Even after de Kalb’s horse had been shot under him and his head laid open with a saber cut, he refused to quit. But “Cornwallis, as vigilant as Gates was not, had now thrown his entire force on these last remaining foemen, 2,000 men [by this time] no more than 600. Overwhelmed by numbers that almost surrounded him, de Kalb called for the bayonet again. . . . But ball after ball had struck their heroic leader . . . yet the old lion had it in him to cut down a British soldier, whose bayonet was at his breast. That was his last stroke. Bleeding from eleven wounds, he fell” (Ward, War of the American Revolution).
With de Kalb’s fall and the breakup of Gist’s command, the Battle of Camden was over. A handful of Maryland and Delaware officers rounded up about sixty men; this was the only organized group in the retreat. Gates’s entire army—those who were not casualties or captured—had scattered and fled, most into the swamps, others dashing madly toward Rugeley’s Mill. Cornwallis unleashed Tarleton, whose pursuit lasted for more than twenty miles and came to a halt only because the horses gave out. On his way he picked off Gates’s entire baggage train, which was being looted by American fugitives.
Camden was soon being proclaimed publicly as the worst defeat ever to be suffered by an American army. After such a debacle it is not surprising that American losses were not accurately reported and that estimates vary. Carrington estimates 1,000 killed and wounded; the figure does not include captured or missing. Otho Williams also estimated that 2,000 out of the army’s 3,000, or two-thirds of the force, fled without firing a shot. Ward’s conservative total come to 650 Americans killed or captured, and leaves the total wounded to be included among the captured. Matériel losses included 150 wagons loaded with ammunition and supplies, most regimental colors, and seven cannons. Much more significant, however, is the fact that Gates’s army was completely dispersed, never to be reformed as such again. Cornwallis’s losses were 69 killed, 285 wounded, and 11 missing.
So much for numbers; one still must account for the American army’s commanding general. Horatio Gates, along with Smallwood and Caswell, had been swept from the field by the torrent of fugitives as far as Rugeley’s Mill. Apparently it was in that vicinity that he began his famous ride. By nightfall he had reached Charlotte, a distance of almost 60 miles. In Page Smith’s words, “The bubble [of Saratoga fame] was pricked. The flight made him an object of almost universal scorn and ridicule. Had he escaped with Gist, or taken refuge at Hanging Rock . . . or found his way to join Sumter’s force across the Wateree River, he might have survived the defeat and been given another opportunity to display his ineptness as a military leader. But it was the sixty-mile flight that finished him” (A New Age Now Begins).
Continuing his northward hegira, mounted on a relay of horses, Gates reached Hillsboro, North Carolina, on 19 August, a total ride of 180 miles, leading Alexander Hamilton to comment in a letter to James Duane: “But was there ever an instance of a general running away, as Gates has done, from his whole army? And was there ever so precipitous a flight? One hundred and eighty miles in three days and a half. It does admirable credit to the activity of a man at his time of life [age fifty-two]. But it disgraces the general and the soldier.”
After Clinton had taken leave of Cornwallis, the difference in their strategical concepts was beginning to show. In order to put his basic strategy into action, Cornwallis secured permission to communicate directly with the London officials who could authorize his strategy. Clinton agreed to the arrangement, which left Cornwallis free to operate as he wished. First, he would consolidate his hold on the coastal and interior regions of South Carolina and eastern Georgia in order to maintain secure bases from which to operate. Then he would thrust to the north and northeast through North Carolina, gathering Loyalist support and recruits as he advanced. After that he planned to move into Virginia to link up with British forces from the North and thus complete his inferred mission of bringing the South, from Georgia to Maryland, solidly under the Crown.
Following his triumph at Camden, Cornwallis planned to advance his main force up the Camden-Charlotte-Salisbury axis. By so doing he expected to crush rebel resistance along that line while his regular forces provided the bases to which Loyalist elements would rally. The rallying was expected to come mainly from two separate regions where the Loyalists were, actually or potentially, the strongest: in the east an area centered around Cross Creek (present-day Fayetteville), about 125 miles east of Charlotte; and in the west a much larger area lying roughly between the Broad and Little Catawba rivers. Cornwallis reasoned that once the two regions were under his control, the task of subduing North Carolina would be fait accompli.
