“The instant that I heard of Major Ferguson’s defeat,” wrote Sir Henry Clinton, “I knew the result.” In his memoirs published many years after his death, the commander-in-chief of British forces in North America came to refer to the Battle of Kings Mountain in October of 1780 as “the first link in a chain of evils” that ended in the total loss of the colonies.
Historians of the American Revolutionary War have come to agree with Clinton’s assessment, and that is why the site was named a National Military Park in 1931. Along with Cowpens National Battlefield about 20 miles to the west, Kings Mountain commemorates a string of battles in the South Carolina upcountry that turned the tide in the British army’s Southern campaign and led to the ultimate defeat of Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown, Va., just one year later.
On a recent trip to Spartanburg, I was able to devote a morning to a brief excursion to the battlefield, which is just south of our state’s border with North Carolina. It was well worth the trip. Today’s visitors can trace the progress of patriot forces along a mile-and-a-half trail that climbs the ridge where British Major Patrick Ferguson and his loyalist militia held the high ground.
Ferguson, who designed his own version of the breech-loading rifle and was said to be the finest marksman in the British army, had become a prime target for patriot forces because of his very public contempt for their cause and for his harsh treatment of prisoners. Cornwallis had ordered Ferguson and his men to serve as his left flank in his march on Charlotte, and it was in part the latter’s arrogance that led him to halt his progress at Kings Mountain, “a rocky spur of the Blue Ridge that rises 150 feet above the surrounding area,” to face his enemies.
Most strategists would agree that Ferguson picked a good defensible position on the narrow plateau that crowns the ridge; and his 1,100 men patiently waited for the arrival of the patriot force, which numbered about 900, including a major contingent of “over-mountain” men, so-called because they had settled on land west of the Appalachian Mountains. This particular group was proficient with the long rifles that they used for hunting, weapons that had a longer range than the muskets carried by the professional armies on both sides.
The patriot forces under the command of Virginian William Campbell surrounded the ridge, taking cover behind trees as they climbed the steep slopes toward “Bulldog” Ferguson and his Tory band, who managed to drive them back three times with bayonet charges. Ferguson on horseback tried to rally his troops, using a silver whistle to issue commands. His checked coat, however, made him an easy target, and some estimate that he was hit by as many as nine rifle balls, causing him to fall from his horse, his boot catching in one stirrup so that he was dragged some distance before his men could cut him free.
By that point in the battle, the loyalist forces were surrendering piecemeal, and both patriot and Tory combatants ultimately clustered around the dying Ferguson, propped up against a tree. His burial site was marked only by a large mound of stones until 1930 when a monument was erected on the site as a somewhat ironic “token of appreciation of the bond of friendship and peace” between the citizens of this country and the “citizens of the British Empire.”
Other monuments that dot the ridge include an 83-foot-tall obelisk erected in 1909 to memorialize the patriot victory as a “turning point of the revolution” – it also marks the center of the Loyalist defenses – and an ovoid granite boulder that identifies the spot where President Herbert Hoover addressed a large gathering in 1930 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the battle.
The self-guided tour loops back downhill to the visitor center, which was recently renovated to showcase the latest curatorial technology. The museum exhibits feature not only historical artifacts, such as some of the weaponry used on both sides, but also computer-enhanced images that offer background information about life on the frontier and the partisan bloodshed that characterized the Revolutionary War in South Carolina. Visitors move from display to display through a replica of the old-growth forest that dominated the 18th-century landscape of the western Carolinas.
History buffs will find this National Military Park especially interesting, and like all other sites run by the National Park Service, there is no admission charge – the dedicated preservation of landmarks important in the history of our nation is a fine example of our tax dollars put to good use.
The park is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. If you are visiting Spartanburg, take Interstate 85 40 miles northeast toward Charlotte; if you are visiting Charlotte, take Interstate 85 southwest.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack currently holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book “A Shared Voice,” a short story collection co-edited with Drew Geyer, has just been published by Lamar University Press.