King's Mountain
Prisoners of War
"... we have lost by the folly, not to say anything worse, of those who had them in charge upwards of 600 men..." —General Nathanel Green to General George Washington, 7 Dec 1780

King's Mountain Prisoners of War
by C. Hammett, Coordinator
Combs &c. Research Group and Tennesseans in the Revolutionary War

The Whig Militiamen had taken prisoner over 700 of the enemy on 7 Oct 1780 at the Battle of King's Mountain (1), but by the time they arrived at Bethabara on the 24th, they had no more than 300 prisoners (2). By early December, they were down to only 130 prisoners and by 6 Jan 1781, they had only sixty men left.

The Continental army generals initially had no inkling of this situation. As is shown by the correspondence that follows, they considered the capture of such a large contingent of British and Tory soldiers as important as the victory itself as it would give them a much-needed upper hand in negotiating an exchange of prisoners with the British.

A number of factors contributed to the rapidly diminishing numbers of prisoners, not the least of which was that almost all of them were Americans. Col. Ferguson may, in fact, have been the only English officer among them, with many of the Tory militiamen friends, relatives and neighbors of the Whigs who may have been conscripted or otherwise "strong-armed" into joining Ferguson's army. (3)

Some of the “missing” prisoners may have been among the scores of wounded left behind when they began their march to Gilbert Town, others were paroled almost immediately (4), and many others escaped or died on the march. Nine Tory officers were hung by the militia at Gilbert Town on the 14th (out of 30-40 who were “convicted” in a quasi-legal “trial”), and several more thereafter, surely an incentive to others to try to escape, possibly the reason for the one hundred escapees during the march the following day and night to Quaker meadows. (5)

Yet more prisoners escaped from Gilbert Town, and then from Bethabara , where, according to Moravian accounts, there were never more than 300 prisoners, fifty of whom were Ferguson's Provincial Loyalists, who, despite large numbers of Tory militia desertions, still had five hundred Whig militia left to guard them. (6)

That the Continental generals were initially unaware of these events is evidenced by several letters, including at least one in which General Gates, then commander of the Southern campaign, was very specific as to both the importance and handling of the prisoners. On 10 Oct 1780, General W. L. Davidson wrote from Camp Rocky River to General Sumner:
“Sir: I have the pleasure of sending you very agreeable intelligence from the West. Ferguson, the great partisan, has miscarried. This we are assured of by Mr. Tate, Brigade Major in Gen. Sumter's late command. The particulars from that gentleman's mouth stand thus: That Cols. Campbell, Cleveland, Shelby, Sevier, Williams, Brandon, Lacey, etc., formed a conjunct body near Gilbert Town, consisting of three thousand. From this body were selected sixteen hundred good horse, who immediately went in pursuit of Col. Ferguson, who was making his way to Charlotte. Our people overtook him well posted on King's Mountain, and on the evening of the seventh inst., at four o'clock, began the attack, which continued forty-seven minutes. Col. Ferguson fell in the action, besides one hundred and fifty of his men; eight hundred and ten were made prisoners, including the British, one hundred and fifty of prisoners are wounded. Fifteen hundred stand of arms fell into our hands. Col. Ferguson had about fourteen hundred men. Our people surrounded them, and the enemy surrendered.

“We lost about twenty men, among whom is Maj. Chronicle, of Lincoln County; Col. Williams is mortally wounded. The number of our wounded cannot be ascertained. This blow will certainly effect the British very considerably. The Brigade Major who gives this, was in the action. The above is true. I give you joy upon the occasion.” (7)
General Sumner, at Yadkin Ford, then forwarded the above letter to General Horatio Gates (8) the evening of October 10th. General Gates received it on the 12th at Hillsboro, whereupon he immediately wrote both Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson and the Whig Militia Colonels. In his letter to Jefferson, Gates wrote:
“Sir: This instant I received the great and glorious news contained in the enclosed letter from Brig.-Gen. Davidson to Gen. Sumner, who directly dispatched it to me by express. We are now more than even with the enemy. The moment the supplies for the troops arrive from Taylor's Ferry, I shall proceed with the whole to the Yadkin. Gen. Smallwood and Col. Morgan are on their way to that post; the latter, with the Light Infantry, was yesterday advanced eighteen miles beyond Guilford Court House; the former, with the cavalry, lay last night thirteen miles on this side that place. I desire your Excellency will dispatch copies of all the letters I now send to the President of Congress.” (9)
General Gates' letter to the Whig Colonels included specific instructions regarding the disposal of the prisoners:
“To the officers commanding in the late defeat of Maj. Ferguson:

“Sirs: I received, this morning early, the very agreeable account of your victory over Maj. Ferguson. It gave me, and every friend to liberty, and the United States, infinite satisfaction.

