The Ride of The Over Mountain Men — Battle of Kings Mountain Part I
Last week we concluded our episode with the Battle of Camden, SC. Soon after the battle, it was being publically proclaimed as the worst defeat ever to be suffered by an American army. After such a debacle, it’s not surprising that American losses were not accurately reported and that estimates vary from historian to historian. But regardless of the numbers, the most significant fallout was that American Horatio Gates’ army was completely dispersed, never to be reformed as such again.
And to make matters worse, Gates did not handle his defeat well. He had retreated from the battle to Rugeley’s Mill, and from there he apparently started his famous ride: By nightfall he was in Charlotte, NC almost 60 miles away. In historian Page Smith’s words: “The bubble of Saratoga fame was pricked. The flight made him an object of almost universal scorn and ridicule. Had he escaped with Gist, or taken refuge at Hanging Rock…or found a way to join Sumter’s force across the river he might have survived the defeat and been given another opportunity to display his ineptness as a military leader. But it was the sixty-mile flight that finished him”
Continuing north, mounted on a relay of horses, Gates reached Hillboro, NC on 19 August (near Raleigh), a total ride of 180 miles, leading Alexander Hamilton to comment in a letter to James Duane: “But was there ever an instance of a general running away, as Gates has done, from his whole army? And was there ever so precipitous a flight? One hundred and eight miles in three days and a half. It does admirable credit to the activity of a man at his time of life [Gates was 52 at the time]. But it disgraces the general and soldier.”
British General Cornwallis, was beginning to come into his own. After working out with Sir Henry Clinton, that he could coordinate with directly with London officials who could authorize his strategy, he was effectively operating as he wished.
His strategy entailed consolidating his hold on the coastal and interior regions of South Carolina and eastern Georgia in order to maintain secure bases from which to operate. Then he would thrust north and northeast through North Carolina, gathering Loyalist support and recruits as he advanced. After that he planned to move into Virginia to link up with British forces from the North and thus complete his inferred mission of bringing the South, from Georgia to Maryland, solidly under the Crown.
After Camden, Cornwallis’s main plan focused on that advance into North Carolina, up an imaginary line that ran between Camden-Charlotte-Salisbury. By doing so he expected to crush rebel resistance along the way while his forces would provide bases to which Loyalist elements would rally.
The Patriots in North Carolina had been busy, and while the South Carolina low-country had it’s leaders: Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens, etc… so did North Carolina, and at the time the most noted Patriot leader was Colonel Charles McDowell. McDowell had been involved in raids and skirmishes against local Loyalists and needed reinforcements. He sent word to Colonel Issac Shelby who happened to be one of the two famed leaders of the over mountain men. Shelby responded by leading 200 mounted riflemen to join McDowell on the Broad River. They were joined by Colonel Elijah Clarke with a force of Georgia militia. During the three summer months in 1780 since the fall of Charleston and Camden, these men combined at various times to attack British posts in three major actions. At Thickety Fork on 30 July — Shelby and Clarke succeeded in forcing the surrender of the fort’s garrison without firing a shot. On August 8, at Cedar Spring, the British won the field but were unable to recapture prisoners the Patriots had taken at the beginning of the fight.
Ten days later, on 18 August 1780 — Shelby and Clarke teamed up with Colonel James Williams to make a surprise attack on the Tories at Musgrove’s Mill. The surprise failed, and the attackers had to take up a defensive position of their own. They repulsed the British counter-attack by killing 63, wounding 90 and capturing seventy. It was a stunning little victory and it got the men’s morale (and no doubt testosterone) high enough to plan a daring attack. An all out assault on the town of Ninety-Six, SC. The men were mounting up for the ride when the news came of Gate’s disaster at Camden two days prior.
They stayed mounted and headed north for the hills. British Major Patrick Ferguson, in charge of the local Loyalist forces, set out in hot pursuit of the Patriot forces. At one point he was only thirty minutes behind the tail riders when he was halted near Fair Forest by a message from Cornwallis ordering him to report to his commander at Camden.
