If you don’t have plans for Memorial Day weekend, then head over to John Sevier’s place. May 25-26 is the annual Statehood Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville. They’re hosting militia drills, eighteenth-century demonstrations, a display of guns from the War of 1812, and a presentation on veterans of the Battle of King’s Mountain by yours truly. (I think my talk is scheduled for 11:30 on Saturday.)
Tag Archives: King’s Mountain
The most dynamic visual representation of tomahawk combat in modern times is probably the electrifying rescue sequence in The Patriot, in which Mel Gibson turns a detachment of British soldiers into hamburger.
This portrayal of tomahawk fighting is as elegant as it is ugly, equal parts martial art and straightforward butchery. I suspect the reality was a lot more grab-and-hack and less Jackie Chan.
One account of a tomahawk in action—or about to be put into action—comes from the pension application of Charles Bowen, who fought at King’s Mountain. During the battle, Bowen somehow heard that his brother Reese had been killed in action. As he tried to find him, he came across his own captain, dead or dying from a shot to the head. At that point, something in Bowen apparently snapped.
Making his way to a spot “within fifteen or twenty paces of the enemy” and taking cover behind a tree, Bowen shot down a Tory who was attempting to raise a flag of surrender. He was reloading when Col. Benjamin Cleveland approached him and demanded he give the countersign, which was “Buford” (after the commander of a Virginia unit defeated by British dragoons earlier that year). Bowen couldn’t come up with the word, perhaps because he was still in some kind of a berserk rage, so Cleveland assumed he was a Tory. Here’s Bowen’s recollection of what happened next, as transcribed and amended at revwarapps.org:
Col Cleveland instantly leveled his rifle at Declarant’s breast and attempted to fire, but the Gun snapped. Declarant jumped at Cleveland seized him by the collar, drew his tomahawk, and would have sunk it in Cleveland’s head if his arm had not been arrested by a soldier by the name of Beanhannon [sic, Buchanan?], who knew the parties. Declarant immediately recollected the countersign which was “Blueford,” [sic, Buford] named it and Cleveland dropped his gun and clasped Declarant in his arms.
There’s nothing fancy about what Bowen was about to do; he simply “seized him by the collar, drew his tomahawk, and would have sunk it in Cleveland’s head.” If this was typical of tomahawk combat, then that scene from The Patriot is probably too elaborate on the choreography, even though it gets the raw brutality exactly right.
If you do, and you’ve got a hefty wallet, there’s a nice one headed for the auction block in Lincoln County, TN. And this one gets bonus points for a Rev War connection. The occupant’s father was Joseph Greer, a King’s Mountain veteran who reportedly carried news of the battle to Philadelphia. (His compass is on display at the Tennessee State Museum.)
The War of 1812 tour is now available on the Kentucky Historical Society’s Explore KY History app. If you haven’t downloaded this thing, let me once again recommend it to you. Most Americans probably associate the War of 1812 with the Chesapeake or the Gulf of Mexico, but Kentucky suffered more casualties in that conflict than all the other states combined.
One of the most notable Kentucky vets was Isaac Shelby, who became the state’s first governor in 1792 and then ran for the same post twenty years later. Shelby didn’t throw his hat into the ring until less than a month before the 1812 gubernatorial election, and he was more than sixty years old.
He won handily anyway, partly because he’d already made a name for himself during the Rev War and Kentuckians were gearing up for another confrontation with England. (Shelby had led a regiment at King’s Mountain; in fact, he was one of the primary architects of the expedition that defeated Ferguson’s Tories.) In the summer of 1813 he took the field himself at the head of 3,500 volunteers who fought at the Battle of the Thames, thus seeing action in both of America’s wars with Britain.
Some folks in Cleveland, TN have commissioned a portrait of the town’s namesake, Revolutionary War hero Benjamin Cleveland of North Carolina. Don Troiani will be doing the painting. The 300-lb. Cleveland commanded the Wilkes County militia at King’s Mountain and persecuted backcountry Tories with a zeal bordering on fanaticism. As far as I know, there aren’t any contemporary likenesses of him, so this will be the first attempt at an accurate depiction.
My favorite anecdote about Benjamin Cleveland involves the capture of two horse thieves. Cleveland hanged one and then offered the other a choice—he could either join his partner at the end of a rope or take a case knife, cut off his own ears, and never show his face in that neck of the woods again. The guy took the knife, sharpened it on a brick, gritted his teeth, and set to work. To quote the Joker in The Dark Knight, “Even to a guy like me, that’s cold.”
Speaking of the Carolinas, renowned Palmetto State historian Walter Edgar is retiring. He’s a guy who takes public history as seriously as he takes scholarship, so here’s hoping he keeps writing and speaking.
The Knoxville News Sentinel has been celebrating its birthday with a retrospective of notable stories from its century-and-a-quarter-long run. A recent article highlights one of the more colorful episodes in Knoxville history.
On the night of Dec. 13, 1901 two police officers tried to break up a brawl in one of the city’s less reputable establishments and ended up getting shot by one of the participants, who managed to flee the scene despite being beaten over the head withe the officers’ clubs. The shooter was later arrested and subsequently identified as Harvey Logan, alias Kid Curry—one of the most notorious members of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch gang. He had been traveling throughout the country passing off notes taken in a Montana train holdup before his pool hall fight landed him in a Tennessee jail.
