Battle of Kings Mountain

October 7, 1780, near the North and South Carolina border

The plateau of the mountain is in Cleveland County, NC

The battlefield and park are in York County, SC

By Peggy Beach

Dated 1997

Historians consider the Battle of Kings Mountain to be the "turning point in the South" in America's War for Independence. The victory of Patriots over Loyalist troops destroyed the left wing of Cornwallis' army. The battle also effectively ended, at least temporarily, the British advance into North Carolina. Lord Cornwallis was forced to retreat from Charlotte into South Carolina to wait for reinforcements. The victory of the Overmountain Men allowed General Nathaniel Greene the opportunity to reorganize the American Army.

When British General Henry Clinton learned of his men's defeat at Kings Mountain, he is reported to have called it "the first link of a chain of evils" that he feared might lead to the collapse of the British plans to quash the Patriot rebellion. He was right. American forces went on to defeat the British at Cowpens. A little more than a year after Kings Mountain, Washington accepted Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown, Virginia.

PATRICK FERGUSON -- KEEN RIFLEMAN

The leader of the Loyalist troops was Major Patrick Ferguson. Ferguson would be the only British regular to serve at Kings Mountain. All other soldiers were Americans -- Patriot and Loyalist.

Joining the British army at age 15, Ferguson was a well known marksman and the inventor of a breechloading rifle. The son of a Scottish judge, Ferguson had an affable disposition, a gentle face and was slight of build. Nevertheless, his soldiers named him "Bulldog."

Ferguson distinguished himself early on in his military career. Serving as a cornet in the Royal North British Dragoons, Ferguson was considered by his superiors as a courageous fighter during the wars of Flanders and Germany in the 1760's. In 1768, he joined the Seventieth Regiment of Foot in the West Indies, where British troops engaged in guerilla warfare with the native Carib tribes. Ferguson went for garrison duty at Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1773 but soon became bored.

Ferguson's ability with a rifle was well known. While visiting his family's estate in Scotland before the American Revolution, he began to develop a rifle of his own. After completing the invention, Ferguson displayed the rifle for military leaders and even King George III witnessed one of Ferguson's demonstrations.

During one demonstration, Ferguson fired at a rate of 4-6 shots per minute during pouring rain and high wind. Apparently, Ferguson only missed the target three times while firing from a distance of 200 yards -- this was not possible with the British Brown Bess musket. A patent was issued and a limited number of the breechloading rifles were produced. Ferguson established an elite rifle corps which joined Sir Henry Clinton in America. Their mission: to help stop the rebellion in the colonies.

FERGUSON HAS WASHINGTON IN HIS SIGHTS

At the Battle of Brandywine (September 11, 1777), Ferguson was wounded in the arm and his rifle corps was later disbanded. The Ferguson rifles were removed and very few have been seen since. There is no evidence that the Ferguson rifle was used at the Battle of Kings Mountain.

It was at the Battle of Brandywine that Ferguson distinguished himself further though many did not know about it until the 20th century. Scholars believe that  Ferguson was the British soldier who had George Washington in his gun sight. Ferguson did not pull the trigger, saying that "it is ungentlemanly to shoot a man in the back of the head." 

Ferguson himself mentioned the incident in a letter he dictated a few months later. During the battle, he did not realize the identity of the American officer. While recuperating in the hospital from his arm injury, he discovered that the American officer in question was George Washington. Ferguson wrote that even if he had known, he would not have pulled the trigger. Ferguson's letters are available in the library at Edinburgh University.

Ferguson later fought in the battles of Monmouth and Little Egg Harbor. He was also active in many other battles in the New York and Hudson area. Impressing his superiors with his valor, Ferguson was promoted to Major in 1779.

Late that year, he was selected to command a corps of 300 men, called the American Volunteers. The men were Loyalists, handpicked from units in the New York and New Jersey area. The corps, along with Ferguson, arrived in the South in early February 1780. Ferguson, a persuasive individual, immediately gathered support in Savannah and Augusta before Clinton ordered him to Charleston.

