They were strong, mostly gaunt men in doeskins, perhaps a thousand of them, with knives at their belts and long huntsmen’s rifles across their saddle horns. They rode from beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains–the western edge of civilization in eighteenth-century North America–from the valleys of such fabled rivers as the Watauga, the Holston, and the Nolichucky; from backwater farms and fields unknown to most Americans; from far beyond the authority of King George III, whose subjects they were in name only.
They valued home, family, and neighbor more than a newborn nation that existed scarcely more in fact than in their hearts. They were ready and some were eager to fight, less for the abstraction of national freedom than for their property and the physical safety of wives and children. Above all, because they had had to learn on a savage frontier to stand up for themselves, they were bound in risk, hardship, and endurance by hatred of a tangible and mounting threat.
By the autumn of 1780, the primary theater of the American Revolutionary War was in the South, colonists and British having fought each other to a standoff in New England and the mid-Atlantic. General George Washington’s Continental Army had regained control of Boston and Philadelphia and remained, ragged and undermanned, in camps scattered around New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Sir Henry Clinton’s Redcoats continued to occupy New York City.
In 1778, recognizing stalemate but calling on British command of the seas, Clinton had dispatched three thousand troops to invade Georgia. The colony was subdued with relative ease, and in 1779 British forces moved into South Carolina. Thus encouraged, and with high hopes for rallying a host of southern colonists to King George (Tory sentiment was stronger in the South than elsewhere) Clinton himself embarked from New York in early 1780, with thirteen thousand additional troops.
His idea was to move north from his Georgia-South Carolina base, subduing the southern colonies one by one. His first target was the major port of Charleston, South Carolina. After a forty-day siege, American General Benjamin Lincoln was forced to surrender the city on May 12, 1780. Still confident of a general Tory uprising, Clinton dispersed his forces throughout upcountry South Carolina, then a roadless wilderness. The British occupied numerous strong points but unwisely engaged in plunder and terror, thus damping whatever Tory ardor there might have been.
Clinton re-embarked for New York and the pleasures of an American city sophisticated for that era, leaving General Lord Charles Cornwallis, an able and experienced veteran of European wars, in command in the South. In response, following the fall of Charleston, the Continental Congress scraped together a makeshift army of untrained volunteers and militiamen from Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. This force went south under the command of General Horatio Gates, whose New England army at Saratoga had thwarted General John Burgoyne’s British invasion from Canada.
However, General Gates, the ‘Hero of Saratoga,’ proved in the South to be greatly overrated. His crude army of three thousand men was routed by Cornwallis near Camden, South Carolina on August 16, 1780. Gates himself was prominent among the panicked Patriots who fled the battlefield–many not stopping until they reached North Carolina.
With the crushing defeat of the last sizable American force in the South, Cornwallis apparently had an open path for the invasion of North Carolina, Virginia, and the colonies beyond. In September 1780, he moved north in three formidable columns: himself commanding the main force in the center, Colonel Banastre Tarleton leading the British Legion cavalry and light infantry on the right (eastern) flank, and Major Patrick Ferguson, an energetic but vain Scotsman, at the head of a Tory force on the left (western) flank.
Ferguson at age thirty-six was a remarkable soldier who had been in the king’s service since he was fifteen years old and had considerable combat experience in Europe, the West Indies, and with Clinton in America. Ferguson’s military style had won him the nickname ‘Bull Dog.’ Whether as an idiosyncrasy or an affectation, Ferguson customarily directed his forces in battle with shrill blasts on a silver whistle.
Reputed to be the best marksman in the British Army, he once had had the Continental Army commander General George Washington himself in his sights. Wearing a ‘remarkably large cocked hat,’ Washington had been on a personal reconnaissance of the British position at Brandywine Creek when he was spotted by Ferguson. The Scotsman tried to capture rather than shoot his quarry, and the American commander took flight and escaped.
‘I could have lodged half a dozen balls in or about him before he was out of my reach,’ Ferguson later remarked, after learning the identity of the tall officer who had eluded him. ‘But it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual who was acquitting himself coolly of his duty, so I left him alone.’
Even in the era of muzzle-loading muskets, Ferguson actually might have ‘lodged half a dozen balls’ in Washington’s body: He was not only a crack shot, but had invented and was using a highly accurate breech-loading rifle which could get off many more shots per minute than the standard-issue British ‘Brown Bess’ smoothbore musket. Unfortunately for the British, Ferguson’s rifle was never manufactured in great numbers.
