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Episodes 26 & 27 Transcript
In September, 1780, a ragtag group of backwoodsmen from what is today North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia assembled to begin a journey to defend their homes and belief in liberty. They met their destiny at Kings Mountain and this is their story. The Mitchell County Historical Society presents Footsteps for Freedom: The Road to Kings Mountain. Episodes 26 & 27 – The Battle of Kings Mountain. Night had fallen at the Cowpens on October 6th, but the camp of the Patriot army bustled with activity. Scouts had finally confirmed the location of British Major Patrick Ferguson’s army. It lay on King’s Mountain roughly 35 miles away to the northeast with Cornwallis’ main British army camp in Charlotte just an additional 30 miles beyond.
The Patriot officers feared Ferguson was winning the race to the safety of the main British lines which would result in all of their efforts coming to naught. Something had to be done. Their army had gained strength on its march from the mountains nearly every day with additional men joining the chase. But many of those men were on foot, slowing the pursuit down considerably. After a council of war, the decision was reached to select 900 of the best riflemen in the army and mount them on 900 of the best horses to push ahead of the remaining force in a bid to catch Ferguson before he got away. These mounted riflemen left the warm glow of their fires and rode out of camp into a steady, sometimes pouring, bone-chilling rain at 9:00 p.m. They would ride all night.
Meanwhile, Ferguson looked around his position a top King’s Mountain. He was pleased with his selection of a potential battlefield. He had placed his camp not on the highest peak of the mountain but on one of its most prominent spurs. The top of the spur was treeless, making an easy place to pitch tents and, more importantly, to form the tightly packed battle lines that the sound military doctrine of the time demanded. The slopes of the spur were steep with little to no undergrowth but were wooded with large old growth trees and studded with boulders. As the entire Carolina backcountry seemed to rise against him in the last two weeks, Ferguson had feared coming under attack while on the march with his entire force strung out on the road. Here atop the mountain that fear subsided. He could defend this place. Even one of his main adversaries had to concede that assaulting him there was equivalent to storming a strong fortified bastion. It was so strong Ferguson did not see the need to further enhance it and made no efforts to dig in.
Ferguson planned to defend the top of the mountain with the bayonet. In every battle up to this point in the Revolutionary War, militia had demonstrated time and again that they would not stand up to a bayonet charge in the open field, running at the very sight of cold steel and refusing to return to the fight. Riflemen especially were vulnerable to bayonets in a hand-to hand fight. Their flintlock long rifles could not be fitted with bayonets, forcing them in a hand-to-hand fight to resort to knives, tomahawks, or simply using their rifles as clubs. Ferguson had spent a great deal of time training his men to use the bayonet and to fight together as one while in formation. In order to get his troops to respond to his orders together like a well-oiled machine, he employed a silver whistle, drilling them relentlessly with it until their responding to its shrill tweets became second nature. Ferguson had 1,100 Loyalist militia and Provincial troops with him atop Kings Mountain. He believed that was enough to defend this position, but he also saw opportunity if he were given more men. In a series of messages to Cornwallis, Ferguson wrote “I have taken a post where I do not think I can be forced by a stronger enemy than that against us. Three or four hundred good soldiers, part dragoons, would finish this business. Something must be done soon. This is their last push in this quarter and they are extremely desolate and awed.” Patrols of Patriot militia prevented those messages and requests for reinforcements from reaching Cornwallis until after the battle was over. Since none of the Patriot army and few of the Loyalist army other than the Provincial soldiers had uniforms, it was going to be difficult to tell friend from foe in the coming fight. The Loyalists put a sprig of pine in their hats to mark their side and the Patriots did likewise with a piece of white paper in their hats. Ferguson himself, knowing the backcountry habit of patriot riflemen to specifically target officers, concealed his regular British Army uniform beneath a red and white checkered overshirt. These identifiers could easily be discarded in the heat of battle, so the Patriot troops agreed on a codeword countersign to be used when verbally challenged during the battle as to friend or foe. The countersign was “Buford,” the name of Abraham Buford, the Continental Officer who was massacred along with his men by Banastre Tarleton as he was trying to surrender at the Waxhaws several months before.