“I thank you, gentlemen, and the brave officers and soldiers under your command, for your and their glorious behavior in that action. The records of the war will transmit your names and theirs to posterity, with the highest honor and applause. I desire you will acquaint them with the sense I entertain of the great service they have done their country. I have, this morning, by a special messenger, transmitted intelligence of it to Congress.

I am now only anxious about the disposal of the prisoners, as they must be ready to use in exchange for our valuable citizens in the enemy's hands. Send them under proper guards to Fincastle Court House, Virginia. I will desire the Colonel of that County to have a strong palisade, eighteen feet high out of the ground, instantly set up, within which log huts may be built to cover them. The guard must be without, and the loop-holes eight feet from the ground. Provisions, etc., shall be ordered to be provided for them.” (10)
On 11 Nov 1780, Col. Martin Armstrong wrote to General Gates, commander of the Southern campaign, and noted that sixteen Tory soldiers had succeeded in getting away from the guard at Bethabara (11), and Draper writes that “Prior to the seventh of November, one hundred and eighty-eight, who were inhabitants of the western country of North Carolina, were taken out of Colonel Armstrong's charge by the civil authorities, and bound over (12), inferentially for their appearance at court, or for their good behavior; some were dismissed, some paroled, but most of them enlisted--some in the three months' militia service, others in the North Carolina Continentals, and others still in the ten months' men under Sumter.”

Draper adds that “So evident was it to General Gates, that neither the military nor civil officers of North Carolina had any authority over these prisoners, many of whom had been almost constantly in arms against their country since the surrender of Charleston, that he remonstrated with the State Board of War at Salisbury; and Colonel Armstrong was made to answer for the injury thus done to the American cause," adding that the remaining prisoners were then "marched under a strong guard to Hillsboro.” (13)

Based on other correspondence, however, it appears that General Gates displeasure commenced earlier than Draper realized. On Monday, 30 Oct 1780, General Gates wrote from Hillsborough to the North Carolina War Board: “General Gates acknowledges the receipt of the Note from the Board of War. He denies their having the Power to direct the military operations of the Militia of this State, and will put any Militia officer under arrest who is in contempt of or opposition to his orders... ” (14)

The following day, General Gates wrote to “Col. Benjamin Cleaveland [sic] or officer command” at Salisbury. “Dear Sir. I desire you will march as soon as convenient - out after the Receipt of this Letter, with the whole of your command, and all the Prisoners of War under your Care for Fincastle Court House when others have been sent to provide for you and the prisoners(?)... Colonel Campbell, who does me the favor to deliver you this letter, will acquaint you with any further particulars... By the time you reach Fincastle Court House, Colonel Preston I hope will have received the directions of the Executive Council relative to the security and maintenance of the prisoners and the necessary guard that's to abide with them. I am &c. HG.” (ibid., No. 140)

According to the diary of Loyalist Lieutenant Anthony Allaire, on November 1st (following alleged ill-treatment by Cleveland of New Jersey Provincial Loyalist Dr. Uzel Johnson), Col. Benjamin Cleveland was relieved of his command by Col. Armstrong. Draper notes that Colonel Martin Armstrong was Cleveland's superior in rank, as well as the local commandant of Surry County, where the troops and prisoners then were, but does not offer an explanation for this turn of events, but it would appear from both this correspondence and the above statements by Draper that Col. Martin Armstrong, acting in his capacity as a county official, was claiming authority over the prisoners.

