The Battle of Kings Mountain was fought October 7, 1780, during the American Revolution (1775-1783). Having shifted their focus south, the British achieved a decisive victory in May 1780 when they captured Charleston, SC. As the British pushed inland, the Americans suffered a string of defeats which allowed Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis to secure much of South Carolina.
As Cornwallis moved north, he dispatched Major Patrick Ferguson west with a force of Loyalists to protect his flank and supply lines from local militias. Ferguson's command was engaged by an American militia force at Kings Mountain on October 7 and destroyed. The victory provided a badly needed boost to American morale and forced Cornwallis to abandon his advance into North Carolina.
Following their defeat at Saratoga in late 1777 and the French entry into the war, British forces in North America began pursuing a "southern" strategy for ending the rebellion. Believing that Loyalist support was higher in the South, successful efforts were made to capture Savannah in 1778, followed by General Sir Henry Clinton's siege and taking of Charleston in 1780. In the wake of the city's fall, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton crushed an American force at Waxhaws in May 1780. The battle became infamous in the region as Tarleton's men killed numerous Americans as they attempted to surrender.
American fortunes in the region continued to decline that August when the victor of Saratoga, Major General Horatio Gates, was routed at the Battle of Camden by Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis. Believing that Georgia and South Carolina had effectively been subjugated, Cornwallis began planning for a campaign into North Carolina. While organized resistance from the Continental Army had been swept aside, numerous local militias, particularly those from over the Appalachian Mountains, continued to cause problems for the British.
Skirmishes in the West
In the weeks prior to Camden, Colonels Isaac Shelby, Elijah Clarke, and Charles McDowell struck Loyalist strongholds at Thicketty Fort, Fair Forest Creek, and Musgrove Mill. This last engagement saw the militia raid a Loyalist camp that guarded a ford over the Enoree River. In the fighting, the Americans killed 63 Tories while capturing another 70. The victory led to the colonels discussing a march against Ninety-Six, SC, but they aborted this plan upon learning of Gates' defeat.
Concerned that these militias could attack his supply lines and undermine his future efforts, Cornwallis dispatched a strong flanking column to secure the western counties as he moved north. Command of this unit was given to Major Patrick Ferguson. A promising young officer, Ferguson had earlier developed an effective breech-loading rifle which possessed a greater rate of fire than the traditional Brown Bess musket and could be loaded while prone. In 1777, he led an experimental rifle corps equipped with the weapon until being wounded at the Battle of Brandywine.
A believer that militia could be trained to be as effective as regulars, Ferguson's command was composed of 1,000 Loyalists from the region. Appointed Inspector of Militia on May 22, 1780, he relentlessly trained and drilled his men. The result was a highly-disciplined unit that possessed strong morale. This force quickly moved against the western militias after the Battle of Musgrove Mill but was unable to catch them before they withdrew back over the mountains into the territory of the Watauga Association.
While Cornwallis started moving north, Ferguson established himself at Gilbert Town, NC on September 7. Dispatching a paroled American into the mountains with a message, he issued a stark challenge to the mountain militias. Ordering them to cease their attacks, he stated "that if they 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 leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword."
Commanders & Armies:
- Colonel John Sevier
- Colonel William Campbell
- Colonel Isaac Shelby
- Colonel James Johnston
- Colonel Benjamin Cleveland
- Colonel Joseph Winston
- Colonel James Williams
- Colonel Charles McDowell
- Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Hambright
- 900 men
- Major Patrick Ferguson
- 1,000 men
The Militia Reacts
Rather than intimidate, Ferguson's words sparked outrage in the western settlements. In response, Shelby, Colonel John Sevier, and others gathered around 1,100 militia at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River. This force included around 400 Virginians led by Colonel William Campbell. This rendezvous was facilitated by the fact that Joseph Martin had cultivated positive relations with the neighboring Cherokees. Known as "Overmountain Men" because they had settled on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains, the combined militia force made plans to cross Roan Mountain into North Carolina.
On September 26, they began moving east to engage Ferguson. Four days later they joined Colonels Benjamin Cleveland and Joseph Winston near Quaker Meadows, NC and increased the size of their force to around 1,400. Alerted to the American advance by two deserters, Ferguson began withdrawing east towards Cornwallis and was no longer at Gilbert Town when the militias arrived. He also sent a dispatch to Cornwallis requesting reinforcements.
Appointing Campbell as their nominal overall commander, but with the five colonels agreeing to act in council, the militia moved south to Cowpens where they were joined by 400 South Carolinians under Colonel James Williams on October 6. Learning that Ferguson was camped at Kings Mountain, thirty miles to the east and eager to catch him before he could rejoin Cornwallis, Williams selected 900 picked men and horses.
Departing, this force rode east through constant rain and reached Kings Mountain the following afternoon. Ferguson had chosen the position because he believed that it would force any attacker to show themselves as they moved from woods on the slopes to the open summit. Due to the difficult terrain, he elected not to fortify his camp.
Shaped like a footprint, Kings Mountain's highest point was at the "heel" in the southwest and it broadened and flattened towards the toes in the northeast. Approaching, Campbell's colonels met to discuss strategy. Rather than simply defeat Ferguson, they sought to destroy his command. Moving through the woods in four columns, the militia slipped around the mountain and surrounded Ferguson's position on the heights. While Sevier and Campbell's men attacked the "heel" the remainder of the militia moved forward against the rest of the mountain. Attacking around 3:00 PM, the Americans opened fire from behind cover with their rifles and caught Ferguson's men by surprise (Map).
Advancing in deliberate fashion, using rocks and trees for cover, the Americans were able to pick off Ferguson's men on the exposed heights. Conversely, the Loyalist's position on the high ground led them to frequently overshoot their targets. Given the wooded and rough terrain, each militia detachment effectively fought on its own once the battle commenced. In a precarious position with men falling around him, Ferguson ordered a bayonet attack to drive back Campbell and Sevier's men.
This was successful, as the enemy lacked bayonets and withdrew down the slope. Rallying at the base of the mountain, the militia began ascending a second time. Several more bayonet attacks were ordered with similar results. Each time, the Americans allowed the charge to expend itself then resumed their attack, picking off more and more Loyalists.
The British Destroyed
Moving around the heights, Ferguson worked tirelessly to rally his men. After an hour or so of fighting, Shelby, Sevier, and Campbell's men were able to gain footholds on the heights. With his own men dropping at an increasing rate, Ferguson attempted to organize a break out. Leading a group of men forward, Ferguson was struck and dragged into the militia lines by his horse.
Confronted by an American officer, Ferguson fired and killed him before being shot multiple times by surrounding militiamen. With their leader gone, the Loyalists began attempting to surrender. Shouting "Remember Waxhaws" and "Tarleton's Quarter," many in the militia continued to fire, striking down surrendering Loyalists until their colonels could regain control of the situation.
While casualty numbers for the Battle of Kings Mountain vary from source to source, the Americans lost around 28 killed and 68 wounded. British losses numbered around 225 killed, 163 wounded, and 600 captured. Among the British dead was Ferguson. A promising young officer, his breech-loading rifle was never adopted as it challenged the preferred British method of warfare. Had his men at Kings Mountain been equipped with his rifle, it may have made a difference.
In the wake of the victory, Joseph Greer was dispatched on a 600-mile trek from Sycamore Shoals to inform the Continental Congress of the action. For Cornwallis, the defeat signaled stronger than anticipated resistance from the populace. As a result, he abandoned his march into North Carolina and returned south.