After five years of stalemate in the northern colonies the British military moved its war effort south in what it called its Southern Strategy. They were informed by governors loyal to the Crown that North and South Carolina were overwhelmingly behind the King and maintaining the royal governance of the colonies.
This may have been true to an extent, but the British massacre of patriots at the Waxhaws had sent a shiver down the spine of patriots and loyalists alike. The patriots were sometimes referred to as “Whigs” and British loyalists as “Tories.” No matter what you called them, these groups looked alike, they were neighbors, and they hated each other. As the British army under General Lord Charles Cornwallis prepared to march north from Charleston, a Civil War erupted in the Carolinas. Cornwallis compared it to sitting naked on a hornet’s nest.
Cornwallis’s right wing was under command of the “butcher of the Waxhaws,” Banastre Tarleton, and the right wing by Scottish Major Patrick Ferguson. General Sir Henry Clinton had placed Ferguson in charge of the backcountry militia as the inspector of militia in South Carolina. Ferguson’s mission was to recruit loyalist militia in the Carolinas and Georgia and to intimidate any colonists who favored American independence.
While Tarleton wanted to make war so terrible the locals would give in to his command, Ferguson saw them as British subjects who eventually would once more be countrymen. Ferguson sat down and talked with them, wanting to show them the good side of the British army. The two men were totally different.
Ferguson had over 4,000 backcountry militiamen come to join his effort to subjugate the Carolinas. The backcountry peoples, made up largely of Scots-Irish, had remained outside the war effort, not concerning themselves with which side was winning. Then after a group of Elijah Clark’s troops sought shelter at Sycamore Shoals, the Overmountain people were suddenly challenged to take sides. That challenge was the threat I wrote about last week.
I wondered for a long time whether Ferguson actually made such a threat or was it just the Overmountain leaders who saw this as an opportunity to gain glory and ensure their political aspirations. I have concluded that he did. It was likely out of desperation from the constant attacks by men who, just as quickly as they appeared, disappeared. Many times, they went across the mountains to the sanctity of the Overmountain people at Sycamore Shoals.
Any doubts I had about the threat came from the fact that a Scotsman is the one person who should have known better than to threaten the Scots-Irish. These guys had fighting in heir blood, thousands of years’ worth, and they hated the British. They were an open container of gasoline and Ferguson was the spark. Just like pouring gas on a fire and watching the flames trail itself to the source, the Overmountain Men were soon in hot pursuit of Ferguson.
In all my years on the Overmountain Victory Trail Association annual march, one thing still amazes me. That is that the Overmountain Men could cross over the mountains from Sycamore Shoals and catch up with Ferguson on a remote mountaintop in South Carolina and annihilate him and his entire force. Sure, they had scouts and they had locals giving them information, but also misinformation. I still think it amazing that 1,100 men on horseback could travel 300 miles through the wilderness and track down a foe in 1780. It is hard enough to get from point A to point B with today’s modern roads and directional devices.
Last week’s article stopped after several of us visited the site of Fort 96. It is in the northwestern part of South Carolina, not far from Georgia. In 1780 it was the farthest west of the British forts. It was large for the time and well-fortified. The Overmountain Men had been informed that Ferguson was on his way to 96. This information came from a Capt. Williams, who wished the Overmountain Men to attack and free 96 of British rule. His reason was that his plantation was occupied by the British. He knew Ferguson had not turned south toward 96.
At his advice, The Overmountain Men turned south toward 96. They were encamped near Alexander’s Ford when a horse came riding into camp about midnight. Its rider was pulled off and some of the men wanted to hang him. He asked to be taken to their colonels. He identified himself as Col. Edward Lacy of the South Carolina Militia. It was soon determined that he was who he said he was. He asked where they were heading and informed them that Ferguson was not headed to 96, but toward Charlottetown. That night Lacy went home and tied his father, a hardcore Tory, to a huge four-poster bed to keep him from warning the British during the preparation for the march to the Battle of Kings Mountain. He brought his militia and joined the Overmountain Men at a rendezvous place called the Cowpens.
We have for all my years spent the final night of the march, the night before Kings Mountain, Oct. 6, at Cowpens. The last several years the Park Service has hosted “The Night Before Kings Mountain” there. There was food, entertainment, and the OVTA told the story to hundreds of guests for the evening. That night we would be treated to a late BBQ at a remote pavilion as we spent the night where they had all those years ago. We are just a lot better fed than they were, and a lot more comfortable. This year there was not to be programming at Cowpens, however.
I had been at Cowpens in January for the 239th anniversary of the Battle of Cowpens, but that was before the COVID-19 scare. We drove past Cowpens and that was as close as we got this fall. This year the city of Gaffney offered to host our evening before event at their city park with the program “The Story” presented in their amphitheater. That afternoon we had presented a wreath in front of the library at the marker honoring the service of Col. Williams, who was killed at Kings Mountain.
