‘Catching sight of Ferguson silhouetted against the sky, the Rebels let loose a rifle barrage, hitting the major with at least seven bullets’
To those living beyond the Appalachian Mountains, the American Revolution was a faraway war that had begun in the villages of New England and concerned places like New York and Philadelphia. Most of the “overmountain people,” as they were called, descended from immigrants who had come not from England but from a vast Irish territory known as the Ulster Plantation. These Scotch-Irish had defied King George III’s 1763 proclamation that prohibited private settlements west of the mountains. They claimed the forbidden wilderness for their own, felling trees to clear the land for small farms, building dirt-floor log cabins, growing what they needed and living as they pleased—a people apart.
Their “low, lazy, sluttish, heathenish, hellish life” shocked one Anglican missionary sent over the mountains in 1766 to convert them. He had particular difficulty averting his eyes from the “young women,” who had “a most uncommon practice, which I cannot break them of. They draw their shift as tight as possible to the body and pin it close to shew [sic] the roundness of their breasts and slender waists (for they are generally finely shaped) and draw their petticoat close to their hips to shew the fineness of their limbs.”
The ogling missionary was witnessing a new American breed: People who had not migrated from England, people to whom Scotland was a folk memory, a place few of them had even seen. And, as Presbyterians, they had eschewed the hierarchal structure of the Anglican Church in favor of the democracy of the meetinghouse. As a North Carolina minister—and Patriot—explained Presbyterian beliefs: “The Creator had long ago implanted into man’s nature a capacity for civic responsibility. God had taught men to consider themselves His stewards, had given them talents and opportunities and expected them to make the most of those endowments.”
By the spring of 1780, the Revolution was no longer remote. The British army had invaded the South in a campaign aimed at splitting the colonies and forcing an end to the war. The Southern strategy was based on the assumption that local Tories—or Loyalists, as they called themselves—would fight alongside British troops and help restore royal rule.
Never in the history of British North America had so much blood been shed as was spilled in the civil war that raged within the Revolution. Continental Army Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, commander of Rebel forces in the South, wrote a fellow officer that “the Whigs and Tories pursue each other with the most relent[less] fury, killing and destroying each other wherever they meet…plundering one another” and committing “private murders.”
Charleston and large areas of the Carolinas fell to the king’s troops. A British officer boasted of his desire, soon fulfilled, to “rent [sic] a stripe and star from the rebel flag” when Georgia again became a royal colony. By September 1780, the Continental Army fielded no large concentration of troops anywhere in the South. The king’s forces and their Tory friends were snug in the region, their flanks covered by the sea to the east and the mountain barrier to the west. Timid Rebels suggested the time had come to simply let all three of those states revert to colony status under their occupiers.
In late September, Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis decided to expand Britain’s control of the South by leading his army through North Carolina and into Virginia. He ordered Major Patrick Ferguson and the American Volunteers, a Tory militia, to protect the British western flank. Cornwallis had great confidence in Ferguson, who was in charge of recruiting and training the thousands of Southern Tories signing up to fight for the king.
A hard-driving infantry tactician, Ferguson was, in the words of one Tory subordinate, “well informed in the art of war.” He produced well-trained militiamen, teaching recruits to follow signals from his silver whistle, so they could understand his orders even when terrain or the “fog of war” obscured him from view. The British officer was the inventor of the Ferguson breechloading rifle, which could fire some five shots a minute. (While demonstrating his rifle before King George, Ferguson joked that while he could fire seven random shots a minute, “I could not undertake to bring down above five of his majesties enemys [sic] in that time.”)
Born in Scotland in 1744, Ferguson had served as a soldier since age 17. At the September 11, 1777, Battle of Brandywine, he led a rifle company whose men used the weapon he invented. A Patriot musket ball shattered Ferguson’s right elbow that day, and he was never again able to bend that arm. He returned to duty in May 1778 and taught himself to shoot, fence and wield a saber with his left arm.
Following Cornwallis’ practice, Ferguson had been pressuring Carolina Rebels to sign loyalty oaths and receive pardons, as about 1,400 men had done in Augusta, Ga. But so many overmountain men had refused to sign the oaths that an angry Ferguson sent a paroled Whig prisoner into the mountains carrying a warning: If the Rebels “did not desist from their opposition to the British arms,” he would “march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders and lay their country waste with fire and sword.”
The prisoner brought the warning to a Rebel militia colonel in a part of North Carolina that is now Tennessee. Enraged by the threat, the officer immediately met with a neighboring Rebel leader. They agreed there was only one way to respond to the British threat: muster as many men as possible and strike first at Ferguson. A third militia leader from the Virginia backwoods soon appeared, bringing his men.
On September 25, the militia leaders—including colonels Isaac Shelby, Samuel Phillips, John Sevier, William Campbell, Arthur Campbell, Charles McDowell and Andrew Hampton—assembled their troops on the Watauga River at an outpost called Sycamore Shoals (near present-day Elizabethton, Tenn.). Presbyterian minister Samuel Doak addressed the rifle-toting irregulars from Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas. “The enemy is marching hither to destroy your homes.…Go forth, then, in the strength of your manhood to the aid of your brethren, the defense of your liberty and the protection of your homes.”
