North Carolina was able to send generous military assistance to her sister states because from 1776 to 1780, except for the Tories in her midst, her own soil was free from the enemy. A similar immunity was enjoyed by the other southern states for more than two years after Clinton's repulse at Charleston, but in the winter of 1778 this happy situation came to an end. The royal governors of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia had never ceased to represent the people of those states as Loyalists at heart, eagerly awaiting the arrival of a British force which would enable them to overthrow the rebel governments and restore the royal authority. Accordingly having failed in the North, in the summer of 1778, Sir Henry Clinton determined to transfer the seat of war once more to the South. "If the rebellion could not be broken at the center, it was hoped that it might at least be frayed away at the edges; and should fortune so far smile upon the royal armies as to give them Virginia also, perhaps the campaign against the wearied North might be renewed at some later time and under better auspices."1
The first blow fell on Georgia. In December, 1778, a British force of 3,500 men, under Colonel Archibald Campbell, convoyed by a British squadron, landed near Savannah, routed General Robert Howe's army of 1,200 Americans who attempted to resist their movement, and entered the city in triumph. In January, 1779, General Augustine Prevost with 2,000 regulars from Florida reached Savannah, took command of the united forces, and dispatched Campbell into the interior of the State. Campbell drove the militia before him, occupied Augusta without opposition, and established posts in various parts of Western Georgia. Within six weeks from the time of Campbell's arrival at Savannah, the conquest of Georgia was so complete that the royal governor was invited to return from England to resume his government.
p456 The Americans, however, were not ready to acknowledge defeat. General Benjamin Lincoln, who had superseded Howe in command of the Southern Department, arrived at Howe's camp on January 2d, and took command, Howe going north to join Washington's army. Lincoln had collected at Charleston about 7,000 men, of whom a third were North Carolina militia under command of General John Ashe and North Carolina Continentals under General Sumner. Feeling strong enough to assume the offensive, Lincoln dispatched Ashe with 1,500 men against Augusta, but on March 3d, at Briar Creek, Ashe permitted his army to be surprised and routed. His men were so badly scattered that only 450 of them rejoined Lincoln's army. Ashe's defeat destroyed all hope of recovering Georgia at that time. Indeed a movement of Prevost compelled Lincoln to retire from Georgia and hasten to the defence of Charleston. Movements in and about that city culminated on June 20th in the battle of Stono Ferry in which Lincoln made a determined but unsuccessful attack on the enemy. North Carolina troops under Sumner formed the right and the Continentals under General Isaac Huger the left of the attacking force, while Hamilton's North Carolina and South Carolina Loyalists were in the front of the British line. The Americans lost heavily in killed and wounded. Among the wounded was a brilliant young cavalry officer, Major William R. Davie, twenty-three years of age that day, who was destined to win renown as a soldier and statesman. Although able to parry this blow, Prevost deemed it wise to abandon his attempt against Charleston and withdraw to Savannah. The intense heat and sickly season of July and August put a stop to further operations during that summer.
In this interval Lincoln planned an attempt to recapture Savannah and recover Georgia in co-operation with the French fleet under Count d'Estaing who was then cruising among the West Indies. Accordingly on September 1st, D'Estaing with an army of 6,000 men convoyed by a fleet of thirty-seven ships appeared off Savannah while Lincoln with 6,000 troops invested the town from the land side. Prevost defended the city with about 3,000 men. Prompt action and intelligent leadership would probably have forced him to surrender, but the allies displayed neither. Failing to reduce the place after a three weeks' , on October 9th they undertook to carry it by storm. Again North Carolina Continentals led by Colonel Gideon Lamb and North Carolina Loyalists under Hamilton fought gallantly on opposing sides. The assault failed, D'Estaing weighed anchor and sailed away, and Lincoln was p457 forced to fall back on Charleston leaving Georgia in the hands of the enemy.
