DIARY OF Captain Alexander CHESNEY
Excerpted from King's Mountain Battle, as Seen by a British Officer,
by Samuel G. Williams, TENNESSEE HISTORICAL MAGAZINE, Apr 1921*
9 AUG 1780 - 11 OCT 1780
On 9th of August I was appointed Capt. and Assistant Adjutant General to the different battalions under Col. FERGUSON; and same day we attacked the enemy at the Iron Works (1) and defeated them with little trouble to ourselves and with a good deal of loss to the Americans in whose hands I found some of our men prisoners whom I released.
12th. Our next route was down towards the Fishing Ford on the Broad river, where there was a fight near the mouth of Brown's creek with NEALE's Militia (2) where we made many prisoners, among the rest Ensaw Smith who had so recently taken me. After this we crossed that river, and formed a junction with the troops under command of Colonel TURNBULL and the Militia under Colonel PHILLIPS, and having received authentic accounts that SUMPTER had cut off our retreat to Lord CORNWALLIS Army at Camden, we had in contemplation to cross Broad river and retreat to Charleston. At this time the half-way-men left us. (3)
Augst. 16. We then marched to Col. WINNS, a Rebel, and encamped there waiting for more authentic accounts. On the 16th we heard heavy firing towards Camden which kept us in the utmost anxiety until the 18th, when a letter was received from Capt. ROSS, Aid-de camp of Lord Cornwallis, informing us that his Lordship had attacked and defeated General GATES Army; had taken or killed 200 men, 18 ammunition wagons, and 350 wagons with provisions and other stores. This news made us as happy as we could possibly be, until the next night (19) when we received an express that the Rebels had defeated Col. ENNIS at Enoree. This occasioned a march that way. The main body having crossed the Enoree, I was left behind in command of the rear guard until the main body recrossed to our support. The Americans retreated after some loss.
We encamped for some time in the neighborhood of Enoree and then marched up to Fair Forest. Some particular business having called Colonel FERGUSON to Camden, Captain DEPEYSTER (4) who succeeded him in Command marched us to the Iron Works, and Sep. 1, I received leave to see my home and family, whither I went for about two hours, and sent orders to those who so shamefully abandoned us some time ago to join us at the Iron Works, in order to do three months duty in or on the border of North Carolina and returned to the camp that night.
We continued some time at the Iron Works and whilst there a party of loyalists with whom I was, defeated Colonel BRANDON, destroyed some of his party and scattered the rest. I was present also at a small affair at Fair Forest, the particulars of which as well as the numerous other skirmishes having escaped my memory; scarcely a day passed without some fighting.
Colonel FERGUSON having resumed his command and finding himself pretty strong he marched us to North Carolina line and encamped.
A dissatisfaction prevailed at this moment among the Militia founded on Gen. CLINTON's hand bill which required every man having but three children, and every single man to do six months duty out of their own province when required. This appeared like compulsion, instead of acting voluntarily as they conceived doing; consequently they were ready to give up the cause; but owing to the exertions of the Officers, a great part which I attribute to myself, the tumult was happily appeased, and the same night in Sep. we marched with all the horses and some foot past Gilbert town towards Col. GRIMES, who was raising a body of rebels to oppose us, whom we succeeded in dispersing, taking many prisoners; and the foot at Gilbert's town and encamped there for some time; sending away the old men to their houses, and several officers to raise men to supply their places and strengthen us. Col. FERGUSON soon afterwards got intelligence that Col. MCDOLE [McDOWELL] was encamped on Cane and Silver Creeks, on which we marched toward the enemy, crossed the winding creek 23 times found the rebels strongly posted toward the head of it toward the mountain. We attacked them instantly, and after a determined resistance defeated them, and made many prisoners. The rest fled towards Turkey Cove in order to cross the mountains and get to the Holston settlements.
On this occasion I commanded a division and took the person prisoner, who was the keeper of the records of the county which I sent to my fathers as a place of safety. We then fortified Coll. WALKER's house as a protection to the wounded, and proceeded in pursuit of the rebels to the mountains on Cataba river, sending out detachments to search the country and caves. (5)
A fight happened in the neighborhood between a detachment of ours and the Americans who were posted on a broken hill not accessible to horses, which obliged us to dismount,and leave our horses behind. Whilst employed in dislodging the Americans, another party of them got around and took all the horses, mine among the rest; but it was returned by the person who was my prisoner in the last affairs; about a week before he was released, as was usual at this time with prisoners.
Octr. At this period the North Carolina men joined us fast. Our spies returned from beyond the mountains with intelligence that the rebels were embodying rapidly. Other spies brought us word that Col. CLARKE had taken Fort Augusta with its stores, etc., on which we marched toward White Oak and Green River to intercept him on his return from Georgia. Col. FERGUSON detached the horse in three divisions, one under my command to proceed along the Indian line until I could make out CLARKE's route, and join Captain TAYLOR at Bailey Earle Fort. I proceeded as far as Tyger river and there learning that CLARKE had gone up the banks of bushy fork of Seluda [Saluda] river, I took six of the best mounted men and got on his track until I overtook the main body and one of the enemy prisoners in view of it, whom I carried to Col. FERGUSON who thus obtained the information wanted.
