THE BATTLE OF KINGS MOUNTAIN
THE SUBJUGATION OF South Carolina
The Battle of Kings Mountain, South Carolina, occurred on the 7th day
of October, 1780, and resulted in the defeat of Lieutenant Colonel Ferguson,
who commanded the royal forces, and the loss of his command, not one man
escaping from the battle field. The thoroughness of the disaster, and the
death of the brave and highly trusted leader, was by far the most serious
blow to which the British forces operating in the Southern Provinces had
been subjected. The immediate effect upon Cornwallis was to put an end,
for the time being, to the further subjugation of the Province of North
Carolina. His contemplated advance from Charlotte Town to Salisbury was
menaced by a new and unheard of enemy—the men under Campbell, Shelby, Sevier,
and others—who came from the region of the mountains, and the back, waters
that flow to the west; from places so remote and unknown to the British
leaders as to be almost mythical. This avenging horde made necessary a
hasty revision of Cornwallis's plans following Kings Mountain, which resulted
in his immediate withdrawal to the South, and the concentration of his
main army, detached posts, and flanking parties, into positions capable
of rendering mutual assistance.
These hardy men of the Blue Ridge and Alleghenies, of deep religious
convictions, were accustomed to the hardships and independence of a pioneer
life, and in their mountain homes in the highlands and the backwaters they
but seldom were concerned [Page 2] with affairs beyond their borders or interfered with by Crown or colony. When Ferguson approached their kingdom and threatened to invade their lands
and lay waste their country with "fire and sword," and to "hang their leaders,"
he aroused their indignation and anger to such a degree that they determined
to rid the country forever of this enemy, who menaced their independence
and the safety of their homes and families. Had Cornwallis and his leaders
known more about these mountain and backwater men, they would have carefully
avoided all military and punitive measures which might tend to draw them
from their mountain fastnesses to enroll amongst the enemies of the King.
The causes of the Revolution were but little known to many of these
pioneers beyond the Blue Ridge. They were concerned in the establishment
of their homes, breaking the soil of their new settlements, and wringing
a livelihood from it; and with their rifles securing much of their sustenance.
They sought the seclusion of the western waters; and in the valleys of
the Holston, the Watauga, and the Nolichucky, found freedom in the exercise
of their religion. Had the western covering force of Cornwallis's army,
as it advanced into the Province of North Carolina, confined its activities,
to the plains and lowlands east of the Blue Ridge, and had not Ferguson
from Gilbert Town uttered his threat of fire and sword and the hangman's
noose, these mountain men would probably have remained in their homes,
and but few of them would have joined with those who were in rebellion
against the King.
The Battle of Kings Mountain was fought by men on both sides whose bravery
should be a matter of pride to all posterity. The troops commanded by Ferguson
were Americans, or persons who had come to the Provinces prior to the Revolution.
His command consisted of about 125 picked officers and men, taken from
several regular battalions raised in New York and New Jersey, and formed
into a temporary Provincial Corps. These men were Loyalists, and they gave
their services to the Crown with the same high sense of duty which prompted
their brothers and neighbors to rebel against [Page 3] further domination by Great Britain. Supplementing the Provincial Corps
was a greater number of Tory militia, enrolled in the Carolinas. Their
services were offered for a variety of reasons; some because of their belief
that the government of the mother country should continue, others because
of expediency so that their lands and possessions might be given the protection
of the British flag, still others-served as soldiers of fortune under the
flag which they believed would be successful, and a small number were influenced
by a base desire to rob and plunder under the license usually associated
with partisan warfare.
Under the confederated leaders, who commanded at Kings Mountain, were
a few refugees from the lowlands, some small groups from the counties east
of the mountains, and a large number of mountain and backwater men whose
independence was being threatened by an alien invader. In answering the
call to embody under their local leaders, there existed the definite understanding
among these mountain men that they were going into the lowlands to fight,
and that they would not return to their homes until they, or Ferguson,
had been defeated.
