About the time when James Robertson went from Watauga to fling out the frontier line •three hundred miles farther westward, the British took Savannah. In 1780 they took Charleston and Augusta, and overran Georgia. Augusta was the point where the old trading path forked north northwest, and it was the key to the Back Country and the overhill domain. In Georgia and the Back Country of South Carolina there were many Tories ready to rally to the King's standard whenever a King's officer should carry it through their midst. A large number of these Tories were Scotch, chiefly from the Highlands. In fact, as we have seen, Scotch blood predominated among the racial streams in the Back Country from Georgia to Pennsylvania. Now, to insure a triumphant march northward for Cornwallis and his royal troops, these sons of Scotland must be gathered together, p196the loyal encouraged and those of rebellious tendencies converted, and they must be drilled and turned to account. This task, if it were to be accomplished successfully, must be entrusted to an officer with positive qualifications, one who would command respect, whose personal address would attract men and disarm opposition, and especially one who could go as a Scot among his own clan. Cornwallis found his man in Major Patrick Ferguson.
Ferguson was a Highlander, a son of Lord Pitfour of Aberdeen, and thirty-six years of age. He was of short stature for a Highlander — •about five feet eight — lean and dark, with straight black hair. He had a serious unhandsome countenance which, at casual glance, might not arrest attention; but when he spoke he became magnetic, by reason of the intelligence and innate force that gleamed in his eyes and the convincing sincerity of his manner. He was admired and respected by his brother officers and by the commanders under whom he had served, and he was loved by his men.
He had seen his first service in the Seven Years' War, having joined the British army in Flanders at the age of fifteen; and he had early distinguished himself for courage and coolness. In 1768, as a captain of infantry, he quelled an insurrection of p197the natives on the island of St. Vincent in the West Indies. Later, at Woolwich, he took up the scientific study of his profession of arms. He not only became a crack shot, but he invented a new type of rifle which he could load at the breach without ramrod and so quickly as to fire seven times in a minute. Generals and statesmen attended his exhibitions of shooting; and even the King rode over at the head of his guards to watch Ferguson rapidly loading and firing.
In America under Cornwallis, Ferguson had the reputation of being the best shot in the army; and it was soon said that, in his quickness at loading and firing, he excelled the most expert American frontiersman. Eyewitnesses have left their testimony that, seeing a bird alight on a bough or rail, he would drop his bridle rein, draw his pistol, toss it in the air, catch and aim it as it fell, and shoot the bird's head off. He was given command of a corps of picked riflemen; and in the Battle of the Brandywine in 1777 he rendered services which won acclaim from the whole army. For the honor of that day's service to his King, Ferguson paid what from him, with his passion for the rifle, must have been the dearest price that could have been demanded. His right arm was shattered, and p198for the remaining three years of his short life it hung useless at his side. Yet he took up swordplay and attained a remarkable degree of skill as a left-handed swordsman.
Such was Ferguson, the soldier. What of the man? For he has been pictured as a wolf and a fiend and a coward by early chroniclers, who evidently felt that they were adding to the virtue of those who fought in defense of liberty by representing all their foes as personally odious. We can read his quality of manhood in a few lines of the letter he sent to his kinsman, the noted Dr. Adam Ferguson, about an incident that occurred at Chads Ford. As he was lying with his men in the woods, in front of Knyphausen's army, so he relates, he saw two American officers ride out. He describes their dress minutely. One was in hussar uniform. The other was in a dark green and blue uniform with a high cocked hat and was mounted on a bay horse:
I ordered three good shots to steal near to and fire at them; but the idea disgusting me, I recalled the order. The hussar in retiring made a circuit, but the other passed within a hundred yards of us, upon which I advanced from the wood towards him. Upon my calling he stopped; but after looking at me he proceeded. I again drew his attention and made signs to him to stop, p199levelling my piece at him; but he slowly cantered away. As I was within that distance, at which, in the quickest firing, I could have lodged half a dozen balls in or about him before he was out of my reach, I had only to determine. But it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty — so I let him alone. The day after, I had been telling this story to some wounded officers, who lay in the same room with me, when one of the surgeons who had been dressing the wounded rebel officers came in and told us that they had been informing him that General Washington was all the morning with the light troops, and only attended by a French officer in hussar dress, he himself dressed and mounted in every point as above described. I am not sorry that I did not know at the time who it was.1
Ferguson had his code towards the foe's women also. On one occasion when he was assisting in an action carried out by Hessians and Dragoons, he learned that some American women had been shamefully maltreated. He went in a white fury p200to the colonel in command, and demanded that the men who had so disgraced their uniforms instantly be put to death.