The British establishment of a system of bases and outposts in Georgia and South Carolina has already been described. In support of the system Cornwallis sent out several detachments with the mission of rallying Loyalist recruits to his banner. By far the most active and successful were the Tory forces raised and trained by Major Patrick Ferguson. Shortly after the fall of Charleston, that promising professional had been appointed by Sir Henry Clinton to the post of inspector of militia in the southern provinces. The imposing title belied the real nature of the job: the raising and transforming of Loyalist recruits into trained units capable of subjugating and controlling provincial regions and fighting alongside British regular forces as dependable troops.
While Cornwallis was still in Charleston, Ferguson had set up a rallying post at his camp on Little River, a few miles east of Lieutenant Colonel Balfour’s post at Ninety-Six, and raised a force of 4,000 Tories, which he organized into seven regiments. By the end of June Ferguson had already begun to move into the up-country north of Ninety-Six, sending out detachments in all directions to rally more Tories to the Crown. Rallying and pacification were closer to Ferguson’s nature than the bloodshed and terror that accompanied Tarleton’s raids. Many of Ferguson’s recruits, however, were Loyalists who were fiercely antagonistic to any Patriots and would stop at nothing when they were on their own and riding roughshod over their former neighbors. This kind of Tory raiding party, operating beyond Ferguson’s personal control, became known for their plundering of “cattle, horses, beds, wearing apparel, bee-gums, and vegetables of all kinds—even wresting the rings from the fingers of the females” (Dykeman, With Fire and Sword). When foraging parties were through plundering, it was not uncommon to turn the horses into grain fields to complete the depredation. Hence it was not surprising that Carolinians were aroused to firmer and firmer resistance, as Ferguson was to learn the hard way.
By no means was the subjugation of the up-country, or any other area within a radius of seventy-five miles from Ninety-Six, an unopposed effort. While the Patriot partisans of the low-country had their leaders—Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens—the up-country didn’t lack its own. Colonel Charles McDowell was the most noted leader of North Carolina Patriot militia at the time. After Charleston’s surrender and the beginning of Ferguson’s forays, McDowell needed reinforcements to carry out his raids against the Tories and British outposts. He sent a message requesting help to Colonel Isaac Shelby, one of the two famed leaders of the “over-mountain” men. Shelby responded by leading 200 mounted riflemen to join McDowell on the Broad River. They were joined by Colonel Elijah Clarke with a force of Georgia militia. During the three-month interval between Charleston’s fall and the Battle of Camden, these three leaders and their mounted men combined at various times to attack Tory and British posts in three major actions. At Thicketty Fort on 30 July, Shelby and Clarke succeeded in forcing the surrender of the fort’s garrison without firing a shot. Exhilarated by their easy victory, they went after foragers from one of Ferguson’s forces. On 8 August, at Cedar Spring, the British won the field but were unable to recapture prisoners the Patriots had taken at the beginning of the fight.
Ten days later, on 18 August, Shelby and Clarke teamed up with Colonel James Williams to make a surprise attack on the Tories at Musgrove’s Mill, far to the rear of Ferguson’s main force. The surprise failed, and the attackers had to take up a defensive position of their own. They repulsed the Tory counterattack, and dealt the Tories severe losses, to the tune of sixty-three killed, ninety wounded, and seventy prisoners. The Patriots lost only four killed and eight wounded. It was a stunning little victory, and such a morale builder that the leaders planned a really daring coup: an all-out attack on Ninety-Six, about thirty miles away. The men were already mounting up for the ride when the news came of Gates’s disaster at Camden two days before.
