Documenting the American South Logo
Colonial and State Records of North Carolina
Description by John J. Hardin of the Battle of King's Mountain, based on Isaac Shelby's recollections
Hardin, John J., 1810-1847
December 1848
Volume 15, Pages 104-111


In 1815, and again in 1819, Gen. Martin D. Hardin, of Kentucky, had conversations with Gov. Shelby with special reference to the battles of Musgrove's Mill and King's Mountain, which he carefully noted down at the time; and which his son, the late Hon. John J. Hardin, of Illinois, communicated to the American Review for December, 1848. That part relative to King's Mountain is as follows:

In the early part of the year 1780, Col. Shelby was appointed Colonel of Sullivan County, North Carolina, with the authority of County Lieutenant. Col. Sevier held the same command in Washington County, North Carolina. These Counties are situated west of the Alleghany mountains, and now constitute a part of Tennessee. Col. William Campbell, at the same time, commanded a regiment in Washington County in Virginia, but was not the County Lieutenant. After the defeat of Gen. Gates, at Cambden, on the 16th of August, 1780, the patriots were very much disspirited. Many who resided in the eastern portions of North and South Carolina sought safety and liberty in the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia, amidst the hardy, patriotic mountaineers of those districts.

-------------------- page 105 --------------------

In September, 1780, Majr. Ferguson, who was one of the best and most enterprising of the British officers in America, had succeeded in raising a large body of Tories, who, with his own corps of regulars, constituted an effective force of eleven hundred and twenty-five men. With a view of cutting off Col. Clarke, of Georgia, who had recently made a demonstration against Augusta, which was then in the hands of the British, Ferguson had marched near the Blue Ridge, and had taken post at Gilbert Town, which is situated but a few miles from the mountains. Whilst there he discharged a patriot, who had been taken prisoner, on his parole, and directed him to tell Col. Shelby (who had become obnoxious to the British and Tories, from the affair at Musgrove's Mill) that if Shelby did not surrender he (Ferguson) would come over the mountains, and put him to death, and burn his whole County.

It required no further taunt to rouse the patriotic indignation of Col. Shelby. He determined to make an effort to raise a force, in connection with other officers, which should surprise and defeat Ferguson. With this object in view, he went to a horse race near where Jonesborough has since been built, to see Sevier and others. Shelby and Sevier there resolved that if Col. Campbell would join them they would raise all the force they could, and attack Ferguson; and if this was not practicable they would co-operate with any corps of the army of the United States with which they might meet. If they failed, and the country was over run and subdued by the British, they would then take water, and go down to the Spaniards in Louisiana.

Col. Campbell was notified of their determination, and a place of rendezvous in the mountains appointed, east of Jonesborough. At the time appointed, September 25th, Campbell joined them, and their united force numbered about one thousand riflemen. They crossed the mountains on the 27th, in a ravine, and fell in, accidentally, with Col. Cleveland, of North Carolina, who had under his command about four hundred men.

The force having been raised by officers of equal rank, and being without any higher officer entitled to command the whole corps, there was a general want of of organization and arrangement. It was then determined that a board of officers should convene each night and decide on the plan of operations for the next day; and further, that one of the officers should see those orders executed as

-------------------- page 106 --------------------
officer of the day, until they should otherwise conclude. Shelby proposed that Col. Campbell should act as officer of the day. Campbell took him aside, and requested Shelby to withdraw his name, and consent to serve himself. Shelby replied that he was himself the youngest Colonel present from his State, that he had served during that year under several of the officers who were present, and who might take offence if he commanded; that Gen. McDowell, who was with them, was too slow an officer for his views of the enterprise in which they were engaged, and added that as he ranked Campbell, yet as Campbell was the only officer from Virginia, if he (Shelby) pressed his appointment no one would object. Col. Campbell felt the force of this reasoning, and consented to serve, and was appointed to the command as officer of the day.

The force of the detachment was still considered insufficient to attack Ferguson, as his strength was not known. It was agreed that an express be sent to invite Gen. Morgan or Gen. Davidson to take the command. Gen. McDowell tendered his services for this purpose and started on his mission. Before proceeding far he fell in with Col. Williams, of South Carolina, who was at the head of from two to three hundred refugees. Gen. McDowell advised them where the patriot force was encamped. They joined the army, and thus made a muster roll of about sixteen hundred men.

The board of officers determined to march upon Ferguson. In the meantime two or three of their men had deserted after their first rendezvous, and had gone to Ferguson and advised him of the intended attack. The Army marched to Gilbert Town and found that Ferguson had left it several days before, having taken the route towards Fort Ninety-Six.