At Kings Mountain the defenders used the bayonet and the rifle until
their losses made surrender of the survivors inevitable. The attackers
faced bullet and bayonet, and responded with an expert use of the rifle,
with which they were familiar, due to their frequent stalking of game and
Indians. The mountain men were not accustomed to the bayonet, but they
were expert in taking cover behind rocks and trees. Ferguson was confident
that his position rendered him secure against any untrained and unorganized
horde which might attack him. His Provincial Corps were trained in the
use of the bayonet and were commanded by competent leaders. The militia
had received some limited training in the art of war, and were provided
with long hunting knives to be attached to their rifles, in lieu of the
bayonet. Their marksmanship was not as effective as was that of the mountain
men, as conditions of life in the lowlands were not such as to make their
daily existence dependent [Page 4] upon accurate use of the rifle. Ferguson was a trained soldier, an able
leader, and, together with Tarleton, one of Cornwallis's most valuable
In both the Carolinas there was a large number of citizens, and probably
a majority, whose sympathies at one time or another in 1780 were with the
Royal Government. They believed that a rebellion could not, and should
not, succeed. In commenting on the internecine warfare carried on without
cessation, General Greene wrote on the 23d of May, 1781, more than five
months after he had assumed command of the Southern Department:
The animosity between the Whigs and Tories of this State renders their
situation truly deplorable. There is not a day passes but there are more
or less who fall a sacrifice to this savage disposition. The Whigs seem
determined to extirpate the Tories and the Tories the Whigs. Some thousands
have fallen in this way in this quarter, and the evil rages with more violence
than ever. If a stop can not be put to these massacres, the country will
be depopulated in a few months more, as neither Whig nor Tory can live.
The Battle of Kings Mountain was not an isolated action; it was the high
spot of 1780 in the South. The surrender of Charleston, the defeat of the
American forces at Camden on the 16th of August, of Sumter two days later,
the many engagements of lesser importance, all added prestige to the royal
cause, resulting in the complete subjugation of Georgia and South Carolina.
Cornwallis had advanced as far as Charlotte Town in North Carolina and
was preparing to move his headquarters to Salisbury, when the unexpected
blow delivered by the mountain men at Kings Mountain brought to an immediate
end the thought of further conquest and made necessary the withdrawal of
the British forces into South Carolina and the assumption of a defensive
role for several months thereafter. Therefore, to have an intelligent understanding
of the Battle of Kings Mountain and its effect upon the southern campaign
of 1780, it is necessary to know something of the movements of the King's
forces from the time Charleston was invested.
The British land forces in America were commanded by Sir Henry Clinton,
whose official title was "General and commander in chief of His Majesty's
forces in the several Provinces in America [Page 5]
on the Atlantic, from Nova Scotia to west Florida, inclusive." Vice
Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot commanded the fleet, and Lord Cornwallis, who
had been designated by Whitehall as second in command to Clinton, held
a dormant commission giving him the rank of general in America, only, should
an unforeseen accident happen to the commander in chief.
In the latter part of 1779 the Americans made an unsuccessful attempt
to recover Savannah from the British, and following this failure the French
fleet, which supported the move, departed for the West Indies. Clinton
and Arbuthnot now considered the time propitious to make another attempt
against Charleston, with the idea of occupying the Carolinas, giving support
to the Tories and popularizing the Crown cause. Furthermore, such a move
would result in curtailing colony traffic with Europe by way of the Chesapeake.
Upon completion of their plans, the amphibious expedition under Clinton
and Arbuthnot sailed from its base, New York, December 26, 1779. Charleston
Harbor was occupied, siege laid to the city, and on the 12th of May General
Lincoln surrendered the town and its garrison.
