On this day in 1780, Patriot militia win a stunning victory against a band of Loyalists at the Battle of Kings Mountain.
The “memorable victory,” as Thomas Jefferson called it, was much-needed. It finally turned the tide after a long, difficult summer in which Americans had been repeatedly defeated in southern cities such as Charleston and Camden.
Maybe it was British Major Patrick Ferguson who finally pushed locals over the edge?
The British Major had come to be known as the “Bulldog.” He’d issued a threat to the local militia: Lay down your arms or we’ll hang your leaders and destroy the countryside. Things were getting personal, and the local militia had had enough. They were determined to defend their lives, their families, and their homes.
A group of men—the Over Mountain Men—gathered to stop Ferguson. They started their pursuit of him on September 26.
For his part, Ferguson remained cocky. He thought the Over Mountain Men the “dregs of mankind.” He decided to make a stand at King’s Mountain with his force of about 1,100 Loyalists. Brimming with overconfidence, he didn’t spend much time considering his defenses. He was sure he’d win. According to legend, he declared that “he was on King’s Mountain, that he was king of that mountain, and God Almighty could not drive him from it.”
Roughly 900 Patriots attacked on October 7. They’d separated into multiple columns and stealthily worked their way toward Ferguson’s men. They’d approached from many directions so as to surround the Loyalists. They were so quiet that they were nearly there before the Loyalists realized the Patriots were approaching.
The battle began with a Loyalist bayonet charge down the mountain. It was the only advantage that the Loyalists would have. The battle would be decided by the determination of the Patriots—and their weapons. They were carrying American rifles, and the Over Mountain Men were good, accurate shots. During much of the Revolution, the rifles weren’t always useful, despite their extended range. They took too long to reload. In this instance, however, the rifles were perfect. The Patriots had plenty of trees to use for cover, and they steadily worked their way uphill.
The Americans were winning, but Ferguson refused to believe it. When some of his men attempted to raise white flags, he hacked them down! Finally, he seemed to realize that he’d been defeated. He rushed the American lines, apparently hoping to break through and escape. Instead, he was shot and killed. His second-in-command was finally able to hoist a surrender flag.
Unfortunately, the Patriot militia wasn’t at its best in that moment. The long summer’s worth of pent-up anger could not be easily restrained. The Loyalists sought quarter, but the Patriots at first refused to give it. They stopped killing the Loyalists only when American officers finally made them.
The victory had a huge, positive impact on the Patriot cause! George Washington called it a “proof of the spirit and resources of the country.” Thomas Jefferson later remembered the victory as the “joyful annunciation of that turn of the tide of success which terminated the revolutionary war with the seal of our independence.” British General Charles Cornwallis moved his forces away from the area, possibly believing the Patriot militia to be larger and better organized than it really was.
The ultimate victory at Yorktown was only one year away.
George Washington, General Orders (October 27, 1780)
Henry Lumpkin, From Savannah to Yorktown (1981)
John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas (1999)
Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Campbell (Nov. 10, 1822)