They stayed mounted and headed north for the hills. Ferguson, who had swift news of the Patriot retreat, set out in hot pursuit. At one time he was only thirty minutes behind the tail riders when he was halted near Fair Forest by a message from Cornwallis ordering him to report to his commander at Camden.
At British headquarters Ferguson was briefed on Cornwallis’s strategy for advancing into North Carolina, and how he expected to raise Tory forces from east to west to rally around his central axis—Charlotte to Salisbury—and use them to control the rest of the state. Ferguson was then given his mission: to act independently in making a western sweep, in other words, to serve as Cornwallis’s left wing in the subjection of rebels and the raising of Tory troops. Since Ferguson was already pursuing the most dangerous Patriot force in the area, his mission further authorized him to proceed as far north as Gilbert Town (present-day Rutherfordton) to raise sufficient Tory forces to control the region. Upon completion of his mission, when British control was ensured and large numbers of recruits had rallied to Ferguson, he was to rejoin Cornwallis’s army with his force in the vicinity of Charlotte.
Cornwallis had chosen Ferguson for the job because he needed a keen professional who could act in independent command. Ferguson was born to a family of landed gentry in Aberdeenshire in 1744. The life of the soldier attracted him from childhood. He attended a London military academy, and at age fourteen had a commission purchased for him as a cornet in the Scots Greys (then the Royal North Irish Dragoons). In 1768 he bought a captaincy and served with the 70th Foot in the West Indies during the subjugation of a slave rising.
Back in England Ferguson became obsessed with the idea of a breech-loading rifle that would not only be as accurate as the famed American frontier rifle but would have a far greater rate of fire than that muzzle-loading flintlock. The Ferguson rifle was years ahead of its time. Its inventor demonstrated its capabilities in tests where he fired it six times a minute, reloading from the prone position (it was necessary to stand to load the muzzle-loading flintlock). Yet, like so many inventions that have been too far in advance of their time, Ferguson’s failed to impress generals like Sir William Howe, and only about 200 were ever manufactured.
Ferguson arrived in America with permission to raise a detachment of rangers. It was his rangers that were scouting in advance of Knyphausen’s march to Chadd’s Ford before the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777. Ferguson took a bad wound in that battle; a bullet shattered his elbow, permanently crippling his right arm. Captain Ferguson was next heard from a year later when he led a successful raid on Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, in October 1778. In October 1779 he was appointed major in the 71st Highlanders, and he accompanied Clinton’s expedition to Charleston in 1780. He took part with Tarleton in his victory over the Americans at Monck’s Corner on 14 April 1780. After that operation Ferguson was glad to be separated from Tarleton, for he disapproved strongly of that cavalryman’s ruthless methods against both civilians and the military.
While Cornwallis had not hesitated in assigning Ferguson his mission of making the western sweep, he had some reservations. Cornwallis probably felt, as Henry Lumpkin observed, that “he clearly was highly intelligent and a fine combat officer, but his commander feared Ferguson’s willful, impulsive, and somewhat erratic personality. He was soft spoken, with a personal magnetism that drew people to him. Oddly enough, he got along well with frontier Americans, even though he considered them his social inferiors. He would sit down and talk for hours with farmers whose loyalty to the Crown had begun to waver and argue his case with humor, comprehension, and sympathy” (From Savannah to Yorktown). Yet, as we will see, the image he finally projected to the Patriots of the frontier through his proclamations and the acts of his Tory troops was that of a monster in human form who would not hesitate to burn and slay at will.
Isaac Shelby’s and Charles McDowell’s men had been in the field for months, raiding and fighting actions such as those at Cedar Spring and Musgrove’s Mill. Now they were exhausted and hungry, and it was time to go home and get some rest. They scattered and faded into the hills, many disappearing over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Such a dispersal after a series of forays was not at all uncommon, but it served to deceive Ferguson into believing that his pacification operations were beginning to succeed.