Upon the capitulation of Charleston, Clinton considered that the Major
effort in the subjugation of the Province had been accomplished, and that,
with this showing of the power of the Crown, most of the inhabitants would
join the loyal cause. It would be necessary, of course, to occupy the country
with a considerable land force, and thereby give protection to loyal sympathizers,
but it was thought that the British regular force under his command would
be largely augmented by Tory militia, who would aid in keeping the revolutionists
Cornwallis commanded in the field, and on May 17 had a force of regulars
to the number of 2,542 rank and file, which Clinton believed would be sufficient,
when augmented by militia, to subjugate South Carolina and continue the
campaign into North Carolina. At the same time Cornwallis was advised that
in view of the [Page 6] importance of his mission, troops were not to be stinted, and he was
offered, by Clinton, any that he might desire from the garrisons of the
several forts. For the initiation of the campaign, his array was to be
augmented by the light infantry and the Forty-second Regiment, with the
understanding that they were to be returned to Clinton as soon as they
could be spared, as his contemplated operations to the northward would
be cramped without them. Cornwallis was of the belief that he had sufficient
regular forces to eventually control all the territory from the Floridas
to Virginia, and on the 18th of May wrote Clinton that he would regret
to see left behind any part of the troops destined for use elsewhere, and
unless considerable reinforcements of Continentals should come from the
northward to join the revolutionists, he would not need more assistance.
He suggested that the publication of intelligence by Clinton that he and
Arbuthnot were moving to the Chesapeake would probably stop off, on those
waters, any reinforcements intended for the Carolinas. In case Clinton
learned before sailing to the north that enemy reinforcements were well
on their way, Cornwallis asked that his command be increased by some five
or six hundred British or Hessians. It will be noted later that at this
time Washington and Congress were preparing Maryland and Delaware troops,
under De Kalb, to march to the South, and that, by resolution of Congress,
these two States were transferred to the Southern Department.
On May 20 the light infantry and the Forty-second Regiment, promised
to Cornwallis to supplement his forces temporarily, marched to Monks Comer
and reported. At this time both the commander in chief and Cornwallis were
hopeful that South Carolina would offer but little resistance to complete
subjugation, although there was, in Clinton's mind, a measure of doubt,
for he knew that the entire success of the campaign would depend upon whether
or not "'the temper of our friends in those districts is such as it has
always been represented to us."
The time arrived when Clinton and the fleet could no longer delay departure
for the north. La Fayette had returned to America [Page 7] on April 27, with the promise of his Government that a French fleet
and army would follow him in a short time. Information of this early augmentation
of the enemy forces reached Arbuthnot and Clinton, and they deemed it advisable
to assemble the fleet and troops at New York, and for the time being make
no move against the Chesapeake. Cornwallis was instructed that after he
had finished his southern campaign of subjugation, and by his presence
and show of force convinced the people that it was to their best interests
to maintain allegiance to the Crown, he was to leave in the South such
forces as he might consider necessary to dominate the territory, and send
the remainder to the Chesapeake to assist in the operations which were
to be undertaken there as soon as Clinton was relieved of the apprehension
of a superior fleet and the season was far enough advanced to permit of
campaigning in that climate. It was supposed at the time that the move
to the Chesapeake could be undertaken in September or the early part of
October. Cornwallis was to command the troops which would be concentrated
for this operation.
From his headquarters in the field, Cornwallis corresponded with loyalists
in North Carolina, informing them of his hopes for the prompt subjugation
of South Carolina and advising with them as to what immediate militant
acts, if any, they should engage in. It was not desired that any partisan
of the King should become very active in the field at this time, for fear
that the rebels would likewise become embodied and produce a situation
inimical to the success of his army when it approached the border of the
Province. However, if the loyalists considered themselves a match for the
Whigs, and were determined to rise without further delay, he promised all
the assistance in his power, by incursions of light infantry and furnishing
ammunition. It soon became evident that this hopeful view of any early
conquest was not to be realized, for there were many questions of supply
and transportation to be arranged before the army could move far from its
base, and matters of civil administration to be adjusted, so that the government
of the territory in rear of the royal army would offer safety to the troops.
Cornwallis had established his headquarters at Camden while Clinton
and Arbuthnot were still at Charleston. On their departure, June 5, for
New York, the responsibility for the campaign, and the safety of the loyalists
and Tories in the occupied territory, rested upon Cornwallis solely. He
arranged for the enrollment of militia under the British flag, for the
organization and functioning of civil administration, and modified the
proclamations issued at Charleston by Clinton and Arbuthnot June 1, and
that of Clinton the 3d, so that greater protection would be given those
who were loyal to the Crown and more severe punishment meted out to those
in rebellion; and at the same time provided for the needs of his army.