In rallying the loyalists of the Back Country of Georgia and the Carolinas, Ferguson was very successful. He was presently in command of a thousand or more men, including small detachments of loyalists from New York and New Jersey, under American-born officers such as De Peyster and Allaire. There were good honest men among the loyalists and there were also rough and vicious men out for spoils — which was true as well of the Whigs or Patriots from the same counties. Among the rough element were Tory banditti from the overmountain region. It is to be gathered from Ferguson's records that he did not think any too highly of some of his new recruits, but he set to work with all energy to make them useful.
The American Patriots hastily prepared to oppose him. Colonel Charles McDowell of Burke County, North Carolina, with a small force of militia was just south of the line at a point on the Broad River when he heard that Ferguson was sweeping on northward. In haste he sent a call for help across the mountains to Sevier and Shelby. Sevier had his hands full at Watauga, but he p201dispatched two hundred of his troops; and Isaac Shelby, with a similar force from Sullivan County crossed the mountains too McDowell's assistance. These "overmountain men" or "backwater men," as they were called east of the hills, were trained in Sevier's method of Indian warfare — the secret approach through the dark, the swift dash, and the swifter flight. "Fight strong and run away fast" was the Indian motto, as their women had often been heard to call it after the red men as they ran yelling to fall on the whites. The frontiersmen had adapted the motto to fit their case, as they had also made their own the Indian tactics of ambuscade and surprise attacks at dawn. To sleep, or ride if needs must, by night, and to fight by day and make off, was to them a reasonable soldier's life.
But Ferguson was a night marauder. The terror of his name, which grew among the Whigs of the Back Country until the wildest legends about his ferocity were current, was due chiefly to a habit he had of pouncing on his foes in the middle of the night and pulling them out of bed to give fight or die. It was generally both fight and die, for these dark adventures of his were particularly successful. Ferguson knew no neutrals or conscientious p202objectors; any man who would not carry arms for the King was a traitor, and his life and goods were forfeit. A report of his reads: "The attack being made at night, no quarter could be given." Hence his wolfish fame. "Werewolf" would have been a fit name for him for, though he was a wolf at night, in the daylight he was a man and, as we have seen, a chivalrous one.
In the guerrilla fighting that went on for a brief time between the overmountain men and various detachments of Ferguson's forces, sometimes one side, sometimes the other, won the heat. But the field remained open. Neither side could claim the mastery. In a minor engagement fought at Musgrove's Mill on the Enoree, Shelby's command came off victor and was about to pursue the enemy toward Ninety-Six when a messenger from McDowell galloped madly into camp with word of General Gates's crushing defeat at Camden. This was a warning for Shelby's guerrillas to flee as birds to their mountains, or Ferguson would cut them off from the north and wedge them in between his own force and the victorious Cornwallis. McDowell's men, also on the run for safety, joined them. For forty-eight hours without food or rest they rode a race with Ferguson, who kept hard on p203their trail until they disappeared into the mystery of the winding mountain paths they alone knew.
Ferguson reached the gap where they had swerved into the towering hills only half an hour after their horses' hoofs had pounded across it. Here he turned back. His troops were exhausted from the all-night ride and, in any case, there were not enough of them to enable him to cross the mountains and give the Watauga men battle on their own ground with a fair promise of victory. So keeping east of the hills but still close to them, Ferguson turned into Burke County, North Carolina. He sat him down in Gilbert Town (present Lincolnton, Lincoln County) at the foot of the Blue Ridge and indited a letter to the "Back Water Men," telling them that if they did not lay down their arms and return to their rightful allegiance, he would come over their hills and raze their settlements and hang their leaders. He paroled a kinsman of Shelby's, whom he had taken prisoner in the chase, and sent him home with the letter. Then he set about his usual business of gathering up Tories and making soldiers of them, and of hunting down rebels.