At British headquarters, Ferguson was briefed on Cornwallis’s strategy for advancing into North Carolina, and how he expected to raise local support — and use them to control the state. Ferguson was then given his mission, to act independently in making a western sweep, to serve as Cornwallis’s left wing in the subjugation of rebels and the raising of Tory troops. Since Ferguson was already pursuing the most dangerous Patriot force in the area, his mission further authorized him to proceed as far north as Gilbert Town (present day Rutherfordton) to raise sufficient forces to control the region. Upon completion, when British control was ensured and a large number of recruits had rallied to him, Ferguson was to rejoin Cornwallis’s army with his force in the vicinity of Charlotte, NC
One quick pause here, my astute listeners who are also interested in firearms may recognize Ferguson’s name. When Ferguson was in England, prior to coming to the Americas, he became obsessed with firearms, specifically the idea of a breech loading rifle that would not only be as accurate as the famed American frontier rifle, but would have a far greater rate of fire than that muzzle-loading flintlock. The Ferguson rifle was years ahead of its time. It’s inventor demonstrated its capabilities in tests where he fired it six times a minute, even reloading from the prone position (which was impossible with a muzzle loading flintlock) Yet, like so many inventions that have been too far in advance of their time, Ferguson’s failed to impress generals like Sir William Howe, and only about 200 were ever manufactured.
While Cornwallis had not hesitated in assigning Ferguson his mission on the western flank, he had some reservations. Historian Henry Lumpkin sums up Ferguson: “he clearly was highly intelligent and a fine combat officer, but his commander feared Ferguson’s willful, impulsive, and somewhat erratic personality. He was soft spoken, with a personal magnetism that drew people to him. Oddly enough, he got along well with frontier Americans, even though he considered them his social inferiors. He would sit down and talk for hours with farmers whose loyalty to the Crown had begun to waiver and argue his case with humor, comprehension, and sympathy”
But as we will see in the course of the war, the image that he finally projected to the Patriots of the frontier through his proclamations and the acts of his Tory troops was that of a monster in human form who would not hesitate to burn and slay at will.
American’s Issac Shelby and Charles McDowell’s men had bene int he field for months, raiding and fighting actions such as those at Cedar Spring and Musgrove’s Mill. Now, they were exhausted, hungry and it was time to go home and get some rest so they dispersed, disappearing over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Such a dispersal after a series of battles was not at all uncommon, but it served to deceive Ferguson into believing that his pacification operations were beginning to succeed.
On 7 September 1780, Ferguson invaded North Carolina and occupied Gilbert Town. Many of the locals appeared to rally to him and came to take the oath of allegiance to the Crown. What didn’t occur to Ferguson however is that most of them took the oath not to fight, but to protect their property from his British raiders. Three days later, on 10 September 1780 — Ferguson left with his troops in the hope of intercepting Elijah Clarke, who was supposed to be withdrawing northward after an unsuccessful attempt to capture Augusta. He failed to find Clakre and return to encamp at Old Fort, twenty-two miles northwest of Gilbert Town. Things appeared to be quiet throughout the area, beyond the blue ridge however, and unknown to Ferguson, things were beginning to stir.
Ferguson himself was actually the cause of the activity. Just before he had left on the 10th of September, 1780 he had paroled Samuel Phillips, one of the prisoners taken at Musgrove’s Mill, and sent him with a message to American Colonel Shelby. The message was in effect an ultimatum stating that if Shelby and other rebels of his ilk did not “desist from their opposition to the British arms and take protection under his standard, he would march his army over the mountains and hang their leader, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.”
Far from being cowed by Ferguson’s threats, the “fire and sword proclamation” was circulated rapidly and widely among the over-mountain men, who had already decided that the best way to protect their family and homes was to get Ferguson before he could get to them. To transform that decision into action, the partisan leaders had sent out the call for volunteers on both sides of the Blue Ridge. Ferguson’s ultimatum now served to turn that call into action.
