“O’er the proud heads of free men, our star banner waves; Men firm as their mountains, and still as their graves, To-morrow shall pour out their life-blood like rain; We come back in triumph, or come not again.”
After the defeat of General Gates at Camden, on the 16th of August, 1780, and the surprise and defeat of Gen. Sumter, two days after at Fishing Creek, by Col. Tarleton, the South was almost entirely abandoned to the enemy. It was one of the darkest periods of our Revolutionary history. While Cornwallis remained at Camden, he was busily employed in sending off his prisoners to Charleston and Orangeburg; in ascertaining the condition of his distant posts at ninety-six and Augusta, and in establishing civil government in South Carolina. Yet his success did not impair his vigilance in concerting measures for its continuance. West of the Catawba river, were bands of active Whigs, and parties of those who were defeated at Camden, were harassing their enemies and defending on every available occasion, the suffering inhabitants of the upper country. Cornwallis, becoming apprised of this rebellious spirit of upper Carolina, detached Col. Patrick Ferguson, one of his most favorite officers, with one hundred and ten regulars and about the same number of Tories, under Captain Depeyster, a loyalist, with an ample supply of arms and other military stores. He was ordered to embody the loyalists beyond the Catawba (or Wateree as the same river is called opposite Camden) and the Broad rivers; intercept the “mountain men”, who were retreating from Camden, and also, the Americans under Col. Clarke, of Georgia, falling back from an unsuccessful attack upon Augusta. Ferguson’s special orders were to crush the spirit of rebellion still too rife and menacing; and after scouring the upper part of South Carolina, toward the mountains of North Carolina, to join his Lordship at Charlotte. He at first made rapid marches to overtake the mountain men–the “Hornets,” from the “Switzerland of America,” and cut off Col. Clarke’s forces. Failing in this, he afterward moved more slowly and frequently halted to collect all the Tories he could persuade to join him. He crossed Broad river, ravaging the country through which he marched. About the last of September he encamped at Gilberttown, near the present town of Rutherfordton. la his march to this point, his force-increased to upwards of one thousand men. All of his Tory recruits were furnished with arms, most of them with rifles, and a smaller portion with muskets, to the muzzles of which they fixed the large knives they usually carried with them to be used as bayonets, if occasion should require.
Although Ferguson failed to overtake the detachment of “mountain men,” previously alluded to, he took two of them prisoners who had become separated from their command. These he paroled and sent off, enjoining them to tell the officers on the western waters that if they did not desist from their opposition to the British arms, and take protection under the royal standard, he would march his army over the mountains and lay waste their country with fire and sword. This was no idle threat, and its execution would have been attempted had not a brief stay in Gilberttown satisfied him from the reports of his spies that a storm of patriotic indignation was brewing among and beyond the mountains that was destined soon to descend in all its fury upon his own army. He knew that most of the inhabitants were of Scotch-Irish and Huguenot descent, mingled with many Germans, whose long residence in the wilds of America had greatly tended to increase their love of liberty.
As soon as General McDowell heard that Gates was defeated, he broke up his camp at Smith’s Ford on Broad River, and passed beyond the mountains, accompanied by a few of his unyielding patriots. While there in consultation with Colonels Sevier and Shelby as to the best means for raising troops and repelling the invaders, the two paroled men arrived and delivered the message from Ferguson. It produced no terrific effects on the minds of these well-tried officers, but on the contrary tended to stimulate and quicken their patriotic exertions. It was soon decided that each one should use his best efforts to raise all the men that could be enlisted, and that these forces should assemble at the Sycamore Shoals of the Watauga river, on the 25th of September. The plans for raising a sufficient number of men to accomplish their purpose were speedily devised and carried into execution. To Col. Sevier was assigned the duty of communicating with Col. McDowell and other officers in voluntary exile beyond the mountains. To Col. Shelby was assigned a similar duty of writing to Col. Campbell of the adjoining county of Washington, in Virginia. Among the refugees beyond the mountains was Col. Clarke, of Georgia, with about one hundred of his overpowered but not subdued men. Their story of the sufferings endured by the Whig inhabitants of upper South Carolina and Georgia served to arouse and intensify the state of patriotic feeling among the hardy sons of Western North Carolina.
