There was more than food to bolster morale. Soon Colonel James Williams came riding in with 400 of his men. While the greetings were going around, another piece of good luck, undoubtedly the most important event of the day, fell the way of the Patriots. Joseph Kerr arrived to confirm reports of Ferguson’s location. A cripple who served the cause by acting as a spy, Kerr used his lameness to gain access to Tory formations under the guise of seeking shelter. He had been among Ferguson’s troops when they halted that same day for their noon meal about six or seven miles from Kings Mountain. Kerr had found out that they were headed for the mountain and would encamp there.
There was no time to lose. The leaders quickly made a new culling to pick 940 of their number: the best men with the best horses. “These included 200 picked riflemen from Campbell’s command, 120 under Shelby, 120 led by Sevier, 100 men following Cleveland, 90 with Joseph McDowell, and 60 under Winston. Edward Lacey and William Hill commanded their 100 South Carolinians, Hambright and Chronicle led 50 picked soldiers, and Candler’s 30 Georgians formed part of James Williams’ unit of 90 selected riflemen” (Lumpkin, From Savannah to Yorktown). They left at 8:00 P.M. on Friday, 6 October, their destination Kings Mountain.
Kerr’s report was accurate. Ferguson had left Tate’s Plantation about 4:00 A.M. on 6 October. His troops followed him along the old Cherokee Road that ran between Buffalo Creek and King’s Creek. They forded King’s Creek and passed through Stony Gap heading toward the northeast. By then they knew their destination was not to be Charlotte, which lay about thirty-five miles farther east. Instead, Ferguson had chosen to make camp and take up a position on top of the ridge known as Kings Mountain.
While his units were filing off to occupy campsites atop the ridge, Ferguson wrote Cornwallis what was to be his final report: “I arrived to day at Kings Mountain & have taken a post where I do not think I can be forced by a stronger enemy than that against us.” The dispatch was given to a lad named John Ponder, who was to carry it to Cornwallis.
All indications are that Ferguson was taking up his mountaintop location not like the fox brought to bay by the hounds but so as to command a formidable defensive position while awaiting reinforcements from Cornwallis. He had already received the answer to his request for reinforcements from Cruger at Ninety-Six, who had replied that he did not have enough men to hold that post, much less to send men anywhere else. So Ferguson knew that he would get no help from the south. What he did not know, however, was that help would not be forthcoming from Cornwallis, either. His commander would not send Tarleton, the most mobile force left to him, because his legion needed a rest, and moreover, Tarleton was incapacitated with malaria, as was Major Hanger, his second in command. Cornwallis himself was down with a “feverish cold” and of no mind to dispatch any of his main force on a chase to the west of Charlotte.
Kings Mountain is actually a long ridge rising independently from a low range running from the northeast in North Carolina to the southwest in South Carolina. The ridge itself is in York County, S.C., about a mile and a half south of the present border between the Carolinas. It is shaped somewhat like a canoe paddle with a short handle, with the crest of the ridge running from the broad “paddle end” on the northeast to the narrower “handle end” on the southwest extremity. The crest is about 600 yards long, varying in width from 120 yards at the paddle end to 60 yards on the handle. In 1780 the crest was practically treeless, but all of its slopes were, and are today, heavily wooded, with occasional ravines and great boulders strewn everywhere. There was no natural cover on the summit of the ridge, which rises some sixty feet above the surrounding terrain, whereas the trees and boulders on the steep slopes would provide ideal protection for riflemen in scattered skirmish order.
Because he had sent out a foraging detachment on the morning of 7 October, Ferguson’s total strength on Kings Mountain was about 900 men. Of those, 100 were “regular” Tories who had come south with Ferguson from the King’s American Rangers, the Queen’s Rangers, and the New Jersey Volunteers, and 800 were Tory militia from North and South Carolina. Ferguson’s second in command, Captain Abraham de Peyster, was an aristocratic New Yorker of Huguenot descent, an able and efficient officer. The adjutant was Lieutenant Anthony Allaire, also a New Yorker of Huguenot descent.
All of Ferguson’s men were well trained under British army drill regulations. They were armed with the Brown Bess musket equipped with a socket bayonet, and the men were well trained in its use. Some few of the newly joined Tories were equipped with a crude, makeshift “plug” bayonet with a wooden hilt that could be inserted in the muzzle for close combat, though it rendered the musket useless as a firearm.
