Hudson Valley.
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Battle of King’s Mountain: https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1780/battle-kings-mountain
Battle of King’s Mountain: https://mitchellnchistory.org/2019/10/07/episodes-26-27-the-battle-of-kings-mountain
James Williams: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/james-williams
Lynch, Wayne Death of a Patriot at King’s Mountain” Journal of the American Revolution, Jan. 14, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/01/death-patriot-kings-mountain
(from archive.org unless noted)
Battle at King's Mountain October 7, 1780, King's Mountain Centennial Association, 1880.
Army War College Historical Statements Concerning the Battle of Kings Mountain and the Battle of the Cowpens, GPO, 1928.
Henderson, W. Kings Mountain and its Campaign, Greensboro, N.C., The Guilford battleground company, 1903.
Draper, Lyman C. King's Mountain and its Heroes: History of the Battle of King's Mountain, October 7th, 1780, and the Events Which Led to It, Cincinnati: P.G.Thomson, 1881.
Lathan, Robert Historical Sketch of the Battle of King's Mountain: Fought Between the American and British Troops, at King's Mountain, York Co., S.C. October 7, 1780, Yorkville, SC: Office of the Enquirer, 1880.
National Park Service Rifles and Riflemen at the Battle of Kings Mountain, 1941.
White, Katherine Keogh The King's Mountain Men, The Story of the Battle, with Sketches of the American Soldiers Who Took Part, Dayton, VA: Joseph K. Ruebush company, 1924.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Brown, Robert W. Jr. Kings Mountain and Cowpens: Our Victory Was Complete, History Press 2009.
Dameron, Dave & J. David Dameron Kings Mountain: The Defeat of the Loyalists October 7, 1780, Da Capo Press, 2003.
Dunkerly, Robert M. The Battle of Kings Mountain: Eyewitness Accounts, History Press, 2007
Dykeman, Wilma The Battle of Kings Mountain, 1780: With Fire and Sword, NPS 1978 (borrow on Archive.org).
Messick, Hank King's Mountain: The epic of the Blue Ridge "mountain men" in the American Revolution, Little Brown, 1976 (borrow on archive.org).
Tucker, Phillip Thomas Kings Mountain: America's Most Forgotten Battle That Changed the Course of the American Revolution, Skyhorse, 2023 (June release).
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.