The enlisted troops assembled at the Sycamore Shoals, marched from that place on the 26th of September. They were all mounted, and unencumbered with baggage expecting to support themselves partly by their trusty rifles from the game of the forest, as they progressed and partly by compelling the Tories to minister to their wants. The assembled forces placed under marching orders, were as follows: From Washington county, Va., under Col. William Campbell, four hundred men. From Sullivan county, N.C. (now in Tennessee) under Col. Isaac Shelby, two hundred and forty men. From Washington county, N.C. (now in Tennessee) under Col John Sevier, two hundred and forty men. From Burke and Rutherford counties, N.C., under Col. Charles McDowell, one hundred and sixty men. On the second day’s march, two of their men deserted, and went ahead to the enemy. It is probable their report of the Whig strength accelerated Ferguson’s retreating movements. On the 30th of September, they crossed the mountains and were joined at the head of the Catawba river by Col. Benjamin Cleaveland and Major Joseph Winston, with three hundred and fifty men from Wilkes and Surry counties. Upon the junction of these forces, the officers held a council and as they were all of equal grade, it was agreed that a messenger be dispatched immediately to head-quarters, supposed to be between Charlotte and Salisbury to get General Sumner or Gen. Davidson to assume the chief command. They were now in Col. Charles McDowell’s military district, and being the senior officer, the chief command properly devolved upon him, unless his right, for the present, should be waived, and by agreement, turned over to another. Col. Shelby proposed, mainly through courtesy, that Col. William Campbell, who had met them with the largest regiment from a sister State, should assume the chief command until the arrival of some superior officer. This proposition was readily assented to, and Col. Charles McDowell volunteered his services to proceed to headquarters, and requested his brother, Major Joseph McDowell, to take command of his regiment until his return.
On the 4th of October the riflemen–the “mountain boys,”–advanced to Gilberttown, unwilling that Ferguson should be at the trouble to “cross the mountains and hang their leaders,” as boastfully promulgated only a few days before.
Ferguson’s abrupt departure and retrograde movement from Gilberttown, like that of Cornwallis from Charlotte two weeks later, clearly betrayed his apprehensions of formidable opposition by the enraged “hornets” of the mountains. Pursuit was immediately determined upon, and the Whig forces reached the celebrated Cowpens on the 6th of October, where they were joined by Col. James D. Williams, of South Carolina, with nearly four hundred men, and about sixty men from Lincoln county, under Lieut. Colonel Hambright. (Col. William Graham, of the same regiment, on account of severe sickness in his family, was not in the battle fought on the next day.) It is also known a company was raised under Capt. Shannon, from the same county, but failed to reach the battle-ground in time for the engagement.
On the evening of the 6th of October the Colonels in council unanimously resolved that they would select all the men and horses fit for service, and immediately pursue Ferguson until they should overtake him, leaving the remaining troops to follow after them as fast as possible. Accordingly, nine hundred and ten men a mounted infantry, were selected, who set out about eight o’clock on the same evening and marched all night, taking Fergusons trail toward Deer’s Ferry, on Broad river. Night coming on, and it being very dark, they got out of the right way, and for some time were lost, but before daylight they nearly reached the ferry. The officers thinking it probable that the enemy might be in possession of the eastern bank of the river, directed the pilot to lead them to the Cherokee ford, about one mile and a half below. It was on the morning of the 7th of October, before sunrise, when they crossed the river and marched about two miles to the place where Ferguson had encamped on the night of the 5th. There they halted a short time and took such breakfast as their wallets and saddlebags would afford. Every hour the trail of the enemy became more clearly visible, which served to quicken their movements and exhilarate their patriotic spirits. About the time they marched from the Cowpens they were informed a party of four or five hundred Tories were assembled at Major Gibbs, about four miles to the right; these they did not turn aside to attack. The riflemen from the mountains had turned out to “catch Ferguson”. This was their rallying cry from the day they left the Sycamore Shoals, on the Watauga, to the present opportune moment for accomplishing their patriotic purpose. For the last thirty six hours they had alighted from their horses but once at the Cowpens for one hour’s rest and, refreshment. As soon as their humble repast was finished on the morning of the 7th, at Ferguson’s encampment, on the 5th just alluded to, the riflemen resumed their eager march. The day was showery, which compelled them to use their blankets and overcoats to prevent their arms from getting wet.