The combined Patriot Army of Overmountain Men and Backcountry militia arrived at King’s Mountain shortly before 2 p.m. on October 7th. Their approach went undetected as heavy rains had tamped down the dust. Campbell, after holding a quick council of war with the other officers, devised a simple attack plan. They would simply surround the mountain and assault the summit from all sides. This would put the defenders in a terrible crossfire while cutting off any possibility of retreat. Rather than form regular lines of battle, they would fight the battle Indian-style, taking advantage of the cover provided by the huge virgin timber and massive boulders on the mountain slopes for protection. Fighting from cover while the British fought in close knit battles lines out in the open is a clichéd stereotype of Revolutionary War combat, yet the Battle of King’s Mountain is the only major battle where that actually occurred. Maintaining command and control of this force once the shooting started would be next to impossible, so each man was ordered to serve as their own officers. For an extra psychological edge, Campbell also instructed them to “shout like hell and fight like devils” once the shooting started. He then split the force in two, ordering one half to the north side of the mountain under Shelby, Williams, Lacy, and Cleveland and the other half to the south side under Campbell, Sevier, McDowell, Winston and Hambright. As they neared their positions, the men were ordered to dismount their horses and fight on foot. However, some of the officers chose to remain mounted in order to better be seen by their men. The Tory guards were surprised and taken without firing a shot. But as the attackers neared Ferguson’s camp, a Loyalist soldier stepped out from behind a tree prompting one of Campbell’s Virginia militiamen, Philip Greever, to open fire. This was the first shot of the battle and it immediately alerted Ferguson’s whole command that they were under attack. His men dropped whatever they were doing, grabbed their muskets and hastened to form their battle lines to repulse the patriot attack. They opened fire while the Patriot force was still organizing to start up the hill. As they began to move up the slopes of the mountain, they let out a blood-curdling scream. Upon hearing this battle cry, Tory Captain Abraham De Peyster, who had previously heard the cry during the disastrous British defeat at the Battle of Musgrove’s Mill, turned to Ferguson and said “These things are ominous – these are the damned yelling boys.”
Campbell’s men took up positions behind the trees and unleashed a hail of bullets on Ferguson’s forces. Ferguson immediately responded by directing his men to make a bayonet charge on Campbell’s men. They charged down the hill with the shrill sound of his silver whistle ringing in their ears. Like every other militia that fought in the Revolutionary War up to this time, Campbell’s men broke and ran down the mountain fleeing from that line of glistening bayonets. At the same time, Shelby’s men started up the mountain on the opposite slope, forcing Ferguson to recall his charging troops back to the summit to face this new threat. He ordered them to charge down the mountain towards Shelby’s position, and his troops likewise fled the advancing Tories. Now, Campbell’s men did something unprecedented in the war. Instead of continuing to flee, they stopped, turned around and returned to their original positions on the mountainside announcing their presence back on the battlefield by resuming fire on Ferguson’s troops. This forced Ferguson to call off they bayonet charge on Shelby’s forces and return to the mountaintop. Likewise, Shelby’s troops also stopped their headlong retreat, gathered themselves, steeled their nerves and returned to the fight. To any neutral observer who might have witnessed this, one thing was clear, this battle was going to be different than all that had come before it. The pattern for the battle now established, Ferguson would order more bayonet charges over the course of the next hour, all with the same results. At this point, militiamen under Sevier, Cleveland, McDowell, Hampton, Williams, Winston and others began to find their places in line completing the ring around the Tory-held ridge, ever-tightening the noose around Ferguson’s forces. “The mountain was covered with flame and smoke and seemed to thunder” as the fighting intensified. Ferguson’s Provincial troops were from New York and New Jersey, Americans but strangers in this part of the country. However, his Loyalist militia was