The British had struck their first blow against Georgia because it was the weakest of the thirteen states, and its conquest would give them the necessary base for operations against the Carolinas. "Georgia should be taken first," Germain had written to Clinton, "and the passage into South Carolina will then be comparatively easy." Clinton, now commander-in‑chief of the British armies in America, had never ceased to cherish hopes of taking Charleston and recovering the prestige which his repulse there in 1776 had cost him; and keeping an observant eye on the operations in the South he saw in the conquest of Georgia the opportunity for which he had been waiting. With Savannah as its base an army could easily march overland and attack Charleston in the rear while a fleet assailed the city in front. Clinton resolved, therefore, upon operations against Charleston under his own command, and on the day after Christmas, 1779, sailed from New York with an army of 8,500 men, convoyed by a fleet of five ships of the line and nine frigates manned by crews numbering about 5,000. Later he was joined at Charleston by 2,500 men under Lord Rawdon whom he had ordered to follow him from New York. These together with the troops ordered up from Savannah raised Clinton's army to about 13,000 men. Not only were these troops the flower of the British army in America, but they were led by a group of extraordinarily able officers. Conspicuous among them were Lord Cornwallis, Lord Rawdon, Colonel James Webster, Colonel Patrick Ferguson and Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Confident of the outcome, Clinton approached his task with the utmost deliberation, planning every operation carefully before he finally opened the on March 29, 1780. In the meantime Lincoln had been making the utmost exertions to defend the city, throwing up works and gathering behind them all the troops he could summon to his aid. On March 3d, he was joined by 700 North Carolina Continentals under Hogun whom Washington had dispatched from his own army. He had also 1,000 North Carolina militia under Lillington, but about 800 of these departed during the ; later, however, this loss was partially made good by the arrival of 300 other North Carolina militia. Altogether Lincoln gathered in the doomed city about 6,000 men. Military policy dictated the abandonment of the city and the preservation of the army; but the civil authorities of both State and city would not listen to such a proposal. The result was that after withstanding a p458 of over a month, on May 12th both city and army were forced to capitulate. Seven generals, 290 other officers, and more than 5,000 rank and file laid down their arms. The surrender carried with it the entire North Carolina Continental Line, numbering 815 officers and men, including General Hogun, and about 600 North Carolina militia.
The fall of Charleston stripped South Carolina of her organized defenders and opened the way for the conquest of the State. All the strategic points on the coast — Georgetown, Charleston, Beaufort and Savannah — were already in the hands of the enemy, and nothing prevented their occupying those in the interior at will. Of these the most important were Augusta, "the gateway to Georgia;" Ninety-Six which dominated the line of communication between Augusta and the backwoods settlements of North Carolina; and Camden, "the key between the North and the South," in which centered the principal inland roads by which South Carolina could be entered from the north. The line of communication between Camden and Ninety-Six, a distance of •eighty miles, was commanded by the smaller post of Rocky Mount. Northeast of Camden was Cheraw, controlling the northeastern section of South Carolina and overlooking the settlements of the loyal Highlanders in North Carolina. Immediately after the surrender of Charleston, Lord Cornwallis advanced inland and seized all of these points. No resistance was offered; the several posts were easily "possessed, fortified, and protestations of loyalty resounded in every quarter." The interior secured, Cornwallis returned to Charleston to complete the restoration of the civil authority in South Carolina and to prepare for the invasion of North Carolina.
Confident that Georgia and South Carolina were subjugated beyond recovery, on June 5th Clinton sailed for New York leaving Cornwallis with 8,345 men to hold those states and complete the work in the South by the conquest of North Carolina and Virginia. Clinton had no doubt of Cornwallis' ability to accomplish these tasks. The surrender of Charleston, he thought, "insures the reduction of this and the next province." He had ample grounds for his confidence. British troops held all the strategic points in South Carolina and Georgia. The way into North Carolina was open, and that State was helpless to prevent invasion. Her resources were exhausted. Her organized forces had been sacrificed in the defence of Charleston. Her people were dispirited and alarmed, her enemies jubilant, arrogant, and confident. p459 Whigs and Tories alike anticipated the immediate invasion of the State, the former with dread and apprehension, the latter with enthusiasm and hope. Had Cornwallis advanced promptly, he would certainly have laid North Carolina at his feet, but pleading the intensity of the heat, the necessity of giving his men rest, and the lack of provisions and stores, he decided to spend the summer at Charleston and enter North Carolina at his leisure in the fall.
The chief reason for his decision was the confidence which he placed in the representations of former Governor Martin and other fugitive Loyalists as to the general loyalty of the people of North Carolina. "Our hopes of success in offensive operations," he wrote, "were not founded only upon the efforts of the corps under my immediate command, which did not much exceed three thousand men; but principally upon the most positive assurances given by the apparently creditable deputies and emissaries that, upon the appearance of a British army in North Carolina, a great body of the inhabitants were ready to join and co-operate with it, in endeavoring to restore his Majesty's Government." Accordingly from Charleston he established communications with the Tories of North Carolina to whom he sent emissaries to bid them attend to their harvests, collect provisions, and remain quiet until the king's army was ready to enter the State in August or September.