After marching about ten miles, the riflemen met a young man named John Fonderin, riding in great haste from Ferguson’s camp, then scarcely three miles distant Col. Hambright being acquainted with him and knowing that he had relatives in the enemy’s camp, caused him to be arrested. Upon searching his person, he was found to have a fresh dispatch from Ferguson to Cornwallis, then at Charlotte, in which he manifested great anxiety as to his situation and earnestly solicited aid. The contents of the dispatch was read to the privates, without stating Ferguson’s superior strength to discourage them. Col. Hambright then interrogated the young man as to Ferguson’s uniform. He replied by saying, “Ferguson was the best uniformed man on the hill, but they would not see his uniform as be wore a checked shirt (duster) over it.” Col. Hambright immediately called the attention of his men to this distinguishing feature of Ferguson’s dress. “Well “poys”, says he, in broken German, “when you see that man mit a pig shirt on over his clothes you may know who him is”.” Accordingly after the battle, his body was found among the dead, wearing the checked shirt, now crimsoned with blood and pierced with numerous balls. After a brief consultation of the chief officers upon horseback, the plan of attack was quickly arranged. Several persons present were well acquainted with the ground upon which the enemy was encamped. Orders were promptly given and as promptly obeyed. The Whig forces moved forward over King’s Creek, and up a ravine, and between two rocky knobs, when soon the enemy’s camp was seen about one hundred poles in front. Ferguson, aware that he was hotly pursued by a band of patriots of determined bravery, had chosen this mountain elevation as one from which he boastingly proclaimed he could not be driven.
It was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon when the Whig forces reached the battle ground. The rain had ceased, the clouds had nearly passed away, the sun now shone brightly, and nature seemed to smile propitiously upon the sanguinary conflict soon to take place. On the march, the following disposition was made of the Whig forces.
The central column was commanded by Colonels Campbell and Shelby; the right, by Colonel Sevier and Major McDowell; and the left by Colonels Cleaveland and Williams. In this order the Whig forces advanced and came within a quarter of a mile of the enemy before they were discovered. Colonels Campbell’s and Shelby’s regiments commenced the attack, and kept up a galling fire on the enemy, while the right and left wings were advancing forward to surround them, which was done in about five minutes. The fire soon became general all around and maintained with the greatest bravery.
The engagement lasted a little over an hour, during which time, a heavy and incessant fire was kept up on both sides.
The Whigs, in some parts where the British regulars fought, were forced to give way two or three times for a short distance, before the bayonet charges of the enemy, but soon rallied and returned with additional ardor and animation to the attack. The troops of the right having gained the summit of the mountain, compelled the enemy to give way and retreat along the top of the ridge, where Col. Cleaveland commanded and were soon stopped by his brave men. Some of the regiments suffered severely under the galling fire of the enemy, before they were in a proper position to engage in the action. The men led by Col. Shelby and Major McDowell were soon closely engaged and the contest throughout was very severe, and hotly contested.
As Ferguson would advance towards Campbell, Sevier, Hambright and Winston, he was quickly pursued by Shelby, Cleaveland, McDowell and Williams. Thus Ferguson continued to struggle on, making charges with the bayonet and then retreating to make a vigorous attack at some other point; but, his men were rapidly falling before the fatal aim and persistent bravery of the Whigs.
Even after Ferguson was severely wounded and had three horses shot from under him, he continued to fight on, and animate his men by his example and unyielding courage–“extricate himself, he could not, and surrender, he would not,” although requested to do so, near the close of the action by Captain De Peyster, his second in command. At length he received a fatal shot in the breast, which closed his earthly career forever.
Captain De Peyster then look command, and immediately ordered a white flag to be raised in token of surrender. The firing however did not entirely cease until Cols. Shelby and Sevier went inside the lines and ordered the men to desist. The Whigs were still greatly exasperated when they called to remembrance Tarleton’s cruelty at Buford’s defeat, where no quarter was given. The victory was complete, and reanimated the Whigs throughout the whole country. The Tory element of western Carolina, before strong and menacing, was broken up and greatly humbled, and Cornwallis himself when he received intelligence of the battle and its result, became so seriously alarmed at his perilous situation in a land of “assailing hornets”, that he suddenly decamped from Charlotte to safer quarters at Winnsboro, South Carolina.
According to the official statement furnished to Gen. Gates, encamped at Hillsboro, and signed by Colonels Campbell, Shelby and Cleaveland, the enemy sustained the following loss:
“Of the regulars, one major, one captain, two Lieutenants and fifteen privates killed, thirty-five privates wounded and left on the ground not able to march; two captains, four lieutenants, three ensigns, one surgeon, five sergeants, three corporals, one drummer and fifty-nine privates taken prisoners.
