Battle of Kings Mountain: American Frontiersmen Defeat Loyalist Militiamen

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Battle of Kings Mountain: American Frontiersmen Defeat Loyalist Militiamen

"The Patriot Victory at Kings Mountain" by Richard Luce (2012)
Image courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: October 7, 1780

Our history spotlight now falls on a pivotal battle in the American War of Independence. This fight in the backwoods of the Carolinas improved the morale of American forces throughout the nation, and eventually led to the surrender of the only major British army still operating in the field in 1781.


By the beginning of 1780, the American colonies' fight for independence from Great Britain was not going well. The British were blockading Boston, and the largest city – New York City– was in British hands. Though an enemy invasion from Canada was thwarted by an American victory at Saratoga in 1777, and the British evacuation of Philadelphia in 1778 returned that city to American hands, no single victory by the Americans had convinced the British to leave.

However, in late 1779 a British invasion force invested Charleston, South Carolina, the largest port in the southern colonies. A six-month siege resulted in Charleston's fall in May, 1780. After this significant British victory, British Commander-in-Chief Major General Sir Henry Clinton assigned Lt. Gen. Charles, Lord Cornwallis the task of garrisoning the three southern colonies – Georgia, and North and South Carolina – in hopes of pulling these three colonies away from the American rebellion. Cornwallis began a large-scale recruitment of Loyalist militiamen to join the British cause.

To facilitate the British offensive against American rebels, Cornwallis assigned Major Patrick Ferguson the job of eliminating American partisans in the Carolinas, and to guard the left flank of Cornwallis's army in Charlotte, North Carolina. Ferguson began leading his troops, entirely composed of American Loyalists, seeking out American rebel militias. Time and again, he missed confrontations with groups of backwoods partisans.

Maj. Patrick Ferguson (1744-1780) artist unknown; Image courtesy of
Maj. Patrick Ferguson (1744-1780) artist unknown
Image courtesy of

[Ferguson, a Scotsman, had served in the British forces involved in the Philadelphia Campaign of 1777-78. He was leading a force of 100 men he organized, armed with the Ferguson rifle, which he had developed from an earlier design. However, in September of 1777, he was shot through the right elbow, making that arm essentially useless. He avoided amputation, and learned to fence, write and shot left-handed. Without Ferguson to lead them, his corps of riflemen was then disbanded. He took eight months to recover. When Ferguson returned to duty, he was devastated to learn his rifle unit was no more.]

Rather than confront the Loyalist forces arrayed against them, the American frontiersmen/militiamen returned to their homes. This action incensed Maj. Ferguson, especially the fact that a large number of the Patriot irregulars came from "over the mountain," i.e., from the area now known as Tennessee east of the Appalachians. Ferguson began a pursuit of these frontiersmen. He established a base camp at Gilbert Town, NC on September 10. Shortly thereafter, Ferguson issued a pugnacious proclamation aimed at these Overmountain Men, threatening to cross the mountains and "lay waste to their country with fire and sword" if they did not surrender their arms and discontinue their anti-British activities.

Prelude to the Battle

Rather than scare the American militiamen, it had the exact opposite effect; it solidified their resolve to remove the Loyalist threat from the Tennessee/North Carolina borderlands. Over the next couple of weeks, frontiersmen from northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and western North Carolina gathered at a muster point near Sycamore Shoals near what is today Elizabethton, TN.

On September 26, the 1000 frontiersmen/militiamen marched into western North Carolina, intent upon an encounter with Ferguson's Loyalist forces. On September 30, the Overmountain Men reached Burke County, NC where they rendezvoused with an additional 350 North Carolinian militiamen. Now totaling 1400 militiamen, the force was led by five different leaders, each with the title of "colonel." These men held a war council, and appointed Col. William Campbell of Virginia as the group's commander. However, they agreed that all five would act in council to command their combined army.

"Gathering of Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals" by Lloyd Branson (1915)

"Gathering of Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals" by Lloyd Branson (1915)

The American force now began a pursuit of Ferguson and his Loyalist militiamen. However, Maj. Ferguson has received intelligence from two American frontiersmen – deserters – that the Overmountain Men were now on the way, their blood up, to extinguish the Loyalist vermin. Ferguson left his base camp, and began a slow march to Charlotte where Lord Cornwallis had established his headquarters. When Ferguson first received the information that the American force was on the move, he delayed his exit from Gilbert Town for three days before marching southward. During this unexplained lethargy, Ferguson wrote to Cornwallis, requesting reinforcements.

