King's Mountain: History Revisited

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

The basic facts about The Battle of King's Mountain speak for themselves, and need no interpretation: About 1,000 militiamen, the majority of them rough-hewn frontiersmen from "Overmountain" (west of the Blue Ridge) set out to bring down English Col. Patrick Ferguson and his troops, and on October 7th, 1780, and accomplished their goal—in only one hour.

Many theories have been advanced as to how these men able to manage what the entire Southern Campaign of the Continental Army had been unable to do, with the most common (and most likely) being that, despite their lack of formal military training, they were seasoned Indian fighters.

This does not, however, address the question of why they were willing to go King's Mountain. Most early Southern historians romanticized their motives (1), with the most commonly-held explanation being that they were patriotic zealots willing to die for their country, and secondarily. their anger over Col. Patrick Ferguson's threat to march over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.

While both these explanations may contain more than a kernel of truth (and together form a logical explanation), and while ardent patriotism might certainly have been a factor, it has rarely been the primary rallying call for any battle. Furthermore, these early historians also fail to explain (other than in zealous patriotic phrases) why the percentage of men from the Overmountain counties who were Whig (Rebels, Patriots) was so much higher than the percentage who were Tory (Loyalists, Royalists)—at a time when the remainder of North Carolina was estimated to be roughly fifty-fifty divided in their loyalties. (2)

The most obvious reason, one that has been ignored by many historians, is that the Overmountain Men had no choice but to fight and to win—--not if they wanted to remain Overmountain.

The Overmountain Counties of Washington and Sullivan, North Carolina (present-day Tennessee) did not even exist until enacted by North Carolina's Revolutionary government (whose land policies, from the beginning, ignored both Royal Grants and Indian Treaties). With the exception of a few families who lived "North of Holston" on land earlier granted by Virginia Colony, the remainder of those who lived Overmountain were Intruders (white settlers on either Indian or Granville lands)—at least in the eyes of the British. And even the North of Holston settlers were actually Intruders, or would have become such once the North Carolina provincial government had figured out their land wasn't in Virginia (See Squabble State).

Map, Kings Mountain Militia Counties
Created from Goldbug's AniMap

A British victory would have most certainly resulted in the majority of the Overmountain men being ousted from their lands—assuming they hadn't already been hung by Ferguson. Clearly, neither was an "option." (3)

Two additional factors must also be entered into the equation of how and why the Overmountain men responded so strongly pro-Rebel : (a) They had chosen to live Overmountain, and this fact alone predisposed them toward independence—at every level; and (b) They were hunters and killers by nature: This was how they survived, how they fed their families (man does not live by corn crops alone). (4)

Insofar as the Rebel leaders were concerned, regardless of where they lived, whether east or west of the Blue Ridge, victory had become a requirement—if there was to be Life After War As We Want It. North Carolina's Revolutionary government, including the counties of Sullivan and Washington, had been actively confiscating the estates of all Tories. (5) Would the British do the same if they regained control? All of the leaders, and many of their men (particularly land-owners) had taken positions so strong that there would be no going back if the British won, nor even if they "half-won," a possibility that had become a strong rumor during the summer after the Rebel defeats at Charlotte and Camden (the only two Major battles in the South in 1780—both of them lost).

According to this rumor, the British had come to the realization that Rebel sentiments were so strong in the Northern colonies and provinces that it would be impossible to ever recover them. In the Carolinas and Georgia, however, following the wins at Charlotte and Camden, there was talk of a negotiated settlement under which these three would remain British (along with Florida and the Bahamas). (6)

The Carolina and Georgia Whigs were well aware of this rumor, and also that the Continental Army was no longer expending much in the way of either men or money on the South. A Major Southern victory could go a long ways toward circumventing any plans for ten original colonies instead of thirteen, and the decimation of Col. Patrick Ferguson might force the northern colonies (including, of course, General Washington's own Virginia) to provide the necessary support to help turn the South around.

Whether there was any truth to the rumor may never be known, but among the facts that are known is that (a) British activity in the North was minimal in 1780; (b) they had moved a large detachment of both their fleet and their army to the south; (c) a letter in May 1780 from Continental Congressman James Duane to General Phillip John Schuyler, both of New York, indicated that a ten-colony settlement had been privately considered and discussed by some members of Congress; (d) General Washington was concerned lest Southern Whigs place too much importance on the victory at King's Mountain; and (e) the general feeling of the Northern states, given the high British sentiment in the South, was that they should look to their own—which is exactly what was happened at King's Mountain. (ibid.)