Logan’s trial turned into one of the twentieth century’s first legal media circuses, and ended in the summer of 1903 when he managed to snag a jail guard’s neck with a wire and make off with the sheriff’s horse. You can read the full story in the book Harvey Logan in Knoxville by Sylvia Lynch, who happens to be my mom.
The Sentinel article notes that Logan refused to have his picture taken, so the newspaper recruited an East Tennessee artist to visit the jail and produce a sketch to run on the front page. The artist was Lloyd Branson. Loyal readers of this blog might recall that Branson’s name has appeared here before. He painted the famous picture of the Sycamore Shoals muster preceding the Battle of King’s Mountain that now hangs in the Tennessee State Museum and adorns the banner at the top of this site, and he also depicted the battle itself in a painting which burned in a Knoxville hotel fire.
I told my mom about this, and she mentioned that she’d discussed Branson’s sketch of Logan in her book. I pulled a copy off the shelf, and sure enough, there was a picture of Lloyd Branson working on a self-portrait. So when I was a teenager, before I had any inkling that I’d study history, my mom wrote a book about an outlaw who got his picture drawn by Lloyd Branson, and then years later I wrote my thesis about a Revolutionary War campaign which was the subject of two paintings by Lloyd Branson. I then realized that Lloyd Branson stands at the nexus of all that is.
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.
…from BlueRidgeNow.com. Makes me wish I was back where I was about a month and a half ago, enjoying the stops along the way for myself.
As I mentioned last time, during our recent trip along the OVNHT my cousin and I managed to visit a site I’d wanted to see for a while now. It’s not on the trail itself, but it’s inextricably tied to the story of King’s Mountain.
In the summer of 1780, as the British established outposts throughout the South Carolina backcountry and Maj. Patrick Ferguson began organizing Loyalist auxiliaries to fight alongside the Redcoats, bands of partisan militia coalesced to thwart their efforts. One of these bands—two hundred Whigs led by Isaac Shelby of present-day Tennessee, Elijah Clarke of Georgia, and James Williams of South Carolina—decided to attack a Tory post at Musgrove Mill near a ford on the Enoree River on August 19, thinking they were facing a force of equal numbers. When they arrived in the vicinity, however, they discovered that 300 more troops had reinforced the Tories. The Whigs were outnumbered by more than two to one, and the Tories knew they were in the neighborhood.
It was too late to retreat, and their numbers were too few to launch an all-out attack. The only alternative was to make a stand. One of the officers, Captain Shadrach Inman, devised a plan to draw the Tories into an ambush. A small party would head to the ford and draw the Tories toward the main body, which was posted on a small ridge behind a breastwork of logs and brush. The plan worked; when the Tories pursued the small force to the ridge, the main body of Whigs sprang the trap, opening fire from behind their makeshift fortification at very close range.
It was a stunning victory, but no sooner had it been won than the Whigs learned that an American army under Horatio Gates had recently been defeated at Camden. Cut off from support, the Patriots retreated, Shelby taking his contingent back across the mountains. In September, as the British pushed northward, Ferguson sent a threat to Shelby and his fellow mountaineers, informing them that if they continued interfering with the progress of British arms he would bring the war to their frontier homes. Instead of being cowed, the Overmountain Men came back in larger numbers than ever, wiping out Ferguson’s force at King’s Mountain in October.
Today the battleground where Shelby, Clarke, and Williams lured the Tories into a deadly ambush is part of Musgrove Mill State Historic Site, the newest state park in South Carolina. The visitor center has a small, one-room exhibit, parts of which were still under construction when we were there. It includes displays of eighteenth-century weapons, along with information on the experiences of women in the wartime backcountry. The centerpiece is a three-dimensional model of the battlefield, with a recorded narration of the fight illustrated with moving lights, similar to the larger electric map presentation formerly housed in the old visitor center at Gettysburg.
Two different trails allow you to see the battleground and the Musgrove property. Each one is a little more than a mile long, winding among wooded hills with interpretive signage along the way. One trail heads down toward the Enoree River to the mill site and past a small fishing pond. The signage here tells the story of the Musgrove family, the mill, and the importance of the ford.
One thing you’ll encounter on this route is a monument to Mary Musgrove, daughter of the mill’s owner. After her death, she morphed into the fictionalized heroine of the nineteenth-century novel Horse-Shoe Robinson, a story set in the backcountry during the Revolution. Historians can’t substantiate the exploits attributed to her in the book, but Mary herself was quite real indeed.
The other trail, which starts a short drive away from the visitor center, takes you to the ridge where the militia lay in ambush. This hike is a little more strenuous, but there are plenty of spots to rest. Wayside signs describe the men who fought there and set up the story of the battle. Tradition holds that Mary Musgrove hid a Patriot from marauding Tories at Horseshoe Falls, located near the trailhead.
Eventually, after ascending a few hills and passing alongside the roadbed used by the Tories in their pursuit of the Patriots’ advance party, you’ll come to the ridge where the main action took place.
Atop the hill is a small memorial to the Patriot dead. One of those killed was Capt. Inman, who devised the plan that ended in a victory over superior numbers.
Musgrove Mill wasn’t a large engagement, but like many of the nasty firefights that erupted in the backcountry, its impact was considerable. It demonstrated the capabilities of the Whig partisans, who could maul British detachments even in a province where American resistance was supposedly subdued. For a small park, this site has quite a bit going for it; the battlefield is clearly interpreted, fans of the outdoors can take advantage of fishing and canoeing, and the scenery along the trails would make an afternoon hike here enjoyable even for those who aren’t into the Rev War.