The Tory militiamen were drilled to fight like the British regulars, in close-ordered ranks which, once engaged in battle, could move only forward or rearward on command. If, however, their enemy did not stand and fight—as the Patriot riflemen could not because they had no bayonets, nor was it in their style to stand when they could fade away and fire from cover—the attackers could hold only the ground they stood on or else fall back to reform a rearward line. And the rugged terrain they would be fighting in was not conducive to maneuvering in close-ordered ranks.
Another disadvantage of the position on Kings Mountain was one that Ferguson could have overcome but did not. He had sufficient time to protect his position with field fortifications such as abatis, breastworks, or earthworks, but he seems to have been content to rely on the slopes’ boulders and trees as natural obstacles. It was possible, too, that he had underestimated his enemy’s strength and capabilities, in particular the frontiersman’s skill at fighting in wooded cover; the “barbarians” and “mongrels” cited in his proclamation were truly beneath contempt. There was the same arrogance in his pronouncement after he had established his position on the ridge: that “he defied God Almighty and all the rebels out of hell to overcome him.”
The night march of the 900 patriots was anything but easy. They left Cowpens in pitch dark, and the black night closed in on them, with no moonlight or even starlight to guide their way. Their march was along rough backcountry roads, and to make things even more miserable a steady drizzle set in that lasted through the night. The drizzle caused every rifleman to sacrifice the comfort that would have been provided by hunting shirt and blanket. Those articles had to be used to cover the precious rifle from the wet, and above all to ensure that the muzzle and gunlock were kept dry.
Short halts were made to wolf down a few handfuls of parched corn or whatever else the marchers had in wallets or saddlebags. Just after sunrise on Saturday, 7 October, the column forded the Broad River at Cherokee Ford, below the point where it was joined by Buffalo Creek. The weather had not improved. The drizzle had changed to a steady rain that made it all the more difficult to keep the rifles dry, but being used to all kinds of weather, the men managed. By mid-morning the men were cursing and grumbling about their tired horses, and Colonels Campbell, Sevier, and Cleveland agreed that a rest was in order. However, when they approached Shelby with the idea they met with a flat refusal: “I will not stop until night, if I follow Ferguson into Cornwallis’ lines.” The column pushed on.
About six miles farther, one of the scouts reported that he had come upon a Tory girl who admitted that she had been in Ferguson’s camp that very morning. She pointed out the ridge where Ferguson was encamped. A little farther on, the scouts brought in a prisoner, the Tory John Ponder, with Ferguson’s last message to Cornwallis. When he was asked if Ferguson could be identified by his uniform, Ponder said that “while that officer was the best uniformed man on the mountain, they could not see his military suit, as he wore a checked shirt, or duster over it.” They would also recognize that officer because he would be the only one who carried his sword in his left hand.
By noon the rain had stopped, and the column halted about a mile from the base of Kings Mountain. They dismounted, tied up their horses, and each followed his leader’s orders to “throw the priming out of his pan, pick his touchhole, prime anew, examine bullets and see that everything was in readiness for battle.”
Having cursed the rain throughout the march, the men were now beginning to realize that it could also be a blessing. The packed leaves that carpeted the approaches to the mountain and its slopes were soaked through, so there would be no telltale rustling as the columns of riflemen, all of them hunters and stalkers, made their stealthy approach.
As the men checked their weapons, the countersign was passed around—“Buford,” for the man whose command had received no quarter from Tarleton’s Tories at Waxhaws. Then it was time to make their final advance on foot. They formed into four columns for their approach march, heading initially to the northeast to reach the narrow end of the ridge first. The battle plan was for the columns to split up and move to assigned positions which, when movements were completed, would completely encircle Kings Mountain. The column on the extreme right was made up of the units of Winston, McDowell, and Sevier. Campbell led the next column to the left, and Shelby the column in the left center. The left-most column was composed of the commands of Chronicle, Cleveland, and Williams.
The plan was simple, and it was going to be executed rapidly and skillfully. The signal for launching coordinated attacks was “that when the center columns [Campbell’s and Shelby’s] were ready for the attack, they were to give the signal by raising a regular frontier war whoop, after the Indian style, and rush forward, doing the enemy all the injury possible.”
The columns moved out and headed for their assigned positions. Tory security was so slack that Shelby’s command was only a quarter of a mile from their position at the foot of the ridge before the first Tory sentries fired on them. Shelby’s leadership was showing: he made sure that no one returned the fire. There would be plenty of action after they had started up the ridge.
On the opposite slope of the paddle handle Campbell’s men were already creeping toward the top. When the first shots were fired, Campbell stripped off his coat and shouted: “Here they are; shoot like hell and fight like devils.” They raised the war whoop, the so-called Tennessee yell that the over-mountain men had picked up from the Indians in the Cherokee War, said to be the forerunner of the famous Rebel yell of the Civil War. The war whoop was a high-pitched, keening scream that would set a man’s hair stiffening. The cries were taken up by Shelby’s men and those of the other forces as they came into action.
