In the fall of 1780, it looked like the Patriots had all but lost the American Revolution.
The British seemed unstoppable. Back in May, an army led by Henry Clinton and Charles, Earl Cornwallis had conquered Charleston and captured over 5,000 American soldiers and sailors – the largest haul of American prisoners in the entire war. Then in August they destroyed the “Grand” Army led by General Horatio “Granny” Gates at the Battle of Camden. The Crown was on a roll. The string of Patriot defeats led to the serious possibility that France would recall its troops and end its crucial funding of the war. Even Russia meddled in our affairs, and, along with Austria, proposed a peace conference to find a “political solution” to hostilities.
“Reconciliationists” in Congress had begun calling for talks with Great Britain. Loyalists, in America during the eighteenth century, turned out in droves to support the British. American morale plummeted to a new low, and many believed the war would come to an end with some sort of accommodation rather than complete independence. British victory seemed certain.
But a certain group of Americans from Appalachia weren’t having it. On a cold day in October 1780, they took matters into their own hands on Kings Mountain in South Carolina.
Listen to Patrick K. O’Donnell discuss this on Breitbart News Daily on SiriusXM:
The story of their epic fight is recounted in Washington’s Immortals, a bestselling book released in paperback this week. The first Band-of-Brothers treatment of the Revolution, it captures key events of the war from the point of view of Washington’s elite fighters.
Pundits say that our country is divided today, but it’s nothing compared to the deep hatred that burned in South Carolina’s Loyalists during the Revolution. In many ways, it was the nation’s first civil war. Bitter violence, including hangings and burnings, became common. The string of British victories had emboldened those on the Loyalist side, and confident of success, they flocked to sign up for the Tory militia. Many of them joined a unit led by Scottish-born Lt. Col. Patrick Ferguson.
At the time, Cornwallis believed that rabble-rousers coming across the border from Northern Carolina were causing much of the violence in South Carolina. He planned to march from Camden, South Carolina, to Charlotte, North Carolina with an army of 2,200 men, stamping out insurgents along the way. Ferguson and his Loyalist militia played a key role in the attack, forming the left wing of the invasion.
Feeling confident in victory, Ferguson boldly proclaimed, “If they [the Patriots] 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 also appealed to the Loyalists of North Carolina, issuing a call to arms:
Gentlemen: unless you wish to be eat up by an inundation of barbarians, who have begun by murdering an unarmed son before his aged father, and afterwards lopped off his arms, and who by their shocking cruelties and irregularities, give the best proof of their cowardice and want of discipline; I say, if you wish to be pinioned, robbed, and murdered, and see your wives and daughters, in four days, abused by the dregs of mankind—in short, if you wish or deserve to live, and bear the name of men, grasp your arms in a moment and run to camp. . . . If you choose to be pissed upon by a set of mongrels, say so at once, and let your women turn their backs upon you, and look out for real men to protect them.
Ferguson’s words didn’t do much to rally support, but they thoroughly pissed off a group of Americans known as the Overmountain Men.
These rugged, independent Americans (today you might call them “hillbillies”) 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, this mixture of Scottish and Irish immigrants (along with a few Germans and Welsh) inhabited what is today the extreme northeast corner of Tennessee.
True pioneers, they had been hardened by years of living on the frontier. Every day they fought for their survival against both the elements and the Indians in the area. That hard living had shaped the men’s bodies, making them seem truly intimidating. “[They] appeared like so many devils from the infernal regions, so full of excitement were they as they darted like enraged mountains up the mountain. . . . 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 were never before seen in the Carolinas.”
The Patriots fighting that day included James Potter Collins, a seventeen-year-old whose family had been terrorized by Loyalists. He recalled, “I was often employed by the Whig leaders, and particularly by Colonel Moffet to carry and fetch news – Confidence was placed in me. I was a good rider, and knew the byways through the woods, by which I was able to elude the vigilance of the Tories, who were always on the watch.”
If the battle went badly, Collins knew he faced very real danger. “It became known to the Tories how I was employed, and a mark was set on me,” he said. “If I had fallen into their hands I have no doubt I should have been killed.”
Despite being only a teenager, Collins was determined to do his part. “Young as I then was, my father thought it prudent that I should enter the service he was in. This service was what was called minute men. We armed ourselves, and generally marched on horseback. We furnished our own equipment: We got swords, butcher knives, and war spurs made by the blacksmiths.”
