Kings Mountain National Military Park | THE BATTLE OF KINGS MOUNTAIN

Battle of Kings Mountain

Battle of Kings Mountain

The Battle of Kings Mountain on October, 7, 1780, is considered the turning point in the American Revolution. Prior to this, American Patriots in the southern colonies had suffered a series of defeats, and just like a sports team, it’s hard to recruit the best players if you have a losing record. Those unsure of which side to support, and even many of those who did support the Patriots, were reluctant to join them in battle for fear of reprisals, or even worse, execution, should they end up on the losing side. Suspected Patriots, traitors in the eyes of the British, were being rounded up, tortured, and even executed. Joining the Patriots was certainly not a good career move. The Battle of Kings Mountain, the first major victory for the Patriots in the south, began to change the perceptions of potential supporters.

By late 1778, the war in the northern colonies had come to a standstill. The British had lost to the Americans at Saratoga, New York, in late 1777, and France was threatening to enter the war on the side of the Americans (doing so by March of 1779). Because of this, England decided to focus its efforts on subduing the rebellion in the southern colonies. Agriculture was the dominate industry in the south, and much of the goods were shipped back to England, so wealthy southern colonists had good reason to keep friendly business relations with their best customers. Of course, anyone who worked for the wealthy plantation owners had their jobs at stake. Knowing this, the British felt they could recruit many southern Loyalists—as the colonists loyal to England were known—to help fight the rebels and persuade those who were teetering between Patriot and Loyalist affiliation to remain loyal to the Crown. Once the rebellion was stopped in the south, the plan was for British soldiers and hoards of Loyalist militiamen to march north and rekindle the war against George Washington, the commander of the Patriot army in the northern colonies.

From the outset of the southern campaign, things went well for the British. They captured Savannah, Georgia, by the end of 1778. When they took Augusta, Georgia, on January 31, 1779, 1,400 men came to Augusta to join the Loyalist militia. Charleston, South Carolina, the largest city in the south and the wealthiest in the colonies, fell to the British in May of 1780, and 5,000 Patriot soldiers surrendered and became prisoners of war. With the states of Georgia and South Carolina now under British control, it was time to move into North Carolina.

To understand the events leading up to the Battle of Kings Mountain, one must first understand how the colonies were geographically laid out. The northern and southern border of each colony was the colony above and below it. The eastern border of each colony was the Atlantic Ocean, and the western border was the Mississippi River, the boundary of British control. However, it was the Appalachian Mountains that were the more important geographical feature in the west. The mountains run in a southwest to northeast direction, from what is today northeast Georgia all the way to Maine. For all practical purposes, the colonies ended at the Appalachian Mountains. All land on the western side was Indian Territory, land set aside by treaty in 1763 by the British. Any colonist west of the mountains was illegally on Indian land, but of course this didn’t stop people from settling there. These settlers were known as the “backwoods men,” or as history would eventually have it, the “Overmountain Men.” Most were of Irish or Scottish decent.

Two major settlements sprang up west of the Appalachian Mountains near the border of North Carolina and Virginia: the Watauga settlement (near present day Elizabethton, Tennessee) and the Carter’s Valley settlement (near modern day Kingsport, Tennessee). A third, the Nolichunky settlement, was as far west as modern day Nashville, Tennessee. Today the Appalachians run along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, but there was no Tennessee back in the 1770s. The mountains just split the colonies into the colonial east and the Indian Territory of the west.

Though all settlers were considered to be illegally on Indian land by the British, they actually signed land lease agreements directly with Cherokee Indians. In 1772, after signing a ten-year lease, the Watauga and Nolichunky settlers formed the Watauga Association, a self-autonomous government that, in effect, made them the very first colonists in America to form an independent, democratic government, superseding the formation of the United States of America.

