On October 7, 1780, patriot militia, some coming from over the Appalachian Mountains descended on a Loyalist militia force in northwest South Carolina. This pro-British force, commanded by the only British regular on the field that day, Major Patrick Ferguson retreated onto Kings Mountain.
American fought American.
On that hilltop one of the pivotal battles of the American Revolutionary War unfolded. The ramifications reverberated through the southern theater of operations, played a part on the psyche of civilians and militia, and added luster to the burgeoning backwoods, frontier American persona.
Emerging Revolutionary War focuses in on the Battle of Kings Mountain this Sunday, on the next “Rev War Revelry.” Join us on our Facebook page at 7 p.m. EST for a historian happy hour, as we discuss, dissect, imbibe, and provide commentary on this strategic battle, the national park there, and the campaigns that decided this theater of operation.
On October 7, 1780, one of the most pivotal battles of the American Revolution fought in the South occurred on a hillside in northwest South Carolina.The engagement brought militia from both sides; those loyal to the British and those adhering to the independence movement against each other. In fact, only one regular British soldier was present on that autumn day; the British commander Major Patrick Ferguson.
How did Ferguson and his militia end up on King’s Mountain? This was due to the campaign being waged by British General Lord Cornwallis in the Southern colonies.
Ferguson’s role was to protect the flank of Cornwallis’ force as it turned north from South Carolina. After issuing a call of bravado, where Ferguson gave Patriot militia an ultimatum; lay down your weapons or suffer the consequences, the British officer began to move through the South Carolina countryside. This decree emboldened the Patriot militia, some of which would come from across the Appalachian Mountains–or “Overmountain”–to join in the fight against Ferguson. This combined force would gather around Sycamore Shoals in present day Tennessee.
Word quickly reached Ferguson near Gilbert Town, North Carolina by way of deserters that a large force of Virginia, Carolinas, and militia from the area of Tennessee had arrived and were planning to march toward his encampment.
Still showing a high degree of disdain for the Patriot militia, Ferguson did not act immediately on the intelligence. Three days later, the Loyalist militia and the British officer started their retrograde movement toward Charlotte and Lord Cornwallis’s main army.
By October 4, 1780 now joined by a sprinkling of Georgia militia, the Patriots had reached Ferguson’s old encampment site. Two days later the militia forced marched through the Cowpens of South Carolina, which had not witnessed the hard hand of battle yet. Just a day’s march ahead was Ferguson’s forces.
At this juncture, Ferguson made a fateful decision. Instead of continuing his retreat and he was less than a full-days march away from the main British army, the British officer held up his forces on a forested hill just inside South Carolina and laid out his camp on the highest point; Kings Pinnacle.
Realizing that time was of the essence, the Patriot force, now numbering 900 men, found plentiful horseflesh to mount up and close the gap between the two sides. Riding through the rain and darkness of the night of October 6, the fifteen-mile gap between forces was erased and by late morning the Patriot militia was reining up within striking distance of Kings Mountain.
By mid-afternoon, at approximately 3:00 p.m. the fighting erupted. The Patriot militia broke into smaller commands, numbering between 100-200 men and started to ascend the slopes. Luckily for the Patriots, Ferguson had not detected just how close the enemy was and had also neglected to fortify his encampment. His force though, outnumbered the Patriots by approximately 200 men.
Some of the Loyalist militia did not realize that the enemy had arrived until the Patriot militia came hollering and yelling up the slope of the hillside. With the conglomerate of various militia, there was no unified command of the Patriot forces and the fight quickly boiled down to independent maneuvering and fighting. Using the terrain, the Patriot militia fired from behind trees and boulders. Answering this tactic, Ferguson ordered a bayonet charge down the hill. This caused the Patriot force to retreat to the base of the hill as most of the men were carrying rifles which did not accommodate the bayonet.
Virginia militia Colonel William Campbell and North Carolinian militia Colonel John Sevier helped rally the militia that had broken and sent the force back up the hillside. This back and forth would happen a few more times; Ferguson’s force charging down hill with bayonets, the militia backtracking, than reforming, and charging back up after the Loyalist momentum had waned.
