It will be recalled that following the defeat of General Gates at Camden on the 16th of August, Cornwallis issued immediate instructions to his two flying groups under Tarleton and Ferguson, to pursue Colonel Sumter, who, following the dispersion of Gates's forces, had the only organized corps of patriots in South Carolina. These instructions, together with detailed information of the magnitude of the defeat of the troops under Gates, reached Ferguson on the 19th. Immediate preparations were made to comply with the orders, and at 7 in the evening Ferguson put his column in motion. At that moment an express arrived from Colonel Innes, who was on his way from Ninety Six to join Ferguson, informing him that he had been attacked at Musgroves Mills, on the Enoree River on the 18th, with severe loss, and asking for support, as his militia had deserted him. Ferguson altered his plans and marched in the direction of Innes, crossing the Broad at sunrise.
The troops which had engaged the Loyalists and Tories on the Enoree were commanded by Colonels Williams, Shelby, and Clarke. Following this success, a move against Cruger, commanding at Ninety Six, was contemplated, but just at this time word was received of the defeat of the patriots at Camden two days before, and following a council of the commanders it was decided to rejoin McDowell's corps. Due to the nearness of Ferguson, the much northward, encumbered by prisoners, was one of many difficulties, and it was with great relief that Williams's party rejoined McDowell's corps in the mountains at Gilbert Town, to which point the latter had retired. Here the seriousness of the cause of the patriots was discussed. It was thought that Ferguson would immediately
advance to overtake them, and further withdrawal into the mountains seemed expedient. It was proposed by Shelby and Sevier, who were from the counties of North Carolina where the waters flowed to the westward, and now part of Tennessee, that the troops should disband, and all return to their homes to raise an army of volunteers to defeat Ferguson, or any other leader who might operate along the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge. This proposition received general support, and Shelby and Sevier, with their followers, departed for their backwater homes, and word was sent to the leaders of Wilkes and Surry Counties to embody their followers and prepare for a rising.
This was a period of great distress to the patriotic cause throughout the entire State. It was only the mountains that furnished refuge for those who still refused to accept British sovereignty, and a number of refugees, especially those who had borne arms against the King, were seeking protection within their barriers.
Following the quick withdrawal of Colonel Williams and his confederated command from Musgroves Mills, Ferguson made no effort to pursue him. His marches from day to day were short, and on the 23d of August he left his command to go to Camden to confer with Cornwallis, rejoining his troops September 1, with the news that his Provincial Corps were to be separated from the army and act on the frontier with the militia. During the following week he marched to the northward, and on the 7th of September his command crossed into North Carolina, and he, with about 50 of the American volunteers and 300 militia, proceeded to Gilbert Town, to surprise a party of patriots who were reported there. On the following day the remainder of the command moved to the Broad, where on the 10th their commander rejoined them.
While Ferguson was at Gilbert Town he paroled one of his prisoners and sent him into the mountains with a message to the leaders there, "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."
The effect of this message was to augment the determination of the mountain leaders to get together their men with all speed possible and march against their hated enemy. The magnitude of their undertaking was fully appreciated, especially as many of these mountain settlements were of but recent creation, and the inhabitants not very numerous, and without security from the Cherokees, except such as was furnished by their own trusty rifles.
As the adjacent territory of Virginia was equally interested in stopping the advance of this hostile invader, cooperation and assistance of the Washington County troops was sought. Early in September the county lieutenant, Col. Arthur Campbell, was in Richmond, and in an interview with the Governor of Virginia was informed of the measures about to be taken to retrieve the misfortunes of the troops under Gates and Sumter. He returned to his western home imbued with the idea of the part his militia should take in the ensuing campaign, and at once showed a willingness and desire to cooperate in the undertaking that Shelby, Sevier, and others were engaged in.
