Tag Archives: King’s Mountain

Another historic site desecration here in East Tennessee

This time it’s a Revolutionary War veteran’s grave in Johnson City.  As a teenager, Darling Jones served under Isaac Shelby in South Carolina and participated in John Sevier’s Cherokee campaigns.  Now people are using his final resting place as a trash dump.

There’s a tradition that Jones fired the shot that killed Patrick Ferguson at King’s Mountain, but he didn’t mention being present at the battle in his pension application, and Bobby Moss doesn’t include him in his annotated list of King’s Mountain vets as either a documented or possible participant.  I suspect the Ferguson story is a bit of accrued tradition, since it seems that Jones wasn’t there. King’s Mountain was The Big One as far as most Tennesseans have been concerned, so it makes sense that local Rev War vets would get lumped in with the guys who fought there.  (Most traditional accounts credit another Tennessee militiaman named Robert Young with the fatal shot, although Ferguson’s body was apparently so riddled with holes that one wonders whether any single individual can be said to have “killed” him.)

Whether the tradition that Jones was at King’s Mountain is true or not, his gravesite is no place to leave garbage.

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“Volunteer County of the Volunteer State”

Check out this editorial on Unionist volunteers from Campbell County, TN.  Campbell Co. is just down the road from yours truly, and like the rest of East Tennessee, it was an anti-secession stronghold during the Civil War.  The editorial links the mountaineers’ patriotism with that of their Revolutionary ancestors, a comparison made by prominent Unionists in the 1800′s.

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A new published edition of Uzal Johnson’s journal

…is coming this month from the University of South Carolina Press.  Johnson was a physician who accompanied Patrick Ferguson’s Tories on the disastrous King’s Mountain campaign.  His diary of the battle’s aftermath makes for some pretty harrowing reading.  The Whigs were, to put it mildly, rather inhospitable toward their prisoners on the return march northward, and Johnson was unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of their brutality.  I’m really looking forward to getting a copy of this book.

This will actually be the second annotated edition of Johnson’s diary to be published.  Dr. Bobby Moss, who has probably spent more time with the primary sources on King’s Mountain than anybody since Lyman Draper, also edited a version, and the footnotes alone are worth the price of the volume.  Moss has also published an edition of Alexander Chesney’s diary (Chesney was Ferguson’s adjutant) and annotated rosters of the men who fought in the campaign.  Check out this website for more information on these books.  They were a godsend to me when I was working on my graduate thesis, since having them in published, annotated form saved me countless hours of travel and research.

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A face from King’s Mountain

It’s a rare thing to be able to see a face from a Revolutionary War battle, so I think this photo is pretty darn cool.  William Beattie was one of Campbell’s Virginians, the contingent that marched the farthest to fight at King’s Mountain.

Note that two of Beattie’s brothers were also in the battle and that one of them lost his life.  If you peruse rosters of King’s Mountain veterans you’ll find quite a few instances of close relatives serving in the same units.  (John Sevier lost one of the brothers who fought under him due to a mortal wound in the kidney.)

For more faces from the Revolution, check out Maureen Taylor’s The Last Muster.


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Whose mountain is it, anyway?

Here’s a minor but nevertheless troubling dilemma for those of us interested in the Battle of King’s Mountain.  To apostrophe or not to apostrophe?  There seems to be no formal consensus on whether it’s “King’s Mountain” or “Kings Mountain.”

The slopes of King's Mountain, SC. Photo by yours truly

I had always used “King’s” without giving it too much thought until a reviewer for a piece I’d submitted suggested that “Kings” was in fact the proper usage.  After looking over some early accounts, I found enough apostrophes to convince me that “King’s” was legit, so I just left it in.  Maybe it was the wrong call.

A lot of primary sources leave the apostrophe in, but not all of them do.  Whig veteran James Collins called the battle “King’s Mountain” in an autobiography published many years later.  So did Banastre Tarleton in his book on the campaigns in the South.  Some veterans’ pension accounts include the apostrophe, but others omit it.  Likewise for contemporary manuscripts found in private correspondence.

Early historians and antiquarians seemed to prefer “King’s” to “Kings.”  The most detailed study of the battle is Lyman Draper’s King’s Mountain and its Heroes, published in 1881.  Draper employed the apostrophe throughout, as did his friend J. G. M. Ramsey in Annals of Tennessee.