No doubt carrying Ferguson’s message in his pocket, Isaac Shelby rode to meet with Colonel John Sevier, known across the frontier as “Nolichucky Jack”, the Indian fighter whose home was on the Nolichucky River, west of the mountains. The two completed their plans to raise a powerful “posse” to go after Ferguson. To cover the expenses involved, the two pledged that they would replace any money taken from the public treasury themselves. Their final call for armed men went out to famous leaders such as Colonel William Campbell of Virginia and Colonels Charles McDowell and Benjamin Cleveland, whose men ride on both sides of the Carolinas’ border. The call named the rendevous point as Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River, near present-day Elizabethton, Tennessee.
Who did they expect to answer the call? The term over-mountain men was applied loosely to the colonists who had settled on the western side of the Blue Ridge in what is now eastern Tennessee. They were mostly North Carolinians of Scotch-Irish descent who were moving westward in “the same way that Virginians who followed Boone crossed the mountain into Kentucky”. They were also referred to as back water men a term used by Ferguson because they chose to settle along the upper waters of the Watauga, Holston, and Nolichucky rivers. The overmountain men were by no means the only, or even the principal, source of the frontier man-power that rode against Ferguson. Out of the 1,800 that joined up, Shelby’s and Sevier’s men counted as only the initial 480. What the over-mountain men should be credited for is forming the nucleus of the volunteer force that fought at Kings Mountain.
Over-mountain men or not, all of the Patriot fighters were a tough lot. In his Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States Light-Horse Harry Lee later referred to them as “a hardy race of men, who were familiar with the horse and rifle, were stout, active, patient, under privation, and brave. Irregular in their movements [as opposed to the marches and maneuvers of regular units] and unaccustomed to restraint, they delighted in the fury of action, but struggled under the servitude and inactivity of camp.”
They came to Sycamore Shoals, many with their families, but each with horse and rifle. That rifle, was one of the most prized possessions of the frontiersman. Most of them carried the so-called Kentucky, or long rifle, of the type made by Jacob Dickert of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Now I say “of the type here” because as my more astute firearms connoisseur listeners will know, many historians give the implication that ALL men were armed with a Dickert rifle, from Dickert himself, but since that rifle — and most like it — were a masterpiece of hand craftsmanship, good Jacob Dickert could not have possibly, by 1780, turned out the 940 rifles carried by the Patriots into the battle. So some of them carried Dickert rifles and some carried rifles like it.
The caliber the men carried was usually .50, but could vary from 35 to 60 and had a barrel from 36 to 48 inches long with a rifling twist of about one turn in forty-eight. It was called a long rifle because it’s overall length varied between 50–60 inches. It was a muzzle loading flintlock with surprising accuracy up to about 300 yards. It fired a round lead ball which was rammed home with a greased patch, similar to a wad in a shotgun shell, thus making the ball fit tight to the rifling, which would give the ball it’s spin and increase it’s accuracy and velocity. But it did have it’s disadvantage in slowness of loading — a trained musket soldier could fire 3–5 rounds while the rifleman was firing one — and the fact that it could not be fitted with a bayonet. Those disadvantages meant little to the backwoodsman, because the rifle was ideal for it’s purposes: hunting and Indian fighting. For hand-to-hand combat the frontiersman had learned from the Indians to carry a tomahawk or knife.
Of the more than 1,000 mounted riflemen who assembled at Sycamore SHoals on the 25 Sept 1780, Patriots Shelby and Sevier brought 240 each, Colonel William Campbell, carrying his family’s Highland broadsword, came in with 400 Virginians. Colonel Charles McDowell arrived with 160 of his North Carolinians. The majority of those present brought their womenfolk and children, who came to see fathers, sons, or brothers off to the war. The gathering had a gala air. Historian Wilma Dykeman recounts: “The men talked and planned and prepared. And the women cooked, made last-minute patches or polishings on clothing or equipment, and they talked and worried over the dangers”
Finally on the early morning of 26 September 1780, these deeply religious people heard the Reverend Samuel Doak say the prayer for the departing expedition. He compared their cause to that of Gideon’s men in the Bible going forth to fight the Midianites. Doak ended with a ringing battle cry “The sword of the Lord and of Gideon”, It was fitting and it was remembered.
