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Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

North Carolina
in the American Revolution

Hugh F. Rankin
North Carolina
Division of Archives and History
Raleigh, 1959

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p41  Chapter 5

The "Bull Dog" on the Mountain

The news which had led Lord Cornwallis to make such a sudden change in his plans concerned Major Patrick Ferguson. Ferguson was one of the most promising young officers in the British army. He had been a soldier since he was fifteen years old, and had fought in the American War for nearly five years. He had invented a breech-loading rifle, and was recognized generally as one of the best marksmen in all England. Patrick Ferguson proved himself to be such a stubborn fighter that his fellow officers had nicknamed him the "Bull Dog." Since he had been in the South, Cornwallis had assigned him the task of recruiting the Tories and organizing them into trained fighting units.

In Lord Cornwallis's master plan for the invasion of North Carolina and Virginia, Ferguson had been assigned the important task of protecting the left flank of the British army. Recently, he had been pursuing small groups of rebels through the mountains and enlisting Tories to serve in the army of the King. He had advanced as far westward as Gilbert Town (near present‑day Rutherfordton). There he had halted. From this small mountain settlement he sent word to "Over the Mountain Men," that if they did not lay down their arms he would "march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword."

For all of his skill and bravery as a soldier, this was a foolish move by Patrick Ferguson. No one, especially a person whom they considered to be an enemy, spoke to the mountain men in such language. It was not long before spies brought word to Ferguson that the mountain men were assembling to march against him. The scouts estimated that rebels outnumbered Ferguson's group by as much as three to one. Although Major Ferguson was worried by this report, he had no intention of showing his concern. He sent out a call to all persons who remained loyal to the King to bring their guns to camp and be ready to fight the "mongrels of the back-country." He next dispatched a messenger to Charlotte, asking for help from Lord Cornwallis. Without waiting for an answer from the British  p43 general, Ferguson struck his tents and hastened towards Charlotte and the protection of the British army.

The mountain patriots assembled at Sycamore Flats on the Watauga River. There were 240 men from Sullivan County (now in Tennessee) under Colonel Isaac Shelby; 160 men came from Burke and Rutherford counties under the command of Colonel Charles McDowell; and Colonel John Sevier led 240 men from Washington County (now in Tennessee). They were joined by 400 men under Colonel William Campbell who had marched down from Washington County, Virginia. Once they had all assembled, this fast-growing little army began its march across the mountains, sometimes wading through ankle-deep snow. Benjamin Cleveland, with 350 men from Wilkes and Surry counties joined them at Quaker Meadows on the Catawba River (near Morganton).

At Gilbert Town they learned that Ferguson had halted his retreat towards Charlotte and was preparing to make a stand at King's Mountain, near the North Carolina-South Carolina border. The mountain men hurried towards that spot. Colonel John Williams with another 400 men joined them at a place called the Cowpens in South Carolina. A steady rain began to fall. All that day and night they marched through the downpour towards their enemy on King's Mountain. On Saturday morning, October 7, 1780, they arrived at the foot of the mountain.

King's Mountain is not very high as mountains go. It is almost flat at the summit, but its slopes are steep, rocky, and covered with trees and brush. On top, where the ground is level, Ferguson had placed his 1,100 men. So sure was he of the strength of this position that he boasted that "he was on King's Mountain, and that he was king of that mountain. . . ." Because of the thick growth of underbrush, he could not see the mountain men as they approached through the still-dripping trees.

At the foot of King's Mountain, in the army of about 1,800, men were dismounting from their horses and checking their rifles. Some placed white scraps of paper in their hats so they could be recognized. Their officers spoke encouraging words, reminding them to act bravely in the face of enemy fire. They spread out and surrounded the mountain. Then, as the first rifle spat its deadly message, the mountain men gave a war whoop and began to scramble up the steep slopes. Now and then they  p44 halted long enough to take refuge behind a tree and squeeze off a shot at the enemy.

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The Battle of King's Mountain, October 7, 1780, where the British were defeated and suffered severe losses.

The British and the Tories on top of the mountain were stunned momentarily by this sudden and unexpected attack. Ferguson, wearing a plaid hunting shirt to protect his uniform from the rain, signaled his men into position with the little silver whistle he wore around his neck. Throughout the battle the shrill shriek of the whistle could be heard above the rattle of the musketry as Ferguson maneuvered his men from one position to another. The plaid shirt, the silver whistle, and the sword hanging by his side made the British major a natural target for the sharpshooters among the Americans.