One of the "rebels" was a certain Captain Lytle. When Ferguson drew up at Lytle's door, Lytle had p204already made his escape; but Mrs. Lytle was there. She was a very handsome woman and she had dressed herself in her best to receive Ferguson, who was reported a gallant as well as a wolf. After a few spirited passages between the lady in the doorway and the officer on the white horse before it, the latter advised Mrs. Lytle to use her influence to bring her husband back to his duty. She became grave then and answered that her husband would never turn traitor to his country. Ferguson frowned at the word "traitor," but presently he said: "Madam, I admire you as the handsomest woman I have seen in North Carolina. I even half way admire your zeal in a bad cause. But take my word for it, the rebellion has had its day and is now virtually put down. Give my regards to Captain Lytle and tell him to come in. He will not be asked to compromise his honor. His verbal pledge not again to take up arms against the King is all that will be asked of him."2
This was another phase of the character of the one-armed Highlander whose final challenge to the back water men was now being considered in every log cabin beyond the hills. A man who would not shoot an enemy in the back, who was ready to put p205the same faith in another soldier's honor which he knew was due to his own, yet in battle a wolfish fighter who leaped through the dark to give no quarter and to take none — he was fit challenger to those other mountaineers who also had a chivalry of their own, albeit they too were wolves of war.
When Shelby on the Holston received Ferguson's pungent letter, he flung himself on his horse and rode posthaste to Watauga to consult with Sevier. He found the bank of the Nolichucky teeming with merrymakers. Nolichucky Jack was giving an immense barbecue and a horse race. Without letting the festival crowd have an inkling of the serious nature of Shelby's errand, the two men drew apart to confer. It is said to have been Sevier's idea that they should muster the forces of the western country and go in search of Ferguson ere the latter should be able to get sufficient reinforcements to cross the mountains. Sevier, like Ferguson, always preferred to seek his foe, knowing full well the advantage of the offensive. Messengers were sent to Colonel William Campbell of the Virginia settlements on the Clinch, asking his aid. Campbell at first refused, thinking it better to fortify the positions they held and let Ferguson p206come and put the mountains between himself and Cornwallis. On receipt of a second message, however, he concurred. The call to arms was heard up and down the valleys, and the frontiersmen poured into Watauga. The overhill men were augmented by McDowell's troops from Burke County, who had dashed over the mountains a few weeks before in their escape from Ferguson.
At daybreak on the 26th of September they mustered at the Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga, over a thousand strong. It was a different picture they made from that other great gathering at the same spot when Henderson had made his purchase in money of the Dark and Bloody Ground, and Sevier and Robertson had bought for the Wataugans this strip of Tennessee. There were no Indians in this picture. Dragging Canoe, who had uttered his bloody prophecy, had by these very men been driven far south into the caves of the Tennessee River. But the Indian prophecy still hung over them, and in this day with a heavier menace. Not with money, now, were they to seal their purchase of the free land by the western waters. There had been no women in that other picture, only the white men who were going forward to open the way and the red men who were p207retreating. But in this picture there were women — wives and children, mothers, sisters, and sweethearts. All the women of the settlement were there at this daybreak muster to cheer on their way the men who were going out to battle that they might keep the way of liberty open not for men only but for women and children also. And the battle to which the men were now going forth must be fought against Back Country men of their own stripe under a leader who, in other circumstances, might well have been one of themselves — a primitive spirit of hardy mountain stock, who, having once taken his stand, would not barter and would not retreat.
"With the Sword of the Lord and of Gideon!" cried their pastor, the Reverend Samuel Doak, with upraised hands, as the mountaineers swung into their saddles, And it is said that all the women took up his words and cried again and again, "With the sword of the Lord and of our Gideons!" To the shouts of their women, as bugles on the wind of dawn, the buckskin-shirted army dashed out upon the mountain trail.
The warriors' equipment included rifles and ammunition, tomahawks, knives, shot pouches, a knapsack, and a blanket for each man. Their uniforms p208were leggings, breeches, and long loose shirts of gayly fringed deerskin, or of the linsey-woolsey spun by their women. Their hunting shirts were bound in at the waist by bright-colored linsey sashes tied behind in a bow. They wore moccasins for footgear, and on their heads high fur or deerskin caps trimmed with colored bands of raveled cloth. Around their necks hung their powder-horns ornamented with their own rude carvings.
On the first day they drove along with them a number of beeves but, finding that the cattle impeded the march, they left them behind on the mountain side. Their provisions thereafter were wild game and the small supply each man carried of mixed corn meal and maple sugar. For drink, they had the hill streams.
They passed upward between Roan and Yellow mountains to the top of the range. Here, on the bald summit, where the loose snow lay to their ankles, they halted for drill and rifle practice. When Sevier called up his men, he discovered that two were missing. He suspected at once that they had slipped away to carry warning to Ferguson, for Watauga was known to be infested with Tories. Two problems now confronted the mountaineers. They must increase the speed of their march, so p209that Ferguson should not have time to get reinforcements from Cornwallis; and they must make that extra speed by another trail than they had intended taking so that they themselves could not be intercepted before they had picked up the Back Country militia under Colonels Cleveland, Hampbright, Chronicle, and Williams, who were moving to join them. We are not told who took the lead when they left the known trail, but we may suppose it was Sevier and his Wataugans, for the making of new warpaths and wild riding were two of the things which distinguished Nolichucky Jack's leadership. Down the steep side of the mountain, finding their way as they plunged, went the overhill men. They crossed the Blue Ridge at Gillespie's Gap and pushed on to Quaker Meadows, where Colonel Cleveland with 350 men swung into their column. Along their route, the Back Country Patriots with their rifles came out from the little hamlets and the farms and joined them.
They now had an army of perhaps fifteen hundred men but no commanding officer. Thus far, on the march, the four colonels had conferred together and agreed as to procedure; or, in reality, the influence of Sevier and Shelby, who had planned the enterprise and who seem always to p210have acted in unison, had swayed the others. It would be, however, manifestly improper to go into battle without a real general. Something must be done. McDowell volunteered to carry a letter explaining their need to General Gates, who had escaped with some of his staff into North Carolina and was not far off. It then occurred to Sevier and Shelby, evidently for the first time, that Gates, on receiving such a request, might well ask why the Governor of North Carolina, as the military head of the State, had not provided a commander. The truth is that Sevier and Shelby had been so busy drumming up the militia and planning their campaign that they had found no time to consult the Governor. Moreover, the means whereby the expedition had been financed might not have appealed to the chief executive. After finding it impossible to raise sufficient funds on his personal credit, Sevier had appropriated the entry money in the government land office to the business in hand — with the good will of the entry taker, who was a patriotic man, although, as he had pointed out, he could not, officially, hand over the money. Things being as they were, no doubt Nolichucky Jack felt that an interview with the Governor had better be deferred until after p211the capture of Ferguson. Hence the tenor of this communication to General Gates:
As we have at this time called out our militia without any orders from the Executive of our different States and with the view of expelling the Enemy out of this part of the Country, we think such a body of men worthy of your attention and would request you to send a General Officer immediately to take the command. . . . All our Troops being Militia and but little acquainted with discipline, we could wish him to be a Gentleman of address, and able to keep up a proper discipline without disgusting the soldiery.
For some unknown reason — unless it might be the wording of this letter! — no officer was sent in reply. Shelby then suggested that, since all the officers but Campbell were North Carolinians and, therefore, no one of them could be promoted without arousing the jealousy of the others, Campbell, as the only Virginian, was the appropriate choice. The sweet reasonableness of selecting a commander from such a motive appealed to all, and Campbell became a general in fact if not in name! Shelby's principal aim, however, had been to get rid of McDowell, who, as their senior, would naturally expect to command and whom he considered "too far advanced in life and too inactive" for such an enterprise. At this time McDowell must have p212been nearly thirty-nine; and Shelby, who was just thirty, wisely refused to risk the campaign under a general who was in his dotage!
News of the frontiersmen's approach, with their augmented force, now numbering between sixteen and eighteen hundred, had reached Ferguson by the two Tories who had deserted from Sevier's troops. Ferguson thereupon had made all haste out of Gilbert Town and was marching southward to get in touch with Cornwallis. His force was much reduced, as some of his men were in pursuit of Elijah Clarke towards Augusta and a number of his other Tories were on furlough. As he passed through the Back Country he posted a notice calling on the loyalists to join him. If the overmountain men felt that they were out on a wolf hunt, Ferguson's proclamation shows what the wolf thought of his hunters.
Gentlemen: Unless you wish to be eat up by an inundation of barbarians, who have begun by murdering an unarmed son before the aged father, and afterwards lopped off his arms, and who by their shocking cruelties and irregularities give the best proof of their cowardice and want of discipline: I say if you wish to be pinioned, robbed and murdered, and see your wives and daughters in four days, abused by the dregs of mankind — in p213short if you wish to deserve to live and bear the name of men, grasp your arms in a moment and run to camp.
The Back Water men have crossed the mountains: McDowell, Hampton, Shelby, and Cleveland are at their head, so that you know what you have to depend upon. If you choose to be degraded forever and ever by a set of mongrels, say so at once, and let your women turn your backs upon you, and look out for real men to protect them.
Pat. Ferguson, Major 71st Regiment.3
Ferguson's force has been estimated at about eleven hundred men, but it is likely that this estimate does not take the absentees into consideration. In the diary of Lieutenant Allaire, one of his officers, the number is given as only eight hundred. Because of the state of his army, chroniclers have found Ferguson's movements, after leaving Gilbert Town, difficult to explain. It has been pointed out that he could easily have escaped, for he had plenty of time, and Charlotte, Cornwallis's headquarters, was only •sixty miles distant. We have seen something of Ferguson's quality, however, and we may simply take it that he did not want to escape. He had been planning to cross the high hills — to him, the Highlander, no barrier but a challenge — to fight these men. Now that they p214had taken the initiative he would not show them his back. He craved the battle. So he sent out runners to the main army and rode on along the eastern base of the mountains, seeking a favorable site to go into camp and wait for Cornwallis's aid. On the 6th of October he reached the southern end of the King's Mountain ridge, in South Carolina, about half a mile south of the northern boundary. Here a rocky, semi-isolated spur juts out from the ridge, its summit — a table-land about six hundred yards long and one hundred and twenty wide at its northern end — rising not more than •sixty feet above the surrounding country. On the summit Ferguson pitched his camp.
The hill was a natural fortress, its sides forested, its bald top protected by rocks and bowlders. All the approaches led through dense forest. An enemy force, passing through the immediate, wooded territory, might easily fail to discover a small army nesting sixty feet above the shrouding leafage. Word was evidently brought to Ferguson here, telling him the now augmented number of his foe, for he dispatched another emissary to Cornwallis with a letter stating the number of his own troops and urging full and immediate assistance.
Meanwhile the frontiersmen had halted at the p215Cowpens. There they feasted royally off roasted cattle and corn belonging to the loyalist who owned the Cowpens. It is said that they mowed his •fifty acres of corn in an hour. And here one of their spies, in the assumed rôle of a Tory, learned Ferguson's plans, his approximate force, his route, and his system of communication with Cornwallis. The officers now held council and determined to take a detachment of the hardiest and fleetest horsemen and sweep down on the enemy before aid could reach him. About nine o'clock that evening, according to Shelby's report, 910 mounted men set off at full speed, leaving the main body of horse and foot to follow after at their best pace.
Rain poured down on them all that night as they rode. At daybreak they crossed the Broad at Cherokee Ford and dashed on in the drenching rain all the forenoon. They kept their firearms and powder dry by wrapping them in their knapsacks, blankets, and hunting shirts. The downpour had so churned up the soil that many of the horses mired, but they were pulled out and whipped forward again. The wild horsemen made no halt for food or rest. Within •two miles of King's Mountain they captured Ferguson's messenger with the letter that told of his desperate situation. They asked p216this man how they should know Ferguson. He told them that Ferguson was in full uniform but wore a checkered shirt or dust cloak over it. This was not the only messenger of Ferguson's who failed to carry though. The men he had sent out previously had been followed and, to escape capture or death, they had been obliged to lie in hiding, so that they did not reach Cornwallis until the day of the battle.
At three o'clock on the afternoon of the 7th of October, the overmountain men were in the forest at the base of the hill. The rain had ceased and the sun was shining. They dismounted and tethered their steaming horses. Orders were given that every man was to "throw the priming out of his pan, pick his touchhole, prime anew, examine bullets and see that everything was in readiness for battle." The plan of battle agreed on was to surround the hill, hold the enemy on the top and, themselves screened by the trees, keep pouring in their fire. There was a good chance that most of the answering fire would go over their heads.
As Shelby's men crossed a gap in the woods, the outposts on the hill discovered their presence and sounded the alarm. Ferguson sprang to horse, blowing his silver whistle to call his men to attack. p217His riflemen poured fire into Shelby's contingent, but meanwhile the frontiersmen on the other sides were creeping up, and presently a circle of fire burst upon the hill. With fixed bayonets, some of Ferguson's men charged down the face of the slope, against the advancing foe, only to be shot in the back as they charged. Still time and time again they charged; the overhill men reeled and retreated; but always their comrades took toll with their rifles; Ferguson's men, preparing for a mounted charge, were shot even as they swung to their saddles. Ferguson, with his customary indifference to danger, rode up anded and in front of his line blowing his whistle to encourage his men. "Huzza, brave boys! The day is our own!" Thus he was heard to shout above the triumphant war whoops of the circling foe, surging higher and higher about the hill.
But there were others in his band who knew the fight was lost. The overmountain saw two white handkerchiefs, affixed to bayonets, raised above the rocks; and then they saw Ferguson dash by and slash them down with his sword. Two horses were shot under Ferguson in the latter part of the action; but he mounted a third and rode again into the thick of the fray.
p218 Suddenly the cry spread among the attacking troops that the British officer, Tarleton, had come to Ferguson's rescue; and the mountaineers began to give way. But it was only the galloping horses of their own comrades; Tarleton had not come. Nolichucky Jack spurred out in front of his men and rode along the line. Fired by his courage they sounded war whoop again and renewed the attack with fury.
"These are the same yelling devils that were at Musgrove's Mill," said Captain De Peyster to Ferguson.
Now Shelby and Sevier, leading his Wataugans, had reached the summit. The firing circle pressed in. The buckskin-shirted warriors leaped the rocky barriers, swinging their tomahawks and long knives. Again the white handkerchiefs fluttered. Ferguson saw that the morale of his troops was shattered.
"Surrender," De Peyster, his second in command, begged of him.
"Surrender to those damned banditti? Never!"
Ferguson turned his horse's head downhill and charged into the Wataugans, hacking right and left with his sword till it was broken at the hilt. A dozen rifles were levelled at him. An iron muzzle pushed at his breast, but the powder flashed in the p219pan. He swerved and struck at the rifleman with his broken hilt. But the other guns aimed at him spoke; and Ferguson's body jerked from the saddle pierced by eight bullets. Men seized the bridle of the frenzied horse, plunging on with his dead master dragging from the stirrup.
The battle had lasted less than an hour. After Ferguson fell, De Peyster advanced with a white flag and surrendered his sword to Campbell. Other white flags waved along the hilltop. But the killing did not yet cease. It is said that many of the mountaineers did not know the significance of the white flag. Sevier's sixteen-year‑old son, having heard that his father had fallen, kept on furiously loading and firing until presently he saw Sevier ride in among the troops and command them to stop shooting men who had surrendered and thrown down their arms.
The victors made a bonfire of the enemy's baggage wagons and supplies. Then they killed some of his beeves and cooked them; they had had neither food nor sleep for eighteen hours. They dug shallow trenches for the dead and scattered the loose earth over them. Ferguson's body, stripped of its uniform and boots and wrapped in a beef hide, was thrown into one of these ditches by p220the men detailed to the burial work, while the officers divided his personal effects among themselves.
The triumphant army turned homeward as the dusk descended. The uninjured prisoners and the wounded who were able to walk were marched off carrying their empty firearms. The badly wounded were left lying where they had fallen.
At Bickerstaff's Old Fields in Rutherford County the frontiersmen halted; and here they selected thirty of their prisoners to be hanged. They swung them aloft, by torchlight, three at a time, until nine had gone to their last account. Then Sevier interposed; and, with Shelby's added authority, saved the other twenty-one. Among those who thus weighted the gallows tree were some of the Tory brigands from Watauga; but not all the victims were of this character. Some of the troops would have wreaked vengeance on the two Tories from Sevier's command who had betrayed their army plans to Ferguson; but Sevier claimed them as under his jurisdiction and refused consent. Nolichucky Jack dealt humanely by his foes. To the coarse and brutish Cleveland, now astride of Ferguson's horse and wearing his sash, and to the three hundred who followed him, may no doubt be laid the worst excesses of the battle's afterpiece.
p221 Victors and vanquished drove on in the dark, close to the great flank of hills. From where King's Mountain, strewn with dead and dying, reared its black shape like some rudely hewn tomb of a primordial age when titans strove together, perhaps to the ears of the marching men came faintly through the night's stillness the howl of a wolf and the answering chorus of the pack. For the wolves came down to King's Mountain from all the surrounding hills, following the scent of blood, and made their lair where the Werewolf had fallen. The scene of the mountaineers' victory, which marked the turn of the tide for the Revolution, became for years the chief resort of wolf hunters from both the Carolinas.
