Battle of King’s Mountain
A Bit of History
After his victory at the Battle of Camden in August, 1780, British General Charles Cornwallis marched into North Carolina. To protect his left flank, he dispatched his Inspector of Militia, Ferguson into the South Carolina backcountry. Apprised of the threat, various Whig militias led by William Campbell, Benjamin Cleveland, Joseph McDowell, John Sevier, and Isaac Shelby rallied to confront Ferguson. Since many of the Patriots came from the western part of the Carolinas and the present state of Tennessee they were known as “Overmountain Men.”
Learning of their plans, Ferguson opts to retreat from his forward position and pulls back closer to the main body of the British Army. He digs in and fortifies a small 60-foot hill two miles inside the South Carolina border. An American scouting party learns of Ferguson’s position, giving militia commanders the intelligence they need to launch an attack. Sensing an impending battle, the American commanders tell their men, “Don’t wait for the word of command. Let each one of you be your own officer and do the very best you can.” The American plan was simple—to assault the hill from all sides. Campbell tells his men to “shout like Hell and fight like devils.
In the early afternoon, the Overmountain men creep quietly toward Ferguson’s position. When the first shot rings out the Americans attack en masse from all sides. Ferguson deploys his Loyalist militia in the center of the hilltop. He remains mounted and personally leads the counterattack against the patriots surging from the southwest. After firing a volley and fixing bayonets, Ferguson’s men blunt the Overmountain men’s advance. But it is only on one side of the hill and the Overmountain men continue unabated to attack from the other sides using the undergrowth and woods to their advantage. One Loyalist later recalled that the Overmountain men looked “like devils from the infernal regions… tall, raw-boned, sinewy with long matted hair.” Ferguson and his men are surrounded, and their additional counterattacks fail to stop the Americans. The Overmountain men continue their yelling and whooping as they gain ground.
With his defensive perimeter shrinking, Ferguson tries to lead his men past the onslaught. Mounted on his horse, he proves the perfect target for his crack shot opponents. He is hit multiple times, his body hanging from his horse as his mount flees down the hill. Shortly after Ferguson’s death, the Loyalists surrender.
The loss of Ferguson’s force prompted Cornwallis to temporarily abandon his offensive in North Carolina and permanently shifted the initiative to the Americans in the South. British Commander-in-Chief Sir Henry Clinton lamented the battle was “the first link in a chain of evils that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America.”
Battle of King’s Mountain
King’s Mountain National Military Park
Of all the battlefields I have visited on this tour, the battle of King’s Mountain was the easiest to imagine and interpret. The primary reason for this is that the battle lines and the battle itself was relatively simple. The loyalists were arrayed at the top of the peak with the Overmountain men completely surrounding them. The 1 1/2-mile walking trail follows very closely the battle lines of both the American militia below the peak and the loyalist troops at the top.
I learned that Kings Mountain is a unique battle for several reasons. It was one of the few major battles of the war fought entirely between Americans: no British troops served here (I may have invertedly referred to the loyalist troops as Redcoats in the videos). In the South, many people were divided. When the war started, some fought for independence, others for loyalty to England.
Kings Mountain is also unique in that large numbers of riflemen fought here. Rifles were not used much by the armies. A rifle was a hunting weapon, used by families on the frontier. The American militia that fought here mainly used rifles; the Loyalist troops had mostly muskets.
Above is a scene that one can imagine faced by the 16-year old South Carolina patriot as described below.
One last look at those rugged and determined Overmountain men.
Battle of Cowpens
A Bit of History
Three months after the battle of Kings Mountain, in December 1780, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene dispatched Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan and his “flying army” west from Charlotte, North Carolina. Morgan’s command consisted of dragoons, militia, and Continental regulars. Greene directed Morgan to gather forage, support local American militia and threaten British outposts in the South Carolina backcountry.
Alarmed by Morgan’s movement and the threat to his left flank at Winnsboro, Lord Charles Cornwallis ordered one of his top subordinates, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to pursue and destroy Morgan. Tarleton took with him his feared British Legion, the 7th Regiment of Foot, the first battalion of the 71st Regiment (Fraser’s Highlanders), 17th Light Dragoons and a contingent of light infantry. Tarleton aggressively pursued Morgan and caught up with his quarry on the morning of January 17, 1781 south of the Broad River.
Morgan formed his men and awaited Tarleton in an open, rolling meadow known as the Cowpens. The terrain perfectly suited Morgan’s battle plan. He decided to position his men in three successive lines. The first consisted of riflemen from Georgia and the Carolinas. Morgan placed his men, under Andrew Pickens, in the second line. Continental Regulars from Maryland and Delaware led by Lt. Col. John Eager Howard were in the rear of the militia. Later known as a defense in depth, Morgan hoped his first two lines would slow and deplete Tarleton’s advance before his Continentals struck the decisive blow.
Shortly after sunrise, the American rifleman encountered the lead elements of Tarleton’s force. The Georgians and Carolinians held up the British vanguard enough to prompt Tarleton to form a battle line. From right to left Tarleton placed the 17th Light Dragoons, the light infantry companies, British Legion infantry, the 7th Regiment, and the British Legion Dragoons. He kept the 71st Regiment in reserve. As the British advanced, the riflemen fell back to the militia line.
After firing a few volleys, the militia withdrew. In the hopes of seizing the day, Tarleton sent forward the 17th Dragoons in a mounted charge. Watching the cavalry advance, Morgan ordered his own dragoons, under Lt. Col. William Washington to meet the attack. Washington skillfully led his men forward and repulsed the British cavalry.
Undeterred, Tarleton continued on to the third line and met stiff resistance from the Continentals. Tarleton then elected to commit his reserves and the 71st Regiment came upon Morgan’s right. As the Americans redeployed to meet this threat, Morgan ordered them to reform on a nearby knoll. Watching their enemy seemingly withdraw, the British line broke into a bayonet charge. When the Americans reached their designated spot, Morgan yelled “Face about boys! Give them one good fire and the victory is ours!” The ensuing volley devastated the British ranks and Morgan launched a counterattack. In a double envelopment, the Continentals slammed in Tarleton’s center while Pickens and Washington struck the British flanks simultaneously. Tarleton’s line crumbled and what was left of his command fled from the field.
Continental Flanking Attack on the British Lines
Cowpens was the most decisive American victory of the War for Independence. It gave a major boost to Patriot morale, inflicted casualties that the British could not replace and ultimately led to Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown that fall.
Cowpens National Battlefield
Cowpens was another fabulous battlefield to explore because, just like Kings Mountain battlefield, it was fairly simple to navigate and interpret. A 1-mile walking trail followed the Green River Road where the battle was fought and a 3-mile car went around the perimeter of the battleground. It was easy to see why Morgan choose this area to do battle by discerning the lay of the terrain. It was ideal for the double envelopment of Tarleton’s forces (the only double envelopment accomplished in the entire war).
Unfortunately (or not depending how you look at it), I had some technical issues and only recorded one video of my discoveries. Fans of seeing my hand pointing at things will have to wait until tomorrow’s blog.