The Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780, was a decisive Patriot victory and a turning point of the war in the South during the American Revolution. A distinguishing characteristic of this battle is that it was fought entirely by irregular, Loyalist and Patriot militia forces; the only regular soldier involved was the British commander Major Patrick Ferguson. Many of the Patriot forces were Overmountain men from the hills and valleys of northwest North Carolina (today’s Tennessee) and the Holston River Valley in southwest Virginia.
After a siege of Charleston ended in May 1780 in one of the worst American defeats of the war, the British Army under General Lord Charles Cornwallis moved inland expecting to rally Loyalists in the Carolinas. Patriots and Loyalists engaged in savage partisan warfare with both sides reporting burning, looting, torture and murder. In mid-August the Americans under Horatio Gates suffered another disastrous defeat by Cornwallis at Camden, South Carolina. As Cornwallis began a northward invasion, Ferguson commanded a 1,000-man detachment protecting the left flank. Ferguson had great success in attracting upcountry South Carolinians to join his Loyalist militia but was harassed by North Carolina militia under Colonels Isaac Shelby and Charles McDowell using hit-and-run tactics. When Ferguson pursued these backwoods Patriot militia northward, they retreated across the Blue Ridge to the safety of Shelby’s homeland. Showing utter disdain for these “barbarians” and “dregs of mankind,” Ferguson threatened to “march this army over the mountains, hang your leaders, and lay waste your country with fire and sword.” Not waiting for Ferguson’s threat to materialize, Shelby and Colonel John Sevier of Watauga settlement sent express riders to muster militia from the Overmountain region and elsewhere, planning to recross the Blue Ridge and defeat Ferguson east of the mountains.
Having ridden two days from Wolf’s Creek (today’s Abington, Virginia) Colonel William Campbell and 400 horsemen arrived at Sycamore Shoals (today’s Elizabethton, Tennessee) and joined nearly 500 men under Shelby and Sevier plus 160 more from Burke County, North Carolina, under McDowell. On September 27 this throng, most on horseback, marched south in pursuit of Ferguson. East of the mountains at Quaker Meadows (today’s Morgantown, North Carolina) they were joined by 350 more men under Colonel Benjamin Cleveland and Major Joseph Winston who had marched four days up the Yadkin River Valley from Elk Creek (today’s Elkin, North Carolina). The enlarged Patriot force continued their pursuit to the south, but after being warned of the oncoming throng by a deserter, Ferguson began to retreat easterly toward Cornwallis’ main army in Charlotte.
Appointing Campbell overall commander, the Patriot militia rode hard to the Cowpens (South Carolina) on October 6 where 400 militia from South Carolina and a small group from Georgia joined. Learning from scouts that Ferguson was nearing Charlotte, the Patriots chose their 900 best marksmen, mounted them on their best horses and rode all night to engage Ferguson’s force before it could reach safety. Learning from locals that Ferguson’s force was encamped atop Kings Mountain, the Patriots arrived at the base of the mountain in the afternoon of October 7.
Attacking from all sides with their long rifles, the Patriots fired on Loyalists massed on the plateau from cover in surrounding woods but were repulsed by a Loyalist bayonet charge. Regrouping, the Patriots resumed the assault and claimed increasing Loyalist casualties with deadly rifle fire. On a third assault the Patriots took the crest and encircled the Loyalists; Ferguson was shot dead in the saddle while frantically rallying his men. Loyalist resistance quickly collapsed, but Patriot militia, recalling British brutality in previous engagements, continued to fire into Loyalist ranks for several minutes before Patriot officers could assert control. Through the afternoon and evening, the wounded were tended and the dead were buried in shallow graves on the mountain.
Concerned that a British relief force might arrive soon, the Patriots departed with their prisoners early on October 8. Along the march, retribution was demanded from some of the captured Loyalists. On October 14 a quick trial was held, and 30 Loyalists were condemned to death for atrocities committed on previous occasions. Nine Loyalists were hanged before the slaughter could be stopped by the colonels. Over the next few days the Patriot force disbanded, and Overmountain men once again crossed the Blue Ridge headed home.
The victory at Kings Mountain demoralized the British and buoyed the Americans. No longer could the British depend on Loyalists in the Carolina Piedmont to flock to the King’s standard; the Patriot spirit was reinvigorated in the Carolinas, and British southern strategy had been dealt a serious blow. More fighting lay ahead, but Kings Mountain was a turning point; in just over a year Cornwallis would surrender his army to Washington at Yorktown.
By Dennis Dicus