Battle of King’s Mountain – October 7, 1780
(Illustration, Death of Major Ferguson at King’s Mountain, by Alonzo Chappel)
Darius Freeman cursed as a Tory musket ball smacked the maple beside him. Nearby, a pair of Patriots fired their long rifles, the guns’ crack lost amid the din of battle. The rifles’ smoke mixed with a hundred others on the slope, the acrid air tasting like copper on the back of his throat, the gauzy grey discharge clouds obscuring the blue autumn sky.
“Our Lord may well do that,” shouted his long-time friend Jethro Benis, “but first we must send them to him.”
As if in reply, Tory muskets thundered above them, their .75 caliber balls whipping through the branches over the men like angry hornets, showering them with cut twigs, and severed leaves.
Darius and Jethro ducked, pulling their heads down between hunched shoulders. Both were tall, rawboned men, clothed in doeskin, with moccasins covering their feet, long hunting knives belted at the waist. Each wore their hair long, tied back with leather cord. Wild beards grew from their cheeks and chin. They were mountain men, frontiersmen, from the west side of the Appalachians. Darius farmed corn and bean bushes outside the small village of Sycamore Shoals, along the bank of the Watauga River. Jethro trapped in the mountains to the east. They had mustered with hundreds more at the Shoals when asked by Isaac Shelby and John Sevier. The British had trounced Horatio Gates army at Camden, and when Lord Charles Cornwallis sent British Major Patrick Ferguson to clear out the Patriots from the remainder of the Carolinas, Darius, Jethro, and all the others mustered to protect their land, to protect their families, and to put paid to Ferguson and his army of Tory militia and Provincials.
Jethro rose from behind the boulder protecting him and aimed down the 40-inch barrel of his long rifle, resting the gun on top of the stone. One heartbeat, two heartbeats, and the rifle boomed, flames shooting at least 18 inches from the tip of the muzzle. The retort was loud, adding to the general cacophony of battle—the shouts, screams, and booming firearms almost deafening. Jethro slid to a sitting position to duck return fire as Darius turned to aim his weapon.
The Overmountain Men, as Darius and his like were called, had marched from Sycamore Shoals, south through North Carolina, and across the border of South Carolina. They had camped at Hannah’s Cowpens on the night of October 6, enduring a cold, autumn rain, and then at last cornered Ferguson and his troops on this rugged hump of ground—a hump of ground named Kings Mountain.
Darius caught a glimpse of red cloth through the trees. It was hard to be sure; overgrowth clung thickly to the sloping sides of the hill. Winter had not yet come and the trees were far from sparse, the leaves of the maples brilliant orange and yellow, the oaks an aged green, and the pine needles fresh, still damp from the previous day’s soaking. The Overmountain Men’s enemies were like them, dressed in working clothes, but most with a rag of red tied to a sleeve or stuck into a hatband.
But not like us, mused Darius. We are not murderers.
All of them heard the news back home. They spoke in hushed tones at muster. “Did you hear ‘bout Lancaster?” one man asked, drawing on his corncob pipe, referring to the village north of Charleston.
Another spat on the ground, “Called it a battle they did, the Battle of Waxhaws.”
“Twern’t no battle,” Corncob replied. “It was a massacre. Them Continentals asked for quarter. Tarleton and his men slaughtered them.” It was Corncob’s turn to spit. “Tarleton’s Quarter.”
Tarleton’s Quarter. The words flamed in Darius’s mind. Again, he caught sight of the red cloth on the crest above them, and he squeezed the trigger. His long rifle bucked, spewing smoke and flame. The wind shifted, clearing the air, and the red cloth was gone.
Darius put his back to the maple and squinted through the canopy above. He figured it was about 3:15. They had been fighting a short while. Around him, the other hundred or so of William Campbell’s men fired hard at the Tory militia on the ridge above them. Many Overmountain Men were moving towards the crest, running from tree to rock. Darius couldn’t see where any of them were hurt yet. The Tories were terrible shots, their muskets inaccurate, but you needed to watch out for their volleys. One musket wasn’t much of a problem, but two hundred were.
William Campbell’s men fought on the southern tip of the boot-shaped mountain. Across from them, Darius could catch an occasional glimpse of John Sevier’s boys, shooting at the Tories in front of them. To their left, Isaac Shelby had a group advancing up the west slope.
Darius knew that there were about a thousand Patriots advancing on the hill. Campbell had got his men started first, but Sevier and Shelby had joined in pretty quick, and from what he heard while filling his canteen, a bunch of boys under the likes of Joe McDowell and Ben Cleveland were aiming to attack the hill’s northern “toes” as soon as they could get there.
His rifle loaded, Darius turned to search for another target.
“They’re leaving us, Darius.”
