This was originally published in the Belle Banner, Belle, Missouri, on April 13th 2020. The Belle Banner has since closed.
I have often written about the trust and confidence the US Army places in the individual soldier, the enlisted men and women. That trust goes back to the very beginning of this country.
In 1780, Thomas Stockton, a nephew of my sixth great grandfather, Thomas Stockton, was living close to the French Broad River in what is now Sevier County, Tennessee. He had spent three years exploring that “back country” before settling there. About 50 miles north of Thomas, his uncle William Stockton was living close to the Nolichucky River in Greene County, Tennessee. The settlements where Thomas and William Stockton lived, had at first been called illegal by the British government, because that was Cherokee land. They had leased their land from the Cherokee, and finally fought them for it, until it was accepted by the government. So, most of them were Whigs, American patriots opposed to the British Monarchy.
On the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in what is now York County, South Carolina, Newberry Stockton, brother to my fifth great grandfather, Thomas, was living along Clarks Fork of Bullocks Creek. His neighbors were his two sisters, Jemima Lattimore and Rachel Lattimore with their families, also his aunts, Martha Ann Welchel, and Hannah Goudylock with their families. More family, including Newberry’s uncle, Samuel Stockton, and his aunt Elizabeth, whose husband William Whiteside had died in 1777, lived about 25 miles north, in North Carolina.
After the British lost the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777, they turned their attention to the south. On the day after Christmas 1779, General Henry Clinton, the overall commander of British troops in North America, with his second in command Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis, sailed south with 8,500 troops and 5,000 sailors on 90 troop ships and 14 warships. After six weeks of fighting, on May 12th 1780, American Major General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered Charleston, South Carolina to the British. It was one of the worst American losses and a great British victory.
During the summer of 1780, groups from the frontier, west of the mountains, began making excursions across the mountains and engaging loyalist groups. Isaac Shelby lead one group and joined another group, led by Colonel Charles McDowell. They captured Fort Thickety on the Pacolet River, and aided in a Patriot victory at Musgrove Mill.
The Overmountain Men, as they were called, were true pioneers, used to living off the land, often having to hunt for food. Almost without exception they carried what came to be known as the Kentucky Rifle. The Kentucky Rifle was made in America, and was the first with a rifled barrel, which greatly increased its accuracy. It was made in calibers from .28 to .50, with a 44 inch barrel, and was deadly accurate to over 200 yards. The Overmountain Men were excellent shots, used to having to shoot game, on the run. The loyalists carried the “British Brown Bess” musket, which was a large caliber, smooth bore, only accurate out to about 50 to 60 yards. It was devastating when it hit, but unpredictable.
On August 16th 1780, at Camden, South Carolina, Lord Cornwallis’ forces routed the American forces of Major General Horatio Gates, who had defeated the British at Saratoga. Cornwallis’ intention was then to move into North Carolina. South Carolina appears to have been almost equally divided between American patriots, and those loyal to the British Crown. So, enlisting forces of loyalists was not hard for the British, in South Carolina. Lord Cornwallis sent British Major Patrick Ferguson to organize a force of loyalists to protect his west flank, as he moved his army toward North Carolina. Major Ferguson had recruited and trained a very effective loyalist force of about 1,100.
By fall, most of the Overmountain Men had to return home to harvest crops. Colonel McDowell stayed behind with about 160 men, to continue harassing the loyalists, but when he ran into Major Ferguson’s loyalists, he was greatly outnumbered and had to retreat back over the mountains. One of McDowell’s group, who happened to be a cousin of Isaac Shelby, was captured by Ferguson. Major Ferguson sent him home with the message that if they didn’t lay down their weapons and stop fighting, and “declare for the crown”, he would cross the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay waste to the country with fire and sword. Upon receiving the message, Shelby rode 40 miles to Watauga to consult with John Sevier, and the two decided to raise a force, go east over the mountains and strike Ferguson, before he could get to them. These were American Frontiersmen, temperamental and cantankerous backwoodsmen, who definitely did not “declare for the crown”.
Shelby raised 240 men from Sullivan County and John Sevier gathered another 240 from Washington. William Stockton was in the John Sevier group. I believe that must have been young William, who would have been about 30 at that time, whereas his father, William, who was a brother to my sixth great grandfather Thomas, would have been about 60. Colonel William Campbell brought 400 from southwest Virginia. They came together at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River on September 25th. Lead had been mined at nearby Bumpass Cove for ammunition, Sullivan County merchant John Adair volunteered funds for the expedition, and women prepared clothing and food for the long march. Black powder for the expedition was manufactured by Mary Patton at the Patton mill along nearby Powder Branch. On September 26th, after a fiery sermon by Reverend Samuel Doak, they started across the Blue Ridge Mountains. It took three days to cross the mountains, in which they met with Colonel McDowell and his group, bringing their numbers to just over 1,000.
