The Overmountain Men: America’s Humble Heroes

Kings Mountain New

For the average American, early October passes without much notice. Many consider it the height of football season, while some begin their arduous preparations for Halloween. Only a small percentage of Americans fully comprehend the significance surrounding this time of year; for it was during the weeks of late September and early October of 1780 that the dream of American independence was nearly extinguished. As the leaves began to turn that year, the British Army had a clear path of invasion north through its Southern colonies. But thanks to the brave efforts of our Appalachian forefathers at the Battle of Kings Mountain, the tide of war returned to our favor as the British Army suffered the most decisive defeat in the Revolutionary War.

Prior to 1778, the Continental Army held a slight advantage over the British in the Northern colonies through several victories, including the battles at Saratoga and New Jersey. These Patriot victories were major but not significant enough to cause the British Army to reevaluate its war plan. However, that all changed when the French treated with the Continental Army and joined the fight in early 1778. The British commanders realized what serious consequences could arise from this partnership, so the British quickly shifted gears and developed a new campaign in the Southern colonies to combat the effectiveness of the Northern Continental Army. This was a strategic pincer move by the British to force the Patriots to fight on two fronts.

Britain’s new Southern campaign relied on the incorrect assumption that these colonies were teeming with loyal supporters. While many wealthy landowners and politicians in the Southern colonies remained devout Loyalists, the majority of the population fervently opposed British rule. By invading the South, the British believed their loyal colonists would be inspired to fight against the Patriot cause and rally in their favor. Ironically enough, the British even believed that the slaves in these colonies would even rise up and join their Loyalist overseers in their fight to subdue the Patriots.

All things considered, the British Army’s Southern campaign was actually successful for its first two years. Because these colonies had not yet experienced war, they were wholly unprepared to defend themselves against a large-scale invasion. By early 1779, the port city of Savannah, Georgia fell to the British; and May 1780 saw the capture of the South’s other major port city of Charles Town (now Charleston), South Carolina after a month-long siege. Charleston was a troubling loss, as 3,000 men were surrendered along with a significant amount of munitions and equipment. Once the British felt in control of the Southern coast, forces led under General Lord Charles Cornwallis began their march inland to Virginia. Independence from Britain literally now hung in the balance.

The summer of 1780 looked very bleak for the Southern Patriots. Cornwallis’ army swept through the countryside of South Carolina, bringing the local population into submission through a scorched earth policy; and the Southern Continental Army was very nearly eradicated by its losses at the Waxhaws and Camden. North Carolina was next on Cornwallis’ invasion plan. This was a famously patriotic colony, so Cornwallis divided his army into three divisions for a quick takeover. Cornwallis continued his march north to reach Charlotte, while Major Patrick Ferguson had control over the western flank with a division of local Loyalist men and Loyalist New Yorkers. Throughout that summer’s march, Ferguson recruited local Loyalists into his unit by promising these men royal pardons after the war. But that did not stop the resistance movement against the invading British. The closer the British Army marched to North Carolina, the more they suffered regular guerrilla-style hit-and-run tactics from militiamen led by the backcountry Colonels Isaac Shelby and Charles McDowell.

News of the impending British invasion soon spread up into the colonial backcountry. In what we now call Southern Appalachia, the settlers lived there on the colonial frontier illegally and in direct defiance of King George III. In 1763, George III issued his famous Proclamation of 1763, which forbade all settlements west of the Appalachian Divide. This royal edict meant to appease the Native American tribes by preventing any further encroachments by colonial settlers. Nevertheless, very few settlers obeyed this rule; and by the breakout of the war, thousands of families had already migrated across the proclamation line for access to better farmland. Living such a great distance from the major hubs of colonial life meant that this region mostly subsided on its own accord and away from any major British control. These frontiersmen spent most of the war at a distance from any real threat of conflict, but the call to arms came soon enough.

