Public History & Memory

Backcountry Heroes and Lowcountry Scoundrels: Remembering the Battle of Kings Mountain

By Jordan Jenkins / May 25, 2017

Backcountry Heroes and Lowcountry Scoundrels: Remembering the Battle of Kings Mountain
Jordan Jenkins

On October 6, 1780, British Major Patrick Ferguson made the fateful decision to camp out in the mountains of northern South Carolina to wait for reinforcements before joining General Charles Cornwallis’s forces in Charlotte. Ferguson was the only Briton on the crest of Kings Mountain that day: rather than trained British soldiers, all of his troops were Tory militiamen from the Carolinas, New York, or New Jersey. Ferguson was aware that he was in a fairly dangerous predicament—Whig militias from west of the Appalachians had joined forces and were pursuing him faster than he originally anticipated—but the major assumed  that his position atop the mountain would give him the advantage if the so-called “Overmountain Men” were to attack. Ferguson was so confident in the safety of his camp that he did not take any defensive measures other than parking his wagons by his headquarters. If local legend is to be believed, Ferguson (also known as “the Bulldog”) declared to his militiamen that “This is Kings Mountain and I am king of this mountain. God Almighty and all the rebels of hell cannot drive me from it!”1 The Bulldog followed through on his vow to never leave Kings Mountain: he was killed by Whig militiamen the next day and is buried near the campsite.

Left: Artist Lloyd Branson’s Gathering of Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals, painted in 1915, depicts the Overmountain Men en route to their victory over British loyalist forces at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780, a pivotal victory in the Southern Campaign of the Revolutionary War. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

The Battle of Kings Mountain (1780) was a decisive American victory that proved to be pivotal in the Southern Campaign of the Revolutionary War. This battle in the Carolina backcountry stood out due to its unusual combatants. While most major Revolutionary battles were fought between British and American regulars aided by militias on either side, Kings Mountain was fought almost entirely between colonial militias. The Loyalist militias’ failure to hold Kings Mountain, coupled with the British failure to recruit enough colonists and maintain order in conquered Southern cities, played an invaluable role in Cornwallis’s ultimate defeat and the British surrender. But the Battle of Kings Mountain was unflattering to the Patriot cause. Consequently, though the National Parks Service’s (NPS) portrayal of the battle claims that the Patriot frontiersmen were ideal representations of the American cause, their contemporaries derided the lifestyles and tactics of the Overmountain Men and other frontiersmen who joined them in the fight against Ferguson. In their telling of the Battle of Kings Mountain, the NPS places ease of understanding over accuracy, which warps the public memory of the battle and the Revolution.

The park’s portrayal of the militiamen paints the Whigs as fiercely independent proponents of revolutionary ideals. The Overmountain Men in particular are presented as brave frontiersmen who would stop at nothing to defend their country and their liberties. A mural and audio presentation in the park museum presents a typical Whig frontiersman as saying that he considered backcountry settlers as “not at the end of the world, but where the new world’s beginning.”2 According to the mural, the frontiersman was happy to “break the land to grow corn and wheat” in order to “tam[e] that world and mak[e] it ours.”3 In another series of unattributed quotations, the park claims that frontiersmen joined the fray because the British were “a foreign government that is not here to protect us, but to suppress us,” and that they were familiar with such a political struggle because they were “Scots-Irish and came to … carve [their] own lives, away from the control of the Crown.”4 Such an image of frontier life certainly rings true on some levels: many backcountry settlers were Scotch-Irish or German immigrants, and those who took up arms did so mostly to protect their property from raids.5 However, this portrayal serves to appeal to a museumgoer’s sense of pride in American hardiness and to elicit sympathy for a simple farmer trying to protect himself from tyranny. In reality, this idyllic portrayal fails to acknowledge that many of the dangers facing Southern colonists came from the Whigs themselves, not just from the British.

Left: A Patriot Militia reenactor places a stone on the grave of Major Patrick Ferguson. It was erected in 1930 as a “token of ... appreciation of the bonds of friendship and peace” between the US and British. According to local legend, visitors must put rocks on Ferguson’s grave to prevent him from rising again. (Photo courtesy of Southern Fried Common Sense.)

The park’s glorification of Whig militiamen is complemented by its demonization of Tory militiamen. Compared to the portrait of the rough but principled Whig, the Tory is depicted as comically vermin-like and cowardly. While the mural of the Whig frontiersman shows him as an attractive man dutifully riding to defend his wife and property, the mural of the Tory militiaman reveals him as an ugly minion of the Crown, too steeped in formal training and arrogance to appreciate the threat that the Whig militias posed.6 This portrayal cheapens Loyalists’ motivations and sacrifices in the war and excuses Patriot atrocities that occurred during the battle and shortly thereafter. The park’s struggle to accurately describe the Battle of Kings Mountain to a modern audience likely arises from the goal to make history easily digestible for children and the general public. By flattening the Whigs and the Tories into one-dimensional figures of American determination and patriotism on the one hand and obsequious cowardliness on the other, the public memory of Kings Mountain becomes a familiar tale of good triumphing over evil. Unfortunately, this simplified version of the battle reflects neither the faults of the Whigs nor the complexity of the Tories.

