The purpose of this vignette is twofold: Familiarize the reader with the American Revolution’s Southern Campaign of 1780-81; and provide a snapshot of a “Militia-on-Militia” battle that took place during a time when the outcome of the American Revolution was in serious question.
Sir Henry Clinton, the Commander of British Forces in the Americas, affirmed that the Battle of Kings Mountain…,
“Proved the first Link of a Chain of Evils that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in total loss of America.”
In 1780 British Forces under the command of Sir Henry Clinton set their sights on the City of Charleston, SC, and the southern back country. This was due to both the overwhelming British debts amassed during the execution of the war in the Colonies and Lord North’s government searching for what was believed to become a series of “easy” military victories.
i American Battlefield Trust, Battle Maps of the American Revolution, Volume 3. Princeton, New Jersey: Knox Press, 2021, 90.
Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis
- Siege and Surrender of Charleston, South Carolina: British operations in the Charleston area began early March 1780 and ended on 12 May 1780 when Major General Lincoln, the Commander of the Continental Forces held under siege in the city, surrendered. With that, Sir Henry Clinton handed over command of British Forces in the Southern Theatre to General Cornwallis. Clinton’s orders to Cornwallis were to maintain control of the Port City of Charleston and to secure the South Carolina back country.
- Battle of Waxhaws: On 29 May 1780 British Cavalry Officer, 26-year old Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton commanded a force of 270 men that pursued and destroyed 350 Virginia Continentals under the command of Colonel Abraham Buford in an area known as the Waxhaws. Tarleton’s reputation as a fierce and ruthless opponent was hardened at the Battle of Waxhaws.
Battle of Waxhaws Monument
Major Patrick Ferguson
- Battle of Camden: General Cornwallis’ striking victory over General Gates’ Grand Army at the Battle Camden on 16 August 1780 was an initial disaster for the Patriot cause in the South.
General Cornwallis was confident that it was time to extend military operations into North Carolina. He called for an orders group at his headquarters in Camden during the final week of August 1780. General Cornwallis, with some reservations, designated the 35-year old Major of Scottish aristocratic descent two key tasks: Serve as an advanced guard for Cornwallis’ left flank as his army moved into North Carolina; if necessary, engage and prevent Patriot Militia Forces from harassing Cornwallis’ main body.(2)
2 Buchanan, John, The Road to Guilford Courthouse, The American Revolution in the Carolinas, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1997, 194.
Although Patriot forces in the Southern Theatre appeared to be in disarray, within just 60 days following General Gates’ humiliating defeat, Patriot militiamen would pursue and exact their revenge on Loyalist militia under the command of Major Ferguson at Kings Mountain. Kings Mountain would be a purely Patriot militia versus Loyalist militia struggle… a “neighbor against neighbor” fight with Major Patrick Ferguson being the only British Officer on the battlefield.
With guidance in hand and an opportunity to take the fight to Patriot militia units in North Carolina, Major Ferguson began moving his 1,200-man Loyalist militia force toward the North Carolina border. On 7 September Ferguson crossed into North Carolina and established positions at Gilbert Town.
Like several of Cornwallis’ young, aggressive officers, the overconfident Ferguson felt it was time to go on the offensive and assert his authority over elements of backcountry Patriot militia... he would take the initiative!
Major Ferguson decided to target a band of Appalachian frontiersmen living outside of the boundaries of the Colonies on Cherokee land. They were known as the Over Mountain Men… a mixed group of Scotch Irish, Huguenot, and German descent. They were independent-minded, tough Indian fighters, hunters, and traders – a brutal backwoods fighting force.
On 10 September, Major Ferguson dispatched the following message to the de facto leader of the Over Mountain Men, Colonel Isaac Shelby:
“If the Over Mountain Men, do not desist from their opposition to the British arms, he would march over the Mountain, hang their leaders and lay their country in waste with fire and sword.” (3)
3 Buchanan, op. cit., 208.
Colonel Isaac Shelby
Shelby’s response was swift. After consulting with other militia commanders such as Colonel John Sevier, they agreed to pursue Ferguson. They had two concerns: Build a militia force strong enough to catch and destroy Ferguson; but to also have enough men who could stay behind and guard the frontier from attacks from the Cherokee.
By 25 September, Shelby had gathered what he believed to be the appropriate force: Shelby, 240 riflemen; Sevier, 240 riflemen, Colonel Campbell of Virginia, 200 militia and Colonel McDowell with an additional 160 riflemen.(4)
Colonel Isaac Shelby
By the 26th of September, the militiamen were ready to move and seek out Ferguson. They traveled light and each man was prepared to fend for himself. Their weapons of choice, the Tomahawk, Scalping knife, and the Pennsylvania Long Rifle.