The very completeness of the British victory proved Cornwallis' ruin. It conspired with the exaggerated representations of the loyalty of the Carolinas which the exiled Loyalists unceasingly poured into his ears to produce a feeling of over-confidence which the real situation did not warrant. After the surrender of Charleston, Clinton had issued a proclamation offering pardon to all persons, except those guilty of crime, who would return to their allegiance to the king; and many of the people, looking upon the cause of independence, tired of war and eager for peace, hastened to take advantage of his offer. Clinton reported to Lord Germain, secretary of state for the colonies, that "the inhabitants from every quarter repair to the detachments of the army, and to this garrison [Charleston] to declare their allegiance to the King." "A general revolution of sentiment seemed to take place, and the cause of Great Britain appeared to triumph over that of the American Congress."2 But Clinton was not satisfied with passive obedience, and just before departing for p460 New York, issued a second proclamation discharging all paroles, except prisoners captured in battle, and commanding all persons to take an active part in the restoration of the royal government upon pain of being treated as rebels and enemies. The folly of this action became immediately apparent. It "produced a counter-revolution in the minds and inclinations of the people," says Stedman, the British historian, "as complete and as universal as that which succeeded the fall of Charlestown."3 The people of South Carolina refused to become the instruments of their own subjugation; they rose again in rebellion, organized themselves into bands of partisans under the leadership of James Williams, Andrew Pickens, Thomas Sumter, and Francis Marion, and opened a form of fierce guerrilla warfare upon the enemy's outposts which made it impossible for Cornwallis to advance with safety into North Carolina.
North Carolina took advantage of the British general's procrastination to reorganize her scattered forces and prepare for resistance. Caswell, who had been appointed to the command of the militia with the rank of major-general, concentrated the eastern militia at Cross Creek to overawe the Highlanders. In the West, Rutherford, Davie, Davidson, Francis Locke and other bold and aggressive partisan leaders aroused the Scotch-Irish of Mecklenburg, Rowan, and surrounding counties, and by the middle of June, had assembled 900 men under Rutherford near Charlotte, and 400 under Locke and other officers near Ramsaur's Mill. Though short of ammunition and "obliged to turn their implements of husbandry into those of war by hammering up their scythes and sickles and forming them into swords and spears,"4 they more than made good their deficiency in equipment by the fierce and warlike zeal with which they rallied to the defense of their homes.
These partisan bands were too weak in numbers, too loose in discipline, and too short of equipment for extended campaigns, but for the sudden gatherings and hasty dispersions, the quick advances and the rapid retreats of guerrilla warfare they were unsurpassed. For this kind of service no troops ever had more skillful leaders. Rutherford, Davie, Davidson and Locke of North Carolina worked in complete harmony and co-operation with Williams, Pickens, Sumter and Marion of p461 South Carolina. No foraging party escaped their vigilance. No Tory gathering was safe from their sudden onsets. No British post was immune from their attacks. Though not always successful, they were a source of constant annoyance and apprehension to the British, while their activity and daring kept alive the spirit of resistance among the patriots during the dark days of the summer of 1780.
The story of their exploits resembles rather the romances of knight errantry than the sober facts of history. At sunrise in the morning of June 20th, Locke with a band of 400 men surprised and routed 1,300 Tories whom emissaries of Cornwallis, contrary to his lordship's orders, had embodied at Ramsaur's Mill in Lincoln County preparatory to joining the British at Camden. Davie's cavalry arriving after the battle had begun, pursued the fugitives, killing and capturing many of them and completely dispersing the rest. On July 2d, Davie surprised and captured a convoy of privations and clothing on its way to the British garrison at Hanging Rock. A few days later, July 21st, Davidson with 160 light horse from Rutherford's brigade attacked 250 Tories under Colonel Samuel Bryan, one of the most active of the Tory leaders, at Colston's Mill on Pee Dee River, killed and captured about fifty, "and put the rest to flight," reported Major Thomas Blount to Governor Nash, "with more precipitation than we fled from Bryar Creek." Ten days later, under the very eyes of the British garrison at Hanging Rock, Davie fell upon three companies of Bryan's Loyalists returning from an excursion, cut them to pieces, captured 100 muskets and 60 horses without the loss of a man, and before the British garrison recovered from their consternation sufficiently to beat to arms was safely beyond their reach. Emboldened by the success of these and many other similar exploits, on August 6th Davie and Sumter united forces for an attack on Hanging Rock itself. Its garrison numbered 500 men of whom 160 were of Tarleton's famous legion. The attacking party consisted of about 500 North Carolinians under Davie and Colonel Irwin of Mecklenburg County, and 300 South Carolinians under Sumter. Taking the enemy by surprise, they drove through the British camp and were on the point of winning a brilliant victory when some of Sumter's men stopping to plunder the camp threw the American lines into confusion. The British rallied and Sumter and Davie were compelled to draw off their forces having, however, inflicted a heavier loss upon the enemy than they themselves sustained. These exploits are cited here not because they were more important than others, p462 but because they were typical of many such enterprises too numerous to mention.