During the invasion of that city, Ferguson worked with the legendary Banastre Tarleton, who had angered many Patriots after his massacre of soldiers trying to surrender to him at Waxhaw. Author Washington Irving later wrote that Ferguson and Tarleton were "equally intrepid and determined but Ferguson is cooler, and more open to the impulses of humanity." In fact, some researchers believe that Ferguson despised Tarleton's methods.

After Charleston fell, Ferguson was appointed to the position of Inspector General of the Militia. Clinton and Cornwallis gave him the mission to organize a volunteer corps of Loyalists troops. Ferguson's men thought highly of him -- he had a natural ability to gain their affection and respect. The Scot was known for spending hours in conversations with the ordinary people around the villages and towns in South Carolina. South Carolina remained a Loyalist stronghold until the end of the war, largely due to his influence.

PRELUDE TO BATTLE

During the summer of 1780, Ferguson and his provincial corps of 150 traveled through South Carolina and into North Carolina gathering support for His Majesty's cause. While marching through the upcountry of South Carolina, the Loyalists engaged in minor skirmishes with militia regiments. Some of those small battles happened at places like Wofford's Iron Works, Musgrove's Mill, Thicketty Fort, and Cedar Spring. However in August, after the Americans lost at the Battle of Camden, the Over Mountain Men retired to their homes in western North Carolina to rest before going after Ferguson again.

THE MARCH TO KINGS MOUNTAIN

Meanwhile in September, Cornwallis invaded North Carolina. His final objective was to march into Virginia. To protect his troops from guerilla attack, Cornwallis ordered Ferguson to move northward into western North Carolina before joining the main British Army in Charlotte.

In late September, Ferguson camped at Gilbert Town (near present day Rutherfordton). He sent a message to Colonel Isaac Shelby, whom he considered to be the leader of the "backwater men." The message said that if Shelby and his men did not stop their opposition to the British, Ferguson would march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders and "lay the country waste with fire and sword." The Patriots would have none of it.

On September 25, Patriot leaders and Colonels Charles McDowell, John Sevier, Isaac Shelby and William Campbell gathered at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River (near present day Tennessee). They marched five days over the snow covered mountains to the Quaker Meadows Plantation owned by McDowell's family (in present day Morganton). There, they were joined by  more frontiersmen including those serving under Benjamin Cleveland and Joseph Winston. The troops marched toward Gilbert Town and Ferguson.

Spies told Ferguson the Patriots were on their way. Ferguson had stayed at Gilbert Town hoping to intercept another Patriot force, heading northward. Calling in reinforcements, the Scot began to march toward Charlotte to receive the protection of Cornwallis' main army. He sent an appeal to loyal North Carolinians  -- for them to save themselves from the "backwater men...a set of mongrels." Late on October 6, Ferguson received word from his spies that the Americans were close behind him. Camping at Kings Mountain, near the North Carolina border, he sent a message to Cornwallis requesting reinforcements. "Three or four hundred good soldiers," he wrote, "would finish the business. Something must be done soon." Desperately short of provisions, Ferguson sent out a foraging party of 150 men. He then organized a defense and prepared to meet the enemy.

When the Patriots realized that Ferguson was not at Gilbert Town, they became determined to pursue and fight him. The soldiers followed Ferguson, leaving their weak comrades and horses at Gilbert Town. On October 6 at Cowpens in South Carolina, the Over Mountain Men were joined by 400 South Carolinians under Colonel James Williams and others. The soldiers learned from spy Joseph Kerr that Ferguson was definitely camped about 30 miles ahead in the vicinity of Kings Mountain. Shelby was especially pleased to learn that Ferguson was quoted as saying,   that he "was on Kings Mountain, that he was king of that mountain and that God Almighty and all the Rebels of hell could not drive him from it."

The seven colonels chose Campbell as their officer of the day to carry out the plans they adopted collectively. Fearing Ferguson would escape, the colonels selected 900 of their best men to pursue the Loyalists.

The Patriots marched through the night and the next day, through pouring rain and intermittent showers. They reached Kings Mountain the next day, Saturday October 7 just after noon.