In the meantime, General Gates is also experiencing difficulties in respect to relocating the prisoners to Virginia (see Draper and Thomas Jefferson papers), and is becoming increasingly frustrated; i.e., on 1 Nov 1780, by which time it is clear that disposal of the prisoners has become a political football, Gates writes Jefferson that “... Upon reconsidering the difficulties of properly disposing of the Prisoners taken by Col. Campbell, he is of Opinion with me, that it will be better for him to go by Richmond house [the Virginia State house], and take the orders of the Executive upon the Subject," and adds "I beg Sir what can with safety be spared from Virginia, may be sent forward to Hillsborough...” (ibid., No. 192) On November third, Gates again writes the North Carolina War Board, again experessing his concerns that “if the prisoners are left at large” numerous will get off and our “Friends in captivity will remain without hope of Exchange...“ (ibid., No. 193)

Finally, on the 16th of November, General Gates writes from Salisbury to “Colonel Martin Armstrong, Surry County, North Carolina,” stating that “Major [John] Armstrong delivered me your Letter dated the 7th from Surry County. Your conduct is so contrary to proper Orders and the Disposal of the prisoners of War committed to your care - so Oposite to your Duty that I must insist you come immediately to Salisbury to answer for the injury done this country in the ... Disposal of these Prisoners of War. I am Sir your humble servant. HG” (ibid., No. 160) He simultaneously wrote “To the officer who is to take Charge of the British Prisoners in Surry County,” directing that “The British Officers taken on Kings Mountain are to be immediately put under your care and conducted to Hillsborough. They are to be delivered to the commanding Officer there. The British NonComd. Officers & Soldiers are to be ... under a proper Guard, and well secured by night, as well as by Day. They too are to be delivered to the commanding Officer at Hillsborough who will order them to be confined until he receives further orders. I am &c. HG“ (ibid., No. 161). A third letter from Gates was directed to “Capt. A. Depeyster Prisoner of War,” this being Abraham DePeyster, the senior Loyalist officer, directing him and the remaining “Comd Officers now with you” to “immediately go with the bearer. to Hillsboro. The commanding officer shall have my orders to grant you ev. reasonable indulgence but the conduct of those Gentlemen who have so shamefully broke their Parole ... you and your men under the stronger obligation to abide by yours...” (15).

Finally, on November 20th, Congress stepped in, passing a resolution directing that Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson take charge of the prisoners:
Journals Continenetal Congress--Monday, November 20, 1780. “Resolved, That it be recommended to the governor of Virginia, to cause the prisoners taken at King's Mountain to be secured in such manner and at such places as he may judge proper:

“That a list of the names of the tory prisoners be taken, distinguishing the states, county, or district, to which they severally belong, and transmitted to the executive of their several states, who are requested take order respecting such as ought not to be pardoned and that the commanding officer in the southern department take order respecting the remainder to take such order respecting them, as the public security and the laws of the respective states may require.” (16)
So far as is known, the Tory list was never prepared and submitted, but in the meantime, General Nathanael Greene arrived in North Carolina, having just assumed command of the Southern Campaign from General Gates, on 7 Dec 1780, two months to the day after the battle of King's Mountain, wrote General George Washington from Hillsboro:
“..All the prisoners taken by Colonel Campbell have been dismissed, paroled and enlisted in the Militia Service for three months except about 130. Thus we have lost by the folly, not to say anything worse, of those who had them in charge upwards of 600 men. I am told Lord Cornwallis has lately made a proposition to General Smallwood for exchanging all the prisoners in North and South Carolina. If it is upon terms that are just and equal, I shall avail myself of it for a great number of prisoners is a heavy weight upon our hands...” (17)
On 7 Jan 1781, Colonel Henry Lee wrote to General Wayne, “The North Carolina government has in a great degree baffled the fruits of that victory [King's Mountain]. The Tories captured were enlisted into the militia or draft service, and have all rejoined the British; I heard General Greene say, yesterday, that his last return made out sixty in jail, and his intelligence from the enemy declares that two hundred of them were actually in arms against us.” (18)

