Randell Jones is an award-winning author and storyteller. He is the author of In the Footsteps of Daniel Boone and Before They Were Heroes at Kings Mountain as well as other books of the pioneer era and the American Revolution. Since 2007, Randell has served as an invited member of the Road Scholars Speakers Bureau of the North Carolina Humanities Council.
The Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780, was a hard-fought victory for patriot militiamen from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Thomas Jefferson later called that battle “the joyful annunciation of the turn of the tide of success” in the American Revolution. That victory had a decisive impact on the experience of those in Charlottetown. The heroic story of the patriot militiamen who came together for the battle has focused predominantly on those coming from the overmountain regions. In 1980, Congress designated the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail to commemorate and interpret the story. South Carolina militia made up more than a quarter of the fighting force and their story, along with the North Carolina militia units who fought, is well worth sharing.
On September 25, 1780, nearly a thousand overmountain militiamen were mustering at Sycamore Shoals. 130 miles away in today’s East Tennessee, around 260 South Carolina militiamen under Colonel Thomas Sumter crossed over to the west side of the Catawba River at Bigger’s Ferry about 20 miles southwest of Charlottetown. They did so as Lord Cornwallis’s massive army, the British Legion, was continuing its advance from the south into North Carolina following his decisive victory at Camden in mid-August. Cornwallis was intent on capturing Charlottetown and re-establishing royal authority over yet another rebellious southern colony.
The South Carolina militia and the Lincoln County militia withdrew north up the Catawba River valley as General Cornwallis approached Charlottetown. They turned west to join up with the overmountain militiamen, at last joining together at The Cowpens. Sumter’s men withdrew north along the Catawba River’s west side until they reached Tuckasegee Ford about 15 miles west of Charlottetown. At that ford on the 26th, they came upon about 60 patriot militiamen from Lincoln County under the command of Colonel William Graham. These men were withdrawing to the east in the face of the advance of Cornwallis’s left flank. The two groups of patriots withdrew together, heading north on 27 September, intending to join up with General William Lee Davidson. They most likely used Beattie’s Ford Road and passed not so far from today’s Latta Plantation (that land then homesteaded by others) and from Rural Hill, the home of Major John Davidson.
Word came back to Sumter and Graham from General Davidson that a large force of militiamen under Shelby, Sevier, and Campbell was reportedly advancing from over the mountains. Sumter and Graham turned their men toward the west, crossing the river at Beattie’s Ford, and expecting to ride north and west along the Catawba River valley to meet up with the overmountain militia, perhaps at Quaker Meadows.
In the last days of September 1780, Williams and his 70 recruits and refugees crossed the Catawba River at Sherrill’s Ford heading west. They came upon Sumter’s men. Both South Carolina leaders were colonels, but Williams had recently acquired some special authority for requisitioning supplies as conferred by South Carolina’s governor-in-exile John Rutledge in Hillsborough. Accordingly, Williams declared his intention to command all the South Carolina militia in that camp, but Sumter and his officers would not readily relinquish Sumter’s right to command. Instead, Sumter and several of his officers rode off to Hillsborough to request a promotion from Governor Rutledge for Sumter to the rank of general. Meanwhile, Graham and Williams, with Sumter’s men and a few of his officers obeying William’s command, however reluctantly, continued west to meet up with the overmountain militiamen.
After scouts reported that the overmountain men had already left Quaker Meadows for Gilbert Town, Williams turned south and marched to the Flint Hills. Graham and his Lincoln County militiamen departed from Williams; they rode ahead and met up with the overmountain men who had by then been joined by 350 Yadkin River valley patriots under Major Joseph Winston and Colonel Benjamin Cleaveland. Major William Chronicle of Graham’s command and his men caught up with the overmountain men in upper Cane Creek. Colonel Graham and the rest of his men joined them farther south at the mouth of Camp Creek and Second Broad River. The combined force of about 1,500 men then prepared to attack British Major Patrick Ferguson, believing he was encamped in Gilbert Town.
When the combined force of patriot militiamen advanced on Gilbert Town on October 4, 1780, they were expecting to find British Major Patrick Ferguson there with his army of loyalist Americans. They discovered instead that Ferguson had already withdrawn, learning as he had from two traitorous overmountain militiamen with loyalist leanings than a thousand skilled, backcountry militiamen were on their way to attack him. Patriot scouts reported back that Ferguson was likely headed south toward Ninety-Six, South Carolina, his former headquarters.