made up of men drawn from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Many of these men recognized the faces of their opponents as neighbors and even family members. The personal nature of the fighting between the two sides became evident as the battle intensified. Thomas Robertson, a Patriot, was posted behind a tree when he heard a familiar voice call him by name. Robertson peeked around the tree to see who was calling him when a bullet blew the bark off the tree right next to his head. Looking up the slope he saw that a Tory neighbor of his, named Lafferty, was the one who called his name and attempted to kill him. Robertson immediately swung his rifle to his shoulder and put a bullet through the man he doubtless had seen countless times working the fields next to his. Mortally wounded, Lafferty cried out “Robertson, you have ruined me.” to which Robertson replied “The devil help you.” Nearby, a Tory named Branson was wounded and fell. Seeing his brother-in-law, Captain James Withrow, Branson begged him for help. Withrow responded with a bitterness that chilled the Tory’s soul. “Look to your friends for help.” The Goforth family from present day Rutherford County suffered more than any other at the Battle of King’s Mountain. Four brothers were involved in the battle and none survived. Preston Goforth fought for the Patriots, the other three including his brother John fought for the King with Ferguson. Isaac Shelby stated “that two brothers, expert riflemen, were seen to present at each, to fire and fall at the same instant.” Preston and his brother John’s bodies were found not far from each on the battlefield and were likely the brothers in Shelby’s tale. On another part of the field, a Tory took up a position behind the hollow snag of a chestnut tree. He shot down several Patriot soldiers through a hole in the snag. Seeing this, one Patriot was determined to put an end to it and fired at that hole in the chestnut tree repeatedly. No more shots came from there so after the battle, the Patriot went to see what his handiwork had achieved only to discover that the Tory he had killed was his own brother. As Virginia militiaman Charles Bowen was firing on the Tories from the cover of a tree, one of his friends shouted to him that his brother Reece had just been killed. Distraught at the news, Charles left cover in search of his brother, hoping against hope that his brother was merely wounded not killed. Sadly, he found his brother dead on the field. “Without being sensible to the danger until he was 15 or 20 paces from of the enemy,” he dove behind a tree narrowly avoiding his brother’s fate. At this point, Patriot Colonel Benjamin Cleveland challenged Bowen, demanding the countersign. Charles’ mind went blank. Cleveland, assuming Bowen was a Tory, “leveled his rifle at Charles’” chest and fired. Cleveland’s rifle misfired. Enraged, Bowen leaped on Cleveland, grabbing him by the collar and took out his tomahawk intending to sink it in Cleveland’s head. He would have killed him if another Patriot soldier named Buchanan who knew them both had not grabbed his arm and restrained him. Dropping the tomahawk, the only word that Charles could breathlessly get to come out of his mouth now was “Buford” over and over again. Cleveland upon having his own life spared and realizing how close he had come to killing a fellow Patriot “dropped his gun and clasped Bowen in his arms” in a great bear hug of relief. Sixteen year old Robert Henry got his first real taste of combat that day. He was close to the British lines when the Tories fired a volley of muskets, then came charging down the mountain at him. Henry was in the act of cocking his rifle when a British bayonet glanced off his rifle barrel, ran along the barrel’s length and thrust through his hand pinning to it his thigh. At the same time, Henry’s rifle went off killing his attacker. According to Henry’s account “my antagonist and myself both fell.” The Patriots retreated and loaded their guns. Henry was then lying under the smoke, and it appeared that some of them were not more than a gun’s length in front of the bayonets, and the farthest could not have been more than twenty feet in front when they discharged their rifles. They then retreated in great haste and were pursued. One of Henry’s friends, William Caldwell, saw his predicament and tried to pull the bayonet out of his Henry’s thigh to no avail. Finding the bayonet sticking fast to the young soldier’s hand, Caldwell “gave the wounded limb a kick with his boot, which loosened the bloody instrument from its