The long column that rode out of Sycamore Shoals was in Historian Wilma Dykeman’s words: “an army without uniforms. Many of their hunting shirts were of fringed buckskin while others were of homespun linsey-woolsey, ‘clumisly made, blouse fashion, reaching to the knees and gathered up, tied around the waist’ Their breeches and gaiters were of rough, home-dyed cloth. Long hair was tied back in a queue beneath their wide-brimmed hats. They were an army little encumbered with baggage, unaccompanied by a supply train. Each man had a blanket, a cup, and ‘a wallet of provisions’ principally of parched corn” There were of course, rifles, powder horns, and “possible bags” with hunting necessaries.
The little army had to make a ninety-mile march to reach it’s next rendezvous at Quaker Meadows, near present-day Morganton NC. There were delays — some expected, some not. Slowed down at first by the cattle they were driving as meat on the hoof, they made only twenty miles the first day. On the second they had trouble with a stampede, which was troublesome enough to cause the men to slaughter a few cattle for a portable supply of beef, then abandon the remainder to valley farmers. The column went on to climb the gap between the Yellow and Roan mountains, where they encountered snow “shoe-top deep” When they encamped on the plateau beyond the gap, they found that two of Sevier’s men were missing — probably deserters who had gone to alert Ferguson of the frontiersman’s approach.
The deserters raised another problem: in order to attack Ferguson before he could get reinforcements from Cornwallis, they would have to speed up their march. Yet they couldn’t use the trail that the deserters knew, so they must select another that would still give them time to pick up the back-country militia en route to join them. They decided on one that would allow a faster march, and Nolichucky Jack Sevier and Shelby led off. They crossed the Blue Ridge at Gillespie’s Gap and rode on to arrive at Quaker Meadows on 30 September 1780. There at McDowell’s Plantation, their numbers were increased to 1,400 by North and South Carolina reinforcements.
Here were the leaders who would march to catch up with and attack Ferguson. Besides Shelby and Sevier, the expedition had already been joined by Colonel William Campbell, the six-foot eight giant who was an Indian fighter and born leader. He had fought in Lord Dunmore’s War (1774) and had married Patrick Henry’s sister. In historian Hank Messick’s summation
The senior officer, Colonel Charles McDowell was a respected fighter who had served in Rutherford’s campaign against the Cherokees. The leaders were of an opinion that a force the size of theirs needed a general, or at least a commander of reputation who, coming from outside, would not arouse jealousies among the men from different localities. They sent Charles McDowell to General Gates to ask him to assign someone like Daniel Morgan or William Davidson to the job. Gates didn’t answer the request, so they elected William Campbell commander of their combined forces. That done, the army marched again, and on 2 October 1780 camped sixteen miles north of Gilbert Town, where they hoped to find Ferguson.
But British officer Ferguson was no longer in Gilbert Town. Ferguson had already learned of the expedition hunting him and had started withdrawing to the south on 27 September 1780. He was hastened in his decision to march toward Ninety-Six, SC when he learend that Elijah Clarke’s forces might be moving to join the rebel army. On 30 September the deserters from Sevier’s men caught up with Ferguson. The two of them James Crawford and Samuel Chambers, were able to give Ferguson detailed information about the expedition; it’s numbers, composition, and leaders. The news was disturbing enough for Ferguson to dispatch riders to Cornwallis, now in Charlotte NC with his main body, and Lieutenant Colonel John Cruger, the commander of the Ninety-Six garrison, asking for reinforcements posthaste.
The next day Ferguson issued a proclamation to the countryside, a strange declaration which smacked of bravado and betrayed a sense of growing frustration. “I say if you wish to be pinioned, robbed and murdered, and see your wives and daughters, in four days, abused by the dregs of mankind — in short, if you wish and deserve to live and bear the name of men, grasp your arms in a moment and run to camp. The Backwater men have crossed the mountains, McDowell, Hampton, Shelby and Cleveland are at their head, so you know what you have to depend upon. If you choose to be pissed upon forever and ever by a set of mongrels, say so at once and let your women turn their backs upon you, and look out for real men to protect them.”
