American militiamen caught and massacred a group of British soldiers and loyalists at Kings Mountain, striking fear into the hearts of the imperial occupiers of the Carolinas.
On October 7, 1780, the small but significant battle of the War for Independence and the Southern Campaign took place on a rocky hilltop in Western South Carolina called King’s Mountain. The fierce firefight fought here pitted Loyalist militia elements under the command of British Major Patrick Ferguson of the 71st Foot, nicknamed by his men “Bull Dog" against 900 "Over Mountain Men," residents of the Carolina Backcountry and the Appalachian Mountain range, and from places that would later become the states of Tennessee and Kentucky. American cavalry commander Light-Horse Harry Lee called them, “A race of hardy men who were familiar with the use of the horse and the rifle, stout, active, patient under privation, and brave. To the British they were “more savage than the Indians.”
General Lord Charles Cornwallis dispatched Ferguson to North Carolina in early September 1780. Ferguson had two tasks, first to recruit members to fight for the Loyalist militia and in doing so protect the Cornwallis’s left flank as he attempted to move through the Carolinas. From the start Ferguson miscalculated his potential foe, brazenly issuing a proclamation for the local patriots to “desist from their opposition to British arms” or he would “march over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country to waste with fire and sword.” His tactics backfired, drawing the ire of these fiercely independent men.
Several local patriot militias of the region led by James Johnston, William Campbell, John Sevier, Joseph McDowell and Isaac Shelby took up the challenge and drew up plans to take on Ferguson and his men. Learning of their plans, Ferguson opted to retreat from his forward position and pull back closer to the main body of the British Army. As he retreated, Ferguson issued another proclamation in an attempt to encourage Loyalist support, warning them that without their support there would be “an inundation of barbarians.” His pronouncements promised that without Loyalist support they would “be abused by the dregs of mankind and be pissed upon forever and ever by a set of mongrels.” Rather than rouse the support he craved, he engendered deep resentment among the Over Mountain Men.
As he retreated, Ferguson’s command was shadowed by the Over Mountain Men and he chose to dig in and fortify a small sixty foot hill two miles inside the South Carolina border. It is reported that Ferguson boasted of his defensive position saying he “defied God Almighty and all the rebels out of Hell” to force his hand. An American scouting party learned of Ferguson’s position, giving the Militia commanders the intelligence that they needed to plan an attack. Sensing an impending battle the American commanders told 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. One American reported that the “orders were at the firing of the first gun, for every man to raise a whoop, rush forward his best way he could.” Campbell told his men to “shout like Hell and fight like devils.”
Early in the afternoon of October 7, the Over Mountain Men crept quietly towards Ferguson’s position. When the first shot rang out the Americans en masse from all sides attacked ferociously. Ferguson deployed his Loyalist militia in the center of the hilltop. He remained mounted and personally led the counterattack on against the patriots surging from the southwest. Initially Ferguson’s men, after firing a volley and fixing bayonets, blunted the Over Mountain Men’s advance. But that was only on one side of the hill and Over Mountain Men continued unabated to attack from the other sides using the undergrowth and woods to their advantage. One Loyalist later recalled that the Over Mountain Men looked “like devils from the infernal regions… tall, raw-boned, sinewy with long matted hair.” Ferguson and his men were surrounded and additional counterattacks failed to stop the Americans. Eyewitness accounts of the battle that raged on the hilltop used words like “volcanic” and “thunder” to describe the combat. The Over Mountain Men continued their yelling and whooping as they gained ground.
With his defensive perimeter shrinking, Ferguson tried to lead his men past the onslaught. Mounted on his horse he proved the perfect target for the crack shot contingents he faced. He was shot multiple times, his body hanging from his horse, as his mount dragged his body down the hill fleeing the battle.
Shortly after Ferguson’s death the Loyalists surrendered. Accounts vary as to the number of Loyalist dead ranging anywhere from 150 to 290, with remaining men taken prisoner. In the fierce fighting the Americans lost about 30 killed. A youthful Over Mountain Man said, “The dead lay in heaps on all sides, while the groans of the wounded were heard in every direction. I could not help turning away from the scene before me, with horror, and though exalting in the victory, could not refrain from shedding tears.” Later, after Ferguson’s body had been found, it was stripped of its uniform and, true to his proclamation, "pissed upon."
Kings Mountain proved to be another stinging defeat in the British attempt to secure control of the Southern colonies. Their banking on Loyalist support once more failed. Historian Jack Kelly wrote, “The small, but decisive Kings Mountain victory could not be attributed to the American high command nor to any one leader. No general rode at the head of the army that accomplished it. Congress did not order or pay for it. It was like the rout of the redcoats at Concord five years earlier, a people’s victory, an amateur’s victory. The crude, spirited, hardy determined volunteers who crossed the mountains served, Washington said, ‘as proof of the spirit and resources of the country.'”