Ferguson's withdrawal southward from Gilbert Town on the 10th of September was for the purpose of rejoining the main part of his command, which had taken a stand on the Broad to keep a lookout for a reputed body of Georgians who were approaching. The following morning he put his assembled command in motion, and on the 12th led a small party to the head of Cane Creek in Burke County, in pursuit of McDowell and his refugee followers, who were on their way over the mountains to seek shelter pending the assembly of the various county regiments that were to move against Ferguson. A slight skirmish resulted, but McDowell's force was able to extricate itself and continue its retirement with but few losses. The pursuit was continued on the 15th and 16th to the banks of the Catawba, where, at Quaker Meadows, was the home of the McDowells, but the pursuers arrived too late, as the refugees were well on their way into the mountains.
In the ensuing week Ferguson campaigned from the Catawba to the Second Broad, and on the 23d entered Gilbert Town for the
second time. The following day was busily occupied in receiving 500 of the inhabitants of the contiguous territory, who came in to profess their allegiance to the King. It was on this day that intelligence was received from Colonel Cruger of an action which had just occurred at Augusta and to which reference will be made, as it had a decided bearing upon Ferguson's future plans.
Early in September Colonel Clarke assembled a body of troops and marched to attack the British post at Augusta. He reached his destination on the 14th and found that the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Browne, with the assistance of some friendly Indians, had taken a position in a fort about 3 miles from Augusta. Clarke invested the position for five days, when he retired upon the approach of Cruger, who had hastened with assistance from Ninety Six, upon learning of the danger to this frontier post. It is known that Cruger's message to Ferguson informing him of these events reached the latter at Gilbert Town on the 24th, five days after Clarke withdrew from the vicinity of Augusta to fall back upon the protection of the mountains. This retirement placed him between Cruger and Ferguson, and Cruger asked the latter to cooperate with him in cutting Clarke off before he could reach a retreat in the mountains. With this plan in view, Ferguson left Gilbert Town on the 27th and moved to the Broad, and then to the Green River to await in the vicinity of their junction further intelligence of Clarke. By the 30th, however, Ferguson knew that his efforts to intercept Clarke on his return to the mountains were unsuccessful, as the latter had taken another route. In the meanwhile Cruger found that the pursuit of Clarke would carry him too far from Ninety Six, and as he was responsible for its safety, he returned to that post. At this time Ferguson was in possession of the definite information of the advance of the army of mountain men, who had started their march from Watauga on the 26th.
Reference has been made to the retirement of Col. Charles McDowell from his home, with his band of soldiers and refugees. He reached the shelter of the backwaters with a force of 160 men
from Burke and Rutherford Counties. To this rendezvous on the Sycamore Flats, bordering the Watauga, about 2½ miles southwest of the present town of Elizabethton, Col. Arthur Campbell sent his brother-in-law, Col. William Campbell, with 200 militia from Washington County, Va. Later on he led to the same place an additional force of 200 men who joined the first group. It was necessary for Col. Arthur Campbell to return to the county under his jurisdiction and take measures to protect it from the invasion of hostile Indians. Shelby, at the head of 240 men from Sullivan County, and Sevier, with an equal number from Washington County, N. C., joined at the designated meeting point on the Watauga on the 25th of September.
David Ramsey, in his history of South Carolina, written in 1808, said that "hitherto these mountaineers had only heard of war at a distance, and had been in peaceable possession of that independence for which their countrymen on the seacoast were contending." They embodied to check the invader of their own volition, "without any requisition from the Governments of America or the officers of the Continental Army." Each man set out with a knapsack, blanket, and gun. All who could obtain horses were mounted; the remainder afoot. There is a tradition that before starting out on the journey from which many would never return, the Scotch-Irish Presbyterian clergyman of the settlement invoked a blessing and besought divine protection and guidance for the army.