On October 1, Ferguson's force arrived at the Broad River in North Carolina, where the major wrote another letter to Cornwallis, pleading again for some reinforcements. By October 6, the Loyalists reached Kings Mountain, one of a number of rocky forested hills in the upper Piedmont, near the border between North and South Carolina. It is shaped like a footprint with the highest point at the heel, a narrow instep, and a broad rounded toe. The Loyalists camped on a ridge west of Kings Pinnacle, the highest point on Kings Mountain. Ferguson's force was about a day's march west of Cornwallis's command base at Charlotte.

As Ferguson's men were establishing their camp on Kings Mountain, scouts for the Americans saw, then reported back to Col. Campbell. Determined to attack and destroy this army of Loyalists, the American officers developed a risky plan to surprise and attack them. Out of the more than 1400 frontiersmen in their small army, 900 men were selected as a mobile strike force. These men mounted their horses, and began a hurried, desperate ride to reach Kings Mountain. Through the night of October 6, and into the morning and early afternoon of October 7, the Overmountain Men rode furiously through a driving rain storm, intent on wiping out the Loyalist force.

American Army

The 900 (or so) American frontiersmen who participated in this battle were men used to hard living, privation, and facing implacable enemies, whether Indians, the environment, or Loyalists. They carried rifles made by hand – commonly called "Pennsylvania long rifles" for their place of origin, later becoming "Kentucky long rifles" – that were deadly accurate. An experienced rifleman could hit a fixed target at 200 to 300 yards. Wearing buckskin shirts and pants, leather shoes or boots or even moccasins, and wielding a tomahawk and a hunting knife, these were men prepared for any contingency in the woods of the American continent. They were among the best light infantry in the world, and fought like the American Indians who often opposed them: using every inch of cover available, picking off their enemies one at a time, before charging into them yelling like devils.

Pennsylvania/Kentucky long rifle, c. 1770-1820; Image courtesy of
Pennsylvania/Kentucky long rifle, c. 1770-1820;
Image courtesy of

Usually no mercy was given. This was especially true in the Carolinas at this stage of the war. A British officer, Major Banastre Tarleton, led a force of cavalry that waged war against the non-Loyalist population of the Carolinas. At one particular battle, an American force flew a white flag to surrender, but Tarleton's horse was shot from under him, and the British cavalrymen attacked the Americans, turning it into a veritable massacre. The American public referred to this as "Tarleton's quarter," in other words, no mercy even with a white flag presented.

Loyalist Army

Maj. Ferguson's Loyalist force numbered somewhere between 1000 and 1100 men. With the exception of 100 red-coated New York-enlisted soldiers, the remainder of these British troops were recruited from the Loyalist population of Georgia and North and South Carolina. They were equipped and accoutered in a fashion similar to the Overmountain Men. The biggest difference, however, was that the Loyalist units were drilled like regular British soldiers, and were further armed with bayonets. These men were likely using the standard British Brown Bess muskets, with a few American long rifles mixed in. One feature of this fight was that Maj. Ferguson used a silver whistle to communicate commands throughout the action.

Brown Bess musket, used from 1722-c. 1860; .75 caliber; Image courtesy of
Brown Bess musket, used from 1722-c. 1860; .75 caliber
Image courtesy of

Battle of Kings Mountain

The Overmountain Men arrived at the foot of Kings Mountain – a 60-foot tall hill located just south of the North and South Carolina border – at about 2:00 pm. They quickly organized themselves into units of between 100 and 200 men, each unit commanded by one of the many American colonels. The disparate commands were camouflaged by the thick woods which surrounded the rocky eminence. At about 3:00 pm, American frontiersmen located at the foot of the mountain began their attack on Loyalist pickets, which were quickly driven uphill by the volume of fire from the Pennsylvania long rifles.

The noise from the battle's opening moves aroused the remainder of the Loyalist camp, who were still huddling under the flaps of their tents, trying to keep warm and dry from the now-lessening rain. Long-range rifle fire from the Overmountain Men began to take its toll; before long, American frontiersmen began scaling the steep slopes of Kings Mountain, intent on wiping out the Loyalist stain. Their coming was heralded by shouting and Indian-like war whoops. [Among the chants used by the frontiersmen was, "Tarleton's quarter!"]