In 1775, the Watauga and Nolichunky settlers ended their lease and actually purchased the land from the Cherokee to form the Washington District, with the new Committee of Safety as the government. In the spring of 1776, they petitioned to join Virginia, a request that was denied because England and the Virginia colonial governments still considered these purchases of Cherokee land to be illegal. Instead, the settlers were ordered to move out of the area. To make matters worse, a large faction of Cherokee led by Chief Dragging Canoe were outraged over the land sale and vowed to drive the settlers out by force. The settlers knew, however, much of the trouble they were having with the Cherokee was being instigated by the British, who were providing the tribe with weapons.

Dragging Canoe and his followers mounted an all-out war in the summer of 1776, successfully removing the settlers from Carter’s Valley and Nolichunky. Their July 21st attack on the Watauga settlement at Fort Watauga, which was nothing more than an assortment of farmhouses with tall, palisade walls strung between them, was not successful. After three hours of fighting, the Cherokee, unable to take the fort, opted to surround it and starve the settlers. However, after two weeks they left the area.

Shortly after the denial for annexation by Virginia, the Committee of Safety petitioned to join North Carolina; the state agreed and formally annexed the settlement in November, 1776. One year later, Washington District was officially admitted to North Carolina and became Washington County.

As mentioned earlier, the British were having much success in their southern campaign, which was being directed by General Charles Cornwallis. After another victory at Camden, South Carolina, on August 16, 1780, Cornwallis decided that it was time to head into North Carolina. He sent Major Patrick Ferguson, commander of the troops on his left flank, into western North Carolina towards the Appalachians. His mission was to quell the disturbances the Patriots were causing and to recruit more Loyalists for his army, which was already comprised nearly entirely of Loyalists.

Ferguson was camping at what was then known as Gilbert Town (just outside of modern day Rutherfordton, North Carolina), when he got word that Patriot Colonel Charles McDowell of Quaker Meadows (near modern day Morgantown, North Carolina, on the east side of the Appalachians—not “over the mountains”) and his militia were camped near the Cain and Silver creeks, so he set out to find and attack them. Upon learning that Ferguson was in pursuit, McDowell planned an ambush near Cowan’s Ford on Cane Creek, the spot where Ferguson and his men had to cross the creek. The exact location of the battle has been lost to time, but the general area is about halfway between Morgantown and Rutherfordton on Highway 64.

The fighting took place on September 12, 1780, and in keeping with the Patriot troubles in the south, McDowell’s militia was routed by Ferguson, and he retreated over the mountains to the Watauga settlement. A number of Patriot militiamen were captured. One man was let go so he could carry a message to McDowell and the Overmountain settlers that were helping him. Ferguson claimed that he would “march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.” It was this most-famous message that led to the Battle of Kings Mountain.

Up until 1780, the Overmountain settlers had largely stayed out of the American Revolution, though some men did fight in small skirmishes and were known to harass Loyalists in northwestern South Carolina. Most of their time was spent fighting the Indians (since the Cherokee and Shawnee were British allies, this was their part in the war). But now, with a British loudmouth threatening to come over and “lay their country waste,” not only did this insult their pride, but it also made them realize that Ferguson must be stopped before he could cross the mountains and possibly hurt or kill their families. Thus, word was sent out to men throughout the area to gather, or muster, at various meeting grounds so they could march over the mountains and bring the fight to Ferguson before he brought it to them.

Militias from both sides of the Appalachians gathered to fight Ferguson, so while popular history credits the victory at Kings Mountain to the Overmountain Men, many of those who fought did not come from west of the Appalachians. On the west side of the mountains, the northernmost meeting place was Abingdon, Virginia. Four hundred men under William Campbell set off from Abingdon towards the Watauga settlement at Sycamore Shoals (modern day Elizabethton, Tennessee, then North Carolina) on September 24, 1780 to meet with the militias of colonels John Sevier and Issac Shelby, whose 400 men hailed from southwest Virginia and northwest Georgia, and 200 men under Charles McDowell.

On the east side of the mountains, 350 militiamen met near present day Elkin, North Carolina, on the 27th and began their journey southwest. Both groups picked up men along the way and met up with other militias at planned meeting places, ultimately coming together at Colonel McDowell’s plantation at Quaker Meadows near present day Morganton, North Carolina. From there they continued south in search of Ferguson.

