Historical Statements Concerning
The Battle Of Kings Mountain
Part III. Conclusion
Army War College, Historical Section, 1928

Excerpted from "70th Congress, 1st Session House Document No. 328, Historical Statements Concerning The Battle Of Kings Mountain And The Battle Of The Cowpens, South Carolina," United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1928, published in response to House Resolution No. 230, "That the historical statements concerning the Battle of the Cowpens, South Carolina, of January 17, 1781, and the Battle of Kings Mountain, South Carolina, October 7, 1780, be prepared by the Historical Section of the Army War College, and be printed, with illustrations, as a document."

I. Subjugation   II. The Battle   III. Conclusion   IV. The Mountain   Bibliography


The day following the battle the victors and their prisoners withdrew in the direction of the mountains. On the 13th of October they reached Bickerstaff's plantation, about 15 miles northeast of Gilbert Town. It was here that a number of the prisoners were tried by a court of officers, and 30 found guilty of "breaking open houses, killing the men, and turning the women and children out of doors and burning the houses." On the 14th nine of the convicted men were hanged.

Following this event the march was resumed in the direction of Virginia, in consequence of instructions, sent by Gates on the 12th that the prisoners were to be escorted under proper guard to Fincastle Court House, Va. By the time the Catawba was reached, like all partisan groups, these men thought their mission being accomplished they could return to their homes, and at this time there were no more troops than prisoners.

On reaching Bethabara, a halt was made, and on the 26th Campbell turned the command over to Cleveland, and he and Shelby repaired to Gates's headquarters in Hillsborough to arrange for the disposition of the prisoners. The official report of the battle was prepared some time subsequent to the departure from the command of Sevier and Lacey at Quaker Meadows, and was delivered to General Gates by Colonel Campbell October 31, or the day following.

Rumors of the disaster which Ferguson's army suffered probably reached the patriots in and around Charlotte Town late the following day or morning of the 9th. By the 10th Cornwallis's headquarters [Page 34] had received sufficient intelligence to cause great fear that a disaster of some nature had occurred, and Tarleton's command was ordered to proceed immediately to reinforce Ferguson wherever he could be found, "and to draw his corps to the Catawba, if after the junction, advantage could not be obtained over the mountaineers; or, upon the certainty of his defeat, at all events to oppose the entrance of the victorious Americans into South Carolina." Tarleton proceeded to the Catawba, where he received certain information of the melancholy fate of Ferguson. Upon crossing this river, to "give protection to the fugitives, and to attend the operations of the enemy," he realized the complete disaster to the royal cause in the surrounding country. In his book description of the campaign of 1780 and 1781, published in 1787, he said:

The destruction of Ferguson and his corps marked the period and the extent of the first expedition into North Carolina. Added to the depression and fear it communicated to the loyalists upon the borders, and to the southward, the effect of such an important event was sensibly felt by Earl Cornwallis at Charlotte town. The weakness of his army, the extent and poverty of North Carolina, the want of knowledge of his enemy's designs, and the total ruin of his militia, presented a gloomy prospect at the commencement of the campaign. A farther progress by the route which he had undertaken could not possibly remove, but would undoubtedly encrease his difficulties; he therefore formed a sudden determination to quit Charlotte town, and pass the Catawba river. The army was ordered to move, and expresses were dispatched to recall Lieutenant-colonel, Tarleton.

Cornwallis's army left Charlotte Town on October 14, marching southwest to the Catawba, and from thence in a direction to cover both Camden and Ninety Six. Following the defeat of Ferguson, Cruger sent information to Cornwallis from Ninety Six that the whole district had determined to submit as soon as those in revolt against the King should enter it, and Cornwallis decided that in withdrawing it should be in a direction that would permit of contact with both Camden and Ninety Six. On the 29th of October Lord Rawdon, who was in temporary command of the British Army owing to the illness of Cornwallis, wrote to Sir Henry Clinton:
[Page 35]
Lord Cornwallis foresees all the difficulties of a defensive war, yet his lordship thinks they can not be weighed against the dangers which must have attended an obstinate adherence to his former plan.
Withdrawal from North Carolina was continued for more than 60 miles from Charlotte Town, before the army halted and went into camp at Wynnesborough.

