One of the more pivotal battles of the American Revolutionary War, the battle of King’s Mountain in South Carolina, was fought in 1780 by over 2,000 men. Thomas Jefferson called the Patriots’ victory at King’s Mountain “the turn of the tide of success”, and Theodore Roosevelt later said “this brilliant victory marked the turning point of the American Revolution.”
Exactly one of those 2,000 men in the battle was British.
In thinking about the “Revolutionary War,” most educated Americans have some understanding that there were Patriots and Tories amidst the colonial American population. The Patriots (or Rebels, as the British and Tories called them) were fighting for an independent American country. A Tory (or Loyalist, as they are also called) wanted the American colonies to remain subject to the king and Great Britain and were steadfastly against the Rebels and their war of independence. There was also a significant fraction of the colonial population that was somewhat ambivalent–they would go along with whatever happened and were not fighting or even affected too much by the British army of occupation and their battles with the Rebels.
Recent estimates by historians put the fraction of Loyalists among American colonists at 16% at the beginning of the war (about half a million people), while about 40% supported the Patriot cause. Roughly half the population, then, was left to be swayed one way or the other as the fighting continued from 1775 through 1781.
This is fairly basic history learned by most American kids at various points in their education. However, until just recently I was not fully aware of how several of the actual battles were not between British and American (or colonial) troops, but were battles primarily between colonists fighting each other. Americans fighting Americans, deciding whether or not to split with Great Britain.
I just read former President Jimmy Carter’s novel of the American Revolution called “The Hornet’s Nest.” It is a fictional account of the historical events in the Carolinas and Georgia and the perspectives on the war of the various people living in those southern colonies. Carter believes the Southern theater of the revolution has not been given adequate attention, and his well-researched and dense novel was an attempt to fill that gap in the public discussion. Carter’s strength is certainly not in his literary style or creative narrative prose; the novel reads more like a journalist’s report of a novel rather than as a work of art. Still, it was not unpleasant to read and I learned a tremendous amount.
I also recently had occasion to visit the King’s Mountain battlefield site in northwest South Carolina, not too far from Charlotte, NC. This battle on Oct. 7, 1780, which is not known nearly as well as, say, Bunker Hill, Trenton, Saratoga, or Yorktown, was a definite turning point in the war. The British had adopted a Southern strategy in 1778 under General Henry Clinton and, later, General Lord Cornwallis. They were content to suspend large operations in the North while keeping an army headquartered in New York City. After mostly British successes throughout Georgia and South Carolina during 1778-1780, the Patriots’ total victory at King’s Mountain ushered in a year of putting the British army on their heels, culminating in the complete loss of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown in October, 1781.
At King’s Mountain, Major Patrick Ferguson from Scotland commanded the British force and was the only British officer or soldier fighting for King George III in that battle. The rest of the king’s men were Americans, including over 100 “Redcoats” (the other 1000 Loyalists were militias without standard uniforms–they put pine sprigs on their hats to distinguish them from the similarly clad Patriots, who put white paper in their hats). Those wearing the official British red-coated uniforms were “Provincial” troops, regiments of American Loyalists raised mostly in the north and folded into the regular British army. In fact, the state of New York had more of its men fighting for the British than for the Patriots! The second in command of the “British” on King’s Mountain was Captain Abraham DePeyster, born and raised in New York.
That one British man in the battle, Major Ferguson, was a flamboyant officer and one of the top marksman in the entire British army. He wore a red plaid hunting shirt, which had been made known to the Patriots and was easily spotted once they surrounded the
British on top of the mountain. Ferguson did not last long, as Patriot marksman cut him down in the saddle, and he was subsequently dragged around the mountain top by his horse since his foot had caught in the stirrup. The entire scene is strangely reminiscent of events in Montana a century later, when the flamboyant General Custer was surrounded in battle by Sioux warriors and killed at Little Bighorn.
The British never gave battle honours to any of its units during the Revolutionary War (the right for a unit to emblazon the name of a battle or operation on its colors) because it was always viewed as an internal civil war. What I never fully appreciated, however, is that it was not just a civil war between British subjects in America and the British in Europe, but was simultaneously a civil war between the colonists themselves.
Photos from King's Mountain are credited to the author