On came the rebels. Some slipped down the wet slope as they lost their footing; others grabbed a convenient bush in order to pull themselves along. Suddenly, the silver whistle was heard no more. Several rifle balls, at almost the same instant, had knocked Ferguson from his horse. The "Bull Dog" was dead. His second-in‑command ordered the white flag of surrender. The firing stopped. Colonel Isaac Shelby shouted for Ferguson's men to throw down their arms. They did. The battle was over.

On the side of the mountain where he had died, Ferguson was buried under a pile of rocks. One hundred and fifty seven of his men had been killed, 163 wounded, and 698 had been taken prisoner by the rebels. Soon after the battle, most of the mountain men returned to their home. Some stayed to guard the prisoners when they were marched to Hillsboro to be trained over to General Gates.

Ferguson's defeat at King's Mountain was responsible for the sudden change in the plans of Cornwallis. With Ferguson out of the way, he was afraid that the rebels from the mountain regions would attack the British outposts in South Carolina, if the army marched into North Carolina. On October 14, he issued marching orders to his troops. In the steady, cold, October rain his redcoats sloshed their way through the mud on the return to South Carolina. Many of the soldiers, including Lord Cornwallis, became sick. The laboring and lumbering column was harassed almost continually by little groups under Colonels Davie and Davidson. Fifteen days after they left Charlotte, a bedraggled British army straggled into Winnsboro, South Carolina. Almost immediately, Cornwallis wrote Sir Henry Clinton requesting reinforcements — enough men to allow him to make another effort.  p45 The first invasion of North Carolina had ended in dismal failure.

Up in Hillsboro, General Gates received the news that Cornwallis had retreated from Charlotte. He immediately marched his little army of about 1,000 men to that place. He was not to remain there very long. Ever since he had been so disastrously defeated in the battle of Camden, many people had demanded his removal as commander of the southern army. So persistent were these demands that the Continental Congress ordered General Washington to appoint a general to succeed General Gates.

On December 5, 1780, a stockily-built, stern-faced, major general rode into Charlotte and took over the command of the army from Horatio Gates. This was Nathanael Greene, the "fighting Quaker." Greene, a Rhode Islander, had at one time been a member of the Quaker Church. Before the war he had worked with his father making iron anchors for ships. He had no military experience and an injured knee gave him a permanent limp; yet, despite these handicaps he had become a major general in the Continental army. Nathanael Greene had fought the British since the siege of Boston in 1775, and at one time had served at Quartermaster General. This was the man chosen by General Washington to replace General Gates.

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Major General Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island succeeded General Gates in command of the Continental army in the South, December, 1780.

There were, in addition to General Greene, two other newcomers to the southern army. Both were destined to play an important role in the months ahead and both were from Virginia. One was the gigantic brigadier general, Daniel Morgan. Twenty years earlier, during the French and Indian War, a British officer had ordered Morgan whipped for some infraction of the rules. The scars left by the lash were still visible on his back. He hated the sight of any soldier in a red coat. Since the very beginning of the Revolution he had fought the British from Canada to South Carolina. The days of exposure were beginning to tell on the magnificent body that held the soul of Daniel Morgan. Rheumatism now made every step he took a painful effort, but not even suffering could dim the fighting spirit of this man from the frontiers of Virginia.

Daniel Morgan was a native of Virginia, a brigadier general and a veteran of the French and Indian War. He defeated the British at Cowpens.

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The other Virginian was a cocky little cavalry leader, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee. To the army he was known as "Light Horse Harry." The unit he commanded was known as the American Legion, a group of specially selected men who rode swift horses and fought like demons. In their white leather breeches, green jackets, and plumed leather helmets, they were probably  p46 the best-dressed outfit in the American army. Because of the speed with which they moved, the American Legion was particularly valuable in observing the movements of the enemy.

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Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee, "Light Horse Harry," of Virginia, was in command of a unit known as the American Legion, a fast-moving troop, invaluable in scouting service.