His command of 4,000 regular troops and a few Provincials had not only
to occupy several important posts widely distant from each other, but from
their numbers maintain in the field a force of sufficient strength to withstand
local partisans and oppose rein, forcing troops marching from the north.
Posts were established from the Peedee to the Savannah to awe the disaffected
and encourage the loyal inhabitants, and measures were taken to raise some
Provincial Corps and to establish a militia, as well for the defense as
for the internal government of South Carolina.
In the district of Ninety Six, which was viewed as the most populous
and powerful in the Province, Lieutenant Colonel Balfour, assisted by Major
Ferguson, who had been appointed inspector general of militia by Clinton,
formed 7 battalions of militia of about 4,000 men, which organizations
were so regulated that they could furnish 1,500 men at short notice for
the defense of the frontier, or for any other home service. In addition
to the militia, a Provincial Corps of 500 men was commissioned to be raised
under command of Lieutenant Colonel Cunningham.
Other battalions of militia were formed along the extensive line—Broad
River to Cheraws—but they were in general either weak, or not much to be
relied on for their fidelity." The refugees who were now returning to their
native country, were organized into the First South Carolina Regiment.
A Provincial Corps, to consist of 500 men, was put in commission, to
be raised between the Peedee and Wateree, under the command of Major Harrison.
In order to protect the raising of this corps, and to awe this large tract
of disaffected country the Seventy-first Regiment and a troop of dragoons
under Major McArthur were posted at Cheraw Hill on the Peedee.
Other small posts were likewise established in the front and on the
left of Camden, at which place the main body of the army was posted, and
which was considered a fairly healthy place for the troops.
Having made the above arrangements, and everything wearing the face
of tranquillity and submission, Cornwallis set out on the 21st of June
for Charleston, leaving the command of the troops on the frontier to Lord
Rawdon, who was, after Brigadier General Patterson, the commandant at Charleston,
the next in rank in the southern district.
It was about this time that Cornwallis changed the instructions previously
given his friends in the northern Province relative to their rising in
aid of the Crown. He now considered it ill advised to march his army through
North Carolina before the harvest, and took strong measures to induce impatient
partisans not to rise until after the crops had been gathered, and under
no conditions to act until he advised them that the time was propitious.
On June 30 he wrote to Clinton that with the capitulation of Ninety
Six, and the dispersion of a party of rebels who had assembled at an ironwork
on the northwest border of the Province, there was an end to all resistance
in South Carolina. He reported the forces of the enemy in North Carolina
as about 100 militia under General Caswell, 400 or 500 militia at or near
Salisbury under General Rutherford, and 300 Virginians in that neighborhood
under Porterfield. The force which gave him the most concern, however,
was 2,000 Maryland and Delaware troops under Major General Baron De Kalb.
Now that the strongholds in the northwest part of South Carolina were
in his possession, Cornwallis thought he could leave this [Page 9]
Province in security, and march about the beginning of September with
a body of troops into the back part of North Carolina, "with the greatest
probability of reducing that Province to its duty." Having in mind Clinton's instructions that troops which could be spared later would be used at a probable early date on the Chesapeake, Cornwallis wrote in regard to his contemplated move into North Carolina:
I am of opinion that (besides the advantage of possessing so valuable
a Province) it would prove an effectual barrier for South Carolina and
Georgia; and could be kept, with the assistance of our friends there, by
as few troops as would be wanted on the borders of this Province, if North
Carolina should remain in the hands of our enemies.
This hopeful view of the situation, based largely upon the success of the
royal arms up to this time, was soon to be shattered. While Cornwallis
was still at Charleston his intelligence reported that Sumter, with about
1,500 militia, was advancing from the north as far as the Catawba settlement,
and that many disaffected South Carolinians from the Waxhaw and other settlements
on the frontier, whom Lord Rawdon at Camden had put on parole, were availing
themselves of the general release of the 20th of June, and joining Sumter.
It was also reported that De Kalb's army was continuing its movement south,
followed by 2,500 Virginia militia. Cornwallis informed Clinton of these
developments in a letter of July 14, stating:
The effects of the exertions which the enemy are making in these two
Provinces, will, I make no doubt, be exaggerated to us. But upon the whole
there is every reason to believe that their plan is not only to defend
North Carolina, but to commence offensive operations immediately; which
reduces me to the necessity, if I wanted the inclination, of following
the plan which I had the honor of transmitting to your excellency in my
letter of the 30th of June, as the most effectual means of keeping up the
spirits of our friends and securing this Province.