“Loss of the Tories, two colonels, three captains and two hundred privates killed; one major, and one hundred and twenty-seven privates wounded and left on the ground not able to march; one colonel, twelve captains, eleven lieutenants, two ensigns, one quarter-master, one adjutant, two commissaries, eighteen sergeants and six hundred privates taken prisoners.
“Total loss of the enemy eleven hundred and five men at King’s Mountain.”
The loss on the Whig side was, one colonel, one major, one captain, two lieutenants, four ensigns, and nineteen privates killed, one major, three captains, three lieutenants, and fifty-three privates wounded. Total Whig casualties, twenty-eight killed and sixty wounded. Of the latter, upwards of twenty died of their wounds, making the entire Whig loss about fifty men.
The victory of King’s Mountain was the “turning point of the fortunes of America,” and foreshadowed more clearly than ever before, “final success”.
As soon as the battle was over, a guard was placed around the prisoners and all remained on the mountain that night. On the next day, after the dead were buried and the wounded properly cared for, the cumbrous spoils of victory were drawn into a pile and burned. Colonels Campbell, Shelby and Cleaveland then repaired, with as little delay as possible, to the headquarters of General Gates, at Hillsboro, and made out to that officer on the 1st of November, an official statement of their brilliant victory. Col. Sevier, Major McDowell and other officers returned to the mountains and to their own neighborhoods, ready at all times, to obey any future calls of their country. The prisoners were turned over to the “mountain men” for safe keeping. Having no conveyances, they compelled the prisoners to carry the captured arms (about fifteen hundred in number) two guns each being assigned to most of the men. About sunset the Whigs who had fought the battle, being extremely hungry, had the pleasure of meeting the footmen, who had been left behind at Green river on their march to King’s Mountain, pressing forward with a good supply of provisions.
Having appeased the cravings of hunger, they all marched to Bickerstaff’s old field, in Rutherford county, where the principal officers held a court-martial over the “most audacious and murderous Tories.” Thirty-two were condemned to be hung; after nine were thus disposed of, three at a time, the remainder, through mitigating circumstances and the entreaties of their Whig acquaintances, were respited. Several of the Tories, thus leniently dealt with, afterward joined the Whig ranks, and made good soldiers to the end of the war.
In 1815, through the instrumentality of Dr. William M’Lean, of Lincoln county, a head-stone of dark slate rock, was erected at King’s Mountain, near the spot where Ferguson fell. It bears this inscription: On the east:
“Sacred to the memory of Maj. Wm. Chronicle, Capt. John Mattocks, William Robb and John Boyd, who were killed at this place on the 7th of October, 1780, fighting in defense of America.”
On the west side:–“Col. Ferguson, an officer of his Brittanic Majesty, was defeated and killed at this place on the 7th of October, 1780.”
Incidents: Among the captured Tories were Captain W—- G—- and his lieutenant J—- L—-, both of whom were sentenced to be hung next morning at sunrise. They were first tied separately, with leather strings, and then closely together. During the night they managed to crawl to the waters edge, near their place of confinement, and wet their strings; this soon caused them to stretch so greatly as to enable the “leather-bound prisoners” to make their escape, and thereby deprive the “Mountain Boys” of having some contemplated fun. Like the Irishman’s pig, in the morning “they came up “missing”.”
As a foraging party of Tories, belonging to Ferguson’s army, was passing up King’s Creek, they took old Arthur Patterson and his son Thomas prisoners; who, being recognized as noted Whigs, were carried to Ferguson’s camp, threatened with hanging, and a guard placed over them. As the battle waxed warm and the issue of the contest seemed to be turning in favor of the American arms a call was made upon the guard to fall into line and assist their comrades in averting, if possible, their approaching defeat. During the commotion the old man Patterson moved gently to the back ground and thus made his escape. Thomas Patterson, not liking the “back movement”, watched his opportunity, “between fires” and charge of the enemies’ position, dashed off boldly to the Whig lines, about one hundred yards distant, and reached them safely. He immediately called for a gun, which being furnished he fought bravely to the close of the engagement.
For several particulars connected with the battle of Kings Mountain, hitherto unknown, the author acknowledges his indebtedness to Abraham Hardin, Esq., a native of Lincoln County, N.C., and relative of Col. Hambright, now (1876) a worthy, intelligent, and Christian citizen of York County, S.C., aged eighty-seven years.