4 Buchanan, op. cit., 212.
Major Ferguson received reports from Patriot deserters that a militia force was searching the backcountry for him, so, after some hesitation, he decided to maneuver south and east toward the possible security of Cornwallis’ main body. Over the following days, Ferguson would send two messages to Cornwallis informing him of the large militia force and requesting reinforcements to deal with the threatening Patriot militia. Those requests would go unanswered.
As the Patriot force arrived at Alexander’s Ford after 11 days of hard riding and foraging… horses and men were tiring. The Colonels decided to rearrange their forces. Horses were exchanged… those that were too tired or had given up on the mission were replaced. After reorganizing their force for battle, seven hundred riders would link up with four hundred South Carolina militia at Cowpens. (5) Cowpens was located just south of the Broad River It was a well-known area throughout the backcountry as it served as a final holding area for cattle prior to be sent off to slaughter.
- The final force would consist of 910 hand-picked riders; seven hundred originally chosen at Alexander’s Ford and 210 from the South Carolina militia who joined at Cowpens. (6)
Through a series of militia scouting parties, the Patriot Force was assured that Major Ferguson had set camp on Kings Mountain. Though the terrain surrounding Kings Mountain is very rugged and heavily forested, there was no time to waste as the Patriots were also aware that Cornwallis was not far away.
On this date 243 years ago in the early afternoon, the Battle of Kings Mountain took place. The significance of this battle cannot be understated. Thomas Jefferson called the Patriot victory, “The turn of the tide of success.” (7)
5 Buchanan, op. cit., 221.
6 Buchanan, op. cit., 223.
7 Kings Mountain National Military Park, “The Turn of the Tide of Success,” accessed 25 September 2023, https://www.nps.gov/kimo/index.htm.
The Colonels agreed that the best course of action would be to encircle the perimeter of Kings Mountain, removing any chance of Ferguson escaping to the safety of Cornwallis’ lines which were only twenty-eight miles away.
Kings Mountain was shaped in the form of a foot with Ferguson’s militia camp set in the Northern corner at the ball of the foot. Though Ferguson decided to make his stand at Kings Mountain, he failed to construct any defensive works.
Even though the Patriot militias deployed in their regimental groups with Shelby and Sevier in the SW corner or heel of the foot, the plan called for each man to be his own officer once the assault began.
Unbeknownst to Ferguson, Patriot forces were about set for the assault in unison when Shelby’s men were engaged… the battle was on. Ferguson deployed his forces along the ridgeline to deliver massing fires against the attacking patriots. Fortunately for the Patriot militiamen, Loyalist fire tended to overshoot with their rounds ricocheting over the heads of the assaulting Patriots. Having mounted his horse, Ferguson ordered his militia to conduct a series of bayonet charges which had some initial success causing the patriots to retreat and seek cover. However, they would not be deterred and continued their assault. The first elements to crest the hill were those of Shelby and Sevier. Loyalist militia began to collapse toward Ferguson’s main camp which was located in the vicinity of the Monument shown in the picture to the left.
Ferguson’s situation worsened when Patriot militiamen reached the ridgeline at the toe and ball of the hill. The picture below presents Ferguson’s view of the ridgeline where militiamen under Cleveland would attack from the north end of the foot. In the closing moments of the battle, Ferguson attempted to rally his forces one last time. He was fatally shot from his horse and with one foot caught in the left stirrup he was dragged through the last remnants of his command.
Calls for “quarters” came from the Loyalist as cries of “Give them Buford’s play” came from the Patriot militiamen. (8) Due to the honor and personal bravery of men like Issac Shelby, a massacre was avoided. With Ferguson dead, the Loyalist finally surrendered.
At the outset of the Southern Campaign, one of the Crown’s strategic goals was to win the “hearts and minds” of the backcountry folks with the hope that they would flock to the Loyalist cause. The Patriot victory at Kings Mountain finally put that dream to rest.
From an operational standpoint, Ferguson’s defeat encouraged the often-cautious Cornwallis to postpone his move into North Carolina until January 1781 and on January 17, 1781 forces under Tarleton would be soundly thrashed by Gen Morgan’s Patriot Forces at the Battle of Cowpens but that is a story for another day.
(8) Buchanan, op. cit., 233.
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