In the Tory camp the drums beat the call to arms while Ferguson and his second in command, Captain de Peyster, were getting set to move the units into battle formations. De Peyster recognized the whooping that he had heard before in action. He told Ferguson, “These are the same yelling devils that were at Musgrove’s Mill.”
Ferguson’s reply was to direct his units into line toward the paddle-handle end of the ridge, where they formed a three-sided square facing the riflemen coming up the slopes. The Tory units delivered a series of disciplined volleys that made their enemies duck for cover. But the riflemen continued to advance, taking cover, Indian fashion, behind trees, rocks, logs, and in ravines, and keeping up a deadly fire that was taking an increasing toll on the exposed Tory formations on the crest of the ridge.
It was these losses that caused Ferguson to order the first bayonet charge. The counterattack appeared successful—at first. The Patriots could not stand up to the bayonet, and they ran back down the slopes. Most of Campbell’s men scattered as far as the bottom of the ridge and even up the slope behind them. Here was a real challenge to Campbell’s leadership. The red-headed Scot responded at once. He was all over the place, calling his men to rally and return to the attack. He succeeded in getting them to reload and take up the fire against their enemy, whose ragged lines were retreating back up Kings Mountain. The Virginians returned, resuming their dodging attack from cover to cover, reloading and firing from behind the rocks and trees they had used before. Shelby rallied his men every bit as effectively as had Campbell, and they too renewed a fire that thinned the withdrawing Tory ranks. In the meantime Sevier’s force had joined the battle.
The fighting around the southeastern end of the ridge now took up a pattern that was to characterize the whole battle. Three times the skirmishing riflemen attacked, and each time they were driven back by bayonet charges. Each time, the Tory formations had to halt and withdraw up the slopes, whereupon the Patriots returned to the attack, their accurate rifle fire making the Tories pay a stiff penalty for each counterattack.
It was also becoming obvious that Ferguson was paying the price for his failure to fortify his position on the ridge and his reliance on the trees and boulders as obstacles. For the “obstacles” had become ideal cover for his enemies’ skirmishing tactics. Furthermore, the volleys that returned the riflemen’s fire were consistently ineffective. In the hands of trained troops the Brown Bess musket could deliver deadly volleys under the ideal conditions it was designed for: firing platoon volleys at ranges up to fifty to seventy-five yards between close-ordered opposing formations facing each other on open, level terrain. At Kings Mountain, however, the conditions were anything but ideal for the musket, and matters were made worse by the Tory units having to fire downhill. Troops firing downhill will, unless specifically trained to avoid it, fail to compensate by sighting low, and consequently will fire over the heads of their targets. That is what happened to the Tory volleys at Kings Mountain; and to compound their loss in firepower, their own ranks were silhouetted against the skyline, thus making ideal targets for rifles that could kill at two or three hundred yards. The words of Light-Horse Harry Lee about Kings Mountain, that “it was more assailable by the rifle than defended with the bayonet,” were no doubt true.
A less significant feature of the battle is the popular misconception that Ferguson’s troops were dressed in the traditional scarlet coats and white breeches of the British regular soldier. While it is true that some of Ferguson’s men—the “provincials” from the north, such as the King’s American Rangers or the Queen’s Rangers—were so clad, by far the greater number were wearing the civilian clothes in which they had enlisted. The only difference in dress between Tory and Patriot was brought out in recollections like that of Thomas Young, a sixteen-year-old private who fought under Colonel James Williams, and who got left in the middle of a firefight where “I found myself apparently between my own regiment and the enemy, as I judged from seeing the paper the Whigs wore in their hats, and the pine twigs the Tories wore in theirs, these being the badges of distinction.”
The battle surged up and down the slopes of the paddle-handle end. The riflemen of Shelby’s, Campbell’s and Sevier’s commands attacked again and again with ever deadlier effect. Meanwhile, other forces had launched their attacks against the broader expanse of the ridge on its northeast end. William Chronicle led his men forward from their position at the foot of the ridge, waving his hat and shouting, “Face to the hill.” Struck down by a musket ball as he shouted, the twenty-five-year-old major died instantly. German-born Colonel Hambright continued the assault, which was met by a bayonet charge led by Captain de Peyster. Hambright’s men were driven down the slopes, just as had been Shelby’s and Campbell’s, and were rallied by him in no less courageous fashion. Though wounded in the thigh, with blood filling his boot, Hambright called out in his German accent, “Fight on, my brave poys, a few minutes more and the battle will be over.”