On the 3d of December Cornwallis, who had recovered from his illness, wrote to the commander in chief from Wynnesborough of the various causes which prevented his penetration into North Carolina. Regarding Ferguson's mission toward the mountains he said:
The event proved unfortunate, without any fault of Major Ferguson's. A numerous and unexpected enemy came from the mountains; as they had good horses their movements were rapid.
Regarding his position at Wynnesborough, he advised that it was well situated to protect the greatest part of the frontier, and to assist Camden and Ninety Six. He determined to remain at this place until he learned of the intentions of General Leslie's command, on which his plan for the winter was to depend; meanwhile using every possible means of putting the Province into a state of defense, which he considered necessary, whether his future campaign was offensive or defensive. The extent of his disappointment and discouragement over conditions in the southern district are expressed in a sentence near the close of the above-mentioned letter, which reads:
After everything that has happened I will not presume to make your excellency any sanguine promises.
Campaigning in the South during 1780 consisted almost entirely of partisan warfare, wherein detachments of the Army, militia, and irregular groups fought over wide areas. The main armies were engaged but twice-at Charleston and Camden-both British victories. The territory involved, from Charlotte Town south, constituted a large portion of the colonial area, but the more important part, from the standpoint of wealth and density of population, [Page 36] was in the north. The seat of government was at Philadelphia; Washington's headquarters during the first of the year at Morristown; and the commercial center in New York, held, at the time, by the British. What concern was felt by Washington and Congress over conditions in the Carolinas was largely due to the uncertainty as to the strategy which Clinton would use in the North.

The year 1780, like those which had gone before, brought to Washington many problems of vital import to the American cause. The calm, dispassionate manner in which he planned for the Army and advised with Congress indicates a grandeur of character and a capacity for work too little understood. His faith in the justice of the cause and its ultimate success was unbounded, despite the fact that at times his optimism faltered and he felt that "'we are tottering on the brink of a precipice." But this temporary despair is explained by his overwhelming surprise over the treason of Arnold. Matters of more casual concern, such as difficulties in connection with the draft, depreciated currency, lack of supplies, intermittently starving Army, general disaffection amongst the troops; all these had been his problems for a long time; they had been solved some how or other, and he had faith in their solution for the future. He wrote to Baron von Steuben on April 2:
My sentiments concerning public affairs, correspond too much with yours. The prospect, my dear Baron, is gloomy, and the storm threatens. But I hope we shall extricate ourselves, and bring everything to a prosperous issue. I have been so inured to difficulties in the course of this contest, that I have learned to look upon them with more tranquillity than formerly.
England was complete mistress of the Atlantic seaboard. Her fleet held the harbors of Halifax, Penobscot, New York, Charleston, and Savannah, and that the Colonies, as a consequence, had not suffered more than they had, Washington ascribed to the "'feeble and injudicious manner in which the enemy have applied the means in their hands during this war." He realized that a fleet was essential to the success of the American cause, and only from France could this succor come. La Fayette had returned to Europe the preceding [page 37] year to use his tremendous enthusiasm for the American cause as a lever to pry from the King and his ministers a fleet and an army that would make of France an effective ally of America. His return to the Colonies on the 27th of April, 1780, with the joyous tidings that a fleet and army were soon to follow, heartened Washington and Congress beyond measure.

The British Army in the North was quiet during the first half of 1780, due to the detachment of a considerable part of the fleet and army for operations in the South. The American Army was quiet, as tidings from France were awaited, and when the French fleet and army finally did arrive, Washington abandoned his winter quarters early in June and prepared for operations to secure the reduction of the city and garrison of New York. He estimated that he would have a force of from 30,000 to 40,000 men, after the militia joined.

However, with the blockade of the French fleet in the port of Rhode Island, the projected campaign to conquer New York had to be abandoned, and a season of comparative inactivity on the part of his army drew to a close in October. The following month arrangements were made to go into winter quarters again.