Kings Mountain is an outlying portion of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A heavily rocky and wooded area, the mountain rises 60 feet above the plain surrounding it. The campsite was supposedly an ideal place for Ferguson to camp because the mountain has a plateau at its summit. The plateau is 600 yards long and 70 feet wide at one end and 120 feet wide at the other. The Scot considered the summit too steep to be scaled.

THE BATTLE BEGINS

Upon arriving at Kings Mountain, the Patriot soldiers dismounted. After tying up the horses, the soldiers formed in a horseshoe around the base of the mountain behind their leaders, who remained on horseback.

Ferguson was right in believing that his would be attackers would expose themselves to musket fire if they attempted to scale the summit. But Ferguson did not realize his men could only fire if they went out into the open, exposing themselves to musket fire. Most of the Patriot troops were skilled hunters who routinely killed fast moving animals. On this day, Ferguson's men would not find escape an easy task.

The fighting began around 3 p.m. when some of Ferguson's men noticed the Patriot soldiers surrounding the mountain. After a brief skirmish, the shooting began in earnest when two of the Patriot regiments opened fire on the Loyalists simultaneously. The Loyalists fired back but the Patriots were protected by the heavily wooded area.

The regiments commanded by Colonels Isaac Shelby and William Campbell marched toward Ferguson's men but were driven back twice by Loyalist fire. But as one regiment was driven back, another would advance. Ferguson had to shift his reserves from one place to another while continuing to take heavy losses from the concealed American sharpshooters in the trees. Eventually, other Patriot troops provided enough support that Shelby and Campbell's regiments reached the summit.

During the battle, Patrick Ferguson commanded his men with the use of a silver whistle. Many Patriot fighters later recalled hearing the sound of Ferguson's whistle over the sound of the rifle fire. The whistle and the checkered hunting shirt he wore over his uniform made the Scottish commander quite noticeable on the battlefield.

After nearly an hour of fighting, Ferguson suddenly fell from his horse. One foot was hanging in his stirrup -- several, perhaps as many as eight bullets were in his body. Some accounts say he died before he hit the ground. Other accounts say that his men propped him against a tree, where he died. Ferguson was the only British soldier killed in the battle -- all others were Americans, either Loyalist or Patriot.

Ferguson's second in command then ordered that a white flag of surrender be hoisted.

Despite the call for surrender by the Loyalists, the Patriots could not immediately stop their men from shooting. Many Patriots remembered that the infamous Colonel Tarleton had mowed down Patriot troops at Waxhaw despite the fact that the troops were trying to surrender. Eventually, the fighting at Kings Mountain stopped.

In all, 225 Loyalists were killed, 163 were wounded, 716 were taken prisoner. 28 Patriots were killed and 68 were wounded. Among the Patriot dead: Colonel James Williams of South Carolina.

BATTLE ENDS: PATRIOTS MARCH PRISONERS TO HILLSBOROUGH

After the battle, the victorious Patriots and the captured Loyalists had to camp together. Soon it became dark and the cries of the wounded were heard and often unheeded.

The next morning, the sun came out for the first time in days. Fearing that Cornwallis would soon be upon them, many of the Patriot militia left for their homes. A contingent of Patriots took the prisoners northward to the Continental Army jurisdiction in Hillsborough.

During the journey, a number of prisoners were brutally beaten and some prisoners were hacked with swords. A number of unjust murders took place -- not the Patriots finest hour. The injustices continued a week later when a committee of Patriots appointed a jury to try some of the so-called "obnoxious" Loyalists. 36 Loyalists were found guilty of breaking open houses, burning houses and killing citizens. Nine were hanged.

CORNWALLIS IS SHAKEN BY THE NEWS; WITHDRAWS INTO SOUTH CAROLINA

Cornwallis was shaken when the news of Ferguson's defeat reached his headquarters. He remained in Charlotte a few days before withdrawing back into South Carolina to the British post at Winnsboro. 

The British could not count on reinforcements from other South Carolina posts to help them -- the news of victory at Kings Mountain had revived Patriot hopes. The victory triggered bonfires and street dancing in cities held by the Patriots. Soon, Patriot leaders such as Thomas Sumter, Elijah Clarke and Francis "The Swamp Fox" Marion stepped up their harassment of British troops. Patriot sympathizers increased their assaults on Tory neighbors.