hold. But Henry suffered more in the operation of extracting the bayonet than the British soldier had inflicted in driving it into him. Robert Henry not only survived the ordeal, he outlived everyone else at King’s Mountain that day finally passing away in January of 1863. While historians tend to focus on the actions of the men in the battle, there were at least two women that were in the thick of the fighting that day. Virginia Sal, short for Sally, and Virginia Paul, short for Polly, are the names that come down through history for them but those are probably just nicknames. The two women were personal companions of Major Patrick Ferguson himself. It is unknown exactly what their relationship to Ferguson was, but it was not unusual at the time for women to assume the role of “camp followers” of armies. They performed services like cooking meals, washing clothes, gathering firewood and other odds and ends that had to be done. At some point in the thick of the fighting, Virginia Sal was caught in the crossfire and killed. Virginia Paul, in a rage, stomped out of the camp through the Tory lines down the mountain with bullets whizzing all around her. When she reached the Patriot lines, she turned and pointed out which of the men on the top of the mountain was Ferguson. She told them he was wearing a red checkered shirt to conceal his officer’s uniform and was holding his sword in his left hand. The Overmountain Men now knew exactly who to target.
After an hour of intense fighting, Ferguson realized the desperate position he and his men were in. So he drew his sword and tried to lead a breakout through the Patriot lines hoping to save what he could of his command. Several Patriot troops saw him attempting to charge their lines. They took careful aim, including Robert Young with his famous rifle Sweet Lips, which was the pet name he called his wife, and fired. Ferguson was struck at least 7 times, and was blown from his horse, his foot catching in the stirrup and then being dragged to the horror of his men. With their commander’s death, the Tories knew their fates were sealed. Firing was maintained only a few minutes longer, t6hen Captain Abraham DePeyster, who had assumed command upon Ferguson’s death, finally surrendered. The Patriot victory was complete. Every Loyalist soldier on the mountain was either killed, captured or wounded in the fight. The entire left wing of the Tory Army had been destroyed. Word of the disaster soon reached Cornwallis in Charlotte. With every telling of the story of the battle, the size of the Patriot army before him was exaggerated and increased until he believed that there was a force of 10,000 angry mountain men ready to take him on. This resulted in Cornwallis retreating back into South Carolina and postponing his invasion of North Carolina until after the New Year. Ferguson is said to have boasted that “God himself could not remove him from that mountain.” That was true as he lies in a grave on the top of King’s Mountain until this very day. Footsteps for Freedom: The Road to Kings Mountain is a production of the Mitchell County Historical Society, a non-profit organization committed to the preservation of the history, heritage, and culture of Mitchell County, North Carolina. Today’s program was written by Jonathan Bennett and narrated and produced by David Biddix. Special thanks to WTOE radio in Spruce Pine, North Carolina (1470 on the AM dial) and WKYK Radio in Burnsville, North Carolina (940 on the AM dial) for airing our program. You can also download episodes through Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and other pod catching software. Learn more at mitchellnchistory.org/ovm. The Mitchell County Historical Society offices are located in the Historic Mitchell County Courthouse in Bakersville. We’d love for you to become a member of our Society! You can learn more about us on the web at mitchellnchistory.org. There, you can also see show notes about today’s episode, links to online resources about the Battle of Kings Mountain and those involved in it, and much more about Mitchell County’s history and heritage. You can also visit us on Facebook and Twitter. Join us next time as we discuss the aftermath of the battle and what happens next.
- Battlefield Archaeology at Kings Mountain
- Kings Mountain National Military Park
- Sketches of the Battle of Kings Mountain
- Kings Mountain Historical Museum
- NCPedia – Battle of Kings Mountain
- NCPedia – Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail
- Southern Campaigns American Revolution Pension Statements & Rosters