The highway of their great adventure followed the only roadway connecting the backwater country with the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge in North Carolina. Leaving Sycamore Flats, the column marched up Gap Creek to its headwaters in Gap Creek Mountain, and there turned eastward and then south, following around the base of Fork Mountain to Toe River, and on up that stream to one of its tributaries. Here the route continued in a southerly direction until the top of the mountain was reached, between Roan High Knob and Big Yellow Mountain. From the mountain top, descent was made along Roaring Creek to the North Toe River. It is stated
in the diary of Ensign Robert Campbell that the mountains were crossed and descent to the other side was started before camp was made for the night. Snow was encountered in the highlands, for an elevation of 5,500 feet was reached in this march. On the top of the mountain there was found a hundred acres of beautiful tableland, and the troops were paraded, doubtless for the purpose of seeing how they were standing the march, which was about 26 miles to this point. Campbell's diary states that the second night—that of the 27th—they rested at Cathey's plantation. This is placed by Draper at the junction of Grassy Creek and North Toe River. The diary does not mention the camping place of the 28th. On this day McDowell, who had previously left the column to go to his home in Rutherford County, returned with such information as he had been able to secure relative to the movements of Ferguson. The night of the 28th a council of officers was held, at which it was agreed that an experienced officer was needed to take command of all separate county units. It was decided that Colonel McDowell should convey a message to General Gates, asking that General Morgan or General Davidson be sent to them to take over the command.
Tradition has it that on reaching Gillespie Gap the troops divided, one group, including Campbell's men, moving south to Turkey Cove, the others going easterly to the North Cove on the North Fork of the Catawba. Ensign Campbell's diary gives the information that the fourth night, the 29th, Campbell's men rested at a rich "Tory's," and this place has been identified as being in Turkey Cove.
The following day the men who had camped at North Cove marched southeast down Paddy Creek, while those from Turkey Cove marched southerly down the North Fork and then easterly down the Catawba. The two forces joined on the banks of the Catawba near the mouth of Paddy Creek, and continued down the Catawba to Quaker Meadows, the home of the McDowells, where camp was made, after a march of about 27 miles for the southern
column and about 23 for the northern. During the five days which had elapsed since leaving Sycamore Flats, about 80 miles had been covered.
Here the marching column of 1,040 men was joined by Colonel Cleveland with the men from Wilkes and Major Winston with the men from Surry, 350 in all, making a combined strength of 1,390. The time was now opportune for Colonel McDowell to depart for General Gates's headquarters, with the request of the several colonels that a general officer be designated for the command, and after turning his regiment over to his brother, Maj. Joseph McDowell, he departed on this mission the 1st of October.
We left Ferguson on September 30, at which time he had given up hopes of cutting off Clarke's force. His camp was at Step's plantation, 12 miles from Denards Ford of the Broad River. Being aware that the gathering hordes of the enemy were either at a concentration point east of the Blue Ridge or approaching it, Ferguson wrote to Cruger on the 30th informing him of this new threat, and suggested that it would be well if the district of Ninety Six called out more of its militia.
The following day Ferguson began his withdrawal from the vicinity of the mountains. He marched to Denards Ford, where he camped, and issued his last appeal to the inhabitants of the region to join the militia serving under the King. As it is typical of the inflammatory proclamations put forth by both Whig and Tory during this period of violent passions it is here given:
doubt, this was Ferguson's opinion also. At this time he knew the mountain men were in the vicinity of his camp site of September 30, 28 miles away, and that a day's march of those who were mounted would bring the enemy upon him, so in going to "Little King Mountain," as Allaire designates the place, on the 6th, and taking up a position which was most favorable for defense, and remaining there for 24 hours before the enemy came in sight, Ferguson acted with deliberation and with full intent to engage in battle, did the enemy take the initiative. The "Little King Mountain" position was about 36 miles from Charlotte Town, and had Ferguson desired to avoid battle with the mountain men, he could have marched on the morning of the 7th halfway to army headquarters.
The letter which Ferguson wrote to Cornwallis October 6, in which he said, "I am on my march towards you, by a road leading from Cherokee Ford, north of Kings Mountain. Three or four hundred good soldiers, part dragoons, would finish the business. Something must be done soon. This is their last push in this quarter," is indicative of the subordinate commander whose duty it is to keep his superior informed of the forces opposed to him, and, when the enemy is in such strength as to be a serious menace, to suggest that reinforcement would insure a more certain success. In this letter Ferguson mentioned that "they are since joined by Clarke and Sumpter." Ferguson had the mistaken idea that Clarke, on his withdrawal northward from Augusta to the mountains, had joined the mountain men. Some of the men of Sumter's command, under Colonel Williams, did join about this time, as will be noted later.