As far as more recent authorities go, it seems to be a toss-up.  John Pancake and John Buchanan both use “King’s,” but NPS literature doesn’t.  Robert Dunkerly, who was the ranger in charge of the site, used “Kings” for his published collection of eyewitness accounts.

Adding to the confusion, the ridge on which the battle took place isn’t the only mountain in the area to bear the name.  A much larger prominence within Crowders Mountain State Park, to the northwest of the battleground, is called “King’s Pinnacle.”  It’s part of a mountain range, of which the battlefield ridge itself is a small spur.

Draper evidently considered the whole range to be one big geographical feature, and claimed that both it and nearby King’s Creek got their names from a settler named King.

King's Pinnacle, NC. From the website of Friends of Crowders Mountain

Since Draper was notoriously indefatigable in tracking down local traditions, this is probably what the folks who were living in the area during the late nineteenth century believed to be the name’s true origin, but that’s not to say that their opinion was the correct one.  Other sources claim that “King’s Pinnacle” got its name from a rock formation, so it’s possible (though very unlikely) that the big mountain’s name is unrelated to the name of the battlefield ridge and creek.

It gets even more confusing.  While searching for an online map, I ran across references to King’s Pinnacle as “Kings Pinnacle” and King’s Creek as “Kings Creek.”  This could very well initiate my long-anticipated descent into madness.

I say we have a referendum of Rev War buffs and local residents to settle this once and for all, because my head hurts.  I’ll be lobbying for “King’s,” just because if I start thinking about all those possibly-superfluous apostrophes in my master’s thesis, it’ll bug the living daylights out of me.

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Feeling right, wrong, and right again

Sometimes historical research can take you on an emotional rollercoaster. Here’s a personal example.

For my master’s thesis, I looked at evolving interpretations of the Battle of King’s Mountain from the time of the war itself through the late nineteenth century (the late nineteenth century being the time, I argued, when most of the popular perceptions about the battle took shape).  In the last chapter I examined the conceptions about Appalachia that emerged after the Civil War and the role these notions played in shaping the way Americans remembered the Patriots who fought in the battle.

One of my contentions was that over the course of the late 1800′s, East Tennessee basically claimed the Battle of King’s Mountain as its own.  This was partly inevitable; many of the men who fought came from what is now East Tennessee, the two officers who were most active in organizing the expedition led contingents from that area, and the battle was the (future) Volunteer State’s most significant contribution to American victory in the Revolution.

But there were other reasons why the legacy of King’s Mountain fell to East Tennessee.  Other states involved in the battle didn’t emphasize it as heavily as Tennessee did.  The largest contingent of troops at King’s Mountain was a group of Virginians serving under Col. William Campbell, and it was Campbell who served as honorary commander of the expedition.  Campbell and his Virginians, however, didn’t figure prominently in traditional histories of the Revolution written by Virginians.  I argued that Virginia chroniclers neglected the battle because they had bigger fish to fry.  If you want to portray the Revolution as a great day for the Old Dominion, you can always point to Washington, Jefferson, Henry, and Yorktown.  King’s Mountain had to take a backseat.

More surprising to me was what I found when I examined nineteenth-century accounts of the war written by South Carolinians.  The battleground is in the Palmetto State, and South Carolina militia fought on both sides in the battle, some of them not far from their own homes.  Yet South Carolina historians of the 1800′s weren’t as gung-ho about King’s Mountain as the Tennesseans were, either.  There were some impressively lengthy accounts in some period books, but King’s Mountain didn’t seem as central to South Carolina’s memory of the war as it did to Tennessee’s, at least not to me.  I figured the reason was similar to that for the Virginia accounts.  There were so many engagements fought in South Carolina (including pivotal battles like the bombardment of Ft. Moultrie and Cowpens) that King’s Mountain was one turning point among several.  For Tennesseans, it was the pinnacle of the war effort.

Since East Tennessee claimed the battle, writers of the late 1800′s interpreted it through the lens of the Appalachian stereotypes that were emerging at that very time.  The battle’s memory therefore became regionalized.  It became a victory won by mountaineers from Appalachian Tennessee.  That, at least, was my argument.  I revised that thesis chapter for an article which Tennessee Historical Quarterly was kind enough to publish, and seeing it in printed form was very gratifying.

After the article came out a few things occurred to me that caused me to wonder whether I had overstated my argument.  Specifically, I started to get nervous that I had underestimated the degree to which South Carolina had tried to claim the battle, too.