Such an outburst of activity among a people whom he had thought completely subjugated astounded Cornwallis, while the boldness and success of the Americans thoroughly cowed the great mass of Loyalists and neutrals in the two Carolinas. Cornwallis declared that he had not expected any hostile demonstrations in North Carolina and having "much business to do at Charlestown," was arranging his affairs in that city quite satisfactorily "when our tranquility was first disturbed by the accounts of a premature rising of our friends [at Ramsaur's Mill] in Tryon County, North Carolina, in the latter end of June, who having assembled without concert, plan or proper leaders, were two days after surprised and totally routed. * * * Many of them fled into this Province, where their reports tended much to terrify our friends and encourage our enemies." So too Bryan's men fleeing from Colston's Mill did not halt "until they reached the Enemy's next Post at the Waxhaws, where they threw the whole into the utmost confusion and Consternation." The British soon found their grip on South Carolina slipping. In August the whole country between the Pee Dee and the Santee rivers was "in an absolute State of Rebellion." Hostilities were constantly breaking out "in different parts of the frontier" where, wrote Cornwallis, "General Sumpter [sic], an active and daring man, * * * was constantly Menacing our small posts." Then, too, "reports industriously propagated in this Province of a large Army coming from the Northward had very much intimidated our friends, encouraged our enemies, and determined the wavering against us." Before the summer was over Cornwallis became convinced that if he did not advance into North Carolina and subjugate that State he "must give up both South Carolina and Georgia, and retire within the Walls of Charlestown."
In the meantime the critical situation of the Carolinas had aroused both Washington and Congress to action. Early in the summer Washington had dispatched from his own army 2,000 excellent Delaware and Maryland troops under Baron de Kalb to reinforce Lincoln at Charleston. Kalb arrived at Hillsboro on June 20th. Everywhere he found an utter lack of preparation to meet the crisis, and complained bitterly that he was compelled to subsist his army by his own efforts. He could obtain supplies from the people only by military force and in his efforts received "no assistance from the legislative or executive power" of the State. Governor Nash defended p463 himself by pointing out his lack of power under the Constitution which he declared to be totally "inadequate to the public exigencies." However, Kalb's presence greatly encouraged the Whig leaders. Caswell in command of Gregory's and Butler's brigades of North Carolina militia and General Edward Stevens in command of the Virginia militia hastened to put themselves under the baron's command. Rutherford, too, with his command and Colonel William Porterfield then near the South Carolina border with 400 Virginia Continentals, prepared to join the main army. Kalb was planning an advance into South Carolina when on July 25th, he was superseded in command by General Horatio Gates. After the surrender of Charleston, Congress had unanimously chosen Gates, still masquerading as the conqueror of Burgoyne, to succeed Lincoln in command of the Southern Department. Notifying Gates of his appointment, Richard Peters, secretary of the Board of War, wrote: "Our affairs to the Southward look blue; so they did when you took Command before the Burgoynade. I can only now say 'Go and do likewise.' " But Gates' friend Charles Lee, who had formed a juster estimate of Gates' military capacity, cynically warned him to beware lest his northern laurels should change to southern willows. However, there were few who then doubted Gates' title to his northern laurels, and his appointment was, therefore, hailed with joy by the Americans and with apprehension by the British and Tories.
Gates began with a blunder and ended with a disaster. He took command at Hillsboro, July 25th. His objective was Camden, the chief British post, held by Lord Rawdon. Two roads led to Camden. Kalb, who had studied the situation carefully, advised the route through Salisbury and Charlotte which though the longer of the two ran through a region inhabited by friends and abounding in provisions. The shorter and more direct route ran through a barren region, thinly settled and generally hostile. Every consideration urged the choice of the former, yet Gates rejecting the advice of all his generals and pleading his eagerness to meet the enemy, chose the latter and on July 27th put his army in motion. On the march he was joined by Porterfield with 400 Virginia Continentals, Stevens with 700 Virginia militia, and Caswell with 1,200 North Carolina militia. When he encamped •ten miles from Camden on the afternoon of August 15th, Gates had under his command 3,052 men of whom more than half were untrained militia. On their long march green corn and unripe fruit had been their principal diet, and dysentery and p464 cholera morbus had wrought such havoc with their health that they were in no condition for a battle. Nevertheless Gates on the evening of August 16th, moved out of his camp to attack Lord Rawdon at daybreak.