Finally, after an hour of combat the Patriot militia forced their way to the crown of the hill and was able to flank the Loyalist force and attack in rear of their position. This maneuver forced the Loyalists back into their encampment where numbers of them began to surrender.
Ferguson sensing the tide turning against the Loyalists, tried to rally his troops, supposedly yelling, “Hurrah,brave boys, the day is ours!” Gathering a few stalwarts, Ferguson made a desperate move to fight his way out of the encircling Patriot militia. A volley from Colonel Sevier’s militia force unhorsed Ferguson who fell entangled in his stirrups. Unfortunately, the horse, spooked with the musketry and smell of gunpowder dragged Ferguson through the Patriot line. After getting untangled from the straps on the horse, Ferguson lay prone on the ground, where a Patriot officer demanded his surrender. Still with some fight in him, Ferguson shot and killed the man. Other Patriot militia responding to the scene fired a collective volley at the downed British officer, killing Ferguson.
Some of the Patriot militia were opposed to accepting the Loyalist surrender, as they remembered the massacres and atrocities committed to their brethren in arms by the infamous Banastre Tarleton. Cooler heads prevailed and the firing died down.
By the time the second white flag was sent out by Captain Abraham DePeyster, Patriot militia officers were finally able to reign in their commands and over 600 Loyalist soldiers surrendered.
Within the one-hour and five minute engagement, Ferguson’s force ceased to exist. Total casualties for the Loyalist force was 290 killed, 163 wounded, and 668 captured. The Patriots suffered a total of 87 casualties; 29 killed and 58 wounded.
The Patriots, with the close proximity of Cornwallis’s forces, who the day after the battle would finally get the request for reinforcements from his slain subordinate, quickly retreated back into the safety of the South Carolina countryside.
However, the Battle of Kings Mountain would become a critical turning point, not only in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution, but in the entire war itself. The victory, which demolished the Loyalist militia force covering his flank, forced Cornwallis to altere his strategy for the campaign. He would be forced to return to South Carolina, giving up advancing further than Charlotte into North Carolina in order to re-solidify control of territory in his rear. When Cornwallis finally returned to the Tar Heel State the following year, he would suffer eventually suffer a Pyrrhic victory at Guilford Court House in March 1781.
All that was in the future and so is your visit to this battlefield of the American Revolution.
On March 3, 1931, Kings Mountain National Military Park was formed by an act of Congress and placed under the control of the United States War Department. Two years later, in March 1933, the property was transferred to the National Park Service by an executive order. At this juncture, the entire land mass of the park was comprised of 40 acres that had been originally donated by the Kings Mountain Battlefield Association. The park has grown since that time and now preserves slightly under 4,000 acres.
For further details on how to visit the battlefield, which includes trails, a visitor center, exhibits, and a bookstore, click here. The park is open daily 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with extended hours on the weekend between Memorial and Labor Days. Even better there is no fee to access this national military park!
*All the photos taken for this post was done by the author during a visit to the battlefield in autumn.*
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back historian Bert Dunkerly. The accounts below come from Mr. Dunkerly’s book on the battle.
The battle of Kings Mountain was an intense, one-hour battle fought just below the North Carolina-South Carolina border. The October 1780 engagement pitted about 900 American militia from five states (Virginia, the two Carolinas, Georgia, and modern-day Tennessee) against 1,100 Loyalists under Maj. Patrick Ferguson. With Ferguson’s wounding late in the action, command fell to his subordinate, Captain Abraham DePeyster. As the Americans closed in, the Loyalists surrendered.
Eyewitness accounts provide details of the battle, especially its lesser known aspects like the conclusion of the battle and subsequent Loyalist surrender. Here are a few detailed accounts, presented with original spelling and grammar.
Virginia militiaman Leonard Hice had quite an experience in the battle, being wounded four times. He would spend two years recovering:
“I was commanded by Captain James Dysart where I was dreadfully wounded, I received two bullets in my left arm and it was broken. We were fighting in the woods and with the assistance of my commander who would push my bullets down, I shot 3 rounds before I was shot down. I then received a bullet through my left leg. The fourth bullet I received in my right knee which shattered the bone by my right thigh and brought me to the ground. When on the ground I received a bullet in my breast and was bourne off the ground to a doctor.”