COUNTDOWN TO YORKTOWN

Cornwallis was not inactive however. He sent Tarleton and a Major Wemyss in hot pursuit of Marion and Sumter. On November 9, Sumter was fully prepared when Wemyss attempted a surprise attack on his forces at Fish Dam Ford. Wemyss and 25 of his men were captured. Sumter then moved with 240 toward the British fort at Ninety Six. Tarleton stopped his pursuit of Marion and went to Fort Ninety Six. Deciding not to face Tarleton at that time, Sumter fled northward to Blackstock's Plantation. On November 20, Tarleton attacked Sumter's forces but to no avail. Tarleton lost 100 men while the Americans only lost three. Tarleton then rejoined Cornwallis.

Meanwhile, Clinton sent General Alexander Leslie to Virginia to prepare for battle there. Leslie was to be under the direct orders of Cornwallis. Cornwallis  ordered Leslie to come to South Carolina -- he planned to resume his invasion of North Carolina as soon as Leslie arrived. Believing that Patriot leader Daniel Morgan planned to attack Fort Ninety Six, Cornwallis sent Tarleton to deal with the backwoodsman. Expecting Leslie to arrive in mid-January, Cornwallis planned to advance rapidly northward and cut off the two American armies (Nathaniel Greene's men in the South from George Washington's men in the North). He also hoped to stop the advance of Morgan's forces should they survive the expected encounter with Tarleton.

Cornwallis's hopes were dashed. Morgan's men soundly defeated Tarleton's Legion at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17. Morgan, who was ill with rheumatism and other ailments,  joined Greene's army before returning to his home in Virginia. Greene saw that Cornwallis, who had left South Carolina, was getting further away from his train of supplies and provisions. Eventually, the two forces met in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Technically, the British won that battle but it was a Pyrrhic victory because British losses were high. One man in four was killed, wounded or captured.

Throughout the summer, skirmishes were fought across the Carolinas and Virginia. In September, the army of Cornwallis and the army of Washington met at Yorktown. After a 20-day battle, Cornwallis surrendered. The war officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris two years later.

LEGACY OF KINGS MOUNTAIN

Many of the Patriot leaders at Kings Mountain went on to serve in their new country's government.

John Sevier became Governor of Tennessee and Isaac Shelby became Governor of Kentucky. Returning to his home in Burke County, Charles McDowell served in the N.C. State Legislature and later the U.S. Congress. Joseph Winston also served in the U.S. Congress. He later represented his home of Surry and Stokes counties in the N.C. State Legislature. Benjamin Cleveland served as a judge for many years before his death in 1806.   William Campbell did not survive the war. He died of a heart ailment in August 1781 while visiting relatives in Hanover County.

As the years passed, the battle of Kings Mountain was remembered by historians and local residents alike. Many roads and towns in Western North Carolina bear the names of the battle's participants. McDowell County is named Charles McDowell and his family. McDowell and his soldiers thought so highly of Daniel Morgan that they persuaded residents of Burke County to name the county seat Morganton.

The North Carolina city of Kings Mountain used to be called White Plains. When the city was incorporated in 1874, Mrs. James Wright Tracey decided that Kings Mountain would be a more appropriate name since the community was the closest town to the mountain.

The City of Shelby is named for Isaac Shelby. Many streets in Shelby including Washington, Lafayette and Marion, are named for Revolutionary War heroes.

Shelby and Kings Mountain are in Cleveland County, which was named for Benjamin Cleveland. The county was formed in 1841 and until 1885, spelled its name "Cleaveland," just the way the colonel spelled his name. However, in 1885, Grover Cleveland became president and there was some confusion over the spelling of the county's name. In 1887, a special bill was passed in the North Carolina General Assembly which authorized the elimination of the letter a.

Very few Cleveland County residents actually fought in the battle of Kings Mountain. Historians estimate that the number was around 35 persons -- the area at the time was not heavily populated. One soldier who did fight was Colonel Fredrick Hambright. Hambright led a company of men onto the battlefield. He was severely wounded in the thigh, which caused him to limp for the rest of his life.