As the makeshift army left Sycamore Shoals, more men joined it. The force had no supply train, no authorization from the Continental Army and no military structure, aside from the militia colonels and a handful of officers chosen en route. The men, most of them mounted, carried what they needed and prodded cattle along the trail for food on the hoof. More hunters than soldiers, most did not carry muskets, preferring the more accurate long-barreled, small-caliber American rifles. Setting off not to fight for a nation but to defend their cabins and patches of cotton and corn, the irregulars headed south in search of Ferguson and his Tory troops.
The militiamen rode or hiked a wilderness road that led across mountains—one more than a mile high—to the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge in North Carolina. At one point on the 330-mile journey, the army split into two groups, again joining forces near the North Carolina–South Carolina border. Volunteers kept coming. As the army closed to within a few days of its prey, the men numbered more than 1,000.
Ferguson, heading north to cover Cornwallis’ western flank, expected to forage on Loyalist plantations. He often found Rebels instead. At one settlement, for example, a surprised a Tory officer found “the most violent Rebels I ever saw, particularly the young ladies.” Ferguson, aware that a ragtag army was pursuing him, played on the fears of local Tories by issuing a proclamation warning of the imminent arrival of “the backwater men,” a disparaging British term for colonists who lived beyond officially sanctioned territory.
“I say,” Ferguson wrote, “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 bear the name of men, grasp your arms in a moment and run to camp.…If you chuse [sic] to be degraded 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.”
On October 1, Ferguson, informed by spies his pursuers were on his trail, sent a courier to Cornwallis with an urgent request for reinforcements: “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.”
Near the border of the Carolinas, Ferguson encamped with his 1,100 men along a rocky ridge called Kings Mountain, which rose 150 feet above its surroundings. Local hunters had cleared the ridge of trees in order to attract deer, which preferred a forest edge. (The hunters could drop a deer at 200 yards.)
After settling in atop the mountain, Ferguson wrote a letter to a Tory officer and friend who had been a schoolteacher in New Jersey: “Between you and I, there has been an inundation of barbarians, rather larger than expected.” If Ferguson was worried, he did not show it. He had two women with him. One left before the shooting began.
On October 7, a fast-riding detachment of about 900 overmountain men, joined by other Rebels east of the mountains, located Ferguson’s mountaintop encampment. They dismounted, silently surrounded the ridge and started climbing. A recent rainfall had soaked the leaf-carpeted forest floor, muffling the militiamen’s tread and keeping down any telltale dust. Knowing that, like them, the Tory troops would not be wearing uniforms, the Rebel soldiers put bits of white paper in their hats to distinguish friend from foe—Ferguson’s men used pine sprigs. Charging with a yell, the Rebels formed a circle of fire as they climbed, pumping accurate rifle fire into the Tories, falling back briefly before the enemy’s desperate bayonet charges, then ascending again as Ferguson’s men retreated upslope.
During the hour-long battle, Ferguson chirped on his silver whistle and rallied his men, riding his white horse from one strongpoint to another. He wore a red-checkered hunting shirt over his uniform, making him a conspicuous target. Catching sight of him silhouetted against the sky, some Rebels let loose a rifle barrage, hitting Ferguson with at least seven bullets. Captain Abraham DePeyster, a New York Tory, took command and quickly raised a white flag. But the vengeful Rebels kept firing, until one of their officers shouted, “Don’t kill any more! It’s murder!” Finally, the firing died out, and Rebel officers advanced to accept the soundly defeated Loyalists’ surrender.
The next day, local Tories came to seek their loved ones. “Their husbands, fathers, and brothers lay dead in heaps, while others lay wounded or dying,” one Rebel wrote. More than 200 Tories had died outright, and no one knows how many of the 160 wounded survived. A work detail hastily buried Ferguson, reputedly wrapped in a cowhide, in a shallow grave.
The Rebels, who lost 29 men, led off nearly 700 prisoners. At drumhead courts-martial, they condemned 36 of those hapless Tories to death. They hanged nine by torchlight, three at a time, from the limb of a great oak. As three more awaited the noose, Rebel officers managed to stop the bloodshed. The Rebels later executed another prisoner for trying to escape. An unknown number, according to one survivor, “worn out with fatigue and not being able to keep up, were cut down and trodden to death in the mire.”
King’s Mountain was a requiem for Tories throughout America. For the reality of the Revolution played out on that Carolina ridge: The only British subject in the battle was Ferguson. Everyone else was an American, and those who chose to fight for King George III had chosen the losing side.
General Sir Henry Clinton, commander in chief of British forces in North America, later referred to the Battle of Kings Mountain as “the first link of a chain of evils” that ended in “the total loss of America.” After Ferguson’s defeat, Cornwallis retreated into South Carolina. The Continental Congress called forth Nathanael Greene to lead the new Southern army, which ultimately badgered Cornwallis out of the Carolinas and into Virginia, where, at Yorktown, George Washington forged the last link.
For further reading, Thomas Allen recommends: The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, by John Buchanan, and The Southern Strategy: Britain’s Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia, 1775–1780, by David K. Wilson.