Despite the “missing” prisoners of war, on 22 Mar 1781, General Washington wrote from his Headquarters at New Windsor to Thomas Sim Lee:
“Sir: Your Excellency's favor of the 18th ulto. came to Head Quarters during my visit to Count de Rochambeau at Newport from whence I only returned two days ago. You may be assured that every attention shall be paid to the Exchange of Colo. Marbury in his due turn, more than that I cannot promise without deviating from a rule of conduct which I myself had ever observed and which has lately been confirmed by an order of Congress. I have however the pleasure to learn that Colo. Marbury* is admitted to parole and as he is, I believe, the oldest Officer of his rank unexchanged, I hope his final release will ere long be accomplished. I do not know what Officers were taken at Kings Mountain or in any part of the southern Quarter, but should a general exchange take place, due consideration will be had to the remaining prisoners at New York. I am etc. GW” (19)
This letter raises the question of how widely known the facts were in regard to the “missing men.” One would think that Lord Cornwallis was receiving reports from the erstwhile prisoners who had allegedly returned to fight another day—assuming any other than officers did, and perhaps not even all of them?


1 Formal Report of the Whig Militia Colonels to General Horatio Gates

2 Reichel's Moravians in North Carolina, pp. 92-93, King's Mountain and Its Heroes: History of the Battle of King's Mountain, October 7th, 1780, and the Events Which Led to It by Lyman C. Draper, hereinafter Draper, Cincinnati, 1881, p. 359

3 Col. Ferguson's forces included both American Provincial (Loyalist) regiments, and Tory militia. Some of these men were English-born, but most (perhaps all) had resided in the Colonies well prior to the onset of the Revolution. Some of the members of the Provincial regiments were from the south, others from the north, but all of the Tory militia men were "locals"—with a wide variance in the degree of loyalty each had for the British. See also Kings Mountain: History Revisited.

4 Manuscript, parole of Dennis McDuff by Captain George Ledbetter, October 9th, 1780, preserved by Hon. W. P. Bynum, Draper, pp. 358-9

5 Diary of Tory Lieut. Allaire

6 Reichel's Moravians in North Carolina, pp. 92-93, Draper, p. 359.

7 Draper, Page 521.

7 Gates Papers, New York Historical Society, Draper, p. 359

8 General Horatio Gates was the Commander of the Southern Campaign, and considered responsible by many (including his "rival" Washington) for the losses at Charlotte and Camden earlier that year. Unbeknownst to Gates, he had been a "lame duck" commander since 5 Oct 1780 when Congress directed that Washington conduct an inquiry of his conduct, and authorized him to appoint a replacement for Gates in the meantime. Washington wrote General Nathanel Green on 14 Oct 1780 (The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697-1799) of this turn of events and appointed Green to the position, but did not write Gates until 22 October (ibid.), a letter that Gates did not receive until 6 Dec 1780 according to a letter dated 26 Dec 1780 that Gates wrote to Samuel Huntington, President of the Continental Congress. (Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 2. Horatio Gates Letterbook Correspondence. 1780-81, American Memories Collection, Library of Congress).

9 Draper, p. 529

10 ibid., p. 522

11 Colonel Armstrong Letter to Gen. Gates, November 7th and 11th, 1780, ibid., p. 529

13 Burk's History of Virginia, iv, 410

14 Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 2. Horatio Gates Letterbook Correspondence. 1780-81, American Memories Collection, Library of Congress, No. 139.

15 ibid., No. 162. Major John Armstrong was no known relation to Col. Martin Armstrong, being from Pennsylvania, and an Aide to General Gates (Congressional Journals). Gates' warning to Capt. DePeyster (who, like Lt. Allaire, was a New York Loyalist), was due to so many others of the Loyalist officers already having violated the terms of their parole (escaped), something that was simply not done by “an officer and a gentleman.”

16 Papers of the Continental Congress, No. 20, II, folio 257, American Memories Collection, Library of Congress

17 George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4, General, Correspondence, 1697-1799, American Memories Collection

18 Life of Gen. Henry Lee, by R. E. Lee, perfixed to Lee's Memoirs, revised edition, 1872, p. 33.

19 George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4, General, Correspondence, 1697-1799, American Memories Collection. Col. Luke Marbury, Maryland Militia, had been taken prisoner by the English. Thomas Sim Lee was then Governor of Maryland.

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