When the mountain men left their rendezvous on the Catawba October 1, they marched to the southward, up Silver Creek, past Pilot Mountain, and from thence down Cane Creek in the direction of Gilbert Town. Although the several organization commanders had sent to Gates for an officer to command, it was considered unwise to continue further without coordinated leadership, and on this day a conference was held which resulted in the selection of
Colonel Campbell to command all the groups, until a general officer should arrive. The command was intrusted to the colonel of the Virginia regiment to prevent dispute were an attempt made to name a leader from the North Carolina colonels.
On the 2d the march was continued toward Gilbert Town, from which Ferguson had departed five days previous. Continuing on to the south, the Cowpens were reached on the 6th, the march being directed toward Ninety Six, as it was thought Ferguson was falling back in the direction of Cruger. At the Cowpens Col. James Williams, of South Carolina, with 400 men, joined. This new party was made up largely of groups of Sumter's men from South Carolina, under Colonels Hill and Lacey, of men from Lincoln County under Graham, Hambright, and Chronicle, and a small number embodied by Colonel Williams in North Carolina. On the 2d of October Williams had written to General Gates that with a force of 450 horsemen he was in pursuit of Ferguson, and that he expected to join the mountain men in the accomplishment of this purpose.
Colonel Campbell was informed by the new arrivals that the enemy lay encamped somewhere near the Cherokee Ford of the Broad River, and plans were made for immediate pursuit. A council of the principal officers was held, and it was decided to select 900 of the best horsemen and leave the weak horses and footmen to follow as fast as possible.
Time was pressing, and the necessity for immediate action great, for if Ferguson continued his withdrawal in the direction of Charlotte Town another day's march, he would be so near the main army that to engage him would be a most hazardous enterprise. As soon, therefore, as the selected group was formed, the command mounted, and at 8 o'clock started on its long night ride, which the next day was to terminate in the encounter so eagerly sought.
Cherokee Ford of the Broad was crossed early in the morning, and the march continued along the northeast road topping the ridge between Buffalo and Kings Creeks. Information was received from several people as to Ferguson's line of march the day before, and
finally as to the mountain top on which his camp was established. This camp site could best be reached by way of the main highway running from North Carolina in a southeast direction to Yorkville, S. C., so the eager patriots hastened their march to gain this road, passing Antioch Church and Ponders Branch, and stopping on the way only long enough to gain additional information. When the highway was reached, the column turned southeast, and after crossing Kings Creek began the gradual ascent of the rugged hills which lay between the creek and the enemy's position. An uncomfortable rain had added to the weariness of the sleepless marchers, but about noon the weather cleared, the sun shone with grateful warmth, and the nearness of the quarry added zest to the chase.
About a mile from Kings Creek the road passed between two slight knobs, and as the patriots emerged from the bottom of the ravine between these knolls, they found themselves upon a small plateau, overlooking to the southeast a sharp ravine, the far side of which terminated in a ridge, part of which was a hundred feet higher than the plateau, and on which Ferguson stood and offered battle. The broadside silhouette of the ridge was visible about 700 yards away, but the tree-covered slopes hid its occupants from view.
Continuing along the highway to the southeast for several hundred yards, to a point where the plateau terminates and the road begins its descent into the ravine, a better view of Ferguson's position was obtained. Beyond this point the column could not proceed until definite plans for the attack had been determined upon. The characteristics of the mountain on which Ferguson was making his stand were known to several of Campbell's command, and this information imparted to his leaders. While halted in the position which they had now reached, with the mountain occupied by the enemy in sight, the plan of battle was finally agreed upon. They could see a ridge about 600 yards long, the general direction of which extended north 52º east. The highest point of the ridge was near its southwest end, from which point, toward the southwest,
there was a gradual dropping off of 20 feet to a very narrow hogback, then a widening out of the terrain into a gently sloping, narrow plateau, which extended due north to the place where the column had debouched from the ravine between the two knobs.