Andrew Cresswell was a militiaman from Virginia who found himself too far in front during the final phase of the battle. He also was fortunate to witness the surrender and provided one of the only accounts of Captain Abraham DePeyster surrendering to Colonel William Campbell. His account also speaks to the brutal nature of the fighting between Loyalist and Whig.
“I saw the smoke of their guns and as I saw but one man further round than myself I spoke to him and told him we had better take care least we might make a mistake. I retreated about ten paces where I discharged my gun. About that moment they began to run. I waited for nobody. I ran without a halt till I came to the center of their encampment at which moment the flag was raised for quarters. I saw Capt. DePeyster start from amongst his dirty crew on my right seeing him coming a direct course towards me. I looked round to my left I saw Col. Campbell of Virginia on my left DePeyster came forward with his swoard hilt foremost. Campbell accosted him in these words “I am happy to see you Sir. DePeyster, in answer swore by his maker he was not happy to see him under the present circumstances at the same time delivered up his sword – Campbell received the sword, turned it round in his hand and handed it back telling him to return to his post which he received. Rejoining these words, God eternally damn the Tories to Hell’s Flames and so the scene ended as to the surrender.”
Lt Anthony Alliare was a New York Loyalist in Ferguson’s command. He recounts the experience of the New York detachment, which launched a series of unsuccessful bayonet charges early in the battle. His reference to the “North Carolina regiment” refers to local Loyalist troops fighting alongside his men.
“The action continued an hour and five minutes, but their numbers enabled them to surround us. The North Carolina regiment seeing this, and numbers being out of ammunition, gave way, which naturally threw the rest of the militia into confusion. Our poor little detachment, which consisted of only seventy men when we marched to the field of action, were all killed and wounded by twenty, and those brave fellows were soon crowded as close as possible by the militia.’
Ensign Robert Campbell of Virginia also witnessed the close of the battle, and recounts a white flag being raised.
“It was about this time that Colonel Campbell advanced in front of his men, and climbed over a steep rock close by the enemy’s lines to get a view of their situation and saw they were retreating from behind the rocks that were near to him. As soon as Captain Dupoister observed that Colonel Ferguson was killed, he raised flag and called for quarters. It was soon taken out of his hand by one of the officers on horseback, and raised so high that it could be seen by our line, and the firing immediately ceased. The Loyalists, at the time of their surrender, were driven into a crowd, and being closely surrounded, they could not have made any further resistance.”
Isaac Shelby, from the Carolina frontier (modern Tennessee) was a militia commander in the battle. He also provides insights in the battle’s final moments.
“They were ordered to throw down their arms; which they did, and surrendered themselves prisoners at discretion. It was some time before a complete cessation of the firing, on our part, could be effected. Our men, who had been scattered in the battle, were continually coming up, and continued to fire, without comprehending in the heat of the moment, what had happened; and some, who had heard that at Buford’s defeat the British had refused quarters to many who asked it, were willing to follow that bad example. Owing to these causes, the ignorance of some, and the disposition of other to retaliate, it required some time, and some exertion on the art of the offices, to put an entire stop to the firing. After the surrender of the enemy, our men gave spontaneously three loud and long shouts.”
In one hour, the entire Loyalist force of 1,100 was killed, wounded, or captured. October 7 marks the anniversary of this battle which, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, was the “turn of the tide of success.”
Robert M. Dunkerly (Bert) is a historian, award-winning author, and speaker who is actively involved in historic preservation and research. He holds a degree in History from St. Vincent College and a Masters in Historic Preservation from Middle Tennessee State University. He has worked at nine historic sites, written eleven books and over twenty articles. His research includes archaeology, colonial life, military history, and historic commemoration. Dunkerly is currently a Park Ranger at Richmond National Battlefield Park. He has visited over 400 battlefields and over 700 historic sites worldwide. When not reading or writing, he enjoys hiking, camping, and photography.