On September 30th they spent the day and the night at the McDowell family plantation at Quaker Meadows (Morganton, North Carolina), where they also joined with 300 Carolina Patriots led by Colonels Benjamin Cleveland and Joseph Winston. In that group were sons of sisters of my sixth great grandfather Thomas, Elizabeth’s sons Davis and John Whiteside, and Martha Ann’s sons Davis, Francis, John, and William Welchel. That brought the force to about 1,400. On October 1st they camped on top of Bedford Hill and chose an overall leader. There was argument, at first, but then Shelby suggested that Campbell, who commanded the largest group, be given overall command. Cleveland, McDowell and Sevier agreed.
Major Ferguson had camped at Gilbert Town (Rutherfordton, North Carolina), but when he got reports of “a swarm of backwoodsmen” he turned east to get closer to Lord Cornwallis’ British regulars. On October 4th the Overmountain Men reached Gilbert Town to find that Ferguson had gone east. By then they were so tired that they were no longer capable of hot pursuit, but they pushed on reaching Cowpens on October 6th, where they found a loyalists’ cow herd, which they slaughtered and feasted. They had brought very little food with them and only a small bag of corn for the horses, which had to eat grass found along the way. While at Cowpens they learned that Ferguson had camped at Kings Mountain, which was a flat top hill shaped like a footprint with the highest point at the heel, a narrow instep, and a broad rounded toe. The Loyalists camped on a ridge west of Kings Pinnacle, the highest point on Kings Mountain.
Upon learning Ferguson’s location, the most weakened members were left behind, and the remaining force of about 900 set off in the rainy darkness for Kings Mountain. Many were on foot, but swore to keep up with those on horses. They marched through the night, stopping the next morning when outriders captured a pair of loyalists, who described Kings Mountain. They reached the western side of the mountain about noon on October 7th. They tied their horses to trees and moved forward on foot.
By around 3:00 PM they had everyone in position, forming a U around the mountain, with Shelby, Sevier, Williams, and Cleveland on the north side, and Campbell, Winston, and McDowell on the south side.
Loyalist officer Alexander Chesney later wrote that he didn’t know the Patriots were anywhere near them until the shooting started. William Campbell told his men to “shout like hell and fight like the devil”, and two companies opened fire on the loyalists. Both Campbell and Shelby tried to charge up the mountain, but were driven back. The mountain was hard to scale, but it was heavily wooded, providing cover for the mountain men, then they realized that the loyalists shooting downhill were consistently shooting high. That, I believe, is when those “backwoods” Mountain men and their Kentucky Rifles took over. The fire from the Overmountain men was described as devastating. After an hour, Major Ferguson, who wore a colored hunting shirt so his men could always locate him, was hit several times and knocked dead from his horse, that is when the loyalists ran back to their tents and tied handkerchiefs on their gun barrels, trying to surrender, but the backwoodsmen, now on them, continued to kill loyalists, until the leaders finally got control and stopped the killing. The final result was loyalists 157 killed, 163 wounded so severely they were left on the field, and 698 captured. The Patriots suffered 28 killed and 62 wounded.
Colonel James Williams from South Carolina was Killed, as was John Sevier’s brother Robert. Davis Whiteside, whose mother was Elizabeth, sister to my sixth great grandfather, Thomas, died from his wounds, and Clarks Fork of Bullocks Creek, runs off of Kings Mountain. The battle was literally in the back yards of the Stockton family in South Carolina.
Some have written that Kings Mountain was a turning point in the war. I agree, because instead of continuing on to North Carolina, Cornwallis turned back south, albeit temporarily. Hardly more than a week after being threatened, a force that had not previously existed, came over the mountains and wiped out his 1,000 strong western flank security. In January 1781, a force of 1,000 of his British regulars, under Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton met an equal force of the Continental Army, under Lieutenant Colonel William Washington at Cowpens. Tarleton barely escaped with his life, leaving behind 839 wounded, killed, or captured. In March 1781, Cornwallis did defeat American General Green’s forces at Gulliford Court House (Greensboro, North Carolina), he then moved into Virginia thinking that he would find the same loyalist support for the crown, as in South Carolina. He did not, and in October 1781, a year after King’s Mountain, he was forced to surrender to General Washington, at Yorktown, Virginia, effectively ending the Revolutionary War.