Finding that Ferguson was retreating, and learning what was his real strength, it was determined on Thursday night, the 5th of October, to make a desperate effort to over take him before he should reach any British post or receive any further reinforcements. Accordingly, they selected all who had good horses, who numbered about nine hundred and ten, and started the next morning in pursuit of Ferguson, as soon as they could see.

Ferguson, after marching a short distance towards Ninety-Six, had filed off to the left towards Cornwallis. His pursuers never

-------------------- page 107 --------------------
stopped until late in the afternoon, when they reached the Cowpens. They there halted, shot down some beeves, ate their suppers & fed their horses. This done, the line of march was resumed and continued through the whole night, amidst an excessively hard rain. In the morning Shelby ascertained that Campbell had taken a wrong road in the night and had separated from him. Men were posted off in all directions and Campbell's corps found and put in the right road. They then crossed Broad river and continued their pursuit until twelve O'clock, the 7th of October. The rain continued to fall so heavily that Campbell, Sevier and Cleveland concluded to halt, and rode up to Shelby to inform him of their determination. Shelby replied: “I will not stop till night, if I follow Ferguson into Cornwallis' lines.” Without replying, the other Colonels turned off to their respective commands and continued the march. They had proceeded but a mile when they learned that Ferguson was only seven miles from them, at King's Mountain.

Ferguson, finding that he could not elude the rapid pursuit of the mounted mountaineers, had marched to King's Mountain, which he considered a strong post, and which he had reached the night previous. The Mountain, or ridge, was a quarter of a mile long, and so confident was Ferguson in the strength of his position that he declared the Almighty could not drive him from it.

When the patriots came near the mountain they halted, tied all their loose baggage to their saddles, fastened their horses and left them under charge of a few men, and then prepared for an immediate attack. About 3 O'clock the patriot force was led to the attack in four columns. Col. Campbell commanded the right center column, Col. Shelby the left centre, Col. Sevier the right flank column, and Col. Cleveland the left flank. As they came to the foot of the mountain, the right centre and right flank columns deployed to the right, and the left centre and left flank columns to the left, and thus surrounding the mountain they marched up, commencing the action on all sides.

Ferguson did all that an officer could do under the circumstances. His men, too fought bravely. But his position, which he thought impregnable against any force the patriots could raise, was really a disadvantage to him. The summit was bare, whilst the sides of the mountain was covered with trees. Ferguson's

-------------------- page 108 --------------------
men were drawn up in close column on the summit, and thus presented fair marks for the mountaineers, who approached them under cover of the trees. As either column would approach the summit, Ferguson would order out a charge with fixed bayonet, which was always successful, for the riflemen retreated before the charging column slowly, still firing as they retired. When Ferguson's men returned to regain their position on the mountain, the patriots would again rally and pursue them. In one of these charges Shelby's column was considerably broken; he rode back and rallied his men, and when the enemy retired to the summit he pressed on his men and reached the summit whilst Ferguson was directing a charge against Cleveland.

Col. Sevier reached the summit about the same time with Shelby. They united and drove back the enemy to one end of the ridge. Cleveland's and Campbell's columns were still pressing forward and firing as they came up. The slaughter of the enemy was great, and it was evident that further resistance would be unavailing. Still Ferguson's proud heart could not think of surrender. He swore “he never would yield to such a d–d banditti,” and rushed from his men, sword in hand, and cut away until his sword was broken and he was shot down. His men, seeing their leader fall, immediately surrendered. The British loss, in killed and prisoners, was eleven hundred and five. Ferguson's morning report showed a force of eleven hundred and twenty-five. A more total defeat was not practicable. Our loss was about forty killed. Amongst them we had to mourn the death of Col. Williams, a most gallant and efficient officer. The battle lasted one hour.

The victors encamped on the mountain that night, and the next morning took up their line of march for the mountains, under a bright sun, the first they had seen for many days. They made the prisoners carry their own arms, as they could not have carried them in any other way. Amongst the prisoners Shelby found some officers who had fought under him a few weeks previously at Musgrove's Mill. They said that they had been compelled to join Ferguson, and when they had been examined, and their account found to be correct, they were well treated.

