“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
Although the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777 is often considered the turning point in the American Revolution (it brought France into the fray on the American side),the reality is that, in the years following Saratoga, the Patriot Cause suffered three crushing defeats in the South. These defeats, at Charleston, Waxhaws and Camden, all in 1780, left the Patriot Southern army in tatters and led the French to wonder whether their intervention in the war had been wise.
By this point, the Patriot Southern army had been reduced to 2,300 soldiers, of whom only about 800 were actually fit for duty. Arrayed against them was Lord Cornwallis’s powerful army consisting of more than 5,000 seasoned British regulars.
The only thing left to the Patriots was to mount lightning-quick guerrilla raids. These raids were undertaken by Francis Marion, the famed “Swamp Fox,” and by the so-called “Overmountain Men” from the frontier settlements across the Appalachians in what is now eastern Tennessee.
The Overmountain Men were in more than one sense the British Crown’s worst nightmare.
Britain had decreed in the 1760s that American settlement beyond the Appalachians was strictly forbidden. Ignoring this rule, settlers from Virginia and the Carolinas crossed the Appalachians, purchased land from the Cherokee Indian tribe in lands drained by the Holston, Watauga, and Nolichucky Rivers (now eastern Tennessee), and formed the “Watauga Association,” which in fact if not formally in name, was a republic of free men who had chosen to govern themselves totally apart from British.
The fact that the settlers had purchased the land from the Cherokee Tribe did not insulate them from attack by other Indian tribes or even by Cherokees who did not consider themselves bound by the sale. Of necessity, they became hard, violent men who were exceptionally skilled with the use of the Deckert rifle and other apparatus of war against hostile Indian tribes. At the Sycamore Shoals muster (discussed below), the Reverend Samuel Doak would tell them “Brave men, you are not unacquainted with
battle. Your hands have already been taught to war and your fingers to fight. You have wrested these beautiful valleys of the Holston and Watauga from the savage hand.”
Lord Cornwallis, stung by the raiding of the Overmountain Men east of the Appalachians, ordered Major Patrick Ferguson, a Scot and one of his best officers, to cow the Overmountain Men into submission. Ferguson freed one of the Overmountain Men who had been taken prisoner and gave him a message to take back over the Appalachians and deliver to the frontier leaders: either submit to British rule, or Ferguson would march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay waste to the country with fire and sword.
The former prisoner of war did as instructed and duly delivered the message to Isaac Shelby and Jack Sevier, the Watauga Association leaders. Far from being cowed, Shelby and Sevier used the message as a recruiting tool.
The response of the Overmountain Men was not to mount a defense, far less to surrender. Shelby and Sevier formulated a plan for an Overmountain Man army to ride over the mountains, surround Ferguson, and destroy him and his entire force. The word went out to the frontier settlements to assemble at the Sycamore Shoals of the Watauga River (now Elizabethton, Tennessee) in late September 1780 as a jumping-off point for an attack against Ferguson.
The Sycamore Shoals gathering turned out to be a military muster, religious revival and giant party all rolled into one. The frontiersmen brought their wives, children, horses and weapons to the rendezvous. Reverend Samuel Doak, a graduate of the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton University), gave a sermon and prayer whose inspiring words — applicable to free men and women at all times and all places, everywhere — are worth quoting at length:
“My countrymen, you are about to set out on an expedition which is full of hardships and dangers, but one in which the Almighty will attend you. The Mother Country has her hands upon you, these American Colonies, and takes that for which our fathers planted their homes in the wilderness—OUR LIBERTY.
Taxation without representation and the quartering of soldiers in the homes of our people without their consent are evidence that the Crown of England would take from its American subjects the last vestige of freedom . . . The enemy is marching hither to destroy your own homes . . . Will you tarry now until the . . . enemy carries fire and sword to your very doors? No, it shall not be. Go forth then in the strength of your manhood to the aid of your brethren, the defense of your liberty and the protection off your homes . . . Let us pray. Almighty and gracious God! Thou hast been the refuge and strength of Thy people in all ages.