Commemorating the battle has been important throughout the years. At the Centennial Celebration in 1880, a 28-foot granite monument was unveiled. Through the efforts of Congressmen E.Y. Webb of North Carolina and D.E. Finley of South Carolina in the early 1900's, Congress appropriated $30,000 to erect a taller monument. That monument was unveiled in 1909.

In 1912, the legendary lawyer William Jennings Bryan was the guest speaker at a celebration of the battle. On October 7, 1930, President Herbert Hoover rode down from Washington in a train to visit the battlefield and speak at the 150th anniversary celebrations. In 1933, Congress authorized $225,000 to make the Kings Mountain battlefield a National Military Park. In 1994,  the park entertained more than 451,000 visitors.

Patrick Ferguson has also received a measure of fame. As mentioned earlier,   20th century scholars believe Ferguson was the would be George Washington assailant at the battle of Brandywine. Ferguson has also received acclaim for his invention, the breechloading Ferguson rifle. Sycamore Shoals State Park and the John Sevier State Historic Site are looking for working Ferguson rifles for their museum exhibits. Some gunsmiths say that further use of the rifle would possibly have changed the outcome of the American Revolution and definitely the result of the War of 1812.

Historians agree that the battle of Kings Mountain was the beginning of the end of British rule in its former colonies. In less than one hour of battle, the Overmountain Men not only captured the day but also punctured holes in the British strategy for keeping America under its control.

 

Written by Peggy Beach, Cleveland County Public Information Officer

BIBLIOGRAPHY

(Obviously, all books about the Revolutionary War and the Battle of Kings Mountain cannot be listed. This bibliography represents material frequently used by Cleveland County residents)

Dann, John C. ed. The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980.

Draper, Lyman C. Kings Mountain and its Heroes: History of the Battle of Kings Mountain, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1967.

Dupuy, R. Ernest and Trevor N. Dupuy, eds. The Compact History of the Revolutionary War, New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1963

Ferguson Rifle Campaign. Page on Web Site of South Doc Productions. www.southdoc.net/tnchron/ferguson1.htm.

Florette, Henri. Kings Mountain. Garden City: Doubleday, 1950.

Garrison, Webb. Great Stories of the American Revolution. Nashville, Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press, 1990.

Gilchrist, M.M. Dr. Scottish historian. E-mail address: docm@mhie0028.u-net.com

Gilmer, Bobby Moss. The Patriots of Kings Mountain. Blacksburg, S.C.: Scotia-Hubernia, 1990.

Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, Page on the N.C. State Library Web Site, www.statelibrary.dcr.state.nc.us

The Heritage of Cleveland County. Volume 1. The Cleveland County Historical Association. Winston-Salem, N.C.: Hunter Publishing Company, 1982.

Kelly, James C. and William C. Baker. The Sword of the Lord and Gideon: A Catalogue of Historical Objects Related to the Battle of Kings Mountain. Boone: Appalachian Consortium Press, 1980.

Kings Mountain National Military Park, Internet Web Site, www.nps.gov/kimo.

Kings Mountain National Military Park. Sights Magazine Web Site, www.sightsmag.com

Messick, Hank. Kings Mountain: The Epic of the Blue Ridge Mountain Men in the American Revolution. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976.

Our Heritage: A History of Cleveland County. Shelby, N.C.: Shelby Star, 1976.

Pancake, John S. This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782. University of Alabama Press, 1985.

Resource and Activity Guide for Teachers. Published by the Kings Mountain National Military Park, 1995.

Scheer, George F. The Overmountain Men. Pamphlet. Available at Kings Mountain National Military Park.

Weathers, Lee B. The Living Past of Cleveland County: A History. Spartanburg, S.C.: The Reprint Company, 1956.

White, Katherine Keogh. The Kings Mountain Men: The Story of the Battle with Sketches of the American Soldiers Who Took Part. Baltimore: General Publishing Company, 1966.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION: Call the Kings Mountain National Military Park, 864-936-7921