The Southern Revolution:
The Battle of King's Mountain

by J. M. Pressley
First published: August 22, 2008

King's Mountain proved to be an unlikely—but crucial—turning point in the American Revolution.

Background

The defeat of Horatio Gates at Camden had left the southern colonies wide open to Cornwallis and the British army. The victories of 1780 firmed the Crown's control of South Carolina. In late summer, Cornwallis cast an eye toward its neighbor to the north. Major Patrick Ferguson and his Tory light infantry were assigned to secure the main army's west flank while bolstering Tory support in the region.

To that end, when Ferguson arrived in Gilbert Town, he chose a course of action that only a British officer would have thought prudent. Ferguson sent a message to the Overmountain Men, the Blue Ridge's rebel militia, when he released a captured relative of Colonel Isaac Shelby. His warning: continued resistance would cause him to "march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword."

As a Scot, one would think Ferguson would have better understood the men he threatened. The mountain men of Appalachia were hardy Scotch-Irish stock, toughened by years of wilderness living and Indian battles. They also bore little love for British authority, an animosity that had prompted many of their ancestors to migrate to North America in the first place. The response was swift and predictable; in a fortnight, the Overmountain Men had assembled at Sycamore Shoals in Tennessee. The force set out for Gilbert Town bearing little more than their rifles, gathering men along the way. If Ferguson wanted a fight, they would bring it to him.

The Battle

Ferguson got word of the advance and withdrew closer to Charlotte and Cornwallis. The Overmountain Men arrived in Gilbert Town to find him gone and set off in pursuit. On October 6, leery of being caught in the open, Ferguson made camp on King's Mountain on the border of North and South Carolina. There, he organized defensive lines, sent out a foraging party, and dashed off a request to Cornwallis for reinforcements. He also made the rather arrogant boast that he was the king on King's Mountain and "God Almighty and all the Rebels of hell could not drive him from it." He would ultimately be proved right, but not in the way he intended.

The Overmountain Men reached King's Mountain at midday of October 7. The strategy was simple; surround and advance. It was effective because Ferguson had critically miscalculated his position. King's Mountain was a 60-foot rise of heavily wooded, rocky slope topped by a 600-yard plateau. Ferguson held the high ground, usually considered sound military strategy, and presumed that the surrounding terrain would hinder the militia's advance. Instead, it provided perfect cover for men well versed in fighting amongst the trees. At 3:00 that afternoon, the assault began.

The Tories fought as any British force would under the circumstances. They formed their ranks in typical massed formation to concentrate musket volleys. The rebels simply refused to cooperate. Units dispersed and methodically worked their way up the slope, picking off troops in the open with their rifles. Although British muskets were quicker to load, the American rifles had greater range and accuracy.

Militia under William Campbell, John Sevier, and Isaac Shelby withstood both musket fire and bayonet charges to gain the summit. The steady, ever-shifting onslaught had Ferguson moving his defensive lines from one position to the other as the militia noose tightened. A little over an hour into the battle, Ferguson—realizing just how desperate his situation had become—ordered a charge in an attempt to break through the rebel lines. Ferguson was shot from his horse and died.

Survivors among the Loyalists quickly began surrendering. Shouts of "Tarleton's Quarter!" could be heard from the militia, recalling Banastre Tarleton's earlier massacre of surrendering rebels at Waxhaw Creek. It took some time for the bloodletting to run its course; once the men were under control, the smoke cleared upon a decisive Patriot victory. Ferguson's force had casualties of 244 dead, 163 wounded, and 668 taken prisoner. The Overmountain Men suffered only 29 dead and 58 wounded. Ferguson's words proved prophetic, as his body was laid to rest on King's Mountain where he fell, never to leave.

Impact

King's Mountain proved to have significant ramifications for the British in the southern theater. Cornwallis lost his entire left flank as a result of the action. Upon receiving the news, the stunned general withdrew his troops back across the border into Winnsboro, postponing the invasion of North Carolina by months. The reprieve, in turn, gave the battered Continental army just enough time to reorganize under the new leadership of Nathanael Greene.

Even as it reinvigorated rebels weary of defeats in 1780, the rout of an American Tory force effectively dashed British hopes for any kind of sustained Loyalist movement in the southern colonies. King's Mountain proved to be an unlikely—but crucial—turning point in the American Revolution.

Bibliography

Lancaster, Bruce. The American Revolution (American Heritage Library). New York, NY: American Heritage Pub. Co., 1971.

Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Savas, Theodore P. and J. David Dameron. Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution. New York, NY: Savas Beatie LLC, 2006.