In Northern South Carolina, Ferguson grew tired of the backcountry militia and pursued them in retaliation for their attacks upon his division. These guerrilla-style skirmishes consisted of Shelby and McDowell’s men enticing the Loyalists into the woods with whoops and hollers in attempts to trap and confuse them. In mid-August of 1780, Ferguson chased Shelby and McDowell as far inland as Gilbert Town, which once stood close to what is now Rutherfordton, North Carolina.[1] Not wishing to engage in further skirmishes, the Patriot militia chose it best to ride back up into the safety of the Appalachian Mountains. It was from Gilbert Town that Ferguson issued his famous threat to those pesky “backwater men,” those “barbarians,” the “dregs of mankind.” Releasing a captured Patriot militiaman, Ferguson sent him to deliver his message that read: “If you do not desist your opposition to the British Arms, I shall march this army over the mountains, hang your leaders, and lay waste your country with fire and sword.”[2]

Ferguson’s threat spread through the backcountry like wildfire, and individuals in the mountains took those words very seriously. A threat upon one was a threat upon them all, and that famous Appalachian indignation showed itself. In early-September Colonel Shelby met with Colonel John Sevier in what is now Tennessee and decided that the backcountry militias were to counter Ferguson’s threat by meeting him in battle. Shelby and Sevier sent out a call to arms to the surrounding areas. Militias were to muster on September 25 at Sycamore Shoals in modern day Elizabethton, Tennessee and rendezvous the following day. From North Carolina came Shelby with 240 militiamen and 160 with McDowell. Sevier brought about 250 from the surrounding Tennessee hills. Colonel William Campbell and his 400 men trekked two days from Wolf Hills (now Abingdon), Virginia to answer the call to arms. A handful of men from Northern Georgia also mustered at Sycamore Shoals to bring the Overmountain Men’s number to around 1,000. The next morning Samuel Doak, the famous rifle-toting minister, gave a sermon during which he famously cried, “Your brethren across the mountains are crying like Macedonia unto your help… Will you tarry now until the other enemy carried fire and sword to your very door? No, it shall not be. Go forth then in the strength of your manhood to the aid of your brethren, the defense of your liberty and protection of your homes.” Afterwards, the backcountry militia departed on foot and on horseback – some men even without shoes – following the Yellow Mountain Road, or Bright’s Trace, on their 330-mile journey off the mountain to Ferguson.

On the 27th of September, the militia reached Yellow Mountain Gap near today’s Roan Mountain and found knee-deep snow. Knee-deep snow on Roan Mountain was and is still not uncommon, but it was rare to encounter that kind of weather so early in the year. It was then when Sevier noticed that two of his men were missing and suspected them of desertion. Fearing that the men would inform Ferguson of their whereabouts, the leaders decided to change their course of action. Marching for three days to reach Quaker Meadows (now Morganton) on September 30, the militia met up with Colonel Benjamin Cleveland and added 350 of his men to their number.

Even with knee-deep snow and the fear of detection, the frontiersmen carried on. The threat by Ferguson still burned bright in their minds. Now numbering around 1,300, the Overmountain Men marched south to catch Ferguson. The assumption that Sevier’s missing men deserted to warn the British proved to be correct. Three days elapsed before the militia could reach Gilbert Town. And during that time, Ferguson learned of their plan by the two deserters, sent word to Cornwallis asking for reinforcements, and retreated to meet the general in Charlotte. Patriot scouts alerted the militia of the British movements before arriving in Gilbert Town, so they made plans to catch Ferguson before he reached Charlotte.

The militia rode hard to Cowpens, South Carolina, arriving on October 6. Here, they met additional militiamen from South Carolina and Georgia, which bolstered their number to around 1,800 men. Scouts informed the leaders that Ferguson was nearing the safety of Charlotte, so the men had to act fast. Choosing the best 900 marksmen and the best 900 horses, the leaders created a smaller division and set out at 9pm in the rain to catch the retreating British Army. Colonel William Campbell was elected commander of this new unit. He was a tall, muscular man with a fiery temperament. Legend says that he also carried his Scottish grandfather’s broadsword with him during periods of conflict. With Campbell at the helm, the new militia unit rode 35 miles straight through the cold night, after having traveled 21 miles earlier that day. The sheer determination of these men to engage with Ferguson is apparent in the fact that they traveled all night in the cold October rain without any outerwear, as their cloaks were wrapped around their rifles to keep them dry and operable. On the morning of October 7, the Patriots learned from local residents that Ferguson and his army were stationed atop nearby Kings Mountain. So they rode on.