The British victory at Charleston had emboldened many southern Loyalists to take up arms. Backwoods Patriots were aroused to fury by the British invaders and by the activities of their Tory allies. In defense of their homes, fields, and sometimes even in the cause of independence, small bands of them–under the skilled leadership of men like Lt. Col. Francis Marion, the ‘Swamp Fox,’ and Brig. Gen. Thomas Sumter, the ‘Carolina Gamecock’–waged an effective guerrilla war.
Vicious guerrilla tactics and savagery on both sides made what was essentially a civil war particularly hate-filled and ferocious. Hessian soldiers on the British side further inflamed Patriot anger with flagrant plunder and theft, as they sought to enrich themselves from a foreign war in which they had little other interest, save staying alive.
Tarleton and Ferguson were special objects of patriotic hatred. Near Waxhaw, South Carolina, Tarleton’s cavalry had overtaken about four hundred retreating Virginia militiamen who had come to South Carolina too late to assist Benjamin Lincoln in defending Charleston. The Virginians’ commander, Colonel Abraham Buford, had sought to surrender, but Tarleton’s troopers refused and killed more than a hundred of them outright, maimed and wounded many more, and took only fifty-three prisoners. Less than two hundred of the militiamen escaped. Those who escaped were more than enough to spread far and wide the story of Tarleton’s massacre.
Ferguson was sent by the commanding general to the frontier outpost of Ninety-Six, so named because it was ninety-six miles from an important Indian town on the Keowee River, to rally local Tories to the cause. Ferguson was very successful at raising Tory volunteers because he was an effective leader with the knack of winning the affections of his forces. He soon had his new troops organized into thoroughly drilled and disciplined military units, especially effective with the bayonet. To his original force of about one hundred men–all Tories drawn from the King’s American Rangers, the New Jersey Volunteers, and the Loyal American Regiment–Ferguson was able to add a thousand Loyalist backwoodsmen. He was the only British regular in his entire force of about eleven hundred.
With this newly organized army, Ferguson terrorized large areas of South Carolina and north Georgia. Eventually, Ferguson penetrated as far north as Gilbert Town (now Rutherfordton) in North Carolina, a hamlet known as a gathering place for Patriots. There he learned from spies that what they wildly exaggerated as three thousand backwoodsmen were gathering to march against him from ‘over the mountain’–in what is now Tennessee.
Ferguson had come to hate the guerrillas with whom he had been so fiercely and unconventionally fighting. He also believed he was leading a historic campaign that ultimately would make his military reputation and perhaps his private fortune. He must have allowed such dreams and his vanity to get the better of him, because he arrogantly sent the reputed over the mountain gathering a fiery written warning that if they did not cease opposition to King George III, he would ‘hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.’
Throwing down the gauntlet like that did not sit well with the independent mountain men who were gathering to resist him. Among the leaders of the gathering Patriot army were such men as Issac Shelby (later the first governor of Kentucky) and John Sevier (‘Nolichucky Jack,’ later the first governor of Tennessee). By September 25, 1780, about one thousand fighting men from Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia–all itching to give Patrick Ferguson a lesson in manners and warfare–had assembled at Sycamore Springs on the Watauga River. Most were mounted; all were armed, and not just with rifles, pistols, and knives. In an era of simple beliefs, they were confident that a blessing from on high accompanied them.
‘Oh, God of battle,’ prayed the Reverend Samuel Doak, specifically recruited for such a farewell by John Sevier, ‘arise in Thy might. Avenge the slaughter of Thy people…. Help us as good soldiers to wield the sword of the Lord and Gideon!’
Armed with their weapons and faith, the over the mountain army–leaving a reluctant contingent to guard houses and farms–marched eastward by companies on September 26. In five days, sometimes through early snow, they covered ninety miles over the Blue Ridge Mountains to Quaker Meadows on the Catawba River in North Carolina. There, 350 additional fighting men joined them. Then the column pushed on toward Gilbert Town, eating mostly parched corn and raw turnips, encountering once a violent rainstorm.