On 7 September Ferguson invaded North Carolina and occupied Gilbert Town. Many of the locals appeared to rally to him and came to take the oath of allegiance to the Crown. It may not have occurred to Ferguson that most of them took the oath only to protect their property from his Tory raiders. Three days later, on 10 September, Ferguson left with his troops in the hope of intercepting Elijah Clarke, who was supposed to be withdrawing northward after an unsuccessful attempt to capture Augusta. He failed to find Clarke and returned to encamp at Old Fort, twenty-two miles northwest of Gilbert Town. Things appeared to be quiet throughout the area. Beyond the Blue Ridge, however, and unknown to Ferguson, things were stirring.
Ferguson himself was the unwitting cause of the activity. Just before leaving on 10 September he had paroled Samuel Phillips, one of the prisoners taken at Musgrove’s Mill, and sent him with a message to Colonel Shelby. The message was in effect an ultimatum stating that if Shelby and other rebels of his ilk did not “desist from their opposition to the British arms and take protection under his standard, he would march his army over the mountains, hang their leader, and lay their country waste with fire and sword” (Dykeman, With Fire and Sword). Seldom did a message have a more opposite effect from that intended. Far from being cowed by Ferguson’s threats, the “fire and sword proclamation” was circulated rapidly and widely among the over-mountain men, who had already decided that the best way to protect their homes and families was to get Ferguson before he could get them. To transform that decision into action, the partisan leaders had sent out the call for volunteers on both sides of the Blue Ridge. Ferguson’s ultimatum now served to turn that call into action.
No doubt carrying Ferguson’s message in his pocket, Isaac Shelby rode to meet with Colonel John Sevier, known across the frontier as “Nolichucky Jack,” the Indian fighter whose home was on the Nolichucky River, west of the mountains. The two completed their plans to raise a powerful “posse” to go after Ferguson. To cover the expenses involved, the two pledged themselves to make good the money taken out of the public treasury. Their final call for armed men went out to famous leaders such as Colonel William Campbell of Virginia and Colonels Charles McDowell and Benjamin Cleveland, whose men rode on both sides of the Carolinas’ border. The call named the rendezvous point as Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River, near present-day Elizabethton, Tennessee.
What kind of men did they expect to answer the call? The term over-mountain men was applied loosely to the colonists who had settled on the western side of the Blue Ridge in what is now eastern Tennessee. They were mostly North Carolinians of Scotch-Irish descent who were moving westward “in the same way that the Virginians who followed Boone crossed the mountain into Kentucky” (Fisher, The Struggle for American Independence). They were also called back water men—a term used by Ferguson—because they chose to settle along the upper waters of the Watauga, Holston, and Nolichucky rivers. The over-mountain men were by no means the only, or even the principal, source of the frontier manpower that rode against Ferguson. Out of the 1,800 who joined up, Shelby’s and Sevier’s men counted as only the initial 480. What the over-mountain men should be given credit for is forming the nucleus of the volunteer force that fought at Kings Mountain.
Over-mountain men or not, all of the Patriot fighters were a tough lot. In his Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, Light-Horse Harry Lee later referred to them as “a hardy race of men, who were familiar with the horse and rifle, were stout, active, patient under privation, and brave. Irregular in their movements [as opposed to the marches and maneuvers of regular units], and unaccustomed to restraint, they delighted in the fury of action, but pined under the servitude and inactivity of camp.”
They came to Sycamore Shoals, many with their families, but each with horse and rifle. That weapon was one of the most prized possessions of the frontiersman. Most of them carried the so-called Kentucky, or long rifle, of the type made by Jacob Dickert of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The caliber was usually .50, but could vary from .35 to .60, and it had a barrel from thirty-six to forty-eight inches long with a rifling twist of about one turn in forty-eight. It was called a long rifle because its overall length varied between fifty and sixty inches. It was a muzzle-loading flintlock with surprising accuracy up to about 300 yards. It fired a round lead ball which was rammed home with a greased patch, thus making the ball fit tightly against the rifling, which gave the ball its spin; the spin in turn gave the ball its velocity and accuracy. The rifle had the disadvantage of slowness in loading—a trained soldier with his musket could fire from three to five rounds while the rifleman was firing one—and the fact that it could not be fitted with a bayonet. Those disadvantages, however, meant little to the backwoodsman, because the rifle was ideal for its purposes: hunting and Indian fighting. For hand-to-hand combat the frontiersman had learned from the Indians to carry tomahawk or knife.