Oct. 4th. Our spies from Holston, as well as some left at the Gap of the mountain brought us word that the rebel force amounted to 3,000 men; on which we retreated along the north side of the Broad river, and sent the wagons along the south side as far as the Cherokee ford, where they joined us. We marched to King's Mountain and there camped with a view of approaching Lord Cornwallis army and receiving support. By Col. FERGUSON's orders I sent express to the Militia officers to join us here, but we were attacked (Oct 7th) before any support arrived by 1500 picked men from Gilbert town under command of Cols. CLEVELAND, SHELBY, and Campbell, all of whom were armed with rifles, well mounted, and of course could move with the utmost celerity. So rapid was the attack that I was in the act of dismounting to report that all was quiet and the pickets on the alert when we heard their firing about a half mile off. I immediately paraded the men and posted officers. During this short interval I received a wound which however did not prevent me from doing my duty; and going towards my horse I found he had been killed by the first discharge.
King's Mountain from its height would have enabled us to oppose a superior force with advantage had it not been covered with wood which sheltered the Americans and enabled them to fight in their favorite manner. In fact after driving in our pickets, they were able to advance in three divisions under separate leaders to the crest of the hill in perfect safety until they took post and opened an irregular but destructive fire from behind trees and other cover. Col. CLEVELAND was first perceived and repulsed by a charge led by Col. FERGUSON. Col. SHELBY next, and met a similar fate, being driven down the hill, last by Col. Campbell, and by desire of Col. FERGUSON I presented a different front which opposed it with success. By this time the Americans who had been repulsed regained their position, and sheltered by the trees poured in a destructive fire. In this manner the engagement was maintained an hour, the mountaineers flying when in danger from a bayonet charge,and returned as soon as the British faced about to repel another of their party. Col. FERGUSON was at last recognized by his gallantry, although wearing a hunting shirt and fell pierced by seven balls, at the moment he had killed the American Col. WILLIAMS with his left hand (6)
I had just rallied the troops a second time by FERGUSON's orders when Captain DEPEYSTER succeeded to command after gave up and sent out a flag of truce, but as the Americans resumed firing, afterwards ours renewed under the supposition that they would not give quarter. And a dreadful havoc took place until the flag was sent out the second time when the work of destruction ceased. (7) The Americans surrounded us with double line, and we grounded arms, with the loss of one third of our numbers. I was wounded in the first fire, but was so much occupied that I scarce noticed until the action was over. We passed the night where we surrendered amidst the dead and the groans of dying, who had not surgical aid or water to quench their thirst. Early next morning we marched at rapid pace towards Gilbert town between double lines of Americans, the officers in the rear and obliged to carry two rifles each, which was my fate although wounded and stripped of my shoes and buckles in an inclement weather without cover or provision until Monday night when each was served with an ear of corn. At Gilbert town a mock tryal was held and 24 sentenced to death, 10 of whom suffered before the approach of Tarleton's force obliged them to move towards the Yadkin, cutting and striking us by the road in a savage manner. (8) Col. CLEVELAND then (Oct 11th) offered to enlarge me on condition that I would teach his regiment one month the exercise practiced by Col. FERGUSON (9) , which I refused, although he swore I would suffer death at the Moravian town. Luckily his threat was not put to the test as I had the good fortune to make my escape one evening when close to that place.
1 Williams identifies the Iron Works as Wofford's Iron works.
2 Williams identifies NEALE of "Neale's Militia" as Capt. William NEALE who was at King's Mountain.
3 Half-way men" was the term for those not hearty in the [British] cause (Williams)
4 Capt. J.W. DEPEYSTER was FERGUSON's 1st Captain and Capt. CHESNEY his 2nd (White).
5 Williams adds that This was the time Col. FERGUSON sent Col. SHELBY's nephew, Samuel PHILIPS, one of the prisoners taken in this raid, over the mountain to tell them if they did not come over and join him, he would come and hang them. (Note: Col. SHELBY later referred to Samuel PHILLIPS as a distant kinsman, thus apparently not his nephew.)
6 Col. James WILLIAMS of South Carolina. FERGUSON's right arm had been injured at the Battle of Brandywine, and since rendered nearly useless (Alderman, p. 116).
7 That the Americans continued to shoot after the white flag was raised the first time is confirmed by Patriot (Rebel) soldiers as well as Royalists, despite the statement in the formal report of Cols. CAMPBELL, CLEVELAND and SHELBY that firing ceased immediately. See for example
8 The formal report makes no mention of this "mock tryall," but Benjamin Sharp's Report refers to a "court" (also referred to as a "court martial" by some) that found "upwards of forty" Tories (American Loyalists) guilty of certain "murders, robberies, house-burning, &c.," stating that these were sentenced to hang, and that "nine of the most atrocious offenders were executed that night by fire-light, the rest reprieved by the commanding officer [unnamed]." Royalist Lt. Allaire's Diary also states nine were hung.
9 The training wanted by Col. Benjamin Cleveland for his men may have had to do with the English loading techniques; i.e., Draper states "When the Provincials and Loyalists charged the Americans down the mountain, they weem to have reserved their fire till the termination of their pursuit; and having discharged their rifles, they retreated with great precision, reloading as they retraced their stepsas they had learned very skillfully to do by the example and instructions of Ferguson; but while they were thus deliberately retiring, the sharp-sighted riflemen below them, taking deadly aim, would pick them off at every moment."
Communicated verbally, in July 1842, by Samuel HANDLEY, of Pontotoc, Miss., as derived from his father, Captain Samuel Handley, Sr., who served in Sevier's regiment at King's Mountain." (p. 279)
* Copied by Mr. Williams from the manuscript, which is lodged with the British Museum. Reprinted in part in 1924 (Dayton, Virginia) in The King's Mountain Men by Katherine Keogh White, who states that the remainder of the diary deals with Capt. Chesney's hardships until finally reaching Charleston, "where his British officers saw that he had a home of comfort for his wife and child, while he continued in service under Lord Rawdon in and about South Carolina." She adds that after the surrender of Cornwallis, Capt. Chesney sailed for England.