You’re probably aware that a video which apparently shows a group of Marines urinating on enemy corpses in Afghanistan has been getting a good deal of attention lately.
Is there any possibility that we can connect this incident to some obscure bit of Revolutionary War trivia? I’m glad you asked. Supposedly, in the aftermath of the Battle of King’s Mountain, some of the victorious Patriots did the very same thing to the body of Maj. Patrick Ferguson, the Scottish officer who commanded the Tories encamped on top of the ridge.
Assuming it happened—I’ll get to that issue in a second—what could have prompted the militiamen to do such a thing? Backcountry militia weren’t too scrupulous about observing the niceties of military convention, but relieving oneself on the corpse of the enemy commander still seems a little extreme. In the eighteenth century, the bodies of dead soldiers often received callous treatment, but that generally wasn’t the case for officers, as Caroline Cox explains in her examination of life in the Continental Army.
In trying to account for the Whigs’ behavior, some commentators cite a proclamation Ferguson issued to rally the backcountry Tories when he discovered that the militiamen were on his trail. It read in part as follows: “The Backwater men have crossed the mountains; McDowell, Hampton, Shelby, and Cleveland are at their head, so that you know what you have to depend upon. If you choose to be p—d upon forever and ever by a set of mongrels, say so at once and let your women turn their backs upon you, and look out for real men to protect them.” According to this line of thinking, the Whigs who urinated on Ferguson’s body were indulging in a bit of poetic justice. What insult could be more fitting than to urinate on the body of a man who warned Carolinians that they’d be “p—d upon forever and ever” if the Whigs prevailed?
Interestingly enough, this most inflammatory part of Ferguson’s circular got watered down in later accounts. Many nineteenth-century historians who quoted it altered “p—d upon” to something more palatable to a genteel audience. J.G.M. Ramsey and Lyman Draper changed it to “degraded,” while Washington Irving used “trodden upon.”
If you ask me, the question of what might have prompted the victors of King’s Mountain to urinate on Ferguson’s corpse is probably moot, because I can’t find any eyewitnesses who said it actually happened. As far as I can tell, the oldest source that mentions any desecration of Ferguson’s body is a 1787 book by Banastre Tarleton, the controversial young officer who commanded the British Legion. He wrote, “The mountaineers, it is reported, used every insult and indignity, after the action, towards the dead body of Major Ferguson, and exercised horrid cruelties on the prisoners that fell into their possession.” Tarleton wasn’t there, but he could have gotten the details from some of the defeated Tories, since many of them escaped during the march northward and made their way back to British-held territory.
None of this is to say that it couldn’t have happened; the aftermath of the Battle of King’s Mountain was notably ugly, even by the standards of the nasty partisan war that erupted in the Carolina backcountry. Through some combination of rage, confusion, and ignorance, the Whigs continued to fire into the ranks of the surrendering Tories as the battle wound down, and during the march away from King’s Mountain they continued to plunder, beat, and slaughter their vanquished enemies. Loyalist newspapers printed accounts of the horrors the prisoners endured, including letters from those members of Ferguson’s outfit who were lucky enough to survive the ordeal. The controversy over treatment of the prisoners made it all the way up to the armies’ commanders; Cornwallis complained about the Whigs’ behavior in a letter to his American counterpart, who responded that if Patriots were committing outrages against British troops, they were simply giving as good as they got.
Whether or not those outrages included urinating on the body of a fallen officer, the whole episode demonstrates that debates over soldiers’ conduct in wartime aren’t new, and it probably won’t stop when the seemingly endless War on Terror finally grinds to a halt.