Tag Archives: King’s Mountain

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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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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