The evening program had a good turnout, with temperatures being taken and masks worn. It was not our traditional night at Cowpens, but the story was told, and the tradition continued. The evening was quite comfortable, especially when compared to a year ago when we were here in temperatures above 97 in the shade.
After a group dinner at a local restaurant we spent the night on the grounds of the Cherokee County History Museum. The next morning, we were up early, enjoying a hearty breakfast and readying for the trek to the mountain top.
Kings Mountain National Historic Park, like other national parks, had closed its museum and visitors center. The restrooms were open, the park was open to visitors, and they had set up a little store outside with a poster showing books, T-shirts, and other items available. One only needed to tell the clerk what was wanted and that person, safely behind Plexiglas, went inside and brought it out.
It was Oct. 7, the 240th anniversary of the battle, and nothing was normal this year. I have attended the annual event for 30 years and it is of course the park’s busiest day. Except for the government shutdown in 2016, probably over 300 members of Daughters of the American Revolution, Sons of the American Revolution, and Children of the American Revolution, the OVTA and others make the annual pilgrimage to the mecca of the war in the south. This year with public gatherings cancelled or prohibited, the normally full parking lots were deserted.
We have a long tradition of arriving early and sitting on the stone wall behind the visitor’s center. We are always joined by some like-hearted souls we have not seen before or who might have dropped in on the march for a couple days. They join us for the photos, then someone said, “let’s get one with only the people who have been on the entire march.”
Being an SAR guy, I missed all the pageantry of the DAR/SAR not being there. On the other hand, it was nice it just being us and a few other folks this year. The Park Service still took our three wreaths to the top of the mountain. Normally they haul nearly 100 up there. They had planned a program in conjunction with OVTA that included a welcome from the new park manager.
In past years I would take a notebook of maps and walk around the lower trail and come to the top of the mountain from the backside. It was my own little personal remembrance. Some others did the same, but most go up the front. This year we marched up the front as a group. Tom Vaughan and 6-year-old Gideon Daniels carried the flag, 11-year-old Cohen Daniels played the fife and 13-year-old Ivan Daniels was the drummer.
It was a swelling of patriotic pride for me to march in formation, to hear the drum echo through the trees and hills. To see that flag wave proudly as we marched past the resting place of Patrick Ferguson. Then up the hill to see the U.S. monument, which appeared to be a giant candle with the rising sun sitting on its crown. A fitting tribute for the day. There was a feeling of accomplishment for making it down the trail one more time. This day was about the turning of the tide of the American Revolution, and it was here on Kings Mountain that a group of men from our neck of the woods did the unthinkable and defeated the greatest army of the period.
We had honored our good friend, past OVTA Grand Marshal Ronnie Lail, as we marched this year, and we placed his photo, flag, sword, hat and gorget on the monument. He too has reached his mountain top.
I took the mic and asked everyone to join me in honoring the 28 Patriots killed during the battle, as Steve Ricker says, who “never saw the sunset.” I read down the first list, which includes one of my 20 ancestors there that day, Reese Bowen. Pappy Hawthorne read the second column, which included his ancestor Thomas McCullough, and Gordon Siske read the final column, which included his ancestor Daniel Siske.
OVTA president David Doan read the names of all the members who have passed away in the last few years, those whose trail has come to a close, but who remain with us in spirit.
Steve Ricker, Dalton Wade, and Richard Luce then presented a “mourn on arms” as Tonya Strunk Katzin, with her angelic voice ringing through the silence, sang “The Parting Glass.” We then marched over to the edge of the mountain and fired a rifle volley in memory of all those 1780 Patriots, those Overmountain Men, the founders of OVTA, and our dear departed longtime friends – a fond farewell salute of remembrance.
The Park Service recorded and live-streamed the program. I must admit I have not watched it. Following the rifle volley we posed for photos, as we had several groups represented that day.
We had once more went to the mountain top, a place where the seeds of liberty were planted. A place of reverence where a fitting obelisk stands in memory of those who gave their all for our freedom. A place that reflects what determined men can do. This year four Greene Countians, Steve Ricker, Dalton Wade, Sarah Vogt, and myself, again made the heroic march 240 years from the day: the 46th annual march by the OVTA.
As we walked back down the mountain we again passed the grave of Patrick Ferguson. Several brought rocks to add to his cairn. This man who proclaimed that “God almighty and all the angels in hell shall not remove me from his spot” is still there where he has been for 240 years. More prophetic words have never been spoken. I just gave him a quick salute and posed for a picture with his gravestone. I still don’t consider him the villain that many of his cohorts were. Ferguson left behind his own remarkable story, perhaps his epitaph should be, “Take care whom you threaten.”
With fall colors coming quickly, a good day trip is to follow the Overmountain Victory motor route. You can start in Abingdon or better yet just up the road at Sycamore Shoals in Elizabethton. Enjoy the history, enjoy the beauty. Stop in quaint little towns such as Little Switzerland and Spruce Pine. It’s a great way to spend a Saturday and it’s COVID-19 friendly. A nice eight-hour outing could have you home in time for supper, so while the leaves are turning, get out and trail some history!