From the highest point of the ridge, along its crest to the north, east, there was a gradual descent for 400 yards, then a very sharp drop to the highway. The northern face of the ridge descended to a stream which flows into Clarks Fork. The south face of the mountain was unknown to the leaders, except as described by those familiar with its features. From them it was learned that another stream led from the south of the mountain, and that several slight spurs projected from the ridge to the east and southeast, which gradually flattened out into comparatively level ground.
The plan of attack decided upon was to surround the mountain and trap its defenders in a band of fire, constantly decreasing in diameter as the mountain sides were scaled. To accomplish this maneuver, the command was divided into four parts, which were to be led in four columns abreast to the place from which the separate columns would proceed to their respective positions. The interior columns were composed of the men from Virginia and from Sullivan County, Campbell leading his men in the right column and Shelby his men in the left. The right flank column was made up of men from Surry, the Nolichucky, and Burke; Major Winston being at the head of the column, followed by Colonel Sevier. The detachment commanded by Major McDowell was joined to Sevier's command. The left flank column was composed of the men from Wilkes and those who joined the preceding day from the two Carolinas under Colonel Williams. Major Chronicle was at the head of this column, followed by Colonel Cleveland. The senior officer who accompanied the Lincoln County men into action was Lieutenant Colonel Hambright, but he waived his right to command in favor of Major Chronicle. The right and left flank columns were about the same strength, and each equaled that of the two regiments constituting the interior columns.
In this order the several columns proceeded from the plateau into the bottom of the ravine north of the mountain. Here the right and the two interior columns halted, dismounted, tied their horses to trees and bushes, and left a small group of men in charge. The left column continued its march around the east point of the mountain, thence southwestwardly, to its position.
Shelby's men were deployed in the vicinity of the highway, from which position they were to attack the eastern extremity of the ridge. Campbell was on Shelby's right, along the bed of the stream. These two regiments were first in position, and had the most difficult terrain on their front, due to the sharpness of the slope and the height of the crest. Beyond Campbell, on his right, was McDowell, and then Sevier. The deployment of the latter was along the stream line leading up to the narrow hogback just southwest of the highest elevation of the ridge.
When the units in the left column reached their positions south of the mountain, they dismounted and formed fine, with Winston, at the head of the column, connecting with the right of Sevier at the hogback. On the right of Winston was Chronicle, then Cleveland, with Williams between Cleveland and Shelby. All of the commanders cautioned their men to hold their fire until near the enemy, and to reform their ranks, if broken, and renew the fight. Appeal was made to their patriotism and love of liberty, although this was not necessary, as every man went into battle resolved to fight as long as life lasted.
Ferguson's Provincials and militia were formed on the summit of the ridge, which varied in width from 30 to 60 yards. His camp and wagon train were established here also. The crest was comparatively level within the narrow confines indicated, and free from trees. Rock outcroppings provided a limited amount of cover for firing positions. Pickets had been placed in the direction of approach of the enemy, to give warning of his presence.
The attack started at 3 o'clock, with the driving in of the covering forces. The center of the patriot army, under Campbell and
Shelby, was the first to engage the enemy. The Virginia and Sullivan County men advanced up the steep slopes, taking cover behind rocks and trees, with a fair field of fire, as the underbrush was not thick. Their attack was sustained for about 15 minutes while the flank groups proceeded to their several positions, when the fire became general around the entire mountain. The groups then closed in, and Campbell's and Shelby's men almost reached the enemy lines, but here they were met by Ferguson's Provincial Corps, and at the point of the bayonet driven down the mountain. Their officers bravely rallied them, however, and under cover of rocks and trees the enemy fire was returned. The Provincials now in turn fell back before the sure marksmanship of the mountain men, and were pursued to the top of the crest, where a second time they resorted to the bayonet, and again forced the retirement of Campbell's and Shelby's men, but only to the point where, from behind cover, they had time to reload their rifles, and by their deadly fire stop the onrush of the enemy and compel their return once more to the ridge top.
