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Turn of the Tide

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

I consider the battles of the American Revolution to be like my children. I love them all. But, I do love one (battle, that is) more than the others. It is Kings Mountain, fought on October 7, 1780.

Kings Mountain is my favorite for a number of reasons. First, it happened when all looked lost, and it turned the tide to victory. Second, it was fought by militia with no Colonial Army officers, troops, or training. Third, it was fought by a culture and ethnic group from which I am descended, the Scotch-Irish. And fourth, it defeated the epitome of British arrogance.

Earlier in 1780, the patriots suffered a major defeat when after a three month campaign, the British under Henry Clinton and Charles Cornwallis captured Charleston, South Carolina and with it 3,371 Colonial soldiers. The Colonial Army all over South Carolina surrendered for a grand total of 5,255 men, about half of them languishing in the hellish British ships anchored in the Charleston called “prison hulks.”

On May 29, Banistere Tarleton slaughtered a group of Colonial soldiers trying to surrender at Waxhaws. On August 16, Cornwallis (whom Clinton had left in command of the South), routed the “hero of Saragota,” Horatio Gates in an ignominious defeat.

It appeared that the war in the South was over.

But before Clinton left Cornwallis in charge, though, he issued a series of proclamations in late May through June 3 that required loyalty oaths to the King, and if a man would not sign he “would have his property confiscated, and otherwise severely punished.” In another, those who had been paroled after the surrender were ordered to “take an active part in maintaining the Royal Government” else be “treated as rebels to the Government of the King.”

This provoked a whole resurgence of resistance in South Carolina that rose from the ashes of defeat. And it embroiled the Scotch-Irish in the back country in the war in which they had not hitherto been too active. The Scotch-Irish were a fighting culture. Their ancestors were lowland Scots who, the English had – being tired of fighting them - persuaded to invade Northern Ireland. Descendants of the ones who stayed are the Orangemen Protestants in Ulster who dominate Ulster and have had many scrapes with the Irish over the centuries.

In the early 1700’s whole communities (often entire Presbyterian churches) of Scotch-Irish picked up and moved to America. Being abjectly poor, most of them moved west into the Shenandoah River Valley, then migrating into Kentucky and Tennessee becoming the “Overmountain Men.”

The Scotch-Irish gave the world country and western music. They were the culture that bore the brunt of Indian deprivations and continued their martial traditions honed in the borderlands of Scotland and Ireland in Indian wars. This martial culture has contributed more men per capita to the American military than any other, so much so that the American fighting man is often represented as one with a country, Southern accent. They gave the world the saying, "The Lord helps those who helps themselves."

When the Scotch-Irish in the backcountry heard about the loyalty oath requirement, as one might expect, they were not taken with it. One of Cornwallis’ Colonels, Patrick Ferguson added fuel to the fire. Hearing of backcountry resistance, he said that the backcountry should submit to the king, or he would “lay waste to their country with fire and sword.” In another proclamation, urging citizens to join his militia, he warned of them that they would be “pissed upon by a set of mongrels,” meaning the backcountry Scotch-Irish. If Forrest Gump were telling this story on his bench, he would probably just simply finish it by saying, “Those Scotch-Irish killed him.”

The thing about the Scotch-Irish is that they did not wait for the fight to come to them when someone threatened them. In a fighting tradition that had worked well against the Indians, when an attack anywhere on the frontier was detected, men from all up and down the frontier would converge, form into voluntary association, elect their leaders, and then track down the enemy, hitting him as hard and fast as possible. This was the tactic further honed on the Texas frontier by descendants of that culture in the Texas Rangers. It is the tactic that has been further used by American special forces all over the world.

So, Ferguson’s threat spread like wildfire, and the men started streaming to the backcountry Carolinas not only from the Carolinas, but from Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. By September 25, the volunteers numbered around 1,000 men. By September 30, their ranks had grown to 1,400.

The force proceeded to track down Ferguson’s force of 1,200 mainly loyalist Tory American troops. The Patriot force caught Ferguson’s force while it was camped at the top of Kings Mountain in northern South Carolina, just south of the North Carolina line.

The battle lasted only 65 minutes. Though the Patriots were fighting uphill in rugged, forested terrain, they only lost 28 killed and 60 wounded, while the Loyalists lost 290 killed, 163 wounded, and 668 taken prisoner. The Loyalists tried using standard British line-up tactics, while the Patriot Scotch-Irish fought Indian style. And, indeed, Patrick Ferguson died in the battle.

Kings Mountain reversed liberty’s fortunes, leading to a series of victories at Cowpens, then Guilford Courthouse, and culminating just a bit over a year later with the victory at Yorktown. Thomas Jefferson called Kings Mountain, "The turn of the tide of success."

Shelby County, Texas is named after one of the Kings Mountain patriot leaders, Isaac Shelby.

I hope someone makes a movie about this battle someday.


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