In time of sorest need we have learned to come to Thee — our Rock and our Fortress . . . O God of Battle, arise in Thy might. Avenge the slaughter of Thy people. Confound those who plot for our destruction. Crown this mighty effort with victory, and smite those who exalt themselves against liberty and justice and truth. Help us as good soldiers to wield the SWORD OF THE LORD AND GIDEON. Amen.”
As commander, the Overmountain Men selected William Campbell, a six-foot, six-inch red-haired giant who was married to Patrick Henry’s sister. Other Patriot leaders, besides Shelby and Sevier, were Benjamin Cleveland, William Candler, and Joseph McDowell. Included in the ranks was John Crockett, the father of Davy Crockett. The little army amounted to just under 1,000 men.
The Overmountain Men crossed the Appalachians at Yellow Mountain Gap and began searching for Ferguson’s force, which consisted of 1,075 American Tories. Although Ferguson publicly demeaned his opponents’ prowess to his men — calling them “mongrels”, the “dregs of society” and exclaiming, “what, would you be pissed upon by these Back Water men?” — he seems to have secretly feared them and sent messages to Cornwallis requesting reinforcements. He also began a retreat in an attempt to rejoin Cornwallis’s main army.
But it was not to be. The Overmountain Men moved more swiftly than Ferguson’s force. Worried about being cut off, Ferguson established a defensive position on King’s Mountain, a long, wooded ridge in northwestern South Carolina. The battle began at about 3 pm on October 7, 1780. The order to the Overmountain Men was to “shout like hell and fight like devils.” Fighting Indian style, they took shelter behind trees and boulders and sprayed the top of the ridge with deadly accurate rifle fire. Ferguson’s men responded with volley fire from their muskets and occasional bayonet charges. Slowly but surely, the noose tightened around Ferguson and his men as the Overmountain Men swarmed up the moderate slopes, reloading and shooting as they moved. Ferguson, riding a white charger, was an easy target. He was riddled with at least seven shots. Seeing their leader killed, the Tory army began surrendering. The battle ended at about 4 pm.
Perhaps having been told of Ferguson’s comment, “what, would you be pissed upon by these Back Water men,” a number of Overmountain Men urinated on Ferguson’s body before burying it.
The British/Tory forces suffered 244 killed, 163 wounded, and 668 taken prisoner. Casualties among the Overmountain Men were 29 killed and 58 wounded. The prisoners were not treated kindly. Campbell had to issue orders to his officers to “restrain the disorderly manner of slaughtering . . . the prisoners.” Some of the prisoners were put on trial for various atrocities they had committed while serving under British command. Nine were hung. One of the Overmountain Men “wished to God every tree in the wilderness bore fruit such as this!” Their task completed, the Overmountain Men crossed back over the mountains to their Tennessee settlements.
Arguably, the battle of King’s Mountain, not Saratoga, was the real turning point of the American Revolution. Sir Henry Clinton, the supreme commander of British military forces in North America, seems to have thought so. He wrote in his memoirs that King’s Mountain was “the first link in a chain of evil events that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America.” Barely over one year later, on October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered his entire army at Yorktown, effectively ending the American Revolution.
If there is a lesson to be learned from King’s Mountain, it is that free, liberty-loving people must at times organize themselves to fight and resist those who would strip them of their lives, liberty, and property. Right now the struggle is primarily political and what we are being asked to do is little compared to what our forefathers did for the cause of liberty.
In these times of “defund the police,” we should be aware that we, too, if deprived of our police protection, may find it necessary to organize into a militia if that is the only way we can protect our lives, liberty, and property against those who would seek to deprive us of those inalienable rights. At such times, we will need to wield as good soldiers the SWORD OF THE LORD AND GIDEON.
Sources: Almost a Miracle, John Ferling (Oxford University Press, 2007); A Guide to
the Battles of the American Revolution, Theodore P. Savas and J. David Dameron (Savas Beatie LLC, 2006)