Gates had scorned the use of cavalry and consequently was entirely ignorant of the situation in the enemy's camp. Lord Rawdon who knew every movement made by his adversary had called in the garrisons from the smaller posts scattered throughout the interior and concentrated his forces at Augusta, Ninety-Six and Camden. Moreover at his request Cornwallis had come with reinforcements from Charleston arriving at Camden unknown to Gates on August 14th. The combined forces under his command were but little more than 2,000 but they were seasoned troops. Among them were two regiments of North Carolina Loyalists. Although aware of his numerical inferiority to Gates, Cornwallis, relying upon the superior discipline and greater experience of his troops, determined to take the offensive.
Unknown to each other Gates and Cornwallis both planned a night attack. About 2 o'clock in the morning of August 16th, their advance guards came in contact •about five miles from Camden. In the skirmish that followed the Americans were routed. From prisoners Gates now learned for the first time that Cornwallis had arrived at Camden with regulars and was himself in command. In a panic he thought only of retreat. He had in the first instance stubbornly taken the wrong road that he might hasten to meet the enemy, now in the presence of the foe both his eagerness and his courage vanished. Calling a council of war, he asked what should be done. Silence greeted his query until General Stevens exclaimed, "Well, gentlemen, is it not now too late to do anything but fight?" Each side having now lost the advantage of a surprise, both drew up their forces for battle, about 200 yards from each other. Gates placed the Delaware regiment and the second Maryland brigade on his right under Kalb, the North Carolina militia under Caswell in the center, and Stevens with the Virginia militia on his left. The first Maryland brigade, under General William Smallwood, was held in reserve. The British left opposed to Kalb was under command of Rawdon, their right opposed to Caswell and Stevens was led by Colonel James Webster. Tarleton's cavalry hovered in the rear, ready to give aid where needed.
At daylight Cornwallis opened the battle with a vigorous attack on the Carolina and Virginia militia. As Webster's regulars in perfect formation swept down upon them, the untrained p465 militia were seized with a panic. The Virginians without firing a shot threw down their arms and fled. Caswell's militia immediately followed suit. Breaking through the first Maryland brigade, they threw it into confusion and catching Gates up in the fleeing mass swept him along with them. As they fled, Tarleton's horse fell upon them like an avalanche cutting them down in large numbers. One regiment of North Carolina militia, under command of Major Hal Dixon, attaching itself to the brave Marylanders on its right, refused to join in the shameful rout. "None, without violence to the claims of honor and justice," wrote "Light Horse Harry" Lee in his "Memoirs,"5 "can withhold applause from Colonel [sic] Dixon and his North Carolina regiment of militia. Having their flank exposed by the flight of the other militia, they turn with disdain from the ignoble example; and fixing their eyes on the Marylanders, whose left they became, determined to vie in deeds of courage with their veteran comrades. Nor did they shrink from this daring resolve. In every vicissitude of the battle, this regiment maintained its ground, and when the reserve under Smallwood, covering our left, relieved its naked flank, forced the enemy to fall back." Gregory's North Carolina militia also acquitted themselves well. Formed immediately on the left of the Continentals, they kept the field while they had a bullet to fire; and many of those who were captured had no wounds except from bayonets. On the American right the Delaware and Maryland troops under the gallant Kalb fought like veterans for nearly an hour, and did not break until Kalb was killed, and Webster's regulars had attacked them in the rear. The whole line then gave way and the rout became general.
The American army was destroyed. Its colors, artillery, ammunition wagons, military stores, baggage and camp equipage, and 2,000 muskets fell into the hands of the enemy. More than 800 Americans were killed, including a third of the Continentals, and 1,000 were captured. Among the killed were Porterfield, Gregory and Kalb; among the captured Rutherford. "The taking of that violent and cruel incendiary, General Rutherford," wrote Cornwallis, "has been a lucky circumstance." "None were saved," wrote Lee, "but those who penetrated swamps which had been deemed impassable." All along the line of retreat evidences of the completeness of the British victory were abundant. "The road was heaped with the dead and the wounded. Arms, artillery, horses, and baggage p466 were strewed in every direction; and the whole adjacent country presented evidences of the signal defeat." The laurels of Saratoga had indeed changed to the willows of Camden.