At his heart Ferguson was a bold fighter, so some of the twists and turns of his march were indeed deliberate, he had originally been heading east towards Charlotte, NC, then to Gilbert town on 3 October 1780 until he forded the Second Broad River, Sandy Run, and Buffalo Creek and marched on to the plantation of a Loyalist named Tate, about ten miles west of Kings Mountain. There he lingered, awaiting reinforcements and resting his men for two days, 4–5 October.
Frustrated at losing Ferguson’s trial, the Patriot leaders were using all their means to scout out his path. Finally they camped for the night of October 5, 1780. Campbell and his colonels then decided on a bold measure to make a fast move to catch Ferguson. They picked men with the best horses, some 700 in all — to make a dash for Cowpens, twenty-one miles to the southeast. If the advance column did not intercept Ferguson en route, it would still be in position to swing to the northeast to find Ferguson or his trail. Moreover, at Cowpens, a well known cattle-herding center, the leaders would be in an area likely to yield the information they were seeking.
Their column arrived at Cowpens on Friday, 6 October 1780. It was early evening and they found the principal landowner in the area, a well-to-do Loyalist farmer named Hiram Saunders. The first men to arrive hauled Saunders out of bed to question him. He said he knew nothing of Ferguson’s troops or their whereabouts; apparently he was telling the truth. By the time they had finished questioning Saunders, the main body arrived and began to help their hungry selves to Saunders’ bounty.
There was more than food to bolster morale. Soon Col. James Williams came riding in with 400 of his men. While the greetings were going around, another piece of good luck, undoubtedly the most important of the day, came to the Patriots: Joseph Kerr arrived to confirm reports of Ferguson’s location. A cripple who served the cause by acting as a spy, Kerr used his lameness to gain access to Loyalist formations under the guise of seeking shelter. He had been among Ferguson’s troops when they halted that same day for their noon meal about six or seven miles from Kings Mountain. Kerr had found out that they were headed for the mountain and would encamp there.
There was no time to lose. The leaders quickly made a new culling to pick 940 of their number, the best men with the best horses. These included 200 riflemen from Campbell’s command, 120 under Shelby, 120 led by Sevier, 100 men following Cleveland, 90 with Joseph McDowell and 60 under Winston. Edward Lacey and William Hill commanded their 100 south Carolinians, Hambright and Chronicle led 50 picked soldiers and Candler’s 30 Georgians formed part of James Williams’ unit of 90 selected riflemen. The men left at 8:00 PM on Friday, 6 Oct 1780 their destination: Kings Mountain.
Kerr’s report had been accurate, Ferguson had left Tate’s Plantation about 4:00am on 6 Octobober. His troops followed him along the old Cherokee Road that ran between Buffalo Creek and King’s Creek. They forded King’s Creek and passed through Stony Gap heading toward the northeast. By then they knew their destination was not to be Charlotte, which lay about 35 miles further east. Instead, Ferguson had chosen to make camp and take up a position on top of the ridge known as Kings Mountain.
While his units were filing off to occupy campsites atop the ridge, Ferguson wrote to Cornwallis what was to be his final report: “I arrived today at Kings Mountain & have taken a post where I do not think I can be forced by a stronger enemy than that against us”
All indications are that Ferguson was taking up his mountaintop location not like the fox brought to bay by the hounds, but so as to command a formidable defensive position while awaiting reinforcements from Cornwallis. He had already received the answer to his request for troops from Cruger at Ninety-Six, SC. None would be coming. Ferguson knew that he would get no help from the south. What he did not know however, was that help would not be forthcoming from Cornwallis either. His commander would not send Tarleton, the most mobile force left to him, because his legion needed a rest and Tarleton was incapacitated with malaria. Cornwallis himself was down with a “feverish cold” and of no mind to dispatch any of his main force on a chase to the west of Charlotte.
For the past few months, the Patriots and British have played a game of chess. Each moving their respective pieces across North and South Carolina. British commander Ferguson now has his men in a defensive position occupying Kings Mountain. A hand selected, best of the best, Patriot force is on it’s way. And next week, we’ll see what happens when the two clash.
Originally published at American Military History Podcast.