The Battle of Kings Mountain: American DNA and Why the Revolution Matters Today

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During these turbulent times, Americans are hurting, confused, and angry.  Many are asking how we got here and are questioning the wisdom of established organizations.  They are looking back to understand how the United States came to be and who we are as Americans.

Americans have a unique DNA, formed in the crucible of eight difficult years of revolution, and even an underreported civil war—it is the reason why the War of Independence and the greatest generation of Americans who forged this nation are so relevant today.  One of the inflection points initiating a chain of events that changed the course of the Revolution was the decisive victory at Kings Mountain.  On a lonely mountain in South Carolina, Americans took matters into their own hands.

Washington’s Immortals, a new bestselling book published this month, spans eight years of war.  This unique book is the first Band of Brothers treatment of the American Revolution, capturing the most important elements of the Battle of Kings Mountain and nearly every other major battle of the Revolution.

Throughout most of 1780, the Revolution endured some of its darkest days.  The war stalemated in the North, and the British turned their sights to the South. In May, a British army led by Henry Clinton and Charles, Earl Cornwallis, conquered Charleston and captured nearly 6,000 American soldiers – the largest haul of American prisoners of the war.  The Crown was on a roll; in August, they destroyed “The Grand” Army led by General Horatio “Granny” Gates at the Battle of Camden. After the debacle, France considered pulling the plug on funding and troops earmarked for America.  Russia and Austria even flirted with the idea of acting as peace mediators to find a “political solution” to the Revolution.

Divided along religious, nationality, and regional lines, South Carolina was embroiled in bitter violence: hangings and burnings between Patriot Americans and Loyalists were commonplace and part of a civil war that roiled many states.  The string of stunning British victories had a galvanizing effect on Americans loyal to the Crown; Tory militia led by Scottish born Lt. Colonel Patrick Ferguson coalesced around Cornwallis’s army, who, occupying South Carolina, planned an invasion of North Carolina.

Ferguson, an inventor of a breach loading rifle and a crack shot who once had Washington in the sights of his rifle, mobilized the Tory population.  The firebrand British officer planned to snuff out opposition to the Crown with brute force and boldly proclaimed: “If they do not desist from their opposition to the British arms, we would march over the mountains, hang their leaders and lay their country waste with fire and sword.”  He followed up his proclamation with a stern warning to Tories and Patriots alike, “Gentlemen, unless you wish to be eat up by the inundation of the barbarians…if you wish to be pissed upon by a set of mongrels, and let your women turn their backs upon you, and look out for real men to protect them.”

Ferguson’s words thoroughly pissed off a rugged group of Americans known as the Overmountain Men.  These pioneering, independent Americans had defied the king and settled beyond the Royal Proclamation Line of 1763, which established everything west of the Appalachian Mountains as Indian territory.  Considered illegal squatters, they inhabited what is today the extreme northeast corner of Tennessee, where Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia meet.

True pioneers, hardened by years of living on the frontier, the Overmountain Men fought constantly for their survival against both the elements and the Indians. That hard living had shaped the men’s bodies, “they were the most powerful-looking men, [I] ever beheld; not overburdened with fat, but tall, raw-boned, and sinewy with long matted hair—such men as a body were never before seen in the Carolinas.”  As one backwoodsman later described, “We were all for liberty…we were formidable… Our equals were scarce, and our superiors hard to find.”  Washington formed an army from these men and many others, from all walks of life and class throughout the thirteen states; many had their own concepts of liberty, each contributing to unique America DNA.

The Overmountain Men rejected the established order of the Crown and were not having Ferguson or his Loyalists.  The Scot’s foolhardy boast mobilized their ranks to take care of business and crush Ferguson, who was moving north to screen Cornwallis’s army that was marching north to invade North Carolina, attempting to vanquish any opposing Patriot forces along the way.  On the first week of October 1780, Ferguson and a band of Loyalists fatefully bivouacked on Kings Mountain near South Carolina’s border with North Carolina, near the small town of Blacksburg.

Through intelligence gleaned from the locals, the Overmountain Men quickly discovered Ferguson’s whereabouts and surrounded Kings Mountain.  Militiaman James Collins, only a teenager at the time whose family had suffered at the hands of Loyalists, recalled the moments leading up to the battle, “The sky was overcast with clouds, and at times a light mist was falling; our provisions were scanty and hungry men were like to be fractious; each one felt his situation; the last stake was up and the severity of the game must be played; everything was at stake—life, liberty, property, and even the fate of wife, children, and friends seemed to depend on the issue: death or victory was the only way to escape suffering.”

Collins and his fellow Americans received their orders before charging the mountain: “Fresh prime your guns, and every man go into battle firmly resolving to fight till he dies.”  About 900 Overmountain Men assaulted Kings Mountain, where about 1,125 of Ferguson’s Loyalists encamped.  Weaving between boulders and rocks, Collins and the Patriots charged the Loyalist position.  Twice, Ferguson and his men repelled the Overmountain Men’s assault, but the Loyalists’ musket volleys, due to their elevated position, often went over the heads of Collins and his fellow Patriots.  One Patriot soldier recalled, “The fight seemed to become more furious. Their leader Ferguson came into full view, within rifle shot, as if to encourage his men.”  Collins and the men charged for a third time.  The Loyalists’ ranks began to melt away.  Sensing victory, the officers roared, “Hurrah, my brave fellows! Advance!”

Ferguson, on horseback, attempted to rally the Loyalists, waving his gleaming sword as he rode from one end of the line to the other, but despite his efforts, white flags of surrender began to appear.  Ferguson’s two beautiful mistresses, known as Virginia Sal and Virginia Paul, were on the mountain.  Many Overmountain Men refused to accept their surrender, recalling earlier British atrocities.  The rout continued as the Overmountian Men pelted Ferguson with scores of rounds, his body riddled with musket balls as he fell.  Nearby, Virginia Sal was struck in the head with a musket ball; Virginia Paul escaped death.  Nearly 700 Loyalists surrendered; scores fell in the battle.  The Patriots hastily buried the dead under leaves, old logs, and rocks.  It did not keep the wild boars at bay, “The hogs in the neighborhood gathered into the place to devour the flesh of men.”

The victory of the Overmountain Men served as a turning point in the South.  British General Henry Clinton summed up the battle: “[Kings Mountain] unhappily proved the first link in the chain of evils that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America.”  Despite the victory, Washington’s Immortal, Brigadier General Mordecai Gist, seems to issue an ominous warning about America’s internal politics that threatened the Revolution and morphing into what America fought against: “…if we neglect to support it [United States] with Dignity or to aim at national Glory, if we cease to sacrifice private Interests to public Good, the Blessing will corrupt at our touch and like an affectionate love, worn out by Injuries, grow into a hated Monster.”

Listen to O’Donnell discuss this on Breitbart News Daily on SiriusXM this morning:

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of ten books. Washington’s Immortals is his newest book. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. @combathistorian


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