An officers’ council chose Colonel Charles McDowell, who had brought in 160 North Carolinians, overall leader. Later, McDowell departed for Horatio Gates’ headquarters in search of a regular soldier to take command, and the council voted temporary leadership to Colonel William Campbell of Virginia (‘Old Round About,’ who weighed more than three hundred pounds).
Ferguson–well informed of the column’s approach but wrongly believing he was greatly outnumbered–had moved east toward Charlotte, North Carolina, and Cornwallis’ main force. On October 5, he was only fifty miles from both, at Tate’s plantation. From there, he appealed to Cornwallis for ‘three or four hundred good soldiers, part dragoons’ to help finish off the’set of mongrels’ moving to attack him. For some reason, Cornwallis did not receive this request in time, and from Tate’s the Scotsman led his Tory army northeastward to what he apparently considered an impregnable position on top of King’s Mountain.
The ‘mountain’ really was not much more than a thickly forested hill named for a family living near its foot and rising steeply about sixty feet from rolling terrain. Part of a sixteen-mile-long range of larger and smaller hills rising in North Carolina and running southwest into York County, South Carolina, King’s Mountain had a spring to water Ferguson’s men and horses and plenty of timber for barricades. The hill, about six hundred yards in length at its base, was shaped not unlike a caveman’s club, with the thicker, or wider, end at the northeast. Its crest, averaging not much more than thirty feet in width, was relatively flat and clear of trees and underbrush.
Confident that attackers would not be able to fight their way up the steep, wooded slopes of the mountain under fire, and perhaps too reliant on his bayonet-trained troops, Ferguson disdained to cut down trees for barricades. Instead, he placed wagons and baggage as a weak barrier along the northeast crest, where he established headquarters, and deployed his men along both sides and ends of the hilltop to await attack.
After arriving at Gilbert Town on October 4, leaders of the over the mountain army learned that Ferguson had moved eastward. They pushed on in pursuit and on October 6 rendezvoused with four hundred more men in South Carolina, at Cowpens–so named for a number of cattle enclosures owned by a wealthy Tory and later to be the scene of another significant battle in the war. At Cowpens, they also learned that Ferguson was at King’s Mountain, or thereabouts. Fearing he would escape and in the interests of speed they divided the force, which by then numbered about seventeen hundred men. A select group of about nine hundred, all mounted, pushed on to attack Ferguson before he could join Cornwallis at Charlotte.
The attacking party rode all night in rain that sometimes became a downpour, pausing several times to recover lost or wandering groups. They halted in the early afternoon of October 7, about a mile from Ferguson’s hilltop stronghold. The rain had ceased, and the sun was breaking through clouds. The men dismounted, left their horses in charge of pickets, and, advancing on foot, formed a ‘horseshoe of iron’ around King’s Mountain and Patrick Ferguson’s despised Loyalists–the foe they had come so far to engage.
The attackers were loosely organized backwoodsmen not much given to discipline, tactics, or strategy–especially of the European variety. However, owing in part to Ferguson’s overconfidence in his troops, as well as the rain that had prevented dust from betraying its approach, the over the mountain army had the advantage of surprise, and their leaders had formed a general plan of assault. Campbell’s and Shelby’s men (Virginians, Tennesseans, and North Carolinians) would attack first, on both sides of the southwestern end of the ridge, while the rest of the force encircled the northeastern slopes, taking position for later attack. According to legend, Old Round About signaled the advance with a stentorian roar, ‘Shout like hell and fight like devils!’
That was easier said than done, as Campbell’s backwoodsmen soon learned. They dodged up the slope from tree to rock to tree like the Indians from whom they had learned tactics, but Ferguson’s well-trained force on the hilltop let loose a volley, remembered by one Patriot attacker as ‘one long sulfurous blaze.’ Other such volleys quickly followed. The timber and rocks gave the attackers cover, and much of the plunging fire passed harmlessly over their heads, but the Tories then launched a bayonet charge down the hillside. Cold steel is a feared weapon, especially for untrained men, and Campbell’s attackers quickly fell back. But from the base of the hill they broke the Tory attack with precise individual fire from their long hunting rifles.
At about this time, Isaac Shelby’s and John Sevier’s men, arranged opposite William Campbell’s on the facing southern slope, started toward the crest. They met the same type of opposition–volleys and a bayonet charge–and also retreated. They, too, halted at the foot of the hill to break the Loyalist attack with their marksmanship. Then Campbell’s men, egged on by their burly leader, attacked again, with the same result. Then it was Sevier’s turn for a second, unsuccessful try, then Shelby’s.
