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American Revolution: Battle of Kings Mountain

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Battle of Kings Mountain - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Kings Mountain was fought October 7, 1780, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Commanders & Armies:

Americans

  • 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

British

Battle of Kings Mountain Background:

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 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.

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's Mill. Concerned that these militias could attack his supply lines and undermine his 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.

Moving to Kings Mountain:

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. Relentlessly training and drilling his men, he produced a disciplined unit that possessed high morale. While Cornwallis moved north, reaching Charlotte on September 26, Ferguson established himself at Gilbert Town and issued a challenge to the mountain militias. Ordering them to cease their attacks, he threatened to cross the mountains and "lay waste to their country with fire and sword" if they continued.

Rather than intimidate, Ferguson's words sparked outrage in the western settlements. In response, Shelby, Colonel John Sevier, and others gathered around 1,000 militia at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River. On September 26, they began moving east to engage Ferguson. Four days later they joined Colonels Benjamin Cleveland and Joseph Winston near Quaker Meadows. Alerted to the American advance by a deserter, Ferguson began withdrawing east towards Cornwallis and was no longer at Gilbert Town when the militias arrived.

Appointing Colonel William Campbell as their overall commander, 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 north and eager to catch him before he could rejoin Cornwallis, Williams selected 900 picked men and horses. Departing, this force rode north 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.

The Battle of Kings Mountain:

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, 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. Advancing in deliberate fashion, they were able to pick off Ferguson's men on the exposed heights. In a precarious position, Ferguson ordered a bayonet attack to drive back Campbell's men. This was successful, but the Americans simply rallied at the base of the mountain and began ascending again. Two 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.

Moving around the heights, Ferguson worked tirelessly to rally his men. With the Americans gaining footholds on the heights and his own men dropping around him, Ferguson attempted to organize a break out. Leading a group of men forward, Ferguson was struck by several rounds and killed. 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.

Aftermath of Kings Mountain

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.

Selected Sources

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