With both Congress and Washington, their principal concern was the main army under his command. What occurred south of the Chesapeake were collateral issues to which only a limited amount of thought, energy, and assistance could be given. While Charleston was undergoing its siege, Washington wrote to Philip Schuyler, who was in Congress:
What to do for the Southern States, without involving consequences equally alarming in this quarter, I know not.
Upon his recommendation, Congress detached the Maryland division to reinforce the South, and it fought with great credit at Camden. Later Congress added Delaware and Maryland to the Southern Department. It was felt in the North that Charleston would probably fall, in which case, Washington wrote on April 15, "there is much reason to believe the Southern States will become the principal theater of war."

[Page 38]

After the defeat at Camden, Washington wrote to Count de Rochambeau on the 8th of September that "this event must have the worst effect upon the affairs of the Southern States. Nor is it easy to say how far its influence may extend." But it was expected that if the inhabitants of the Carolinas were vitally concerned in independence, they would rise in sufficient numbers to acquire it, at least within their own boundaries, and affairs in the North still, continued to monopolize the attention of both Congress and Washington. However, there was sufficient concern to prompt action which resulted in sending to the Southern Department late in the year a competent commander, General Nathanael Greene. Receipt of the news as to how the mountain men overcame Ferguson thrilled the entire country, and Congress showed its appreciation of this magnificent feat in the manner already referred to, but beyond this it was but an incident of the southern campaign. Following Camden, Arnold's treason, and the inactive campaign of his army, on the day after Washington wrote that "we are tottering on the brink of a precipice," he said in a letter to General Cadwalader, "our case is not desperate, if virtue exists in the people, and there is wisdom among our rulers."

In considering the effect of the Battle of Kings Mountain upon the situation in the South, it was only this epic tragedy to Ferguson's army that halted Cornwallis in his subjugation of North Carolina. Without this, or a similar calamity, he would have reached the northern borders of the Province in December, and with the Chesapeake occupied by the British fleet, Virginia would have suffered the same fate. What the outcome of such a situation in the winter of 1780-81 would have been is problematic. In a letter to Count de Vergennes from M. de la Luzerne, the latter declared that the intention of the British was to sever the Carolinas and Georgia from the North. After the fall of Charleston, a gazette was published in that town in which the conquerors circulated insinuations that the Northern States had abandoned the South, and were about to make arrangements with England which would exclude the Carolinas and Georgia. The letter adds:

[Page 39]
These attempts had an effect. The Members of Congress are divided as to their interests and objects. Some are for using all efforts for rescuing the South. Others think the people there have shown too little zeal and activity in the cause, and that it is not expedient to put in jeopardy the safety of the North by rendering extraordinary aid to people who are so indifferent about their own independence. * * * It is possible that the British will make a proposition to the 10 Northern States tending to assure their independence; and their scheme will be to form into a new government the two Carolinas, Georgia, east Florida, and the Bahama Islands, which together would make a respectable possession.
That there was some foundation for the impressions above communicated is confirmed in a letter from Mr. Duane, in Congress, to General Schuyler, written the 21st of May. Said he:
That the reinforcements ordered to the southward should be halted is obvious for the reasons you assign. But do you expect such a proposition from a northern Member, deeply interested in strengthening the main army? It is a question of the utmost delicacy and even danger; for, however groundlessly, an opinion has been propagated, that Congress means to sacrifice the two southernmost States, and it has been productive of the greatest animosity and discontent. We have privately stated the subject to some of the southern gentlemen, who, though I believe convinced of the propriety of the measure, did not choose, after great deliberation, to have it adopted, much less to propose it. There is but one person from whom it can originate with any prospect of success. If we had undertaken it, nothing would have resulted but disappointment and the loss of personal confidence.
The Battle of Kings Mountain was the outstanding victory of the Americans in 1780. Following it, Cornwallis was compelled to abandon North Carolina, and for a time assume the defensive. It put an end to the possibility of an eventual peace with England under such terms as might have resulted in the retention of the southern Provinces under British rule. It is an exemplification of American aspirations for self-government and a display of romantic hardihood and bravery well worthy the careful study of American youth.

I. Subjugation   II. The Battle   III. Conclusion   IV. The Mountain   Bibliography

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