Yet another factor, one which applied to all American militiamen, whether Tory or Whig, was that some militia duty was involuntary. Although it is well-documented that the Colonels "volunteered" for King's Mountain, this was not necessarily the case for the militiamen—on either side. Both the English and the Rebels had instituted the "draft," and the punishment for failing to appear for militia duty could range from fines to imprisonment and from confiscation of one's lands to execution for treason—regardless of whether one was a Whig or a Tory. (7)

Thus, even though the King's Mountain militiamen who were Overmountain are often referred to as "volunteers," they also included conscripts, a fact that may have contributed to the high rate of desertion after the battle. (desertions on the way to and during the battle appear to have been minimal). Most historians who have acknowledged this (8) have attributed it to their having had excellent reasons for having "faded off" off into the woods after the battle; i.e., back home, their families had been left unprotected from Indian attacks. Also to be considered is the fact that their past Indian service had always been concluded upon achieving their goals, and the men freely permitted to depart immediately.

In the case of King's Mountain, however, after the battle, their leaders were burdened with hundreds of Tory prisoners whom the militiamen were expected to guard, and the precipitate departures of the Overmountain men were undoubtedly a major cause for the equally rapidly diminishing numbers of prisoners. (9)

Also to be remembered is that the Revolutionary War was, not just a rebellion against the English, but a Civil War, and King's Mountain not a battle between Englishmen and Americans, but American against American, neighbor against neighbor, and kinsman against kinsman. (10) There were only a handful of Englishmen present at King's Mountain, and even some of them, although English-born, had been residents of the colonies prior to the onset of the War, providing yet another possible explanation for the high numbers of Tory prisoners who managed to escape.

While many Whig militiamen may have lauded the subsequent Tory hangings (as has been alleged) at Gilbert Town, many others may have been sufficiently shaken by this turn of events that they actively aided their Tory relatives and neighbors in escaping (rather than just turning a blind eye). (11)

All of these factors, and more, make the battle at King's Mountain much more than a flat, one-dimensional history, whether over-romanticized or dehumanized. The Men of King's Mountain, both Whigs and Tories, were men—living, breathing, human beings with cares and concerns not all that different from those of our brothers, fathers and grandfathers who served in later American wars, and it is the telling of their real stories that most honors them.


1 There are a number of instances where Ramsey, for instance, describes dramatic death scenes that are documented as not having taken place at the time and location described, in his Annals of Tennessee, published in 1853 (See King's Mountain Bibliography) Another possible indication that the men were not perennially enthusiastic during the march toward Ferguson is Col. Shelby's statement that by the evening of the thirtieth (five days after they had left Sycamore Shoals), "The little disorders and irregularities which began to prevail among our undisciplined troops, created much uneasiness in the commanding officers--the Colonels commanding regiments." (Isaac Shelby's 1823 Pamphlet [to the public], Draper, p. 564)

2 There are no documented statistics regarding the actual percentages of Tory/Whig support at any given time and place during the Revolution, although a number of more recent historians have placed initial sentiments at about 50-50 based on actions more than words (no extant Gallup polls having been located). These figures changed regularly and were never the same for each colony, but the two Carolinas and Georgia were always recognized by the Continental Congress as more strongly Tory over Whig than the other Colonies.

3 In the eyes of the British, the white settlers on lands west of the Blue Ridge were "intruding" not only on Indian lands, but the lands of John Carteret, Lord Granville, whose royal grant included all of North Carolina's northwestern lands, including Overmountain (to the Pacific Ocean). The State of North Carolina had no more declared independence than (former Tory, now Whig) Judge Richard Henderson negotiated the Transylvania Purchase, and even though it was not until 1777 that the Assembly of the new state of North Carolina passed its first land laws covering the "Overmountain," it was understood by all, and that "understanding" had already resulted in thousands of new Overmountain settlers (Land Registration In Early Middle Tennessee, Laws And Practice, Introduction by Daniel Byron Dovenbarger)

4 This also applied to most of the militiamen from Washington County, Virginia; i.e., they, too, were Overmountain, thus also experienced hunters and Indian fighters. (See above map)

5 Washington County, North Carolina Court minutes.

6 Historical Statements Concerning the Battle of King's Mountain, Part III, Army War College, 1928

7 Col. John Sevier was one of the three Commissioners for Confiscated Estates for Washington County, North Carolina (Court Minutes, 28 May 1779), and Col. Benjamin Cleveland the same in Wilkes County, North Carolina (ibid.)

8 The level of concern of the Overmountain men in respect to Indian attacks may have been exaggerated by early historians. See the The Battle of Boyds Creek, about which Ramsey at least, compressed time periods to explain the abrupt departure (desertion?) of Col. Sevier and many of his troops.

9 According to the Formal Report of the Whig Colonels to General Horatio Gates, they had taken prisoner over 700 of the enemy on the 7th of October. By the time they arrived at Bethabara on the 24th, they had no more than 300 prisoners (Reichel's Moravians in North Carolina, pp. 92-93, Draper, p. 359), and by early December, were down to only 130 prisoners (King's Mountain Prisoners of War)

10 Draper (pp. 314-315) refers to two instances (which may have been one) of brothers having killed each other during the battle.

11 On Saturday 14 Oct 1780 at Gilbert Town, thirty Tory prisoners were tried and convicted by Whig Officers of various crimes allegedly perpetrated prior to the battle of King's Mountain, of whom nine were hung on the spot. (Lt. Anthony Allaire)

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