By portraying the Loyalists as despicable and calling upon the infamous (though largely fabricated) bloodthirst of Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Waxhaws, the park tries to justify the killing of Major Ferguson and of Tories after their surrender.7 A film in the museum explores the tension between lofty revolutionary ideals and the reality on the ground at Kings Mountain. Contrary to the image of the Overmountain Men presented everywhere else at the site, the film describes the Whig militia after the battle as more of an unruly and fearful mob than as a moral company of revolutionaries.8 The film’s version of the story also includes the lynching of several Tory prisoners.9 Though the film reveals that there is not a simple moral dichotomy between the Whigs and the Tories, the image of the deplorable Tories shown elsewhere at the site serves to soften the effect that the Whig atrocities may have otherwise had on the average visitor. Overall, the park’s portrayal of participants on both sides of the conflict is particularly biased towards the Whigs and Overmountain Men in a way that militates against an accurate representation of the Tory and British forces.

Left: The Overmountain Man statue, by Jon-Mark Estep, at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, glorifies the militiamen whose lifestyle and tactics were derided by contemporaries. (Photo courtesy of Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.)

The park’s portrayal of the noble backcountry farmer and militiaman runs contrary to eighteenth-century views of those the site calls “frontiersman,” whom contemporaries like William Byrd of Virginia often called “lazy lubbers.”10 Many colonists in the North and the Southern coastal region viewed the settlers of the backcountry with pointed disdain, and the museum’s mural of the moral farmer and his wife seeking a simple Christian life on the frontier would have been seen as wildly inaccurate by other colonists. To contemporaries outside of the backcountry, the Appalachian region was a hellscape of drunken, flighty whites who preferred violence and tricks to leading a “respectable” lifestyle.11

Though the park emphasizes the brilliance of the military tactics used at Kings Mountain, the highest officials of the Continental Army were no admirers of the conduct of the militiamen there. General Washington would have been especially disgusted by the leadership strategies of Tennessee’s Isaac Shelby and the ensuing disorder in the militias’ ranks both during and after the battle. Shelby ordered his men to “[not] wait for a word of command” and to “be [their] own officer.”12 Washington prided himself on instilling discipline into Continental Army troops, making it unlikely that he would agree with the park’s assertion that the Kings Mountain militias were brilliant military strategists.13 While Thomas Jefferson stated that the victory had “turned the tide of success” of the war, the battle is not widely remembered by the public as a major victory.14 Though contemporaries appreciated the importance of the battle itself, the widespread prejudice and animosity towards backcountry settlers, coupled with their unorthodox and chaotic strategy in battle, prevented the militias and Overmountain Men from receiving the high praise that the park believes they are due.

The Battle of Kings Mountain’s tenuous position in American history and collective memory reveals conflicts over the militiamen’s heroic or savage character and debates over who deserves recognition in public historical narratives. Despite the fact that the Battle of Kings Mountain was integral to the fight for American independence, the narrative given by the NPS disproportionately favors the colonists who fought for the Patriots’ cause.

Endnotes

  1. Robert W.  Brown, Jr., Kings Mountain and Cowpens: Our Victory Was Complete (Charleston: The History Press, 2009), 47, 51, 58.
  2. National Parks Service, frontier mural, Kings Mountain National Military Park, observed October 30, 2016.
  3. Ibid.
  4. National Parks Service, museum audio tour, Kings Mountain National Military Park, observed October 30, 2016.
  5. Eric Hinderaker and Peter C. Mancall, At the Edge of Empire: The Backcountry in British North America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 172.
  6. National Parks Service, Tory mural and museum audio tour, Kings Mountain National Military Park, observed October 30, 2016; National Parks Service, “God Save the King!” Kings Mountain National Military Park, observed October 30, 2016.
  7. Brown, Kings Mountain and Cowpens, 38-39, 80-81.
  8. National Parks Service, museum f ilm, Kings Mountain National Military Park, observed October 30, 2016.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Peter Charles Hoffer, The Brave New World: A History of Early America (Boston: Houghton Miff lin, 2000), 378.
  11. Hinderaker and Mancall, At the Edge of Empire, 170-171.
  12. National Parks Service, “Be Your Own Officer,” Kings Mountain National Military Park, observed October 30, 2016.
  13. Stephen Brumwell, George Washington: Gentleman Warrior (New York: Quercus Press, 2012), 199-202.
  14. National Parks Service, museum film.