First, one of the oldest monuments on any Revolutionary War battlefield sits by the side of the ridge.  Erected in 1815, it commemorates the death of Maj. William Chronicle and some of his fellow South Carolinians, shot while charging up the slope.  This monument pre-dates the period when Tennesseans laid claim to King’s Mountain, but it indicates that South Carolinians had made King’s Mountain an early priority.

The Chronicle marker on the left, with a modern replacement on the right

More troubling to my case was the dedication of the U.S. Monument, a gorgeous obelisk erected on top of the ridge in 1909.  While the monument was, as its name implies, a national project, the dedication ceremony for it was a predominantly local show, since it was mostly folks from the surrounding area who showed up.  Here was more evidence of South Carolina staking a claim to the battleground, and this time at the very end of the era when I’d argued that Tennessee was picking up the ball and running with it.

The U.S. Monument

Since I’d just published an article arguing that, in the decades immediately preceding the dedication, Tennessee had claimed the battle as her own and other states had allowed her to do so, you can understand why I was feeling uneasy.

Then something occurred to me that made me feel a lot better.  In fact, I felt it actually bolstered my case.  The Chronicle marker wasn’t just a monument to South Carolinians.  It was a monument to local heroes.  Chronicle and his men came from the northwestern backcountry part of the state, the same region where the battle took place.  Furthermore, the turnout at the U.S. Monument dedication wasn’t just from South Carolina, but specifically local.  These two examples of commemoration revealed local historical pride, rather than state historical pride.

All this suggested that it was mostly those South Carolinians who had the battlefield in their own backyards who were concerned about commemorating it, not the state as a whole.  South Carolinians in general certainly didn’t ignore the battle, but neither did they emphasize it to the same extent that nineteenth-century Tennesseans did, except for those who lived in the vicinity of where it took place.  The Chronicle marker and the local interest in the U.S. Monument were the exceptions that proved the rule.

Of course, if it had turned out that I was completely wrong about the commemoration of a particular Revolutionary War battle, it wouldn’t exactly have meant the end of civilization as we know it.  But finding some new material that vindicated my research still made me feel a lot better.  I had applied some new information to a case I’d tried to make previously, and it still seemed to stack up, which was a pretty good feeling.

Now the only thing that bugs me is that I didn’t bring this up when I made the argument to begin with…

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Lloyd Branson’s lost King’s Mountain painting

The good news is that—as you may have noticed—I managed to restore my nifty header image of the overmountain men’s muster at Sycamore Shoals, which kicked off the events leading to the Battle of King’s Mountain.  I’ve discussed this painting and why I like it before, so I’m glad to have a segment of it gracing the top of the blog again.

Here’s the bad news.  Lloyd Branson, the East Tennessee artist who produced this beautiful piece, also painted a scene of the actual battle, which decorated the lobby of Knoxville’s swanky Hotel Imperial.  (An early travel booklet described the Imperial as “beautifully furnished,” and noted that the food was particularly good.)  During WWI the hotel went up in flames and took Branson’s King’s Mountain painting with it.  The loss of the Imperial inspired three Knoxvillians to build a brand-new hotel which opened shortly thereafter, but of course nobody could replace Branson’s canvas.

I’ve been unable to find a picture or description of it.  It’s a shame we don’t have the other “bookend” of Branson’s visual depiction of the King’s Mountain expedition, especially since the muster painting is one of Tennessee’s definitive historical artworks.

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Last time we looked at some of the interpretive techniques the folks at King’s Mountain National Military Park are using in their visitor center exhibit.  Today let’s examine one of the tools they’re using out on the battleground itself.

The  basic building block of King’s Mountain interpretation, like that of many battlefields, is the trailside sign.  Anybody who’s visited a historic site is probably familiar with these things.  Each sign has text describing what happened at that particular sector of the field, some images, maybe a first-person quote or two, and an orientation map.

Not too long ago, a new type of sign appeared along the trail at King’s Mountain.  I first encountered them during a visit this past summer, and they were still there on my last trip a few days ago.  Each one marks a stop on a cell phone audio tour.  You just dial the number on the sign, press the key for that particular stop, and listen to the narration.