Four hundred of North Carolina's militia had been killed, wounded and captured, the rest completely dispersed. Again the State lay open to invasion; again Cornwallis had but to advance to reap the fruits of his victory; again he let the opportunity slip from his grasp. His delay gave the Americans a breathing spell in which to rally their broken forces. Undismayed at their misfortune they set themselves to the task with determination. Gates at Hillsboro was all activity but being "execrated by the officers, unrevered by the men and hated by the people," he could accomplish but little. Caswell was more successful. On the retreat from Camden, he stopped long enough at Charlotte to order out the militia of Mecklenburg, Rowan and Lincoln counties; while from Hillsboro he directed three regiments of the eastern militia which fortunately had not reached him in time for the battle to rendezvous at Ramsay's Mill in Chatham County, organized them into a brigade under General Jethro Sumner, and led them to the camp which General Smallwood had established at Salisbury. Smallwood had under his command "the shattered remains of the Maryland Division," numbering about 270 cavalry and infantry. He also was active in getting out the militia. "I have used every exertion," he wrote, "to encourage and induce the militia to assemble at Charlotte and am happy to acquaint you that they have turned out in great numbers, seem spirited and desirous of being commanded by some Continental officer." Governor Nash called out the second draft of militia and directed them to embody at Hillsboro, Salisbury and Charlotte. On September 6th Gates reported to Washington that "1,400 of the Second Draught of the Militia of this State are marched to cover Salisbury and the country from thence to Charlotte, where Colonel Sumpter has a command. * * * Three hundred Virginia Riflemen under Colonel Campbell and Militia from the back Counties are marching to the East Bank of the Yadkin at the ford, and General Stevens, with what have not run home of the other Virginia Militia is at Guilford Court House. The Maryland division and the Artillery are here to be refitted. The former will be put into one strong Regiment, with a good Light Infantry Company under Colonel Williams. * * * General Muhlenburg acquaints me that near Five Hundred Regulars are upon their march from Petersburgh to this place; p467 these with the Marylanders above mentioned will make us stronger in Continental troops than I was before the action."
There were men enough under arms in North Carolina to repel an invasion could they but be organized, equipped, and properly led. At Salisbury Smallwood's men were "in a most wretched situation for want of cloaths of all kinds." When Sumner took command of his new brigade at Ramsay's Mill he found the arms in bad order, a shortage of ammunition, no organized commissary, and one-third of his soldiers scattered about at various farm houses threshing out wheat. The Continentals at Hillsboro were "in want of everything except arms," many "almost naked," and large numbers unable to take the field for want of shoes. The General Assembly which met at Hillsboro August 23d undertook to relieve this situation. Governor Nash had so strongly represented his lack of authority without the Council, and complained so bitterly of his councilors' neglect of their duties, that the Assembly determined to confer all the war powers of the governor and Council upon a board of war composed of Alexander Martin, John Penn and Oroondates Davis. To this board was given extra-constitutional powers for raising, organizing and equipping troops. Most important of all was the finding of a competent commanding officer. Gates' reputation was irrevocably lost but the Assembly had no control over him. Caswell's reputation had suffered only less than Gates', and over Caswell who commanded the state militia the Assembly exercised complete authority. The only general officer who survived the rout at Camden with an increased reputation for courage and military talent was Smallwood, and although he was a Marylander, the necessity was so urgent that the Assembly, sinking all state pride, offered him the command of the North Carolina militia, with the rank of major-general. Thereupon Caswell indignantly withdrew from the service, resigned his place on the Board of Trade, and retired to the privacy of his home at Kingston.
After Camden Cornwallis, strangely enough, repeated the blunder he had committed after the fall of Charleston. Tarleton and other officers urged upon him the advantages of an "immediate advance of the King's troops into North Carolina,"6 but Cornwallis was less impressed by these advantages than he was by "the number of sick in the hospital, the late addition of the wounded, the want of troops," "the deficiency of the stores, the heat of the climate, the scarcity of provisions p468 in North Carolina," and the other hardships incident to war which he seems to have expected to avoid. But again his chief reason for delay was over-confidence. He believed that at Camden he had struck the American cause its death blow. Former Governor Josiah Martin, who was with Cornwallis, reflected his views in a letter to Lord Germain in which he declared the victory was so "glorious, compleat and critical," that "it could receive no additional splendour. * * * It is consequential to the Nation, my Lord, in proportion to the importance of America to Great Britain, for her cause and Interests on this continent depending, as I conceive, absolutely on the issue of this action, may be fairly said to be rescued, saved, redeemed and restored." In England the impression was created that "North Carolina was only considered as the road to Virginia."7 Cornwallis was confirmed in his view of the situation not only by the confusion and disorganization of the American army, but also by the protestations of loyalty and assurances of support which again poured in upon him from the North Carolina Tories. Unwittingly these men did the cause of independence a great service for their professions, together with other reasons, confirmed Cornwallis in his determination to delay his march into North Carolina until his plans were perfected to the last detail.