When pressure of the right and left wings began to be felt by Ferguson, new dispositions had to be made of his forces to meet the situation. The parts of the encircling band composed of the men of McDowell and Sevier on the north, and of Williams, Cleveland, Chronicle, and Winston to the south of the mountain, closed in toward the crest of the ridge, and on its southwest extremity the enemy was cleared from the summit, and forced in a northeasterly direction into a huddled group.
About this time Campbell's and Shelby's men succeeded in gaining the portion of the ridge on their front, driving all before them, back into the group that the closing of the wings was compressing. The defenders of the mountain were now in sore straits. The losses among the Provincial Corps were heavy. These troops had fought with great heroism, but their numbers were too few to win alone. The Tory militia endured the contest as long as was to be expected of them. Ferguson's survivors were surrounded by an enemy fiercely determined to fight for complete victory.
It was evident that nothing could be done to better the situation and snatch victory from defeat, and Ferguson determined to cut his way through the band of fire and escape. He, with several of his officers, made this desperate move, but was shot from his horse and killed instantly. Captain De Peyster, the second in command, bravely continued the fight for a brief time, but the confusion was so great, and his compact group of followers such a vulnerable target, that further resistance was suicidal, and a white flag was shown.
It was some time before the firing could be stopped. Units had become disorganized and intermingled during the fierce conflict, and all firing did not cease at the time De Peyster surrendered his command. Then, too, there were some who refused quarter to many of the Tories who asked for it, in retaliation for the treatment which they heard had been accorded Buford's command at the Waxhaw on May 29. To the cry, "Buford's play," many of the wounded were hurried into oblivion. The total number of Tories killed and wounded in this action was 334, and of this number 206 were reported killed.
The battle lasted an hour and five minutes. The report of this engagement, prepared by Colonels Campbell, Shelby, and Cleveland, and submitted to General Gates between three and four weeks after the battle, stated that the official provision returns for the 7th of October, found in camp, gave an enemy strength of 1,125 men. The losses given in the report for the Provincial Corps were 19 killed, 35 wounded, 68 prisoners; total, 122. The Tory losses were 206 killed, 128 wounded, 648 prisoners; total, 982. The combined totals give a strength on the battle field at the time of the action of 1,104, as no one escaped. In addition to Colonel Ferguson, the Provincial Corps had one captain killed; and among the Tories, two Colonels and three captains loft their lives, and one major was wounded. The losses in the patriot army, as given in the report, were 28 killed and 62 wounded, a total of 90. The Virginia regiment suffered the heaviest losses. Campbell's command had 13
officers killed or mortally wounded. The Lincoln County men lost their leader, Major Chronicle, and Colonel Williams received wounds from which he died the following day. The booty captured included 17 baggage wagons and 1,200 stand of arms.
A defeat so overwhelming as that suffered by Ferguson's command is rare in warfare. His position on Kings Mountain was selected after mature deliberation. The top of the mountain was just large enough to serve as a battle ground for his command and to provide space for his camp and wagon train. Water was near and plentiful. The advance of the attackers would be impeded by the slopes of the mountain. When attacked he could expect that retreat would be rendered hazardous by flanking or encircling detachments, a condition he desired, as his militia would be put to the necessity of fighting instead of fleeing. A better position on which to make a stand and fight could not have been found.
That he underestimated the valor of the mountain men is unquestionable. Their reputed superiority in numbers did not deter him from offering battle, otherwise he would have continued his march on the 7th in the direction of Charlotte Town. But had he known that these crusaders from the mountains would stand and fight with a fierceness heretofore unexperienced in his southern campaign, he would have been more discreet and less valorous. His epitaph, written by his brother officers and published in the New York Gazette of February 14, 1781, rings with affectionate praise and admiration for his many admirable qualities as a man and soldier.
The leaders of the patriots, and the men whom they commanded, were honored with the thanks of their several legislatures; and the thanks of Congress were given in a resolution of the 13th of November, as follows: