Overmountain Men and the Battle of King’s Mountain

Jane Busdeker, Corresponding Secretary

Twenty thousand shots fired in one hour and five minutes resulting in 225 dead, 163 wounded, and 715 captured for the British under Major Patrick Ferguson and 28 dead and 62 wounded for the victorious frontiersmen under Colonel William Campbell. That was the cost of the Battle of King’s Mountain on October 7, 1780, a battle that many historians think was the turning point in the Revolutionary War.

Ralph Martin, a member of the John Sevier Chapter Overmountain Victory Trail Association (OVTA) headquartered in Sevier County gave a riveting account of the events that led up to, encompassed, and followed the decisive battle as he spoke at the March 10 meeting of the Martha Dandridge Washington (MDW) Chapter National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR) at the First United Methodist Church in Dandridge. Martin spoke in the voice of Robert Young, his wife Rebecca’s six-times-great-grandfather. He was dressed in the typical garb of the frontiersman and carried his long rifle.

Jerry Mustin, also a member of the John Sevier Chapter OVTA and in the buckskin dress of the typical long hunter portrayed his ancestor Thomas Brooks. In the midst of the tense story of warfare, he interjected anecdotes that offered comic relief.

Mustin began the presentation with idioms we use today that may have had their origin in the olden days. Many surrounded the use of beeswax to cover the facial scars that resulted from smallpox. Women who had pockmarked faces mixed the beeswax with olive oil and put it on their faces to smooth their skin. If one woman got too nosey about what another woman was doing, the other woman would say, “Mind you own beeswax.” Since the mixture would harden in cold weather, if a woman smiled, the covering would crack, or, in other words, she would “crack a smile.” On the other hand, if she got too near a fire, the preparation would get soft and run, known as “losing face.”

Robert Young was born in 1718 in Orange County, VA, married Mary Douglas, and had 6 of their 12 children by 1750. He was a farmer and hunter, but by that time game was getting scarce in Virginia, so he went over the mountains with other frontiersmen to find more game and new farmland. By 1772, several thousands of pioneers were west of the mountains and had organized the Watauga Association. They had no army but did have a militia in which all males from 14 years old and up were required to serve.

Until 1780, those settlers were little affected by the Revolutionary War, and the patriot fighters were not faring very well. However, in 1780, the British forces under General Henry Clinton and Lord Cornwallis undertook their Southern Campaign in the Carolinas, and the frontiersmen found themselves in the midst of heavy and decisive fighting.

British Major Patrick Ferguson added Tory militiamen to his military forces and ordered the patriots to give up their guns and surrender, or he would “lay waste to their country with fire and sword.”

Patriot militia Colonels Isaac Shelby and John Sevier took up the challenge and recruited 900 volunteers at Sycamore Shoals near Elizabethton, TN, and were joined by William Campbell, Joseph McDowell, Benjamin Cleveland, and their patriot forces. The army of Overmountain Men crossed Roan Mountain and traveled under harsh conditions of rain and snow for nearly two weeks to confront Major Ferguson’s forces.
Because two traitors had warned Major Ferguson of the coming patriot forces, he began to take his men south to join Cornwallis. However, the patriot forces engaged Ferguson’s army on King’s Mountain, near the border of North and South Carolina. Colonel Campbell urged his men to “scream like hell and fight like devils.”

Because the British forces had military style muskets with bayonets called the “Brown Bess,” the Overmountain Men charged up the mountain two times and were forced back with their hunting rifles without bayonets. However, on the third charge, Robert Young shot Ferguson out of his saddle with his rifle called “Sweet Lips,” the nickname of Young’s wife. When Ferguson’s body was examined, there were eight bullets in it, so no one knows exactly whose bullet killed him.

Ferguson had boasted that “God and His angels” could not get him off the mountain. The words proved to be somewhat prophetic in that Major Ferguson was buried on the mountain.

After the battle, the Overmountain Men returned to their homes to take care of their families. Their success showed that the British forces were vulnerable and discouraged the local Tories from joining the British. Within one year of the Battle of King’s Mountain, Cornwallis had surrendered.

Martin shared some fascinating facts about the Overmountain Men. The men wore oilcloth over their clothing to keep dry in the heavy rain and covered their firing mechanism on their rifles with something called a “cows knee” to keep their powder dry. Their jackets had layered collars with fringes that helped to wick away water. Since most of the fighters in the battle were either Tory or patriot militiamen, they were hard to distinguish from one another by their frontier dress, so the patriots placed a white paper in their hat bands or rolled it in the brim of their hats while the Tories placed a sprig of greenery in their bands.

In addition, the Revolutionary War was our land’s first civil war with brother pitted against brother. Often merchants or others with property would have one son serve with the Tories and one with the patriots so that after the war, they would not lose their property. They knew that the victorious army would force the losers to give up their property and even leave the country.

Martin said that the Revolutionary War was also the first world war because after the colonists were victorious against the superior British forces and the British Empire on April 19, 1775, at the Battles of Lexington and Concord where the “shot heard round the world” was fired, other countries began to attack British interests around the globe.

Upon his return to Watauga, John Sevier pursued the Cherokee led by Dragging Canoe. It was said that the Overmountain Men fought on three fronts. They fought the British and the Cherokee, and sometimes they fought among themselves, according to Martin.

The members of the Overmountain Victory Trail Association are dedicated to “keeping the story of the campaign to King’s Mountain alive” and to preserving the trail. They do programs at sites along the trail and give presentations in schools. Their next meeting will be on Tuesday, May 1, at 6:30 p.m. at the Bass Pro Shop in Sevierville. Information about the activities of the organization is available online at www.ovta.org.
The next meeting of the MDW Chapter NSDAR will be April 14 at 10:00 a.m. in the First United Methodist Church in Dandridge. Regent Mary Cay Khiel will present a program on Colonial Cooking. Several members will prepare dishes from authentic colonial recipes collected by Regent Khiel and adjusted for modern ingredient measurements.