Consequently it was not until September 8th that he broke camp at Camden and set out on his invasion of North Carolina. His advance was far from being the triumphant procession his friends had led him to expect. Partisan bands hung upon his flanks and so harassed his movements that he did not reach Charlotte until September 25th. On September 20th, Davie, who had recently been appointed to the command of the cavalry with the rank of colonel, with 150 men surprised an enemy detachment of 300 men at Wahab's plantation, killed and wounded 60 of their number, routed the rest, and brought off 120 stand of arms and 96 horses. On the morning of September 26th, Davie posted a small force behind the courthouse in Charlotte, which stood in the center of the village where its two streets intersected, and when the head of the British column appeared, composed of Tarleton's famous legion of dragoons, greeted it with so effective a fire that it recoiled three times and Cornwallis was obliged to ride up and rally the troops himself. "The whole of the British army," says its historian Stedman, himself an officer under Cornwallis, "was actually kept at bay for some p469 minutes by a few mounted Americans, not exceeding twenty in number."
Thus the British army entered Charlotte, where on October 3d Josiah Martin, who accompanied Cornwallis, issued his proclamation announcing the triumph of the king's arms, the suppression of the rebellion, and the restoration of the royal government, and calling upon all faithful subjects to rally to the defence of the royal standard. Seriously as Martin took the proclamation, Cornwallis must have known that it was the merest bombast. It had not taken him a whole week to realize that he was in the "Hornets' Nest" of the Revolution. "It is evident" * * * he wrote, "that Mecklenburg and Rowan Counties are more hostile to England than any [others] in America." The situation of the British at Charlotte, wrote the Board of War, "hath been rendered very troublesome by the close attention paid them by Davidson and Davie." These active young officers with their sleepless bands patrolled the surrounding country day and night, watching every movement of the enemy, breaking up his foraging parties, capturing his scouts, and cutting off his messengers so effectively that nearly a week passed after the event before Cornwallis, who was anxiously awaiting intelligence of "Colonel Ferguson's movements to the westward," heard of his defeat and death at King's Mountain.
When Cornwallis began his movement from Camden into North Carolina he sent Colonel Patrick Ferguson, one of his best and most trusted officers, into the Ninety-Six District to arouse the Tories to action and to secure his left flank from attack by some bands of over-mountain men who, under Charles McDowell, Isaac Shelby and John Sevier, were showing signs of activity in that region. On July 30th they captured Thicketty Fort, a Tory stronghold on a tributary of Broad River. A few days later they were themselves defeated at Cedar Springs on the Pacolet River. On August 19th, they had just won a particularly brilliant action at Musgrove's Mill on the Enoree when they received intelligence of the defeat of Gates at Camden, which compelled them to retire into North Carolina. It was primarily to protect his flank against these men that Cornwallis dispatched Ferguson to the borders of Tryon County, with a force of 200 regulars and 900 Tory militia who, according to Cornwallis, had been "got into very tolerable order." Ferguson boldly pursued the mountain-men as far as Gilbert Town in Rutherford County, whence he sent them a contemptuous message declaring that unless they speedily p471 dispersed and desisted from further resistance to the king's troops, he would cross the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay waste their settlements with fire and sword.
Shelby and Sevier answered this challenge by calling the mountain men to arms. In its suddenness and its numerical strength the response to their call resembled a rising of the Scottish clans when the "fiery cross" was dispatched through the Highlands. To the rendezvous at Sycamore Shoals on Watauga River, September 25th, came Shelby with 240 men from Sullivan County, Sevier with 240 from Washington, McDowell with 160 from Burke and Rutherford, and William Campbell with 400 Virginians. Without delay, they set out in search of their enemy, and on the march were joined by 350 men from Wilkes and Surry under Benjamin Cleaveland and Joseph Winston. As there was some rivalry among the North Carolina colonels, Campbell was asked to assume the leadership of the expedition. During their long and arduous march over the mountains many of the men dropped out and only about 700 finally reached Cowpens where they camped on October 6th. There, however, they were joined by Frederick Hambright with 50 men from Lincoln County and Edward Lacey and James Williams with 400 South Carolinians.
Although Ferguson affected to despise his enemies as "a set of mongrels," still upon learning of their approach he dispatched a messenger to Cornwallis calling for aid and himself sought refuge on the southern extremity of King's Mountain, a ridge •about sixteen miles long, running from a point in what is now Cleveland County, North Carolina, southwest into York County, South Carolina. The spur reached by Ferguson is in York County, •one and a half miles from the North Carolina line, and •six miles from the highest elevation of the mountain. About 600 yards in length, it rises from a base of 250 yards to a top of from 60 to 220 yards wide, and commands a wide view of the surrounding country. The crest can be approached from three sides only; on the north it is an unbroken precipice. On the summit of this ridge Ferguson sought safety from his enemies. To his mind, trained in European methods of warfare, the steep ascent, together with the thick shrubbery and underbrush which covered the rugged mountain sides, seemed to make his position impregnable, and he boasted that all the rebels out of hell could not drive him from it. But he forgot that he was dealing with men who were used to climbing mountains and followed other rules of warfare than those laid down by European text-writers.