These audio clips are a little lengthier than the narrative excerpts written on the trailside signage, which makes sense, because most people will be more likely to listen while standing or walking than they will be to stand there and read a lengthy block of text.  As I mentioned last time, “exhibit fatigue” is a real problem with long passages of text in galleries.  Many visitors will get bored with the narrative and just browse at whatever pace and in whatever order suits them, which means the interpretive scheme and storyline will fall apart.  An audio tour can incorporate more verbal information because visitors will passively receive it.  It also has the advantage of including visually-impaired visitors into the experience.

Of course, audio tours at museums and sites are nothing new in and of themselves.  What I find innovative about this particular application is that it utilizes a tool that visitors already have on hand.  Since so many people carry cell phones these days, King’s Mountain can implement the advantages of an audio tour without the inconvenience and expense of distributing a bulky personal audio player with headphones to each guest, or setting up playback devices across the battlefield.  It’s also unobtrusive with respect to the landscape, because all you need is a small sign.

Independence National Historical Park and Minute Man National Historical Park are two other sites getting in on the cell phone tour act, although the latter charges a small fee for it.  Saratoga has a cell phone tour, too, in addition to audio clips which you can download to an mp3 players from the park website and listen to when you visit.

The times they are a-changing, and historic sites are rolling with it.


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Getting the message across at King’s Mountain

My mentor in the public history business used to say, “A museum is a communication device.”  His opinion was (and still is, I suppose) that the primary objective of a museum or historic site is to convey information.  In this post and the next I’d like to look at some effective techniques that museums and historic sites use to communicate.  My examples will all come from my favorite site—King’s Mountain National Military Park in northwestern South Carolina.

Of course, as I write this, we’re just a few hours away from the anniversary of the Battle of King’s Mountain, so it seems like an appropriate example.  Plus, I just returned from a visit there, so it’s still fresh in my mind.  More importantly, KMNP has a first-rate exhibit, and if you want to illustrate how to do something well, you might as well look at the best there is.

It’s quite a bit harder to communicate with exhibits, objects, landscapes, and buildings than it is to use the written or spoken word.  Text and speech are linear; they’re composed of words that the receiver must take in a certain order, while sitting in the comfort of his or her own home or a in quiet library.  There are a few obstacles that can get in the way of the message, but a good writer can surmount them.  With a museum or historic site these obstacles multiply exponentially.  People are standing rather than sitting, they sometimes walk in the wrong direction or skip over crucial elements, there is background noise from other visitors, and so on.

King’s Mountain unveiled a new visitor center exhibit a few years ago, during the 225th anniversary festivities.  I was lucky enough to be there when it opened, and I was astounded at the remarkable job the Park Service did in putting it together. Here’s what you experience when you step into the gallery.

The exhibit set looks like a southern old-growth forest with massive tree trunks. This is what the battleground itself looked like at the time of the battle.  Today the trees on the slopes of King’s Mountain are younger and smaller, but in 1780 the militiamen fighting on the ridge found trees that were so large they provided cover. (One young participant remembered, probably with a little exaggeration, that the tree he used as a personal fortification was almost shorn of bark from flying musket balls during the engagement.)

The nifty thing is that these aren’t just mock-ups of trees.  This is more than an immersive environment.  The tree trunks also serve a more direct interpretive function because they’re the kiosks where the exhibit content is located.

Some of the tree trunks have door-like openings, and when you step inside you’re surrounded by the text and images that most other exhibits put on walls and panels. Adjacent to the trees are the artifact cases.  It’s an innovative design; it creates an environment that shows visitors what the conditions of the battlefield were, and then incorporates the other exhibit elements into that environment.

It also encourages exploration.  Visitors in a run-of-the-mill exhibit gallery will quickly get “exhibit fatigue” and start to bypass areas, missing important portions of the narrative.  Here, by contrast, the narrative is divided among the artificial trees, each of which hides much of its content within its curving walls while simultaneously inviting the visitor to step inside the door.  Like a good novel, this exhibit keeps beckoning you on, compelling you to see what’s around the next corner, inside the next tree.

Now, here’s the really cool part.  When you enter one of these tree trunks, an audio recording automatically starts up, explaining what you’re seeing in more detail and providing first-person narration from historical participants.  The interior of each tree also has a small video screen that provides running captions of the accompanying audio recording.  If a visitor is hearing impaired, they can still tell what’s being said by reading the text.

Note that the narration shown here is describing the contents of the exhibit case next to the tree.  The audio narration includes a detailed description of all the images and artifacts in that part of the exhibit.  Visually-impaired visitors can still “see” everything that a sighted visitor would experience by listening to the audio.  The narration even describes the graphics in each tree trunk’s interior.  (“To the right is a picture of a militiaman, wearing a dark slouch hat and with a blanket roll and rifle slung over his shoulder,” etc.)