Owing to the number of wounded, and the destitution of the army of all conveyances, they travelled slowly, and in one week

-------------------- page 109 --------------------
had only marched about forty miles. When they reached Gilbert Town, a week after the battle, they were informed by a paroled officer that he had seen eleven patriots hung at Ninety-Six, a few days before, for being Rebels. Similar cruel and unjustifiable acts had been committed before. In the opinion of the patriots it required retaliatory measures to put a stop to these atrocities. A copy of the law of North Carolina was obtained, which authorized two magistrates to summons a jury, and forth with to try, and if found guilty, to execute persons who had violated its precepts. Under this law thirty-six men were tried and found guilty of breaking open houses, killing the men, turning the women and children out of doors and burning the houses. The trial was concluded late at night. The execution of the law was as summary as the trial; Three men were hung at a time, until nine were hung. Three more were tied ready to be swung off; Shelby interfered and proposed to stop it; The other officers agreed, and the three men who supposed that they had seen their last hour were untied. One of them said to Shelby, “You have saved my life and I will tell you a secret. Tarleton will be here in the morning; A woman has brought the news.”

It was then two O'clock at night, but no time was to be lost; the camp was instantly aroused, everything packed up, the wounded sent into secret hiding places in the mountains, and the line of march taken up. The next day it rained incessantly, but the army continued its march without stopping until they crossed the Catawba the succeeding night. The river was breast high when they crossed it; The weary troops bivouacked on its banks, and the next morning it had risen so much as to be past fording. This obstacle being such as to prevent all pursuit, they leisurely retired with their prisoners. As an evidence of the hardships undergone by these brave and hardy patriots, Col. Shelby says that he ate nothing from Saturday morning until after they encamped Sunday night at two O'clock A. M.

The information given to Shelby by the condemned prisoners turned out to have been substantially correct. Lord Cornwallis had detached Tarleton to pursue and attack the patriots and to rescue the prisoners. Soon after Tarleton was dispatched, the former took an old Whig prisoner and examined him; He told the prisoner he could not learn who defeated Ferguson. The old

-------------------- page 110 --------------------
man told him. Cornwallis then inquired the force of the patriots; He told him it was three thousand riflemen. Cornwallis asked where they were gone; He replied, they replied they were bearing down on him. Whether this was told under the belief that it was true, or told as a ruse de guerre, it answered a very excellent purpose. Lord Cornwallis and Rawdon immediately consulted together, beat to arms, struck their tents, burned some extra clothing and retreated to the south side of Broad river in confusion. At the same time, a messenger was sent to recall Tarleton, who was overtaken after he had proceeded eighteen miles, and who immediately returned to Cornwallis' camp.

At the time Shelby and his co-patriots raised their force Cornwallis supposing that he would meet no further serious resistance in North or South Carolina, had projected the invasion of Virginia in three columns. He was to advance in the centre, a second detachment was to march on his right, and Ferguson was to command the left wing. The time for the invasion was fixed; officers were out through the country collecting the Tories, and a few days more would have made them very strong. The defeat of Ferguson prevented this invasion, and so intimidated the Tories that most of them declined joining the British, generally preferring to make a profession of faith to King George, rather than take up arms in his behalf.

At the time the nine hundred and ten men were selected to pursue Ferguson, they were informed that there were six hundred Tories embodied near them, and it was suggested that they should be attacked. Shelby opposed this, saying that if they turned after any other object they would lose Ferguson. After the battle of King's Mountain, this force, like all other partisan bodies, called out for a peculiar emergency, was difficult to be kept embodied. The men one after another returned home, so that when they reached the Catawba there were not more men than prisoners.

It is impossible for those who have not lived in its midst to conceive of the exasperation which prevails in a civil war. The execution, therefore, of the nine Tories at Gilbert Town will by many persons be considered an act of retaliation unnecessarily cruel. It was believed by those on the ground to be both necessary and proper, for the purpose of putting a stop to the execution

-------------------- page 111 --------------------
of the patriots in the Carolinas by the Tories and British. The event proved the justice of the expectation of the patriots. The execution of the Tories did stop the execution of the Whigs. And it may be remarked of this lamentable and cruel mode of retaliation, that whatever excuses and pretences the Tories may have had for their atrocities, the British officers, who often ordered the execution of Whigs, had none. Their training to arms and military education should have prevented them from violating the rules of civilized warfare in so essential a point.

Those patriots who desired to continue in the service after the battle at King's Mountain, especially the refugees, wished to be formed into a corps, and to be under the command of Gen. Morgan. To effect this Col. Shelby went to Head Quarters and saw Morgan, who said they were just the men he wanted. Gen. Gates consented, and the Board of War of North Carolina ordered out these militia, who marched up and joined Morgan; most of them were with him the next campaign, and proved the stuff they were made of at the nobly won battle of the Cowpens.

Additional Notes for Electronic Version: The first paragraph of this document is not from "The American Review." It is unclear if it was written by the editor of the "State Records" or was part of the source he used.