Cleveland, delayed by his 250-pound bulk and a swampy area, was late, but he came up in time to throw his men into the battle alongside Hambright’s attack. Williams and Lacey came in next, filling the gap between Cleveland and Shelby on the north side of the ridge. In like manner Joseph McDowell’s and Winston’s men attacked to complete the encirclement on the south side of the ridge. All this pressure on the Tories atop the broad end of Kings Mountain was felt by Ferguson as he led the defense on the southeast end. The shrill call of his silver whistle was heard constantly above the roar of battle as he rallied one formation after another to bolster the defense all along the crest. It was soon apparent that his efforts were becoming futile at the southeast end, however, and he managed to withdraw his troops back along the crest of the ridge to the broad end of the mountain. As the Tories withdrew, Sevier’s men came over the crest, and in conjunction with Shelby’s and Campbell’s forces were now masters of the whole paddle-handle portion of the ridge.
By this time all of the Patriot forces had been engaged. The net thrown around Ferguson’s force was being tightened as the riflemen came pushing up the slopes from all directions. The smoke from rifles and muskets covered the mountain, obscuring some Tory units from time to time and drifting down the ravines and woods of the slopes. Now and then Ferguson could be seen through the smoke as he rode from unit to unit, rallying his men around the formal tent camp on the broad end of the ridge. He had been wounded in the hand of his useless right arm but continued to carry his sword in his good left hand. He got some units lined up to defend the camp, but those he had formed into a square soon deteriorated into a shrinking circle of beaten men. In one Tory unit a white flag fluttered for a moment, but Ferguson towered over it on horseback and cut it down with his sword. Another went up on the other side of the camp; Ferguson galloped over and cut it down with another stroke. When Captain de Peyster counseled surrender, Ferguson shouted back that “never would he yield to such damned banditti.” And he made it clear that he meant it. He charged at the rebels at the head of a few volunteers ready to follow him in his desperate assault, and tried to break out through Sevier’s men. Brandishing his sword in his left hand, he spurred directly at the rebels on his white horse. It was an attempt as futile as it was desperate. At least fifty rifles were aimed at Ferguson and his party. Every man in Ferguson’s band went down, either killed or mortally wounded. It is said that six or seven bullets ripped into Ferguson’s body; both arms were broken, and he fell from his horse to die after he had been carried away from the firing.
With Ferguson’s fall and the overrunning of the ridge by the combined forces of the Patriots, organized resistance crumbled away. Captain de Peyster took command of the masses huddled around the camp and the wagon park, but any attempt at counterattack or breakout was clearly impossible. The fight had gone out of the force. White flags in the form of handkerchiefs or shirts appeared among the milling defenders, but they were ignored and their bearers were shot down.
The aftermath of Kings Mountain is neither pleasant in the telling nor does it do credit to the Patriot forces. De Peyster, riding out on his gray horse, carried a white flag which was acknowledged by Campbell, yet the shooting of the now-defenseless Tories went on. De Peyster protested to Campbell, “It’s damned unfair, damned unfair.” Campbell strode through his men, knocking down rifles and ordering, “For God’s sake don’t shoot. It is murder to kill them now, for they have raised the flag.” He then directed de Peyster to have the officers separate themselves, and for the men to lay down their arms, sit down, and remove their hats.
In other parts of the ridgetop Tories cried out for quarter and got “Buford’s quarter” or “Tarleton’s quarter” instead—in the form of rifle bullets. Shelby, enraged at both sides, came forward and shouted to the Tories, “Damn you, if you want quarter, throw down your arms!” All within earshot obeyed, but elsewhere the firing into the defenders went on. Finally, more of the responsible Patriot militia officers tried to stop the slaughter, knocking aside rifles or pleading with their owners by name to stop shooting. Yet even after the shooting stopped and the prisoners were seated on the ground, an alarm was raised when one of Ferguson’s foraging parties returned. Some of them saw the situation and fired a parting shot before fleeing. One of the shots presumably struck down Colonel James Williams, who died later.
The cry went up of a Tory attack, and Campbell ordered the rifleman nearest him to shoot into the prisoners to subdue any attempt to break for freedom. The order was obeyed, and, according to Lieutenant Hughes, “We killed near a hundred of them and hardly could be restrained from killing the whole.”
Shelby himself had this to say about the aftermath of the battle: “It was some time before a complete cessation of the firing on our part could be effected. Our men who had been scattered in the battle were continually coming up and continued to fire, without comprehending in the heat of the moment what had happened; and some who had heard that at Buford’s defeat, the British had refused quarter . . . were willing to follow that bad example.”