So visitors that can’t hear can still read the narration on the screens, and visitors that can’t see can still hear the narration as it describes each component of the exhibit.  Visitors that are neither hearing nor visually impaired have the information reinforced by both hearing it explained and seeing it for themselves, and since they can receive it passively, they’re more likely to take it all in.  Nobody gets left out. This is one of the most thoughtful and sophisticated employments of technology in a public history setting that I’ve ever come across.

I’ve been to many museum exhibits where technology has become a snare rather than a tool for the designers.  They will sometimes employ a device without regard for whether or not it’s the best means to convey that particular message.  I suspect there’s a kind of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality at work in the public history community, in which curators incorporate the latest gadget just because they have the budget for it, not because it’s the best tool for the job.  At King’s Mountain, by contrast, what you see is technology used wisely.  Every exhibit element serves a purpose, and every visitor gets the message.  The folks who designed this exhibit knew what they were doing, and they did it superbly.

Next time we’ll look at another innovative way the park is using technology to interpret the Battle of King’s Mountain.

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“Why do you like coming here?”

Not too long ago a few other folks and I made a quick run out to two of my favorite places, King’s Mountain National Military Park and Cowpens National Battlefield.  Both are Rev War sites in northwestern South Carolina.  It’s a pretty short trip from where I live, and I try to make it at least every year.  It’s my favorite way of recharging my batteries when I get burned out or over-stressed, as I have been for the past several weeks.  

We’d walked the first part of the loop at Cowpens and were headed back toward the Visitor Center when a member of my little group asked me, “Why do you like coming here?”  It was a good question, and my inability to come up with an answer has been bothering me a little.  

 Whatever a battlefield is—a monument, a learning center, an artifact—it was once the scene of violence and bloodshed on a massive scale.  And yet I thoroughly enjoy visiting battlefields, as do thousands of other people.  In fact, when I visit these places of slaughter and misery, I can find myself in a state of almost blissful contentment.  There’s a contradiction here that’s a little disturbing, especially given the fact that I abhor the misuse and neglect of these sites.  

I suppose part of the reason I enjoy visiting battlefields could be the simple fact that it’s always nice to get outdoors and walk around a bit.  I spend most of my time reclining with a book, hunkered over a computer screen, or standing in a classroom, so I’m always eager for any excuse to get out and stretch my legs.  

 Also, it doesn’t hurt that many preserved battlefields are lovely places.  You can’t beat King’s Mountain for a nice outdoor stroll.  It’s a small ridge surrounded by gently undulating, wooded hills; think of a series of high ocean swells turned into solid ground and covered with timber.  Cowpens is pretty pleasant, too, a grassy field bordered by woods with a sandy path running down the middle.  I could name any number of other killing fields that are gorgeous spots: Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh.

Cowpens today, from the NPS website

It would be easier to associate these locations with death and destruction if they had that almost tangibly sinister quality that permeates some places.  Some historic sites do have this quality; Wounded Knee and Waxhaws both have a sort of forlorn atmosphere, even independently of the brutal events that took place at them.  Little Bighorn and Appomattox are lovely, but also appropriately melancholy.  The rocky mountain face near the southern entrance to Cumberland Gap can seem pretty forbidding, especially in the winter, but having looked at it several times a week for much of my adult life, I’ve grown very fond of it.  Still, I find that a visit to such ominous places can be as rejuvenating as a trip to any other historic site, so the question of why I enjoy battlefields so much remains.

The conclusion I’ve come to is pretty simple.  The main reason I like being in these places is because I can get my head around them.  I can understand the ground because I can understand what happened on it.  In the same way that some places are comfortable because you can link them to personal memories, a familiar battlefield can be comfortable because you can link them to names, events, and meanings.  You can make sense of the landscape by making sense of a moment in its past. 

Indeed, making sense of the past is basically what history is.  It operates from the same basic impulse that drives people to catalogue insects or build astronomical observatories.  When we encounter something that transcends the mundane business of everyday life, our instinct is to try to come to some kind of terms with it.  Past wars have that transcendence for me, and studying them is my way of coming to terms. 

Besides, if thousands of people find these places of slaughter more compelling than the modern world outside them, it just might reveal as much about the banality of that modern world as it does about anything else.

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