Ferguson had chosen the position for his men well. They took the high ground on a steep, rugged ridge of Kings Mountain. The Overmountain Men’s only hope of success was to surround them and attack from all sides. But that would expose many of them, particularly those on the left flank, to direct fire from the enemy.
It was a perilous operation. The men knew it, and they didn’t care.
Collins remembered, “Each leader made a short speech in his own way to his men, desiring every coward to be off immediately; here I confess I would willingly have been excused, for my feelings were not the most pleasant.—this may be attributed to my youth, not being quite seventeen years of age—but I could not well swallow the appellation of coward. I looked around; every man’s countenance seemed to change; well, thought I, fate is fate, every man’s fate is before him and he has to run it out. . . .”
The day seemed ominous. “The sky was overcast with clouds, and at times a light mist was falling,” Collins recalled. “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.”
Just before they began the assault, this army of mountain-born warriors received their general orders: “Fresh prime your guns, and every man go into battle firmly resolving to fight till he dies.”
Using skills honed from their years of hunting and fighting in the woods, about 900 Overmountain Men silently moved toward their positions around the mountain. At the top, 1,125 men waited for them — mostly Loyalists with the only British national being Major Patrick Ferguson.
The attack began with blood-curdling shouts. “The orders were at the firing of the first gun for every man to raise a whoop, rush forward, and fight his way as best he could,” Collins recounted. “We were soon in motion, every man throwing four or five balls in his mouth to prevent thirst—and also to be in readiness to “reload quick.” Dodging trees and scrambling over boulders, the Patriots weaved their way up the mountain.
Seeing the horde of screaming mountain men charging toward him, Ferguson foolishly ordered his men to form up battle lines rather than entrenching. They began to fire to little avail. Collins recalled, “Their great elevation above us proved their ruin: they overshot us altogether, scarce touching a man except those on horseback, while every rifle from below seemed to have the desired effect.”
Still, the Loyalists managed to repel Collins and his group twice. But as they charged for a third time, the Loyalists’ ranks began to melt away. Atop his white charger, Ferguson frantically rode from one end of the line to the other, waving his sword and encouraging his men to hold. Despite his cries, the Tory militia began to raise white flags and cry for quarter. Sensing victory, the Patriot officers roared, “Hurrah, my brave fellows! Advance!”
Bitter from a previous defeat where the British had refused to take prisoners and instead slaughtered the Americans, many of the Overmountain Men chose not to accept the surrender. They continued to fire into the enemy lines. Several of the officers attempted to intercede and, knocking guns upward, shouted, “Don’t shoot! It is murder to kill them now for they have raised the flag!
“Cease firing! For God’s sake, cease firing!”
Collins recalled the carnage: “The poor Tories appeared to be really pitiful; the dead lay in heaps on all sides, and the groans of the wounded were heard in every direction.”
Ferguson himself had also fallen. “It appeared that almost fifty rifles must have leveled at him at the same time; seven balls had passed through his body; both his arms were broken and his hat and clothing were literally shot to pieces.” One of his mistresses, a beautiful redhead who had accompanied him to battle, shared his fate.
Eventually, the Overmountain Men did stop shooting. According to reports, they captured 698 prisoners after killing 157 and badly wounding 163.
The next morning, a Sunday, the families of the dead came to claim the bodies of the fallen. “The scene became really distressing,” Collins recalled. “The wives and children of the poor Tories came in, in great numbers; their husbands, fathers, and brothers lay in great heaps while others lay wounded or dying.”
The families quickly buried their loved ones, but not deeply enough to keep them safe from animals. “The hogs in the neighborhood gathered into the place to devour the flesh of men,” Collins said. “Half the dogs in the country were said to be mad and were put to death.” Weeks later the carnage was still visible as “all parts of the human frame lay scattered in every direction.”
The grisly victory of the Overmountain Men served as a turning point in the South. The colonists now saw the “invincible” British as vulnerable to defeat. 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.” Grit and resilience, from a very tough core of Americans, changed the course of the Revolution.
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, which has just been released as a soft cover and has been named one of the 100 Best American Revolution Books of All Time by the Journal of the American Revolution. 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. PatrickkODonnell.com @combathistorian