Battle of Kings Mountain, October 7, 1780, artist unknown [North is to the top of this map] Image courtesy of
Battle of Kings Mountain, October 7, 1780, artist unknown
[North is to the top of this map]
Image courtesy of

However, the training drilled into the Loyalist militiamen by Maj. Ferguson quickly began to kick in. Riding everywhere along his perimeter, Ferguson sat astride his white bay stallion. Finally, he ordered a portion of his men to charge an advancing group of American frontiersmen, blowing his silver whistle to signal the charge. The glint of Loyalist bayonets had the intended effect, as the Overmountain Men just as quickly descended the hill's slopes as they had ascended, losing some men in the encounter. As the Loyalists began to climb back to their hilltop camp, the American riflemen found cover, and resumed their barrage of lead, taking out a large number of Loyalists.

At least three charges from the various Overmountain Men's units threatened the Loyalists perimeter. Each time, Maj. Ferguson ordered bayonet charges to drive off the ever-closing frontiersmen. But the American militiamen would resume the fusillade, picking off Loyalists as they were pulling back to the hill's summit.

After about 45 minutes of action, Maj. Ferguson realized his command was likely doomed. When makeshift white flags began to be raised by groups of his Loyalist militiamen, Ferguson would strike the flags down. Realizing his position was hopeless, he gathered together about a half dozen of his Loyalist officers and led a mounted charge to break through the American encirclement. Unfortunately, the Overmountain Men recognized the Loyalist commander – probably a dead giveaway from his distinctive overcoat, his constant use of the silver whistle to order charges, and his white bay stallion.

As Ferguson and his officers approached a group of emboldened Overmountain Men, the Americans fired a volley at them. Ferguson was hit, and fell from his saddle. His foot, however was caught in one of the stirrups, and his stallion bolted through the American line dragging the major before the Scotsman's foot was dislodged. He was approached by an American officer, who demanded his surrender, but Ferguson drew his pistol and shot the man dead. A nearby squad of Overmountain Men aimed their weapons at the British officer, and fired a ragged volley. Ferguson expired shortly afterward, with seven rifle balls in his body. After 65 minutes, the battle of Kings Mountain was over…

'Battle of Kings Mountain: Patrick Ferguson is killed leading his Loyalist troops in a breakout attempt'; Painting by Don Troiani; courtesy of
"Battle of Kings Mountain: Patrick Ferguson is killed leading his Loyalist troops in a breakout attempt"
Painting by Don Troiani; courtesy of


…but the terror of the battle was far from over. The Loyalist force was no longer an effective force. The Loyalist butcher's bill included: 290 dead; 163 wounded (many of who died from their wounds, or from lack of food); and nearly 668 captured. The Patriot militia lost 29 men killed and 58 wounded.

Footnote #1: Loyalist Captain Abraham DePeyster, in command after Ferguson was killed, sent out an emissary with a white flag, asking for quarter. For several minutes, the Patriots rejected DePeyster's white flag and continued firing, many of them shouting, "Give 'em Tarleton's Quarter!" A significant number of the surrendering Loyalists were killed. When DePeyster sent out a second white flag, a few of the rebel officers, ran forward and took control by ordering their men to cease fire.

Footnote #2: The Patriots had to move out quickly for fear that Cornwallis would advance to meet them. Loyalist prisoners well enough to walk were herded to camps several miles from the battlefield. The dead were buried in shallow graves and wounded were left on the field to die. Ferguson's corpse was later reported to have been desecrated and wrapped in oxhide before burial. Both victors and captives came near to starvation on the march due to a lack of supplies in the hastily organized Patriot army.

Footnote #3: On October 14, the retreating Patriot force held drumhead courts-martial of various Loyalists on various charges (treason, desertion from Patriot militias, and incitement of Indian rebellion). The rebels convicted 36 Loyalist prisoners. Some were testified against by Patriots who had previously fought alongside them and later changed sides. Nine of the prisoners were hanged before the proceedings were suspended. As the Patriot army dispersed, all but 130 Loyalist prisoners escaped.

Footnote #4: Kings Mountain was a pivotal moment in the history of the American Revolution. Coming after a series of disasters and humiliations in the Carolinas, the surprising, decisive victory at Kings Mountain was a great boost to Patriot morale. The Loyalists of the Carolina back country were broken as a military force. Additionally, the destruction of Ferguson's command and the looming threat of Patriot militia in the mountains caused Lord Cornwallis to cancel his plans to invade North Carolina.

Footnote #5: In 1931, the U.S. Congress created the Kings Mountain National Military Park at the site of the battle. The park headquarters is in Blacksburg, SC, and hosts hundreds of thousands of people each year.

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