Colonel James Williams rode west from his camp at Flint Hills to confer with the other colonels: Shelby, Sevier, Campbell, Cleveland, and Graham. They most likely agreed to ride toward Ninety-Six by way of the Old Iron Works, on Lawson’s Fork of Pacolet in pursuit of Ferguson as that was the best information they had. While Williams rode east to his camp on 5 October, scouts reported at Flint Hills to Sumter’s remaining officers, colonels William Hill and Edward Lacey, that Ferguson was headed east toward Charlottetown. When Williams arrived back at his Flint Hills camp, he ordered the men to prepare to march south toward Lawson’s Fork to rendezvous with the other colonels. Hill and Lacey were adamant that was the wrong direction based on their new information but Williams knew what plans he made with the other colonels. He insisted his militiamen march toward Lawson’s Fork for a rendezvous.
In desperation, Hill, who suffered a severe wound to his arm in a recent battle in August, asked Lacey to ride into the night to find the overmountain and backcountry patriot militia and to persuade them to turn east to pursue Ferguson on his withdrawal toward Charlottetown. Lacey undertook his daring ride, getting lost along the way in the dark, but eventually stumbling upon the patriot encampment. He shared the news and convinced the other officers that he brought them a true report. The officers there reconsidered their situation and ordered their men with horses to be ready to ride at dawn. The militiamen on foot followed as best they could on the 22-mile ride to meet the South Carolina militiamen at The Cowpens on the evening of October 6. Colonel Lacey took a fresh mount and rode 20 miles back to the Flint Hills to alert Williams and the others to the new plans.
Colonel Williams and the South Carolina militia rode south on October 6, crossing over the Broad River at Island Ford and joined the large gathering of overmountain, Yadkin River valley, and Lincoln County militia at The Cowpens. By that point, the gathered force of militiamen numbered between 1,600 and 1,800, by various estimates, including 30 Georgia militiamen.
Patriot militia officers at The Cowpens walked through the camp and selected the 900 best marksmen to put on the 900 sturdiest horses and rode 35 miles through a cold, rainy night on October 6, 1780. They surprised Major Patrick Ferguson and his army of loyalist American militiamen atop Little Kings Mountain on the afternoon of October 7, 1780, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. For one hour and five minutes, citizen militiamen fought bravely; they would not be denied and they did not fail. They charged up the sides of Little Kings Mountain three times, at last killing Patrick Ferguson and taking more than 800 loyalist prisoners. On that day they turned the tide of the American Revolution.
The South Carolina militia and the Lincoln County militia were at the Battle of Kings Mountain in significant numbers and suffered major casualties, both wounded and dead. Heroes were among them, too. Major Chronicle was killed early in the charge, leading his men up the mountain. Colonel James Williams was mortally wounded near the end of the battle, the highest-ranking patriot officer killed at Kings Mountain.
When news of Ferguson’s death and the loss of the left flank of the advancing British Legion reached General Cornwallis in Charlottetown, he retreated from North Carolina. Suffering from yellow fever, Cornwallis was carried by wagon as his army withdrew into winter quarters at Winnsboro, South Carolina. With the British Legion no longer pressing into the North Carolina piedmont for a few months, the patriot forces were able to regroup and strengthen. More North Carolina militiamen joined the patriot cause and it became harder for General Cornwallis to find men willing to fight for the Crown as loyalists. In Charlottetown on December 2, 1780, the Southern Department of the Continental Army came under the command of its new leader, General Nathanael Greene. Hope was renewed. A patriot victory almost seemed possible.
Anderson, William Lee, III, “Trail of South Carolina Militiamen and Lincoln County Militiamen to Kings Mountain,” 2015.
Jones, Randell, Before They Were Heroes at King’s Mountain (Winston-Salem, 2011).
Jones, Randell, “Route of the South Carolina Militia and Lincoln County Militia,” Tour 4, Online Tour of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, 2015, http://bythewaywebf.webfaction...;
Robertson, John, “Overmountain Victory Trail – Searching for join-up route by Lincoln/Caswell Cos. and SC Militia,” 2015, http://gaz.jrshelby.com/ovnht2/overmountain-nc-sc.htm