Ferguson’s whistle blasts were ringing over the hillsides. Meanwhile, however, Patriot forces sheltered behind trees and rocks were pouring in an ‘irregular and destructive fire’ that took a deadly toll in the Scotsmen’s ranks. At about this time, ‘the fight…seemed to become furious,’ a sixteen-year-old under Colonel Benjamin Cleveland’s command remembered. He was right; Patriots in position at the northern end of King’s Mountain were attacking up its steep slopes.
An early death came to Major William Chronicle, aged only twenty-five, when he was killed instantly by a Loyalist volley as he led the ‘South Fork Boys’ of Lincoln County, North Carolina. From a monument now at the site of his death a visitor is afforded an intimidating glimpse of the desperate conditions of the battle. Above the monument, King’s Mountain rises steeply, its rough terrain and tangled timber appearing all but impenetrable–particularly against volley-firing defenders and bayonet charges.
When the attack on the northwestern slopes opened against Ferguson, however, he was forced to defend all sides of the crest at once. He could not do it, having neither the manpower nor clear fields of fire. Patriot fighters swarmed up the forested hillsides all around Ferguson’s suddenly vulnerable position, yelling like Indians, ducking from massive trees to huge boulders, pausing only to fire with deadly hunters’ marksmanship into the defenders’ ranks.
With support from the northern end, Sevier’s, Campbell’s, and Shelby’s forces attacked the southwestern slopes again, finally gaining the summit. Cleveland and other attackers soon poured over the northeastern crest, too, taking the defenders in rear and flank. Though Ferguson’s position was now desperate and he was urged by subordinates to surrender and avoid further bloodshed, the undaunted Scotsman continued the battle–his vanity and his contempt for his backwoods opponents perhaps deluding him, even then, into believing that somehow he might still win the battle. As a result of his tenacity, some of the day’s hardest-fought and bloodiest action took place on the crest of King’s Mountain after it was overrun. Participants for years remembered pandemonium: the shrill blasts of Ferguson’s whistle mingled with backwoodsmen’s loud yells, the roar of hundreds of blazing guns, shouts of command, pain and fear, and a thick sulfuric fog from black powder that hung over the battle, blinding and smothering Patriot and Loyalist alike. Only the dead were oblivious.
Apparently, even Patrick Ferguson finally realized that the battle was irretrievably lost. Two horses were shot from under him, but he mounted another and with two companions attempted to cut his way through the encircling Patriots. He wore a checkered hunting shirt, clasped his famed whistle in his teeth, and wielded his sword with his left hand, a wound at the Battle of Brandywine having cost him the use of his right arm.
It may have been spectacular, but like his futile stand on the crest, Ferguson’s dash through the Patriot lines soon came to an ignominious end. Crack frontier riflemen quickly brought him and his two companions down–igniting a brisk debate in the over the mountain army and among later myth-makers as to which rifleman, from what unit, fired the shot that actually killed the Scotsman. That has never been settled, but as Ferguson fell from his horse, his foot caught in a stirrup, and he was dragged around a circle of victorious backwoodsmen.
‘It is very likely,’ wrote Pat Alderman in 1968 in a detailed account of the battle, ‘that many shots were fired into the body during this episode.’ Ferguson was a hated man, Tarleton’s massacre at Waxhaw was well remembered, the backwoods war was at its savage height, the victorious Patriots’ blood was up, and in the heat of a desperate battle that would not have been the only vengeful act committed by the King’s aroused opponents.
When, for instance, the defeated and demoralized Tory survivors finally were herded into an area only about sixty yards long, Ferguson’s second-in-command, Captain Abraham DePeyster, waved a white flag of surrender, and many of the frightened Loyalists called out for mercy. But the Patriot fire continued, and numerous Tories died with their hands in the air. One Patriot reported to have shot men who had already surrendered was John Sevier, who believed at the time that Tory raiders had killed his father. Lack of adequate communication between units, and between officers and men, aggravated the Patriots’ thirst for revenge. Finally, Colonels Shelby and Campbell managed to halt the shooting and restore a semblance of order.