The plan referred to by Cornwallis was the occupation of North Carolina,
and holding it as the frontier of the southern district.
The work of supplying the base at Camden with salt, rum, regimental
stores, arms, and ammunition was under way, so that [Page 11] a further advance of the army beyond that point would be safe, guarded.
Due to the distance of transportation and the excessive heat of the season,
the work was one of infinite labor, requiring considerable time. Then,
too, the several actions in which his forces had been engaged made Cornwallis
more and more doubtful as to the value of his militia. He wrote to Clinton
that dependence upon these troops for protecting and holding in South Carolina,
in case of an advance of his army into North Carolina, was precarious,
as their want of subordination and confidence in themselves would make
a considerable regular force always necessary for the defense of the Province,
until North Carolina was completely subjugated.
The plan of campaign of the Crown forces to the north contemplated using
Ferguson's corps, augmented by militia of the Ninety Six district who were
being trained by Ferguson, as a left covering force to advance to the borders
of Tryon County, now Rutherford and Lincoln, paying particular attention
to the mountain regions in securing protection for the advance of the main
body from Camden. Lieutenant Colonel Cruger, who commanded at Ninety Six,
was to remain there with his corps. Innes, with the remainder of the militia
of that district, was to guard the frontier, which would require careful
attention, as there were many disaffected, and many constantly in arms.
The continued advance southward of the American troops previously reported
in North Carolina was known to Cornwallis. While still in Charleston, on
August 9, he received an express from Camden informing him that General
Gates, accompanied by Caswell and Rutherford, was approaching with every
appearance of an intent to attack Lord Rawdon, who had assembled several
regiments on the west branch of Lynches Creek. These troops were more or
less sickly, particularly the Seventy-first Regiment, the two battalions
of which had not more than 274 men under arms. On the 6th Sumter had attacked
the British post at Hanging Rock, where the infantry of the Legion and
Governor Browne's corps were posted. He had been repulsed, but not without
These accounts alarmed Cornwallis, and he proceeded from Charleston
to join the army in the field. At the same time he wrote to Clinton:
If we succeed at present, and are able to penetrate into North Carolina,
without which it is impossible to hold this province, your Excellency will
see the absolute necessity of a diversion in the Chesapeake, and that it
must be done early.
Cornwallis reached Camden on the 13th of August. Gates's command had approached
very close, and on the morning of the 16th the two armies met and fought
the Battle of Camden, resulting in the defeat of Gates. Following this
victory, Cornwallis determined upon the destruction or dispersion of the
corps under Sumter, as it might prove a foundation for assembling the routed
army, and on the morning of the 17th he detached Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton
with the Legion cavalry and infantry, and the corps of light infantry,
in all about 350 men, to pursue and attack Sumter. Orders were also sent
to Lieutenant Colonel Turnbull and Major Ferguson, on the Little River,
to put their corps in motion immediately, and on their side to pursue and
attack the same enemy. Tarleton was successful in surprising Sumter on
the 18th at Fishing Creek, near the Catawba.. The latter, with a corps
of about 800 men, was escorting 250 prisoners and a large quantity of stores,
artillery, and ammunition. Sumter himself escaped, though with difficulty,
but his whole corps was killed, taken, or dispersed.
In writing of the Battle of Camden, Cornwallis stated that above 1,000
were killed and wounded, and about 800 taken prisoners; that his army captured
7 pieces of brass cannon, all the enemy ammunition, wagons, a great number
of arms, and 130 baggage wagons; "in short, there never was a more complete
victory." The British loss was reported as 300 killed and wounded, chiefly
of the Thirty-third Regiment and the Volunteers of Ireland. Among the Americans
wounded were Major General Baron De Kalb and Brigadier General Rutherford.
