Kings Mountain is actually a long ridge, rising independently from a low range running from the northeast in North Carolina to the south-west in South Carolina. The ridge itself is in York County, SC about a mile and a half south of the present day 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” to the northeast to the narrower “handle end” on the southwest extreme. 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 a scattered skirmish formation.
Because he had sent out a foraging detachment on the morning of October 7, 1780, Ferguson’s total strengh on Kings Mountain was about 900 men. Of those 100 were “regular” Loyalists who had come south with Ferguson from the King’s American Rangers, the Queen’s Rangers, and the New Jersey Volunteers, and 800 Loyalist militia from North and South Carolina. Ferguson’s second in command was an aristocratic New Yorker named Captain Abraham de Peyster, an able and efficient officer.
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 it’s use. Some of the few newly joined Loyalists were equipped with a crude, makeshift “plug” bayonet which had a wooden hilt that could be inserted into the muzzle for close combat, though it rendered the musket useless as a firearm.
The British 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 ont he ridge: that “he defied God Almighty and all the rebels out of hell to overcome him”
The night march from Cowpens to Kings Mountain by the 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 forced every rifleman to sacrifice the comfort that would have been provided by hunting shirt and blanket. Those articles had been used to cover the precious rifle from the wet, and above all to ensure the muzzle and the 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 Oct 1780, 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 American Colonels Campbell, Sevier, and Cleveland agreed that a rest was in order. However when they approached Shelby, one of the leaders of a group of over mountain men, with the idea they met with a flat refusal: “I will not stop until night, if I follow Ferguson into Cornwallis’ lines” – so the column pushed on.
Six miles further on the road, and one of the scouts reported that he had come upon a Loyalist 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 Loyalist 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 Ferguson because he was the only one of the officers 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”, named after the man whose command had received no quarter from Tarleton’s Loyalists at Waxhaw (we talked about this in the Waxhaw on, Waxhaw Off episode). Then it was time to make their final approach 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 the 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. Loyalist 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 British 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 cries were taken up by Shelby’s men and those of the other forces as they came into action.
In the British 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 British 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 British formations on the crest of the ridge.
It was these losses that caused Ferguson to order the first bayonet charge. The counterattack appeared successful – 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 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 Loyalist 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 of the Patriots attacked, and each time they were driven back by bayonet charges. Each time, the British formations had to halt, and withdraw up the slopes whereupon the Patriots returned to the attack, their accurate rifle fire making the British 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 the American’s skirmishing tactics. Furthermore, the volleys that returned the rifleman’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 50 to 75 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 British 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 British soldiers volley’s at Kings Mountain; and to compound their loss in firepower, their own ranks were silhouetted against the skyline – making them ideal targets for rifles that could kill at 200-300 yards. THe words of Light Horse Harry Lee about Kings Mountain, “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 British and Patriot was brought out in recollections like that of Thomas Young, a 16 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 25 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 boys, 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 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 British 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 British 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 British 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 right arm, but continued to carry his sword in his good left. He got some units lined up to defend the camp, but those he had formed into a square soon deteriorated in a shrinking circle of beaten men. In one Loyalist 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 camp, Ferguson galloped over and cut it down with another stroke. When Ferguson’s second-in-command, 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 rounds ripped into Ferguson’s body; both arms were broken, and he feel 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 on the British side 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 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 British continued. De Peyster protested to Campbell, saying: “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 ridge top – British soldiers cried out for quarter and got “Buford’s quarter” or “Tarleton’s quarter” instead – in the form of rifle bullets. Patriot Colonel Shelby, enraged at both sides, came forward and shouted to the British: “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 and pleading with their owners not to shoot. 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 the shots presumably struck down Colonel James Williams, who later died from his wounds.
Because of the shot, the cry went up of a Tory attack, and Campbell ordered the riflemen nearest him to shoot in the prisoners to subdue any attempt to break for freedom. The order was obeyed, and according to Lt. 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 stopped and all the shooting finished, 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 1780 – the Patriots pulled their prisoners wagons across the camp fires and left them burning as they marched their 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 journey 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 captors.
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 after drinking deeply of it, they dispersed going their separate ways to homesteads and settlements in the backcountry and beyond the Blue Ridge. Though their accomplishments would be retold around firesides (or podcasts) for generations – it is doubtful that any participant in the campaign could have realized the far-reaching effects of the victory.
Also published on Medium.