The militias followed rivers and creeks to Morgantown. The Overmountain Men had to cross the Appalachians and did so on the 27th at Yellow Mountain Gap on Roan Mountain. It was here that two men deserted and rode ahead to warn Ferguson of the oncoming Patriot army. Ferguson, still camped at Gilbert Town, packed up and headed east towards Charlotte, North Carolina.

On September 30th, the two militia groups met at Quaker Meadows. A few days later on October 4th, they arrived at Gilbert Town to find that Ferguson was gone. A British spy sent them on a wild goose chase by claiming that Ferguson had departed toward Ninety Six, due south of Gilbert Town. Shortly thereafter, militia leader Edward Lacey, having knowledge of where Ferguson was actually heading, rode out to find the Overmountain Men on their way to Ninety Six. He met up with them near Alexander’s Ford, just north of the South Carolina border. With the correct information, the militia turned east on October 5th and arrived at The Cow Pens (as it was known in the 1770s) on the 6th. While Cowpens would go on to fame as the site of an American victory a little over three months later, at this point in time it was simply a well-known meeting place.

At the Cow Pens, the Overmountain Men were joined by 400 more men of colonels James Williams and Edward Lacey and various other militias from the area. Patriot supporters reported that Ferguson was just 30 miles to the east. Not wanting to lose him, 900 of the best marksmen were assembled and prepared for a non-stop pursuit. Virginia’s William Campbell was put in charge. They departed that same day and traveled through the night until they arrived at Kings Mountain the next afternoon, October 7th.

On the same day the Patriots reached the Cow Pens, Ferguson decided to stop his running and turn to fight. He chose to make a stand at the top of Kings Mountain, a small hill—no mountain by any definition of the word—that rose about 150 feet above the surrounding area. The top of the hill was nearly treeless and leveled out into a plateau large enough to hold is army of nearly 1,000 Loyalists and 100 Provincial Red Coats (non commissioned British soldiers). Under just about any circumstances, a defensive position at the top of the highest point on the battlefield is the place to be. However, this time Ferguson overestimated the merits of his elevated position. While the top of the mountain was treeless, the slopes were covered in forest.

When the Patriot militia arrived, they broke into two columns and surrounded the mountain on three sides. Around 3 PM, Williams and Shelby’s regiments opened fire. While Ferguson’s men held the higher position, the trees on the slopes provided excellent cover for the Patriot soldiers. They also allowed the militiamen to work their way up the mountain without taking heavy casualties. Slowly but surely, they tightened the noose on the Loyalists.

Twice the Loyalists charged down the mountain with bayonets drawn to drive the Patriots back, but ultimately the Patriot sharpshooters took their toll on the Loyalists. Major Ferguson, dressed in a red and white checkerboard shirt so his men could easily identify him, was riddled by a barrage of bullets. Shortly thereafter, the Loyalists waved the white flag, but remembering British officer Banastre Tarleton’s slaughter of Colonel Abraham Bufords’ men after they surrendered at Waxhaws in May, the militiamen continued firing until Colonel Campbell could get them under control. Every member of Ferguson’s army was either killed (120), wounded, or captured. Twenty-eight Patriots were killed and 62 were wounded.

After the battle, most of the Overmountain Men returned home to their families and farms. Fighting Indians would occupy their time for the rest of the war. The prisoners were marched back north with them, though many escaped on the way. Thirty Loyalists were tried for being thieves and murders, and nine were hung at Biggerstaff’s Old Fields, a spot located a few miles northwest of present day Rutherfordton. The hangings were nearly as important as the victory at Kings Mountain. Prior to this, the British often hung Patriots as traitors. When word got out that Patriots were now hanging Loyalists, those thinking of joining the British not only realized that Patriot forces could actually win a battle, but they also now had to weigh the possibility of going to the gallows if captured. The Battle of Kings Mountain made it much harder for the British to recruit militiamen from the area, while hesitant Patriot supporters were now more likely to join the cause. This is why the battle is considered the turning point in the American Revolution.

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Last updated on November 3, 2021
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