The importance of the overmountain men's victory lay in what it achieved for the cause of Independence. King's Mountain was the prelude to Cornwallis's defeat. It heartened the Southern Patriots, until then cast down by Gates' disaster. To the British the death of Ferguson was an irreparable loss because of its depressing effect on the Back Country Tories. King's Mountain, indeed, broke the Tory spirit. Seven days after the battle General Nathaniel Greene succeeded to the command of the Southern Patriot army which Gates p222had led to defeat. Greene's genius met the rising tide of the Patriots' courage and hope and took it at the flood. His strategy, in dividing his army and thereby compelling the division of Cornwallis's force, led to Daniel Morgan's victory at the Cowpens, in the Back Country of South Carolina, on January 17, 1781 — another frontiersmen's triumph. Though the British won the next engagement between Greene and Cornwallis — the battle of Guilford Court House in the North Carolina Back Country, on the 15th of March — Greene made them pay so dearly for their victory that Tarleton called it "the pledge of ultimate defeat"; and, three days later, Cornwallis was retreating towards Wilmington. In a sense, then, King's Mountain was the pivot of the war's revolving stage, which swung the British from their succession of victories towards the surrender at Yorktown.
Shelby, Campbell, and Cleveland escorted the prisoners to Virginia. Sevier, with his men, rode home to Watauga. When the prisoners had been delivered to the authorities in Virginia, the Holston men also turned homeward through the hills. Their route lay down through the Clinch and Holston valleys to the settlement at the base of the p223mountains. Sevier and his Wataugans had gone by Gillespie's Gap, over the pathway that hung like a narrow ribbon about the breast of Roan Mountain, lifting its crest in dignified isolation •sixty-three hundred feet above the levels. The "Unakas" was the name the Cherokees had given to those white men who first invaded their hills; and the Unakas is the name that white men at last gave to the mountains.
Great companies of men were to come over the mountain paths on their way to the Mississippi country and beyond; and with them, as we know, were to go many of these mountain men, to pass away with their customs in the transformations that come with progress. But there were others who clung to these hills. They were of several stocks — English, Scotch, Highlanders, Ulstermen, who mingled by marriage and sometimes took their mates from among the handsome maids of the Cherokees. They spread from the Unakas of Tennessee into the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky; and they have remained to this day what they were then, a primitive folk of strong and fiery men and brave women living as their forefathers of Watauga and Holston lived. In the log cabins in those mountains today are heard the p224same ballads, sung still to the dulcimer, that entertained the earliest settlers. The women still turn the old-fashioned spinning wheels. The code of the men is still the code learned perhaps from the Gaels — the code of the oath and the feud and the open door to the stranger. Or were these, the ethical tenets of almost all uncorrupted primitive tribes, transmitted from the Indian strain and association? Their young people marry at boy and girl ages, as the pioneers did, and their wedding festivities are the same as those which made rejoicing at the first marriage in Watauga. Their common speech today contains words that have been obsolete in England for a hundred years.
Thrice have the mountain men come down again from their fastnesses to war for America since the day of King's Mountain and thrice they have acquitted themselves so that their deeds are noted in history. A souvenir of their part in the War of 1812 at the Battle of the Thames is kept in one of the favorite names for mountain girls — "Lake Erie." In the Civil War many volunteers from the free, non-slaveholding mountain regions of Kentucky and Tennessee joined the Union Army, and it is said that they exceeded all others in stature and physical development. And in our own p225day their sons again came down from the mountains to carry the torch of Liberty overseas, and to show the white stars in their flag side by side with the ancient cross in the flag of England against which their forefathers fought.
1 Doubt that the officer in question was Washington was expressed by James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper stated that Major De Lancey his father-in‑law, was binding Ferguson's arm at the time when the two officers were seen and Ferguson recalled the order to fire, and that De Lancey said he believed the officer was Count Pulaski. But, as Ferguson, according to his own account, "levelled his piece" at the officer, his arm evidently was not wounded until later in the day. The probability is that Ferguson's version, written in a private letter to his relative, is correct as to the facts, whatever may be conjectured as to the identity of the officer. See Draper's King's Mountain and its Heroes, pp52‑54.
2 Draper, King's Mountain and its Heroes, pp151‑53.
3 Draper, King's Mountain and its Heroes, p204.
Images with borders lead to more information.
Pioneers of the Old Southwest
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 4 May 13