Of the more than 1,000 mounted riflemen who assembled at Sycamore Shoals on 25 September, Shelby and Sevier brought 240 each. Colonel William Campbell, a towering, red-haired Scot carrying the family’s Highland broadsword, came in with 400 Virginians. Colonel Charles McDowell arrived with 160 of his North Carolinians. The majority of those present brought their womenfolk and children, who came to see fathers, sons, or brothers off to the war. The gathering had a gala air. As Wilma Dykeman recounts: “The men talked and planned and prepared. And the women cooked, made last-minute patches or polishings on clothing or equipment, and they talked and worried over the dangers” (With Fire and Sword). Finally, on the early morning of 26 September, these deeply religious people heard the Reverend Samuel Doak say the prayer for the departing expedition. He compared their cause to that of Gideon’s men in the Bible going forth to fight the Midianites. Doak ended with a ringing battle cry, “The sword of the Lord and of Gideon.” It was fitting, and it was remembered.
The long column that rode out of Sycamore Shoals was, in Dykeman’s words, “an army without uniforms. Many of their hunting shirts were of fringed buckskin while others were of homespun linsey-woolsey, ‘clumsily made, blouse fashion, reaching to the knees and gathered up, tied around the waist.’ Their breeches and gaiters were of rough, home-dyed cloth. Long hair was tied back in a queue beneath their wide-brimmed hats. They were an army little encumbered with baggage, unaccompanied by a supply train. Each man had a blanket, a cup, and ‘a wallet of provisions’ . . . principally of parched corn.” There were, of course, rifles, powder horns, and “possible bags” with hunting necessaries.
The little army had to make a ninety-mile march to reach its next rendezvous at Quaker Meadows, near present-day Morganton, N.C. There were delays—some expected, some not. Slowed down at first by the cattle they were driving as meat on the hoof, they made only twenty miles the first day. On the second they had trouble with a stampede, which was irksome enough to cause the men to slaughter a few cattle for a portable supply of beef, then abandon the remainder to valley farmers. The column went on to climb the gap between Yellow and Roan mountains, where they encountered snow “shoe-top deep.” When they encamped on the plateau beyond the gap, they found that two of Sevier’s men were missing—probably deserters who had gone to alert Ferguson of the frontiersmen’s approach.
The deserters raised another problem: in order to attack Ferguson before he could get reinforcements from Cornwallis, they would have to speed up their march. Yet they couldn’t use the trail the deserters knew, so they must select another that would still give them time to pick up the back-country militia en route to join them. They decided on one that would allow a faster march, and Nolichucky Jack Sevier and Shelby led off. They crossed the Blue Ridge at Gillespie’s Gap and rode on to arrive at Quaker Meadows on 30 September. There, at McDowell’s Plantation, their numbers were increased to 1,400 by North and South Carolina reinforcements.
Here were the leaders who would march to catch up with and attack Ferguson. Besides Shelby and Sevier, the expedition had already been joined by Colonel William Campbell, the six-foot-six giant who was an Indian fighter and a born leader. He had fought in Lord Dunmore’s War (1774), and had married Patrick Henry’s sister. In Hank Messick’s summation,
Other leaders who gathered on this venture were Joseph McDowell, a Virginian who had forsaken the easy life to move to the Carolina Piedmont, and Benjamin Cleveland, another Virginian, who had moved west and built his reputation as an Indian fighter. These would soon be joined by other outstanding fighters: James Williams, a longtime Tory hater who had served as a delegate to the provincial legislature of South Carolina; William Chronicle, a veteran of the 1780 skirmishes and a resident of the south fork of the Catawba; Joseph Winston, a leather-tough frontiersman who had been fighting Indians since he was 17; and Edward Lacey, a one-time Pennsylvanian who at the age of 13 had served with Edward Braddock’s army in the Indian campaigns. (King’s Mountain)
The senior officer, Colonel Charles McDowell, brother of Joseph McDowell, was a respected fighter who had served in Rutherford’s campaign against the Cherokees.