Baron De Kalb died of his wounds. In a letter to Lord Germain written August 21, Cornwallis said that on arriving in Camden the night of the 13th, he found there Lord Rawdon's [Page 13] entire force, except a small detachment under Lieutenant Colonel Turnbull, which fell back from Rocky Mount to Major Ferguson's posts of the militia at Ninety Six, on Little River.
I had my option to make, either to retire or attack the enemy, for
the position at Camden was a bad one to be attacked in, and by General
Sumpter's advancing down the Wateree, my supplies must have failed me in
a few days.
These two decisive engagements, following so closely upon each other, brought
deep despair to the revolutionists and great elation to the victors. In
Cornwallis's letter to Lord Germain referred to above and written five
days after Camden and three days after the defeat of Sumter, he declared
that the rebel forces were dispersed and that internal commotions and insurrections
in the Province would now subside. He stated that he had given directions
to inflict exemplary punishment on some of the most guilty, in hopes to
deter others in future "from tampering with allegiance, with oaths, and
with the lenity and generosity of the British Government." The orders of
Cornwallis were that all inhabitants of the Province who had submitted,
and later took part in the revolt against the King, should be punished
with the greatest vigor, imprisoned, and their property taken or destroyed.
He ordered in the most positive manner that every militiaman who had borne
arms under him, and afterwards joined the enemy, should be immediately
hanged. Cruger, who commanded at Ninety Six, was directed to take the most
vigorous measures to extinguish the rebellion in his district, and to obey
in the strictest manner the directions given relative to the treatment
of the country. It will be seen later how the execution of these instructions
in the region of the Blue Ridge and Alleghenies resulted in the mountain
men swarming from their homes to defend their freedom and independence.
Now that no further opposition to the advance into North Carolina existed,
on the morning of the 17th of September Cornwallis dispatched messengers
into that Province with directions to his friends there to take arms and
assemble immediately, and to seize the most violent people and all the
military stores and magazines [Pge 14] belonging to the rebels, and to intercept all stragglers from
the routed army. He promised to march without loss of time to their support.
Much to Cornwallis's disappointment, however, the people of the northern
Province were not as prompt in rising as he had hoped. Their inclinations
were held in check due to the large number of revolutionists whom they
had observed marching to the south to oppose the royal forces, and they
preferred to await the arrival of the British Army in their neighborhood
before taking an open stand. Cornwallis was hopeful that Clinton would
start, at an early date, the contemplated move to the Chesapeake, thereby
relieving the situation on his northern front. He wrote to him that next
to the security of New York, the operations in the Chesapeake were one
of the most important objects of the war.
About this time Major Wemyss was sent with a detachment of the Sixty-third
Regiment, mounted, some refugees, Provincials, and militia, to disarm in
the most rigid manner the country between the Santee and Peedee, and to
punish severely all those who submitted or pretended to live peaceably
under his majesty s Government since the reduction of Charleston, and who
had later revolted. Cornwallis himself ordered several militiamen to be
executed, who had voluntarily enrolled and borne arms under the British
flag and afterwards revolted to the enemy.
Plans were made to move the first division of the army into North Carolina
by way of Charlotte Town and Salisbury, about September 6 or 7. The second
division would follow in about 10 days with convalescents and stores. A
more prompt move following the successes at Camden and Fishing Creek could
not be made, due to the number of sick and wounded, and the want of transport.
The advance was started on the 8th and Charlotte Town reached the 26th
During September Ferguson operated in Ninety Six and from there moved
into what had been Tryon County, North Carolina, accompanied by about 800
militia collected from the neighborhood of Ninety Six. Protection was to
be given to the friends of the [Page 15] Crown, who were supposed to be numerous in that locality, and it was intended that he should pass the Catawba River and endeavor to preserve tranquillity in the rear and flank of the army. It was while on this duty that the loss of his entire command occurred at Kings Mountain on the 7th of the following month. Without some knowledge of Cornwallis's campaign in South Carolina, and from thence into North Carolina as far as Charlotte Town, the necessity for his immediate retirement from the northern Province, following Kings Mountain, would not be understood. It is now necessary to refer to the group of leaders and the troops which they commanded, who succeeded, so unexpectedly and so decisively, in dealing this staggering blow to Ferguson, and in compelling Cornwallis to place his army on the defensive.