The Battle of Kings Mountain, October 7, 1780, was an important Patriot victory in the Southern campaign of the American Revolutionary War. Frontier militia loyal to the United States overwhelmed the Loyalist American militia led by British Major Patrick Ferguson of the 71st Foot. In The Winning of the West, Theodore Roosevelt wrote of Kings Mountain, "This brilliant victory marked the turning point of the American Revolution."
Americans settlers of largely Scotch-Irish descent settled west of, or "over," the Appalachians, and were thus so known as the "Overmountain Men." They united into a semi-autonomous government called the Watauga Association in 1772, about four years before the United States Declaration of Independence.
These Scotch-Irish Patriots (Whigs) were entirely volunteer forces who fought under men that they choose to follow: William Campbell, John Sevier, Frederick Hambright, Joseph McDowell, Benjamin Cleveland, James Williams, John McKissack, and Isaac Shelby led their militia units as Colonels, while Captain Joseph Winston and Edward Lacey commanded the other mostly autonomous units.
After the defeat of Horatio Gates's army at the Battle of Camden, British General Cornwallis was convinced that Georgia and South Carolina were under British control, and he began plans to move into North Carolina. However, a brutal civil war between colonists continued to rage in South Carolina. The Whig frontiersmen, led by a group of self-proclaimed colonels of the rebellion—Isaac Shelby, Elijah Clarke, and Charles McDowell—conducted hit-and-run raids on Loyalist outposts. To protect his western flank, Cornwallis gave Major Patrick Ferguson command of the Loyalist militia.
Cornwallis invaded North Carolina on September 9, 1780, and reached Charlotte on September 26. Ferguson followed and established a base camp at Gilbertown and issued a challenge to the Patriot leaders to lay down their arms or he would, "Lay waste to their country with fire and sword." But the tough-talking words only outraged the Appalachian frontiersmen who rallied at Sycamore Shoals and acted to bring the battle to Ferguson rather than wait for him to come to them.
Having learned of the Colonial approach from a captured deserter, Ferguson withdrew eastwards towards Cornwallis's main body at Charlotte, but at King's Mountain, he turned to face his pursuers. King's Mountain was one of many rocky forested hills in the upper Piedmont near the border between North and South Carolina. It is shaped like a footprint with the highest point at the heel, a narow instep, and a broad rounded toe.
Unlike most British officers, Ferguson was convinced that Loyalist militia could be trained to be as effective as British regulars. Years earlier, Ferguson personally invented, patented, and successfully field-tested a breech-loading musket which he called 'the Ferguson Rifle' which could fire faster and with greater accuracy than the British Brown Bess muzzle-loading musket. More importantly, it could be loaded and fired while the soldier was lying down on the ground and not standing up, being exposed to enemy fire. Ferguson commanded an 80-man loyalist unit earlier at the Battle of Brandywine where his men were armed with the Ferguson Rifle, and took advantage of it to contain Patriot sorties and attacks. But despite its obvious utility, the British hierarchy saw that it threatened the traditional, time-tested way of warfare and refused to sanction its use. Disappointed by this endeavor, Ferguson became determined to prove his other theory. He drilled his men and produced a tightly knit and well-disciplined unit which he was eager to test against the Revolutionary militia.
The Patriots crept up the hill and fired on the Loyalists from behind rocks and trees. Ferguson rallied his troops and launched a bayonet charge against Campbell and Sevier's men. With no bayonets of their own, the rebels retreated down the hill and into the woods. Campbell rallied his troops, returned to the base of the hill, and resumed firing. Ferguson launched two more bayonet charges during the course of the battle. During one of the charges, Colonel Williams was killed and Colonel McDowell wounded. However, after each charge the Patriots returned to the base of the hill and resumed firing. It was hard for the Loyalists to find a target because the Patriots were constantly moving using cover and concealment.
After several hours of combat, Loyalist casualties were heavy. Ferguson rode back and forth across the hill, blowing a silver whistle he used to signal charges. Growing desperate, he slipped on a plaid shirt to cover his officer's coat. A soldier on one side or the other saw this and alerted his comrades immediately. At the crest, as the Patriots overran the Loyalist position, Ferguson fell dead from his saddle with eight rifle balls in his body.
Seeing their leader fall, the Loyalists began to surrender. Eager to avenge defeats at the Waxhaw Massacre and elsewhere, the rebels did not initially want to take prisoners. Rebels continued firing and shouted, "Give 'em Tarleton's Quarter!" After a few more minutes of bloodletting, the Colonials asserted control and gave quarter to around 700 Loyalists.
The Battle of the King's Mountain only lasted 65 minutes. On the Loyalist side, 225 were killed and 163 wounded, and 716 were taken prisoners. The Patriot militia casualties were 28 killed and 62 wounded. Loyalist prisoners well enough to walk were herded to camps several miles from the battlefield. The dead and wounded were left on the field. The Patriots hung as many as nine Loyalists who had changed sides. Other accounts say that the Tories were tried before North Carolina judges for violation of the state's criminal laws. Those who were hanged were convicted of crimes such as pillaging. With the defeat as evidence of a ferocious colonial resistance, Cornwallis abandoned his plan to try to take North Carolina, and retreated to the south.
Of the 716 captured, nine were hanged for treason.
After the battle, Joseph Greer of the Watauga Association at Sycamore Shoals (located at what is today the city of Elizabethton, Tennessee) set off on a 600 mile (950 km), month-long expedition to notify the Continental Congress of the British defeat at the battle; he arrived in Philadelphia on November 7, 1780. Greer's report of the American Patriot victory at Kings Mountain "re-energized a downtrodden Continental Congress."
In 1931, the Congress of the United States created the Kings Mountain National Military Park on the site of the battle. The park headquarters is in Blacksburg, South Carolina, and hosts hundreds of thousands of people each year.
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