p472 On October 6th, while at Cowpens, the American officers selected from their several bands 920 picked men, confirmed the choice of Campbell as their leader, and set out for King's Mountain. Reaching the foot of the ridge about 3 o'clock in the afternoon of October 7th, they organized in three columns, and prepared for an immediate assault. On the north side of the mountain were the bands of Shelby, Hill and Lacey, under Shelby's command; on the south, those of Campbell, Sevier, and Joseph McDowell, led by Campbell; while across the northeast end were the men of Cleaveland, Hambright, and Winston, commanded by Cleaveland. So quickly were these dispositions made that Ferguson first learned of them by the fire of the attacking parties. His own force consisted of nearly 1,100 men, of whom 200 were regulars of his own old corps, 430 were North Carolina Loyalists, and 320 were South Carolina Loyalists. He arranged his men in two lines along the height, one to resist attack by the volleys of musketry, the other under his immediate command to charge the enemy with bayonets.
The attack was opened by Campbell whose men ascended the most difficult part of the ridge. Near the summit, Ferguson repulsed them with a bayonet charge, but before he could regain his position, he was assailed in the rear by Shelby's men advancing up the opposite side of the mountain. Turning upon these new assailants, he drove them back in their turn, but while he was thus engaged, not only did Campbell's men rally and return to the attack, but Cleaveland's men also came into action. The Americans were unerring marksmen and advancing with the utmost deliberation from tree to tree and from rock to rock, firing with great precision, they made easy marks of Ferguson's men whom they picked off by the score. The British on the other hand from their elevated position fired wildly over the heads of their elusive foes, while their bayonet charges were broken up by the thick underbrush, trees, and rocks which covered the mountain. Though assailed first from one side and then from another; though repulsing Campbell only to be attacked in the rear by Shelby; though turning on Shelby only to have his flank fiercely assaulted by Cleaveland, nevertheless Ferguson sustained his high reputation as a gallant and skillful officer. Mounted on his white charger, making his presence known by a silver whistle, he fearlessly exposed himself in order to animate the drooping spirits of his men. Twice they raised the white flag, twice he struck it down with an oath that he would never surrender to such a damned set of banditti. Finally a bullet p474 pierced his heart and saved him from the disgrace of having to hoist the white flag. His second in command, Captain Abraham De Peyster, seeing the hopelessness of further resistance, thereupon raised the symbol of surrender.
The battle had lasted about an hour. No victory could be more complete. Ferguson's corps was entirely wiped out. Himself and 119 of his men were killed, 123 wounded, and 664 captured. This signal achievement had cost the Americans 28 killed, 62 wounded. It was the first ray of light to pierce the general gloom which had enveloped the country since the fall of Charleston. Washington saw in it "a proof of the spirit and resources of the country;" Clinton lamented it as a "fatal catastrophe." Everywhere patriots hailed it as the turning point in the struggle. "The victory at King's Mountain," says Bancroft, "which in the spirit of the American soldiers was like the rising at Concord, in its effects like the successes at Bennington, changed the aspect of the war. The Loyalists of North Carolina no longer dared rise. It fired the patriots of the two Carolinas with fresh zeal. It encouraged the fragments of the defeated and scattered American army to seek each other and organize themselves anew. It quickened the North Carolina legislature to earnest efforts. It inspirited Virginia to devote her resources to the country south of her border."8 It "Threw South Carolina (wrote Clinton) into a state of confusion and rebellion." It "totally disheartened" the Tories, disconcerted Cornwallis' plans, and made his position at Charlotte untenable. Deserted by his "friends" and threatened by fresh swarms of enemies, Cornwallis thought no longer of conquest, but of flight, and on October 12th hastily abandoning Charlotte, fled "with great precipitation" to Winnsboro, South Carolina. The fugitives, reported the Board of War to the governor, were closely pursued "by Davidson and Davie, who, with Colonel Morgan, are now hanging on and greatly distress them." Thus was the soil of North Carolina once more freed from the invader.
1 Fiske: The American Revolution, Vol. II, p163.
2 Tarleton: Campaigns, p25.
3 History of the American War, Vol. 2, p198.
4 Moultrie, William: Memoirs of the American Revolution, Vol. II, p213.
6 Tarleton: Campaigns, p155.
7 Annual Register, Vol. 24, p54.
8 History of the United States, (ed. 1888), Vol. V, p400.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Connor et al.
History of NC
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 19 Jan 15