Kings Mountain is in reality little more than a small plateau, measuring about 250 yards long by 60 to 120 yards across and rising no more than 60 feet above the surrounding area. Trees and rocks filled the sides. No one knows exactly why Ferguson chose this little hill, but it is believed that the British Major felt this higher ground offered his troops some protection against the approaching Patriot militia. So confident with his decision to camp on Kings Mountain, Ferguson is rumored to have exclaimed that he “was the king of that mountain, and God Almighty could not drive him from it.” Fate soon revealed the truth in his statement.

Colonel Campbell and his unit of 900 men reached Kings Mountain in the early afternoon of October 7. The rainy weather allowed the frontiersmen to advance unnoticed, the wet leaves muffling their steps, and they began to quietly encircle the mountain before being detected. The speed with which Campbell’s men encircled the mountain apparently surprised Ferguson, as evident from how frantically he began issuing orders with this little silver whistle. The Patriot militia launched a four-pronged attack on their Loyalist brethren: Campbell and Sevier taking the right and most difficult side with Shelby and Cleveland on the left. Using their borrowed Native American defensive tactics, these men set up behind rocks and trees from which they could whoop and holler while easily reloading their rifles. The Patriot aggressiveness was countered three different times by the Loyalist’s bayonet charges. After the third bayonet charge, the Overmountain Men broke through the Loyalist line and crested the mountain. It was then that Ferguson received a fatal gunshot from an unknown Patriot militiaman. With his foot caught in the saddle stirrup, the British Major’s horse dragged his dead body across the top of the mountain, all the while receiving more gunshots from the Patriot militiamen.
Ferguson’s second-in-command, Captain Abraham DePeyster, immediately raised the white flag. Though surrender did not happen for another few minutes. Whether it was because some of the frontier troops did not understand the meaning of the white flag or the men acted in retaliation to the brutality performed by the British Colonel Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of the Waxhaws, the Patriots kept firing at the Loyalists until Sevier finally put a stop to the engagement.

After an hour of battle, the Patriots inflicted heavy losses on Ferguson’s men: somewhere between 150-290 killed, 163 wounded, and 688 taken prisoner.[3] The Overmountain Men only lost 29 men and 58 were wounded. The evening after the battle was spent burying the dead and tending to the wounded. Ferguson’s arrogant declaration proved to the true. He never left the top of Kings Mountain, being wrapped in ox hide and buried in a shallow grave near the spot where he fell. Not wanting to risk an encounter with any of Cornwallis’ reinforcements, the men spent the night on Kings Mountain and began their return to the backcountry on the following morning with prisoners in tow. Before leaving the battle site, the Patriot leaders decided to burn Ferguson’s supply wagons, as they were unable to carry the supplies themselves. The Overmountain Men retreated back over the mountains to their homes as quietly as they came, though the death knell for the British rang loudly throughout the South.
General Lord Charles Cornwallis soon heard of the British defeat at Kings Mountain led by some backcountry ruffians. This was a devastating blow to the British general. He lost not only one-third of his army, but his most skilled officer was gone, as well. His entire west flank no longer existed which rendered his North Carolina campaign impractical. He also grossly underestimated the Patriot sentiment in the Southern colonies. Understanding the severity of the situation, Cornwallis pulled back from Charlotte and wintered in South Carolina to revise his plan. A southern invasion by the British was halted for the time being.

The significance of the Battle of Kings Mountain goes largely ignored. Many historians, including those with the National Park Service, consider the Battle of Cowpens to be the decisive battle of Britain’s Southern Campaign.[4] I have to disagree. Were it not for the victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain, the events that led up to the British surrender at Yorktown would not and could not have happened. Colonial morale was down in the colonies in 1780, and it was the perfect time to pinch the colonies into submission. Had the British won at Kings Mountain, Cornwallis could have easily rolled through North Carolina, adding more Loyalists or otherwise desperate individuals into his ranks, and reached Virginia. But with the loss of his entire west flank and his most valuable officer, Cornwallis was forced to postpone his invasion of North Carolina. The British defeat at Kings Mountain bought time for the Southern Continental Army to devote more energy into devising a plan against Britain’s second attempted invasion. The wintering of Cornwallis in South Carolina allowed for the appointment of Major General Nathanael Greene by George Washington to the command of the Southern Continentals. Under Nathanael Greene, the Southern Army decimated the overwhelmed British at the Battles of Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse in 1781, which directly influenced the British surrender at Yorktown later that year.

