Tag Archives: King’s Mountain

Want your own antebellum house?

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.)

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Take a tour of Kentucky’s War of 1812

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.

Gov. Isaac Shelby as painted by Matthew Jouett, from the Kentucky Historical Society’s Hall of Governors via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Have a look at Col. Cleveland

Remember that painting of Rev War militia officer Benjamin Cleveland that Don Troiani was working on?  It’s done!  The Wilkes Heritage Museum has a copy, and you can get a look at it by clicking here.

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Putting a face on Benjamin Cleveland

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.

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Bad dude, small world

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.

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“Insult and indignity”

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.

Ferguson's final resting place. Image from National Parks Traveler

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.

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Here’s an update on the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail

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.

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Tory trap

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.

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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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