When the “bad examples” had been quelled and all the shooting stopped, the victors rounded up the prisoners and looked to their own wounded and dead. The Patriots had lost 28 killed and 64 wounded out of over 900 in the battle. Their enemies lost 157 killed, 163 wounded too badly to be moved, and 698 prisoners. On the following day, Sunday, 8 October, the partisans pulled their prisoners’ wagons across the camp fires and left them burning as they marched the prisoners away. Near Gilbert Town, thirty were convicted in some sort of drum-head trial; twelve were condemned to die, and nine were actually hanged. The odyssey of the remaining prisoners went on as far as Hillsboro, where they were left by Cleveland’s men. Eventually most of them escaped through the carelessness or the disregard of their warders.
Ferguson’s body was defiled by some of the less compassionate of the frontiersmen, who urinated on it after it was stripped of belongings and clothing. Others, more humane, gave the fallen Scot a “decent” burial by wrapping his body in a raw beef hide and interring it in a shallow ravine near the crest of the ridge. On the 150th anniversary of the battle, a simple stone monument to Ferguson was erected by American citizens. It is dedicated to: “A soldier of military distinction and of honor.”
The frontiersmen had ridden hard and long for vengeance, and they had tasted deeply of it. Now they dispersed, going their separate ways to homesteads and settlements in the backcountry and beyond the Blue Ridge. Though their accomplishment would be retold around firesides for generations, it is doubtful that any participant in the Kings Mountain campaign could have realized the far-reaching effects of the victory.
To the British and their Tory allies the impact of Kings Mountain was as appalling as it was immediate. Imagine the reaction of Cornwallis when the confirmation of Ferguson’s disaster reached him at Charlotte. Ferguson dead and his entire force wiped out in one day—actually in one hour—and the western frontier exposed to a Patriot uprising. Rumor had the Patriot frontiersmen’s numbers at 3,000 with their next objective Charlotte. Instead of the rebels of North Carolina being subjugated, the western half of the province had been lost, and the loss of the central area was now a looming possibility, especially without organized Loyalist forces to hold the countryside. Clearly, in Mark Boatner’s summation, Kings Mountain had “tipped the balance of Whig-Tory armed support in favor of the rebel cause” (Encyclopedia of the American Revolution).
However reluctantly, Cornwallis decided to give up North Carolina and retreat back into South Carolina. On 14 October the dreary retrograde march began. The fall rains set in and beat down on the sodden British while the red-clay roads became quagmires; yet because of flooded swamps and dense forests, the roads could not be bypassed. Some twenty supply wagons were wrecked or abandoned; others were captured by Patriot militia that had turned out to harass the unhappy British. Cornwallis himself had to be carried in one of the wagons, having come down with a “bilious fever.” After fifteen days of miserable marching, the commander in chief and his famished army pulled into Winnsboro, where they were immobilized in camp until December. Cornwallis’s offensive into North Carolina had been stopped cold, and it could not be resumed without considerable reinforcement and change of plan. Kings Mountain had altered the whole course of the war in the South.
Although the long-range consequences of Cornwallis’s failure were yet to be seen, there were ominous signals flashing beyond the horizon, not the least of which were Gates’s replacement by Nathanael Greene and renewed offensive operations against the British in the South by partisan, Continental, and militia forces. The partisan victory caused Sir Henry Clinton to view Kings Mountain in retrospect as the check that “so encouraged the spirit of rebellion in the Carolinas that it could never afterward be humbled.” With historic hindsight, he recognized the battle to be “the first link in a chain of evils that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America.”
Kings Mountain stands on its own as a one-of-a-kind battle. With the sole exception of Ferguson himself, it was fought entirely by Americans against Americans, ending in a decisive Patriot victory. A force of Patriot irregulars, reaching a total of nearly 1,800, armed principally with the frontier rifle, had annihilated a trained body of the enemy armed mainly with the musket. The Patriot force had emerged on call, organized itself into units with competent leaders, marched on campaign as a controlled and highly mobile corps, and utterly destroyed its enemy. It was a force that was logistically independent and self-disciplined; Shelby said to his men before the battle: “When we encounter the enemy, don’t wait for the word of command. Let each one of you be your own officer, and do the very best you can.” It was led by veterans who had proved themselves in frontier warfare. The melding of those leaders with their riflemen resulted in skillfully coordinated combinations of tactical movement and firepower.
Kings Mountain appeared to mark the beginning of the end of Cornwallis’s offensive in the South. The next encounter between organized forces would confirm that beginning.