One reason that often sets the Battle of Kings Mountain at a disadvantage from the rest of the war’s conflicts is the fact that men on both sides of this fight were a militia force and not official soldiers. At the time in American history, a militia consisted of part-time citizen-soldiers who were used for quick local defensive purposes. They were volunteers. These men were normally untrained and sometimes unreliable, each being required to provide their own weaponry. Those militias from the colonial frontier regions often learned fighting techniques of the Native Americans with who they often engaged in combat. While the backcountry men who participated in this battle wore no official uniform or carried no military sanctioned weapon, their prowess on October 7, 1780 demonstrated martial abilities of these men. For in the same amount of time and in more difficult terrain, the Overmountain Men inflicted more casualties and took more prisoners at Kings Mountain than the Continental soldiers did at the Battle of Cowpens a few months later, not to mention killing one of Britain’s most effective military officers.
Not long after the end of the war, General Sir Henry Clinton recounted the Battle of Kings Mountain as “an event which… unhappily proved the first link of a chain of evils that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America.”[5] Thomas Jefferson, our country’s third president, even reminisced on the significance of Kings Mountain 42 years later: “I remember well the deep and grateful impression made on the mind of every one by that memorable victory—it was the joyful annunciation of that turn of the tide of success which terminated the revolutionary war, with the seal of our independence.”[6]

While the Battle of Kings Mountain is not glamorous or renowned, it prevented a potentially dangerous British invasion and it renewed morale amongst the Southern Patriots when it was most needed. George Washington spent the last five years going back and forth with British forces in the Northern colonies, never really gaining much of the upper hand until the French became involved. Yet it only took a rag-tag bunch of untrained, sleep-deprived and hungry Appalachian frontiersmen one hour to knock the British Army on their asses because of one arrogantly overconfident man. These mountain men actively engaged in battle on their own free will against a threat to their families and their livelihood. These men wore no uniforms except for only the few articles of clothing they probably owned. These men received no payment for their valor except the security in knowing their homes were safe from British attack. These men had no training except for learning how to survive against Native American attacks on the colonial frontier. One year and one week after the Battle of Kings Mountain, Cornwallis surrendered his British forces in defeat in Yorktown, Virginia.

The fearlessness shown by the Overmountain Men could be described as the first example of that indignantly proud spirit of Appalachia. These men deserve more than a passing mention in a textbook or the backseat from professional historians. These men from Appalachia saved America.

 

Click here to view photos of the Battle of Kings Mountain National Military Park.


[1] Rutherfordton is about 70 miles west of the present-day City of Charlotte.

[2] Mel S. Hankia, “The Battle of Kings Mountain,” Revolutionary War Archives, http://www.revolutionarywararchives.org/kingsmtfall05.html (accessed September 19, 2016).

[3] Campaign 1776, “Battle of Kings Mountain History,” Campaign 1776, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/revolutionary-war/battles/kings-mountain (accessed September 21, 2016).

[4] National Park Service, “The Southern Campaign of the American Revolution,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cowp/learn/historyculture/southerncampaign.htm (accessed September 19, 2016).

[5] General Sir Henry Clinton, “Kings Mountain National Military Park,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/hh/22/hh22a.htm (accessed September 20, 2016).

[6] Thomas Jefferson, “From Thomas Jefferson to John Campbell, 10 November 1822,” Founders Online, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-3152 (accessed September 20, 2016).

© K. Martin-Gross, 2016

3 thoughts on “The Overmountain Men: America’s Humble Heroes

  1. Well done, K! I’m researching a possible “campsite” that the NPS doesn’t list for the Overmountain Men. Turns out those SC boys left memoirs and detailed pension statements that point to it. Keep up the great work!

    Like

  2. I’ve been to the Kings Mountain battle site many times. My dad grew up in the town of Kings Mountain, NC, and family lore is that we had ancestors in the Battle of Kings Mountain. My genealogy research has not turned up any specific ancestor in that battle, although we do know of specific ancestors involved in the Patriot cause and in other battles in both North and South Carolina.

    Liked by 1 person

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