Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

King's Mountain and the Patriots of Tennessee

Never was the South in so desperate a plight as in the autumn months of that year of peril, 1780. The British had made themselves masters of Georgia, and South Carolina and North Carolina were strongly threatened. The boastful Gates had been defeated at Camden so utterly that he ran away from his army faster than it did from the British, and in three days and a half afterward he rode alone into Hillsborough, North Carolina, two hundred miles away. Sumter was defeated as badly and rode as fast to Charlotte, without hat or saddle. Marion's small band was nearly the only American force left in South Carolina.

Cornwallis, the British commander, was in an ecstasy of delight at his success. He felt sure that all the South was won. The harvest was ready and needed only to be reaped. He laid his plans to march north, winning victory after victory, till all America south of Delaware should be conquered for the British crown. Then, if the North became free, the South would still be under the rule of George the Third. There was only one serious mistake in his calculations: he did not build upon the spirit of the South.

Cornwallis began by trying to crush out that spirit, and soon brought about a reign of terror in South Carolina. He ordered that all who would not take up arms for the king should be seized and their property destroyed. Every man who had borne arms for the British and afterward joined the Americans was to be hanged as soon as taken. Houses were burned, estates ravaged, men put to death, women and children driven from their homes with no fit clothing, thousands confined in prisons and prison-ships in which malignant fevers raged, the whole State rent and torn by a most cruel and merciless persecution. Such was the Lord Cornwallis ideal of war.

Near the middle of September Cornwallis began his march northward, which was not to end till the whole South lay prostrate under his hand. It was his aim to fill his ranks with the loyalists of North Carolina and sweep all before him. Major Patrick Ferguson, his ablest partisan leader, was sent with two hundred of the best British troops to the South Carolina uplands, and here he gathered in such Tories as he could find, and with them a horde of wretches who cared only for the side that gave them the best chance to plunder and ravage. The Cherokee Indians were also bribed to attack the American settlers west of the mountains.

But while Cornwallis was thus making his march of triumph, the American patriots were not at rest. Marion was flying about, like a wasp with a very sharp sting. Sumter was back again, cutting off strays and foragers. Other parties of patriots were afoot and active. And in the new settlements west of the Alleghanies the hardy backwoodsmen, who had been far out of the reach of war and its terrors, were growing eager to strike a blow for the country which they loved.

Such was the state of affairs in the middle South in the month of September, 1780. And it leads us to a tale of triumph in which the Western woodsmen struck their blow for freedom, teaching the over-confident Cornwallis a lesson he sadly needed. It is the tale of how Ferguson, the Tory leader, met his fate at the hands of the mountaineers and hunters of Tennessee and the neighboring regions.

After leaving Cornwallis, Ferguson met with a small party of North Carolina militia under Colonel Macdowell, whom he defeated and pursued so sharply as to drive them into the mountain wilds. Here their only hope of safety lay in crossing the crags and ridges to the great forest land 1tyond. They found a refuge at last among the bold frontiersmen of the Watauga in Tennessee, many of whom were the Regulators of North Carolina, the refugees from Governor Tryon's tyranny.

The arrival of these fugitives stirred up the woodsmen as they had never been stirred before. It brought the evils of the war for the first time to their doors. These poor fugitives had been driven from their homes and robbed of their all, as the Regulators had been in former years. Was it not the duty of the freemen of Tennessee to restore them and strike one blow for the liberty of their native land?

The bold Westerners thought so, and lost no time in putting their thoughts into effect. Men were quickly enlisted and regiments formed under Isaac Shelby and John Sevier, two of their leaders. An express was sent to William Campbell, who had under him four hundred of the backwoodsmen of Southwest Virginia, asking him to join their ranks. On the 25th of September these three regiments of riflemen, with Macdowell and his fugitives, met on the Watauga, each man on his own horse, armed with his own rifle, and carrying his own provisions, and each bent on dealing a telling blow for the relief of their brethren in the East.

True patriots were they, risking their all for their duty to their native land. Their families were left in secluded valleys, often at long distances apart, exposed to danger alike from the Tories and the Indians. Before them lay the highest peaks of the Alleghanies, to be traversed only by way of lofty and difficult passes. No highway existed; there was not even a bridle-path through the dense forest; and for forty miles between the Watauga and the Catawba there was not a single house or a cultivated acre. On the evening of the 30th the Westerners were reinforced by Colonel Cleveland, with three hundred and fifty men from North Carolina who had been notified by them of their approach.

Their foe was before them. After Ferguson had pursued Macdowell to the foot of the mountains he shaped his course for King's Mountain, a natural stronghold, where he established his camp in what seemed a secure position and sent to Cornwallis for a few hundred more men, saying that these "would finish the business. This is their last push in this quarter." Cornwallis at once despatched Tarleton with a considerable reinforcement. He was destined to be too late.

