Tag Archives: King’s Mountain

Over the mountains and back again

As promised, here are some highlights from the trip my cousin and I took along the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, or at least a good-sized chunk of it.

We kicked things off with a visit to Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton, TN.  The Overmountain Men assembled here to begin the march that culminated in Ferguson’s defeat at King’s Mountain.  This was my second visit, but it had been several years since I’d been there.  We scoped out the reconstruction of Ft. Watauga, site of a failed Indian attack in the summer of 1776.

Walking on, we came to the shoals for which the site is named.  The Overmountain Men crossed the river here.

Then we passed the open ground where the muster took place.  Before the militiamen set off, they heard a sermon by Rev. Samuel Doak, one of the most prominent ministers of the early frontier.  Sycamore Shoals was also the place where Richard Henderson bought the territory between the Kentucky and Cumberland Rivers from the Cherokee in 1775.

While we were in Elizabethton, I took the chance to swing by the original site of Ft. Watauga, which I didn’t get to see the last time I was there.  A monument atop a small mound in a residential neighborhood marks the location.

After snapping a quick photo, we set off along the OVNHT commemorative driving route, which approximates the path the Whigs took into the Carolina backcountry.  This was the first time I’d avoided the interstates on a King’s Mountain pilgrimage, and it was nice to see some different scenery zip by the window.

The NPS runs a small mineral and mining museum near Spruce Pine, NC along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the area where the Overmountain Men split into two parties to cross the mountains.  A monument on the grounds commemorates their campaign, as well as an Indian battle at Etchoe Pass in which Franics Marion participated.

The marker also refers to more recent military history: “It was the North Carolina and South Carolina and Tennessee troops—the 30th Division—in the World War that broke the Hindenburg Line.”  In the nineteenth century it was common for East Tennessee Unionists to invoke King’s Mountain when writing about the Civil War, but this was the first time I’d seen this theme applied to WWI.

In Burke County, we paid a visit to Quaker Meadows, home of Charles and Joseph McDowell, where Whig partisans from North Carolina joined the units from over the mountains.  Historic Burke maintains an exhibit in the old courthouse building, and also operates Charles McDowell’s 1812 brick home.  The house was closed, but we walked around the grounds and snapped a picture.

Just a stone’s throw from the house is a monument to the Council Oak, where the militia commanders got together to plan the next stage of the expedition.

The original tree is gone, and in fact this isn’t the exact spot where it stood, but a replacement now grows over the monument, right next to a steakhouse where I consumed enough salmon patties to founder an elephant.

The Whigs expected to find Ferguson in Gilbert Town, near present-day Rutherfordton, but by the time they arrived there the Scottish commander had begun his retreat southward.  We stopped there for the night, and then drove by the field where the militia camped, and I would’ve snapped a photo, but there was no space to pull off the road.

While we were in that neck of the woods, we made a brief side trip to Biggerstaff’s Old Fields.  The victors of King’s Mountain camped there with their prisoners on the night of Oct. 14, 1780, during their return march back into the mountains.  That evening, some of the Whigs conducted an impromptu trial and hanged nine of the Tories, three at a time.  The marker is in the middle of nowhere, and to get there you have to take  a series of winding back roads, each one narrower than the last.  There was barely enough space in the grass alongside the road to park the car.  Even in the daytime, it’s a somewhat eerie place, with that vaguely sinister, ominous vibe you sometimes pick up at isolated locations where awful things happened.  (We could hear, but not see, crows cawing in the surrounding trees. Maybe that had something to do with it.)

Back on the OVNHT, and just a short distance from Biggerstaff’s, is Brittain Church.  The Whigs passed by the site on their march southward and again on their return, leaving some of the wounded behind to recover.

For some of the injured militiamen, this was the last stop.  Thomas McCullouch was a lieutenant in Campbell’s regiment; mortally wounded, he died at Brittain Church, and his final resting place is in the graveyard behind the sanctuary.

There are other Rev War veterans buried in the same graveyard.  Most of them are militiamen from the Carolinas, but we also found a tombstone belonging to a Maryland soldier.

We skipped the next segment of the OVNHT, which crosses into South Carolina, in order to have enough time to walk the field at Cowpens, where the Whigs stopped on October 6 and joined up with additional men from the Palmetto State before moving on to King’s Mountain.  Just a few months after their victory over Ferguson’s Tories, some of them would return to Cowpens and help Daniel Morgan inflict another defeat on the British.

After taking in the battlefield, we drove a short distance to the town of Gaffney to see the gravesite of Col. James Williams, the controversial officer who suffered a mortal wound while leading a contingent of South Carolinians at King’s Mountain.

We spent the night at my usual motel near Crowders Mountain, and made the short drive to King’s Mountain National Military Park after a hearty breakfast.  I’d never been to the park this late in the year, and I was surprised at how much easier it was to appreciate the terrain with fewer leaves on the trees.  Here’s a view of the crest from Isaac Shelby’s sector of the battleground:

Lt. McCullough’s name, we noticed, was listed on the U.S. Monument.  Seeing a name on one of these engraved lists is a lot more poignant when you spent the previous morning looking at the grass growing over the bones of the man who possessed it.

Someday I’m hoping to go back and tour the McDowell House and fill in a few other blank spaces we had to skip, and of course I’ve still got to drive the northern leg from Virginia and the eastern leg which follows the route of Cleveland and Winston’s men to Quaker Meadows.  But this was a very satisfying trip, and something that had been on my bucket list for a long time.

If you’re interested in exploring the trail for yourself, let me encourage you to pick up the OVNHT guidebook by Randell Jones, published earlier this year, which includes maps, directions, photos, and background information on what you’ll find along the way.  We took a copy along with us and it came in quite handy.  I’d also recommend you take some sort of GPS device and print out the list of latitude and longitude coordinates of the waypoints along the route which is available here.

Oh, and speaking of my bucket list, we devoted the last day of the trip to another site I’d wanted to visit for a while.  This particular battleground isn’t a stop on the Overmountain Men’s route, bit it’s inseparable from the story of how they ended up at King’s Mountain.  I’ll talk about this place in my next post.

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Hitting the trail, or at least a close approximation thereof

My teenage cousin has morphed into a bona fide history fanatic, and I’ve promised to take him to my favorite historic site, which of course is King’s Mountain. I’ve got two extra days off this week, so we’ve decided to bypass the direct route and take the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, which approximates the route taken by the Whig militia on their march to intercept and defeat Ferguson’s Tories. (We’ll be starting at Sycamore Shoals in Elizabethton, TN, but there are additional branches of the trail that start in Virginia and North Carolina.) As a certified King’s Mountain fanatic, driving the trail has been on my personal bucket list for a long time, and I’m pretty excited.

The only problem is that I’m a horrible navigator, and since the OVNHT doesn’t necessarily follow the shortest route from point to point, I can’t rely on my GPS to show me which roads to take. The NPS has an official map of the trail, but it doesn’t provide specific directions and road names. I’ve plotted out the main stops on an online mapping program and adjusted the directions to follow the trail, but my track record with this sort of thing is less than stellar. I therefore predict one of two possible outcomes:

  1. We’ll have to give up on the official driving tour and just navigate from stop to stop using whatever route the GPS indicates, or
  2. We’ll try to stick to the trail come heck or high water, get irretrievably lost, and neither of us will ever be heard from again.

Anyway, we’re setting off for Elizabethton tonight to get an early start on the tour tomorrow morning. Assuming we come out of this alive, I should be able to post some interesting pictures and site reports in a few days. If not, at least my demise will come in the midst of some serious historical touring, so I’ll die happy.

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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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Dial-a-battlefield

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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