Soon after assuming command of the army, General Nathanael Greene not only made a thorough inspection of his soldiers, but also had a careful survey made of the country near Charlotte. He decided that there was not enough food in the vicinity to feed his army. Therefore he ordered the major portion of his army to take up a position on the Pee Dee River in South Carolina (the Yadkin River becomes the Pee Dee before reaching South Carolina). A smaller group of around 1,000 men, which included some 300 North Carolina troops, was placed under the command of General Morgan. These, Greene ordered into northwest South Carolina, near the town and British post, of Ninety Six. This splitting of the army not only provided Greene and Morgan with a better opportunity to secure provisions for their men, but enabled them to observe more closely the movements of the British. When, and if, Lord Cornwallis did start a drive northward into North Carolina and Virginia, he would have to march between these two American groups. Greene and Morgan could then close in and hammer at his flanks.

On the other hand, Lord Cornwallis was no fool. He had no intention of allowing himself to be caught in a trap of this nature.  p47 Because Morgan's group was the smaller of the two and its position was nearer to the British army, the British general decided to eliminate it. For this task he selected the hard-riding British Legion of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Of all the officers in the British army, Tarleton was the most hated by the Americans in the South. He had roamed up and down South Carolina, burning houses, plundering homes, and slaughtering cattle. Because of his ruthlessness, both on and off the battlefield, he was known as "Bloody" Tarleton. He was delighted when he received the assignment to wipe out Morgan. Almost immediately he started marching for the American position.

Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, commanding British cavalry troops, called "Bloody" Tarleton for his outrages against civilians and soldiers in the Revolution. This picture is from a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, painted for Tarleton's mother in 1782.

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Morgan retired. Through the fields and forests he fled, sometimes just ahead of the oncoming British. When he reached a place called Hannah's Cowpens on the Broad River, he halted his men and made ready for the battle. There, in the area usually used for grazing cattle, he placed his soldiers in three battle lines. With their backs to the river, there was no chance to retreat; his men had to stand and fight. When the rash Tarleton came on the scene, he immediately charged Morgan's position. He was, however, sent reeling back in a smashing and unexpected defeat. Almost the entire British Legion was taken prisoner. The Americans captured much booty, including valuable equipment, arms, and ammunition. Tarleton himself was able to escape only because he rode a fast horse. Accompanied by just a few of his men, he dashed madly to the protection of Cornwallis's camp.

Daniel Morgan had won an outstanding victory over one of the crack units in the British army. Nevertheless, he knew full  p48 well that he would not have time for the celebration such a feat deserved. Cornwallis would never allow such a humiliating blow to British military prowess to go unpunished. The whole British army would soon be down upon the victorious Americans. Morgan was too smart to allow this to happen. He left a small detachment to bury the dead and care for the wounded. A messenger was sent to carry the news to General Greene. On the same day as the battle, January 17, 1781, and almost before his men had an opportunity to rest after the battle, Morgan started them marching northwards toward North Carolina.

When Tarleton dashed into Cornwallis's camp, the British general reacted to the news of the battle of Cowpens just as Morgan had anticipated. He made preparations straightway for the pursuit of Morgan. The long line of redcoated soldiers marched slowly and gained little on Morgan's men. The heavily loaded baggage wagons mired down in swollen streams and muddy roads. At the end of one week, on January 25th, his army had crept only as far as Ramsour's Mill. There, encamping on the same hillside where the Whigs and the Tories had fought so desperately the previous June 20th, Lord Cornwallis made a major decision. To lighten his load, he decided to burn all of his wagons  p49 and excess baggage. For two days a great bonfire blazed as wagons, extra uniforms, shoes, tents, and other equipment were consumed by the flames. Only enough wagons to transport the ammunition, the sick, and the wounded, were saved from destruction. On January 28th, the pursuit of Morgan was resumed.

In the meantime Morgan's messenger had reached the camp of General Greene on the Pee Dee. After a brief celebration of the victory at the Cowpens, Greene moved fast. Marching orders were issued. The army of the Pee Dee was placed under the command of General Isaac Huger of South Carolina. They were told to march northward and join Morgan's troops at Guilford Court House in North Carolina. Then, with only a sergeant's guard as an escort, Greene rode swiftly across country to join Morgan.

Shortly after two o'clock in the afternoon of January 31st, General Greene arrived at Beatty's Ford on the Catawba River. Morgan was waiting for him, although his soldiers had been sent on to Salisbury. There were no bridges across the river, and the only possible way for Cornwallis to cross the Catawba was to ford the stream. Morgan's men had already felled a number of trees in most of the fords to make this crossing more difficult.