The leaders were of the opinion that a force the size of theirs needed a general—or at least a commander of reputation who, coming from outside, would not arouse jealousies among the men from different localities. They sent Charles McDowell to General Gates to ask him to assign someone like Daniel Morgan or William Davidson to the job. Gates didn’t answer the request, so they elected William Campbell commander of their combined forces. That done, the army marched again, and on 2 October camped sixteen miles north of Gilbert Town, where they hoped to find Ferguson.
But their quarry was no longer in Gilbert Town. Ferguson had already learned of the expedition seeking him out, and had started withdrawing to the south on 27 September. He was hastened in his decision to march toward Ninety-Six when he learned that Elijah Clarke’s forces might be moving to join the rebel army. On 30 September the deserters from Sevier’s men caught up with Ferguson. The two of them, James Crawford and Samuel Chambers, were able to give Ferguson detailed information about the expedition: its numbers, composition, and leaders. The news was disturbing enough for Ferguson to dispatch riders to Cornwallis, now at Charlotte with his main body, and Lieutenant Colonel John Cruger, the commander of the Ninety-Six garrison, asking for reinforcements posthaste.
The next day Ferguson issued a proclamation to the countryside, a strange declaration which smacked of bravado and betrayed a sense of growing frustration. “I say, if you wish to be pinioned, robbed, and murdered, and see your wives and daughters, in four days, abused by the dregs of mankind—in short, if you wish and deserve to live and bear the name of men, grasp your arms in a moment and run to camp.” As Messick said, “The Backwater men have crossed the mountains, Ferguson warned; McDowell, Hampton, Shelby and Cleveland are at their head, so you know what you have to depend upon. If you choose to be pissed upon forever and ever by a set of mongrels, say so at once and let your women turn their backs upon you, and look out for real men to protect them” (King’s Mountain).
At heart he was a bold fighter, however, so some of the twists and turns of his marches may have been deliberate ruses to keep his pursuers confused and off the track. On 2 August, after seeing his proclamation distributed, Ferguson turned his column eastward toward Charlotte, anticipating that the rebels would keep on going south, in the direction of his apparent march toward Ninety-Six. The Patriot army was indeed confused by Ferguson’s turning east, but only temporarily. It marched through Gilbert Town on 3 October; then its leaders lost Ferguson’s trail at Denard’s Ford on 4 October, at the very place he had turned to the east. In the meantime Ferguson had forded the Second Broad River, Sandy Run, and Buffalo Creek, and marched on to the plantation of a Tory named Täte, about ten miles west of Kings Mountain. There he lingered, awaiting reinforcements and resting his men for two days, 4–5 October.
Frustrated at losing Ferguson’s turn at Denard’s Ford, the Patriot leaders were using all their means to scout out his trail. Finally they camped for the night of October 5. Campbell and his colonels then decided on a bold measure to make a fast move to catch Ferguson. They picked men with the best horses—some 700 in all—to make a dash for Cowpens, twenty-one miles to the southeast. If the advance column did not intercept Ferguson en route, it would still be in position to swing to the northeast to find Ferguson or his trail. Moreover, at Cowpens, a well-known cattle-herding center, the leaders would be in an area likely to yield the information they were so urgently seeking.
Their column arrived at Cowpens on Friday, 6 October. It was early evening and they found the principal landowner in the area, a well-to-do Tory farmer named Hiram Saunders. The first men to arrive hauled Saunders out of bed to question him. He said he knew nothing of Ferguson’s troops or their whereabouts; apparently he was telling the truth. By the time they had finished questioning Saunders, the main body arrived and began to help their hungry selves to Saunders’s bounty.