Darius glanced at his friend, and Jethro motioned with his chin at the rising ground. Sure enough, Darius saw that most of Campbell’s men were further up the slope, running with a crouch toward the summit.
“Let’s go.” Darius took a step and then froze as a clap of thunder rolled across the sky. Only it wasn’t thunder. Smoke swirled on the slope, ahead of Darius several of the Overmountain Men writhed on the ground. The Tories had volley fired into the advancing Patriots. The realization no sooner struck Darius, than a war cry rose from the ridge, and British Redcoats charged down the slope, the sun glinting off their lowered bayonets. His hands grew sweaty on the rifle’s stock.
To his left a pair of men fired their long rifles at the Redcoats. Darius saw a soldier fall, but the formation advanced, a mounted officer at their fore, urging them on, blowing a silver whistle, and pointing his saber directly at Darius.
A hand pulled at Darius’s arm, and he turned, surprised to find Jethro pulling him back. Hadn’t they been advancing but a moment before? Darius’s heart beat like a drum. All around him, the Overmountain Men were running down the slope, trying to put as much distance as possible between themselves and those glinting bayonets, and without another thought, Darius ran.
Major Patrick Ferguson, formerly of the 71st Foot, commander of the Loyalist forces at Kings Mountain, glared at the retreating rifleman. Damn them to hell! Ferguson knew he could end this battle here and now if the backwoods colonists would stand and fight, but stand they would not. His Provincials’ charge had driven them from the mountain’s slopes, but now the frontiersmen melted into the woods at the mountain’s foot.
“Halt,” cried Ferguson. The sergeants yelled and bullied the Provincials about him into a line.
“Reload,” a lanky, red-coated lieutenant shouted. The Provincials responded by shaking powder in their measuring caps and pouring it in their Brown Bess musket barrels. The man next to Ferguson began to push the lead ball with his ramrod when suddenly he collapsed into the soldier behind him. Both fell, the front of the nearest man’s white smock covered in blood. Two more men flopped backward, and a sergeant screamed, a bloody flap of skin all that remained of his right ear.
Ferguson could see the woodsmen at the bottom of the slope, reformed, covering behind thick trees, firing their long rifles. Ferguson sheathed his saber and returned fire using the breech-loading rifle of his own design, but it was clear the Provincials were greatly outranged and couldn’t hope to withstand the colonists’ withering fire.
“Fall back,” Ferguson bellowed, “Back to the ridge!”
“What’s the point?” Jethro gasped. Darius slid behind a thick oak and reloaded, glancing at his winded friend as he did so. Blood seeped from a tear in Jethro’s doeskin coat. Three inches above his elbow, the ripped fabric bore mute testimony to a grazing musket ball, not serious enough to send Jethro to the rear, but aggravating, symbolic of the afternoon’s battle. Twice William Campbell’s riflemen had pushed within a dozen yards of Kings Mountain’s summit, and twice the British Redcoats had countercharged, driving them back to the bottom of the mountain. Once while catching his breath, Darius witnessed the Provincials do the same to Sevier’s boys.
Jethro was right, the skirmishing seemed futile, a stalemate. Darius drew a long breath, sucking in the smoke-laced air. His legs burned with fatigue, and the burning made him smile. He was in the best of shape, a mountain man and farmer, capable of wringing a living from this hard land. If he was tired, those Redcoats had to be exhausted. One more push might do the trick. He focused his grin on Jethro.
“I’ll tell you the point.”
Ignoring Jethro’s quizzical expression, Darius stepped from the oak’s shadow. “The point is to kill them Tories.” He pulled his rifle to his shoulder, fired, and looked back at his friend. “Now let’s do it.”
Once again, Darius started up the hill.
In front of Ferguson, the loyalist militia’s firing intensified. Once again the mountain men were coming. Less than 170 of his Provincials stood ready to fight. Those in the ranks leaned on their rifles, those with water pulled heavily from their canteens, others tended to wounds on themselves or their neighbors. The southern “heel” of the mountain roiled under gun smoke, flaming muskets flashing within the swirling gray cloud. Ferguson blew hard on his silver whistle.
“Sergeants, form the men!”
Ferguson wiped the sweat from his eyes and unsheathed his sword. If the rebels wanted another taste of the King’s steel, he would give it to them. His gaze swept the redcoats behind him, as proud of the Provincials from New York, as he had been of his Scotsmen in the 71st.
“Sergeants, forward … ” Piercing war whoops rose from the northern “toes” of the hill, drowning Ferguson’s words. Next came the popping of individual muskets, and then a moment later a ragged volley. Ferguson stood in his stirrups, craning his neck to see. Below him, the Provincials fidgeted uneasily, to their front the loyalist militia cried for help.