Ferguson did not know all the peril that threatened him. On the east Colonel James Williams was pursuing him up the Catawba with over four hundred horsemen. A vigilant leader, he kept his scouts out on every side, and on October 2 one of these brought him the most welcome of news. The backwoodsmen were up, said the scout; half of the people beyond the mountains were under arms and on the march. A few days later they met him, thirteen hundred strong.

Not a day, not an hour, was lost. Williams told them where their foes were encamped, and they resolved to march against them that very night and seek to take them by surprise. It was the evening of October 6 when the two forces joined. So prompt were they to act that at eight o' clock that same evening nine hundred of their best horsemen had been selected and were on the march. All night they rode, with the moon to light them on their way. The next day they rode still onward, and in the afternoon reached the foot of King's Mountain, on whose summit Ferguson lay encamped.

This mountain lies just south of the North Carolina border, at the end of a branching ridge from the main line of the Alleghanies. The British were posted on its summit, over eleven hundred in number, a thousand of them being Tories, the others British regulars. They felt thoroughly secure in their elevated fortress, the approach up the mountain-side being almost a precipice, the slaty rock cropping out into natural breastworks along its sides and on its heights. And, so far as they knew, no foe was within many miles.

The Americans dismounted; that craggy hill was impassable to horsemen. Though less in number than their foes, and with a steep mountain to climb, they did not hesitate. The gallant nine hundred were formed into four columns, Campbell's regiment on the right centre and Shelby's on the left, taking the post of greatest peril. Sexier, with a part of Cleveland's men, led the right wing, and Williams, with the remainder of Cleveland's men, the left, their orders being to pass the position of Ferguson to right and left and climb the ridge in his rear, while the centre columns attacked him in front.

So well was the surprise managed that the Westerners were within a quarter of a mile of the enemy before they were discovered. Climbing steadily upon their front, the two centre columns quickly began the attack. Shelby, a hardy, resolute man, "stiff as iron," brave among the bravest, led the way straight onward and upward, with but one thought in his mind,—to do that for which he had come. Facing Campbell were the British regulars, who sprang to their arms and charged his men with fixed bayonets, forcing the riflemen, who had no bayonets, to recoil. But they were soon rallied by their gallant leader, and returned eagerly to the attack.

For ten or fifteen minutes a fierce and bloody battle was kept up at this point, the sharp-shooting woodsmen making havoc in the ranks of the foe. Then the right and left wings of the Americans closed in on the flank and rear of the British and encircled them with a hot fire. For nearly an hour the battle continued, with a heavy fire on both sides. At length the right wing gained the summit of the cliff and poured such a deadly fire on the foe from their point of vantage that it was impossible to bear it.

Ferguson had been killed, and his men began to retreat along the top of the ridge, tut here they found themselves in the face of the American left wing, and their leader, seeing that escape was impossible and resistance hopeless, displayed a white flag. At once the firing ceased, the enemy throwing down their arms and surrendering themselves prisoners of war. More than a third of the British force lay dead, or badly wounded; the remainder were prisoners; not more than twenty of the whole were massing. The total loss of the. Americans was twenty-eight killed and sixty wounded, Colonel Williams, a man of great valor and discretion, being among the killed.

The battle ended, a thirst for vengeance arose. Among the Tory prisoners were known house-burners and murderers. Among the victors were men who had seen their cruel work, had beheld women and children, homeless and hopeless, robbed and wronged, nestling about fires kindled in the ground, where they mourned their slain fathers and husbands. Under such circumstances it is not strange that they seized and hanged nine or ten of the captives, desisting only when Campbell gave orders that this work should cease, and threatened with severe punishment all who engaged in it.

The victory of the men of the backwoods at King's Mountain was like the former one of Washington at Trenton. It inspired with hope the despairing people and changed the whole aspect of the war. It filled the Tories of North Carolina with such wholesome dread that they no longer dared to join the foe or molest their patriot neighbors. The patriots of both the Carolinas were stirred to new zeal. The broken and dispirited fragments of Gates's army took courage again and once more came together and organized, soon afterward coming under the skilled command of General Greene.

Tarleton had reached the forks of the Catawba when news of Ferguson's signal defeat reached him and caused him to return in all haste to join Cornwallis. The latter, utterly surprised to find an enemy falling on his flank from the far wilderness beyond the mountains, whence he had not dreamed of a foe, halted in alarm. He dared not leave an enemy like this in his rear, and found himself obliged to retreat, giving up his grand plan of sweeping the two Carolinas and Virginia into his victorious net. Such was the work done by the valiant men of the Watauga. They saved the South from loss until Morgan and Greene could come to finish the work they had so well begun.