As Greene and Morgan talked, General William Lee Davidson rode up. Davidson was in command of the militia in this area, and if he could not prevent the British from crossing the Catawba, he was to slow their pursuit. Even as the three generals sat on a log discussing their next move, a group of redcoats appeared on the opposite shore. An officer, whom they believed to be Lord Cornwallis, peered across the river through a spy glass. As he looked, Greene and Morgan finished their discussion and rode off towards Salisbury.

General Davidson then divided his militia between the two fords that the British were most likely to use — Beatty's and Cowan's. Greene had warned Davidson that Cornwallis possibly would try to throw the Americans off balance by making a big show at one ford and then crossing at another. This was exactly what Cornwallis had planned. Several pieces of artillery, all of the wagons, and a small number of troops were dispatched to Beatty's Ford. While they made noisy preparations to cross the river, the main body of the army marched to Cowan's Ford, some four miles down the river. They had started at one o'clock in the morning, and much of their time was lost stumbling along  p50 dark and unfamiliar roads. It was near daybreak when they first saw the twinkling campfires of the North Carolina militia guarding the opposite shore.

The militia were sleeping soundly, confident that their sentries would warn them in plenty of time should the British attempt a crossing at this point. It was a foggy morning, and not yet light enough to see the redcoats enter the muddy waters. The waters were swift, and the sentries soon heard the splashing of the water as the British struggled along, trying to maintain their footing on the slippery bottom. Although the American sentries were not able to see the enemy, they fired several shots at the sounds. Awakened by the shots, the militia rushed to the river bank and took up positions behind the trees.

Out in the river, the British were experiencing rough going. They had roped themselves together to prevent being swept away by the current, but some were still pulled beneath the surface. Two of Cornwallis's generals received an unexpected ducking as their horses lost their footing and rolled over. Governor Martin had his fine hat swept down the stream. Now there were the whining musket balls that came singing into their midst. Undaunted, the British struggled on.

The advance units leading the redcoats reached the shore. They scrambled up the muddy bank, loading their muskets and fixing their bayonets as they formed a battle line. They fired volley after volley to protect their dripping comrades as they came up out of the river. The militia, knowing they would soon be outnumbered, began to drift towards the rear. General Davidson tried to rally them. He was just putting his foot into the stirrup to mount his horse, when a musket ball slammed into his chest. Their commanding officer dead, the militia began to run. Soon there was no opposition and the enemy finished their crossing unmolested.

Cornwallis sent out his cavalry under Tarleton to scour the countryside and prevent the militia from reassembling. Tarleton found a large group of the North Carolinians assembling at a place called Torrence's Tavern. Before the North Carolinians could form a battle line, Tarleton and his men were upon them, swinging their sabers and firing pistols at close range. The militia scattered. The British army again took up the pursuit of Morgan's men.

 p51  They were hard on the heels of the Americans. At times they were so close that Greene's rear guard could look back and see the rolling clouds of smoke as the enemy fired some farmhouse along the way. On they came, through Salisbury, across the Yadkin River, and finally, on February 6th, Greene's cold, wet, and hungry men filed into the area around Guilford Court House. Three days later, the army of the Pee Dee marched in, many of them without shoes, leaving bloody footprints as their feet were torn and cut by the frozen ground.

Greene hoped that he would be able to make a stand at Guilford, but he soon felt that this was hopeless. He began a dash for the Dan River which flowed along the boundary between North Carolina and Virginia. Now he was without Morgan. The giant Virginian was so crippled by arthritis and rheumatism that he was forced to leave the army.

The retreat from Guilford to the Dan River was almost like a game of hare and hounds. There were numerous little skirmishes between the rear guard of Greene and the advance guard of Cornwallis. Although these little clashes seldom amounted to much, every time one occurred, there was no way for Cornwallis to know whether it was a small group, or Greene's entire army. And during every clash, the British would deploy in battle formation. This slowed the British and earned precious hours for the Americans.

Late in the afternoon of February 14th, the last of Greene's rear guard began to cross the Dan at a place called Boyd's Ferry. They were rowed across in boats, their weary horses swimming along behind. They were barely across when the redcoats appeared on the opposite shore. Their packs had been discarded so that they might make better time, and in the last twenty-four hours they had marched forty miles. This was almost phenomenal marching time. It did them little good. The British general had lost the race to the Dan.

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