In the fall of 1780, things were not looking good for the American Revolution. The British had fought the Continental Army to a stalemate in the north, and rumor had it that there were enough loyalists in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina that a show of force in those colonies would be enough to fracture the American nation and bring on a permanent victory for the British. Believing the rumors, the overall commander of British forces in the colonies, Henry Clinton, dispatched General Charles Cornwallis to South Carolina.
Cornwallis made short work of the Patriot forces in Charleston, and occupied South Carolina. By September 1780, his army had crossed into North Carolina and was threatening Charlotte. As his supply lines extended further into the interior, Cornwallis relied on two legions of light infantry and cavalry to protect his main army. One legion, comprised mostly of British regulars, was led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. The other, which consisted of a mix of loyalist light infantry and cavalry, was led by Major Patrick Ferguson, a Scottish officer in the British Army.
Both of these units spent nearly all of their time trying to subdue Patriot militias, with Ferguson being responsible for the western regions of North and South Carolina. Quelling the guerrillas was not an easy job. Of particular concern for Ferguson was a group of frontiersmen who lived on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains in what is now part of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Southwestern Virginia. The British called them the Over Mountain Men. One historian describes the Over Mountain Men this way:
[x_blockquote type=”left”]“The population of this area was predominantly Scotts-Irish. They carved a living out of the forests, fought Indians, survived illness and lived their lives free from outside interference or outside help. They detested authority that was not of their own making or choosing and looked on all forms of government with a decidedly skeptical eye. These were people who thought little of talk and demanded action from their leadership.”[/x_blockquote]
Major Ferguson held the Over Mountain Men in contempt, referring to them as barbarians, and warned loyalists that their wives and daughters were not safe from the savages’ animalistic tendencies. Because most were Presbyterian, Ferguson considered churches in the western region “hornet’s nests” of sedition and would order them burned to the ground. After one particularly brutal raid, on September 10, 1780, he sent a young Patriot militiaman who had been captured over the mountains with a decree that said if the Over Mountain Men did not desist from their opposition to British arms, he would “march over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay the country to waste with fire and sword.” It’s safe to say the reaction to Ferguson’s decree was unexpected.
Instead of cowering in fear, within a matter of days at least four different Patriot militias were formed, drawing men from Southwestern Virginia, Western North Carolina, and the area around modern day Sevierville, Tennessee. The Over Mountain Men from Appalachia were mad as hell and were going to deal with Ferguson on their own terms. Over 900 crossed over the mountains intent on killing him and his men before they made good on his threat.
Once word reached Ferguson that his decree had backfired, he immediately turned and started heading towards the safety of Cornwallis’ main body. But fearing that his military reputation would be damaged by being chased away by people he considered beneath him, he decided to occupy the high ground at Kings Mountain in South Carolina, and dared the Over Mountain Men to come. On October 7, 1780, the men from the mountains surrounded Ferguson on Kings Mountain and destroyed his entire loyalist legion. In a little over an hour, the British suffered 290 killed, 163 wounded, and 668 captured. The Patriots suffered 29 killed and 58 wounded. Ferguson himself was shot seven times and buried in a shallow grave with his mistress.
After the battle, the Patriots took their prisoners and turned most over to the Continental Army. Before doing so, some of the “worst” loyalist prisoners were hung for crimes committed against frontier settlements. The trials were not paragons of judicial fairness.
By the time word about Ferguson’s decimation reached Cornwallis, most of the Over Mountain Men had returned to the western side of the Appalachians. A significant number, however, chose to stay with the Continental Army, now in North Carolina. They became part of an elite corps under the command of Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, another frontier Virginian who had used back-country tactics to great effect for General Washington in the north. Cornwallis dispatched the remainder of his cavalry and light infantry under Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton to destroy Morgan’s corps of frontiersmen. But like Ferguson, Tarleton ran into trouble, and with the help of these barbarians from the mountains, Morgan destroyed Tarleton’s force at the battle of Cowpens.
Morgan’s light corps soon rejoined the Continental Army’s southern main body, which was commanded by Nathanael Greene. Cornwallis was now in a very precarious position. With virtually no cavalry or light infantry (Tarleton had escaped from Cowpens with 200 dragoons), he ordered his army to burn all of their wagons and heavy equipment and immediately set out to find and destroy the Patriots, now unified under Greene’s command. The two forces found each other at Guilford Courthouse, and Greene achieved a strategic victory while losing the field. Bloodied, and lacking a sustainable supply line, Cornwallis abandoned his pursuit in the Carolinas and retreated to Wilmington, North Carolina. He eventually ended-up in Yorktown, Virginia, where he was cornered by George Washington’s main army and, a little over a year after Kings Mountain, surrendered on October 19, 1781.
Many people know nothing about the pivotal role that Appalachian frontiersmen played in the successful conclusion of the American Revolution. The Over Mountain Men were single handedly responsible for the victory at Kings Mountain, which set the stage for their contribution to the Continental Army’s victory at Cowpens. These two battles turned the tide of the war and drove Cornwallis to his ultimate defeat at Yorktown. The hillbillies and rednecks saved the American cause.
Denigrating the people of Appalachia is second nature for certain people. But the fact is that Appalachian values helped create American values. We are not deplorable.