Heroism of backcountry rebels turned tide of Revolutionary War

David Broyles Staff Reporter

September 6, 2013

Author Randell Jones spoke Thursday night on some of the formative events prior to the battle at Kings Mountain, which is credited by many historians as a turning point in the Revolutionary War. A dinner preceded the event which was held at the Edwards-Franklin House by the Surry County Historical Society.

Society member Marion Venable introduced Jones. She said the battle was an example of how “a host of celebrated frontiersmen undertook a mission to protect their homes and families by facing down a formidable enemy.”

“The patriots who fought at the Battle of Kings Mountain who fought Oct. 7, 1780, are an important part of our state’s heritage, a heritage that every North Carolinian, indeed every American should know and appreciate,” said Venable.

Jones said in the beginning he was curious about why these men were so uniquely qualified to wage such an attack. He said that after surveying these backwoods riflemen’s battles against the Shawnee and Cherokee and persecuting Tories this was a case of the riflemen “doing what they did all the time.”

He said in May of 1780 following the surrender of Charles Town, Lord Charles Cornwallis was put in charge of the British plans to invade North Carolina and Virginia. Maj. Patrick Ferguson was given the assignment to protect the British forces’ left flank.

Jones said following the Patriots’ defeat at the Battle of Camden in 1780, there was literally no army standing to stop Cornwallis from turning north to attack George Washington. He said the Loyalist forces entered North Carolina in mid-September. The Loyalists staged numerous skirmishes and retreated back.

“Patrick Ferguson had had his fill of these pesky men who skirmished him from behind every tree and ran away,” said Jones. He explained Ferguson released a Loyalist prisoner with his now famous ultimatum to stop resisting or he would hang their leaders and lay their country waste with fire and sword. Word went out through the mountains by express riders as the Loyalist leaders decided to gather and strike Ferguson before he hit them.

Jones said from the onset of the campaign, the Patriots’ 500 pounds of gunpowder were threatened by rainfall. He said the overmountain men gathered at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River. Col. Isaac Shelby led 240, Col. John Sevier led 240 from Tennessee, Col. Charles McDowell led 160 men from Burke and Rutherford counties and Col. William Cambell led 400 men from Washing County in Virginia. The Patriot forces marched through rain and snow as they pursued Ferguson.

Benjamin Cleveland and his nephews Jesse Franklin and Joseph Winston led 350 men from Wilkes and Surry to join the Patriots at Quaker Meadows near Morgantown. Jones said the band was a mixture of men on foot and horseback. The problem of which colonel would lead was solved by 29-year-old Isaac Shelby, and William Campbell, who had brought additional forces from Virginia, was put in charge.

He said upon arriving in Gilbert Town, the Patriots discovered two spies who had earlier slipped away from the ranks had succeeded in getting word to Ferguson this army was after him. He had left the town. They didn’t know where Ferguson had gone but guessed he was heading for South Carolina. Jones said confirmation came in the form of Col. Edward Lacy of the South Carolina militia who struck out at night with a local guide to tell the overmountain men Ferguson was heading for Charlotte.

The group decided to divide its forces and sent 900 of the best marksmen on horseback to ride after Ferguson, wrapping their weapons in hunting cloaks to keep them dry and embarking on the night of Oct. 6. If they didn’t catch up with Ferguson, he would be dangerously close to reinforcements from Charlotte.

Jones said they rode nonstop, crossing in the rain swollen waters of Cherokee Ford by using the horsemen on the strongest mounts to break the current. They didn’t lose a single man. Reportedly, a girl at a home where the Patriot militia had stopped pointed to Little Kings Mountain and told them that was where Ferguson was camped.

The Patriots stopped a quarter of a mile away from the small mountain and tied up their horses, taking only what they needed for battle. They divided themselves in two columns and surrounded the hill on the afternoon of Oct. 7, 1780.

“The war and world were about to change,” concluded Jones. “As I wrote this story, these men became my friends.”

He said more than 240 Loyalists were killed in the battle and 800 prisoners were taken.

Reach David Broyles at or 336-719-1952.