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.