Later, as the Patriot army began to separate into its regional units, thirty-six Tory prisoners were court-martialed for various acts of alleged lawlessness and, after a day-long trial, sentenced to death. On October 14, at Bickerstaff’s Farm in North Carolina (Captain Aaron Bickerstaff, a Tory, died at King’s Mountain), nine of the condemned men were strung up from a limb of an oak known for years afterwards as the ‘Gallows Tree.’ However, after one of the condemned men made a daring escape, Shelby, Sevier, and some of the other officers put a stop to the executions.
As is common in warfare, a night of horror followed the Patriot victory. There was no hospital, but makeshift litters were fashioned from tent cloth. Water from the spring and a captured keg of rum were available for the wounded, and one British surgeon had lived to treat survivors on both sides with the primitive medical skills of the time. The possibility of a counterattack by Tarleton’s Dragoons added fear to the Patriots’–and hope to the prisoners’–sleepless night.
Casualty figures are unreliable at best, since the over the mountain army kept no formal rolls and British figures are disputed. A monument erected by the American government on the crest of King’s Mountain lists the names of 29 Patriots killed, four mortally wounded, 34 wounded, and 24 unknown.
Ferguson appears from British Army returns to have commanded 1,187 men, of whom more than 150 were killed, about the same wounded, and 810 captured. Various accounts use slightly different figures.
On the morning of October 8, still fearful of an attack by the dreaded Tarleton, the victorious army, leaving burial parties behind, was quickly on the march. Encumbered by a large body of walking prisoners, the army plodded westward for several days. Many of the wounded were left in Patriot houses along the way. Not until late on the night of October 15, on the west bank of the Catawba River, after a march of thirty-two miles, could the victors of King’s Mountain relax and rest. A rain-swollen stream was between them and what they still feared was Tarleton’s pursuit.
The next day, their mission accomplished, the various units began to depart for home. A mix of detachments escorted the dwindling band of Loyalist prisoners to the Yadkin River valley and down it toward the headquarters of General Gates. At Bethabara, a Moravian town near Salem, North Carolina, Campbell and Shelby departed for home. They left the three hundred remaining prisoners in charge of Colonel Cleveland.
Ultimately, about two hundred Tories taken prisoner at the battle were delivered to General Gates. The rest, perhaps six hundred–all Americans–had escaped, were dead of sundry natural causes, had disappeared, or in many cases had been murdered while in Patriot hands.
In strangely similar fashion, the over the mountain army all but vanished into legend. But it was no myth. It was formed to meet a specific threat. A fighting force that belied its lack of training and discipline, it vanquished Ferguson’s trained Loyalists as intended, then melted into the backwoods from which it had come.
Patrick Ferguson was buried near the spot where he was shot, under a cairn of stones (about five feet high) that befits his Scottish birth and recalls the prevalence of wolves in the American wilderness and on King’s Mountain in 1780. By the cairn, a monument to Ferguson as a lieutenant colonel in the Highland Light Infantry, 71st Regiment, was erected in 1930 by Americans ‘in token of their appreciation of the bonds of friendship and peace between them and the citizens of the British Empire.’
It’s a noble sentiment but an irony nonetheless; at King’s Mountain one of history’s most savage battles among neighbors came to a bloody and tragic resolution. Southern Tories never again rose in arms as significant supporters of King George’s cause in America, while Patriots everywhere were emboldened to continue fighting.
Here, too, at Patrick Ferguson’s stone-strewn grave, began the long British descent toward final defeat in 1781. A thunderstruck and fever-ridden Cornwallis, his left wing and his high hopes destroyed by the over the mountain army, retreated into South Carolina as a result of what Sir Henry Clinton called ‘the first link of a chain of evils’ that ended in ‘the total loss of America.’ Cornwallis’ retreat gave the Continental Congress time to organize a new southern army, with the capable Nathaniel Greene in command.
As Washington’s Continentals closed in on land from the north and a French fleet took command of the seacoast, Greene’s ragged troops harried Cornwallis’ Redcoats through the Carolinas to surrender in Virginia, ‘the world turned upside down.’ With Cornwallis’ surrender, the rise to independence and power of thirteen jealous colonies clamoring toward nationhood was complete.
This article was written by Tom Wicker and originally published in the Autumn 1998 edition of MHQ. For more great articles, subscribe to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History today!