Through the churning smoke on the far, north end of the hill came Ferguson’s worst nightmare. Hordes of rebel militia swarmed over the crest on three sides, swamping the loyalists.
Darius heard the war whoops as clearly as Ferguson, and recognized them immediately. “It’s Mcdowell’s boys,” he yelled to no one. “They’re catching them Tories in the rear.”
Campbell’s men gave a lusty cheer, and charged the summit with renewed vigor. Beside Darius, a mountain man took a ball in the head, the impact’s force flipping him onto his back, dead before he hit the ground. Darius looked away, swallowing the bile in his throat. A group of Patriots fired their rifles in quick succession, and Darius saw several of the Tories crumble. The Overmountain Men were close to the crest now, no more than fifteen feet, and many Tories panicked, throwing down their muskets, running from the howling woodsmen. Darius’s tongue felt swollen, his throat dry as dust, but his blood thrummed through his veins, his senses capturing each instant as if it were a painting; there, a Tory bloodied and dead, a black Bible clutched to his chest. There, a rifle discharged point blank into a fleeing Tory’s back. There, a blond-bearded frontiersman offered his canteen to a wounded Redcoat.
At the crest, Darius parried a Tory’s bayonet with his rifle, and drove the butt into his face, breaking his nose, and dropping him like a rock. Next to him, Jethro fired, the ball catching a green-coated Tory in the side of the head, felling the man like a tree. Darius stopped to reload, his eyes sweeping the chaos in front of him. Most of the Tory’s ran, some dropped their rifles and stood still; others kneeled, screaming for mercy. The smoke parted, revealing a knot of Redcoats and Tory militia who still resisted, led by the sword-bearing British officer.
Several Patriot rifles cracked and the officer jumped as if stung by a bee. An instant latter he slid from his white stallion, landing hard on his back. Darius aimed at the supine figure, but the smoke hid the officer before he could fire.
“Quarter, give us quarter!” The fight was gone from the Tories now. Everywhere the Overmountain Men poured onto the hilltop. The Tories pleaded for mercy.
“They’re more of them up yonder,” a near-toothless woodsman yelled as he ran past. Darius followed, heading to the mountain’s northern summit. Sure enough, the toothless man was right. Hundreds stood surrounded by Overmountain Men. Redcoats and Tories alike, their enemy stood with their hands in the air or begged on bended knee for their life.
Darius lowered his rifle until the ball sights rested on a pleading Redcoat. “Tarleton’s Quarter,” Darius whispered, and he pulled the trigger.
The Battle of Kings Mountain was short. Approximately a thousand Overmountain Men from Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina fought a similar number of Tory militia and red-coated Provincials, defeating them in a little over an hour on the afternoon of October 7, 1780.
Colonel William Campbell led the Overmountain Men, although the men tended to follow the leader that recruited them, be it Campbell, Shelby, Mcdowell, or whoever, into battle. Ferguson commanded the Tories, the only British soldier on Kings Mountain.
The Tories set their defenses on the boot-shaped mountain’s edge. The Overmountain Men’s plan was simple: surround and overwhelm the Tories, and that’s what they did. Loose groupings of Overmountain Men from the same locale would advance up the slopes, the frontiersmen’s long rifle taking a terrible toll on the loyalists above.
Ferguson would organize a charge with the Provincials, and force the woodsmen back down the slope. This worked three times on the mountain’s southern slopes, but then several more contingents of Overmountain Men simultaneously attacked the northern face, and the Tory defenses were overwhelmed.
Brutality characterized the Revolutionary War in the south. In fact, it was a civil war, Tory against Patriot, and bloody reprisals, hangings, rape, and murder were commonplace. After the Tories broke and Ferguson died, the Overmountain Men slaughtered dozens of surrendering loyalists in retribution for Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s massacre of Continental soldiers at the Battle of Waxhaws, before Campbell and Sevier regained control.
Darius Freeman and Jethro Benis are typical, but fictitious Overmountain Men. I drew the characters from my imagination, loads of research, and thirteen years of experience living among their descendants. I also took a bit of poetic license with Major Ferguson’s death. Most historians place his wounding and subsequent death at the north end of the mountain. Darius appears to witness it just north of the southern crest.
This is the fourth of four articles about Southern battles of the American Revolution written exclusively for ArmchairGeneral.com by Mark H. Walker. Click here to read Guilford Courthouse, Cowpens, and Camden.
About the Author
Mark H. Walker is a former US Naval Officer, the author of 41 nonfiction books and three novels. He is a games editor for Armchair General magazine. He founded the award-winning game company Lock ‘n’ Load Publishing; among its publications is Flintlock, Black Powder, Cold Steel—Vol. 1: Carolina Rebels, reviewed by ArmchairGeneral.com in October 2009.