War in the Carolinas Heats Up!
As war in the Carolinas intensified, the British kicked up a “hornet’s nest” near present day Charlotte, NC. On General Cornwallis’s left flank was a Scotsman named Patrick Ferguson. Since age 15, Ferguson had served in the British military for two decades. He was called the “bulldog” by his fellow soldiers. In September 1780, he sent an ultimatum to the American militiamen. Ferguson warned them:
If they did not desist from their opposition to the British arms, he would march over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country to waste with fire and sword.
News of Ferguson’s threat reached Colonel Isaac Shelby. Shelby wasted no time telling his fellow Patriots about the loud barking Scotsman. An army of American militia mobilized west of the Blue Ridge mountain range in the heart of present-day northeast Tennessee. This army is known historically as the Over Mountain Men. On September 26, 1780, a Presbyterian preacher, Samuel Doak, delivered a fiery sermon to the men. At the height of Doak’s sermon, he shouted, “The Sword of the Lord and Gideon.” The militia shouted the words back to him and then crossed the line of departure in the direction of Kings Mountain, SC.
American Guerillas (Part Two): The Sword of the Lord and Gideon
In part two of the American Guerillas series, we cover the battle of Kings Mountain in detail. Kings Mountain helped turn the tide of American misfortune in South Carolina. The battle was a complete American victory. It remains one of the most remarkable mobilizations of forces in American military history. Over the last two years (2022-2023), the American military specifically the Army has had recruiting shortfalls. Colonel Shelby did not have that problem. As we discuss in the podcast, the Over Mountain Men were joined by over 1,000 militiamen from the Piedmont. By the time the combined force reached Cowpens, SC, they numbered 2,000. For the assault on Kings Mountain, the combined force attacked with 900 hand-picked militiamen.
Kings Mountain stands out because of the totality of the victory. A force of 1,1000 British Loyalists and Provincials were killed or captured. We say British Loyalists and Provincials only to distinguish the fact that they fought for the British. However, the Loyalists and Provincials were from the American colonies. The Provincials were the equivalent of regulars and many came from New York, New Jersey, and South Carolina. The Loyalist militia were part-time soldiers. They were the modern day equivalent of reservists. Many of them were from South Carolina.
The Over Mountain Men
Who were these legendary men that defeated Major Patrick Ferguson? To begin, they are called Over Mountain Men because they had migrated west of the Blue Ridge Mountain range. They were on the frontier of westward American expansion. As a result, it is misleading to say they were from the “backcountry.” How can someone be on both the frontier and in the backcountry at the same time? The term backcountry merely categorizes the region they inhabited as being wild and lawless. It was a rugged, tough place with the threat of violence prevalent in all aspects of life. This was a savage world, and the settlers survived through hard work, family, faith, and skill with a rifle.
Most of these settlers were Scots-Irish. In the podcast, we begin with a discussion about the Scots-Irish. Why are they called Scots-Irish? Where did they come from? The short answer is that they had emigrated from the lowlands of Scotland to the Ulster region of northern Ireland. From 1717-1775, nearly one quarter of a million Scots-Irish settled in colonial America. They came through Philadelphia and pushed west. Many of them continued to travel down the Shenandoah Valley along the Old Wagon Road. This brought them into Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia.
The Scots-Irish were mostly Presbyterians. They were very much reformed in their theology, and had no interest in the Church of England. The Church of England was still the established church in colonies like Virginia. Presbyterians were some of the most vehement supporters of American independence. Twelve of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were Presbyterians including the President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), John Witherspoon.
War in the Carolinas: Early American Wins
Prior to the American victory at Kings Mountain, there were a few battles that the American militia won. First, the Battle of Musgrove’s Mill was a battle in which an outnumbered Patriot militia was able to defeat a British Loyalist and Provincial force that was twice their size. The Battle of Musgrove’s Mill offered an early glimpse of how American forces were able to use “guerilla” style tactics in the Carolinas. Guerilla tactics are used by smaller units to overcome larger conventional units. The style of fighting relies on tactical creativity, knowledge of the enemy, and understanding of the terrain. Furthermore, it relies on setting traps and ambushes against the enemy.
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War delivers timeless maxims on how this style of fighting works. In many ways, the term “guerilla tactics” is misleading. The tactics are simply good tactics. Conventional units can use them too. Any good military commander should be familiar with them. We say that they are guerilla tactics only when smaller, unconventional forces use them in cases of rebellion and insurgencies.
At Musgrove’s Mill, the Patriot forces baited the British into an attack using a small party on horseback. The British chased after them and charged up a hill into a planned American engagement area. The British advanced into a clearing and crossed into the effective range of American rifle and musket fire. At that point the Patriot militia fired a coordinated volley which had devastating effects on the British forces. The British attempted a counterattack, but their commander was shot dead. American militia counterattacked and the British began to withdraw from the battlefield after taking heavy casualties.
The Swamp Fox
Francis Marion was a South Carolina native. He was a man of French Huguenot descent. He was a farmer and worked on his families plantation in Berkley County, South Carolina. During the Revolutionary War, he served as an officer in the Continental Army. He served at Fort Sullivan and then remained in Charleston through a period of relative quiet in South Carolina. He was absent when Charleston fell due to the fact that he had injured his foot while escaping from a dinner party with heavy drinking.
After the British took Charleston and pushed into South Carolina, Marion commanded a militia unit in the low country where he began using guerilla style tactics against British Loyalists. He had early success after the Battle of Camden when his militia unit set 150 Continental prisoners free at Nelson’s Ferry. Marion followed up his success with a victory at Blue Savannah, Black Mingo Creek and Tearcoat Swamp. At Blue Savannah, Marion used similar tactics to what the Patriot militia used at Musgrove’s Mill. He baited the enemy into an ambush. During the other two battles, Marion attacked at night and struck the enemy in three columns.
After these victories, General Cornwallis had had enough and sent Banastre Tarleton after him. Tarleton nearly sprung a trap on Marion. However, a timely piece of intelligence came to Marion through Mary Richardson and her son. Thus, Marion withdrew to avoid the trap and Tarleton pursued him for nearly 30 miles. When Tarleton realized he was not going to catch Marion, he said, “Come my Boys! Let us go back, and we will find the Gamecock.” And then he concluded, “But as for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.”
Battle of Blackstock’s Plantation
In part two of the American Guerillas series, we cover the Battle of Blackstock’s Plantation. We talk about Thomas Sumter, who was known as the Gamecock. The University of South Carolina’s mascot comes from Sumter’s nickname. Sumter was a hard charging militia commander. He was very skilled at recruiting new men to take the field. He also never gave up even when he was defeated.
The Battle of Blackstock’s Plantation was one of the first battlefield victories where a Patriot militia defeated British regulars. Although the British claimed victory, their numbers told a much different story. Sumter’s militiamen bloodied Tarleton, who suffered heavy losses that he could not easily paper over. More importantly, the Battle of Blackstock’s Plantation showed how American militia might be used against the British to maximum effect. As the militia withdrew, the British pursued them straight into the teeth of an American engagement area. When the British entered the engagement area, sharpshooters used cover and concealed positions to fire at them. British losses piled up, and many of their officers were killed and wounded. Eventually Tarleton withdrew his unit two miles from Blackstock’s. When they returned in the morning to attack, the Americans had slipped away in the night and were gone from the plantation.
Sumter was wounded in the battle. He was out of action for the next few months. During this time, several key leaders made their way south. Among them were Daniel Morgan and Nathanael Greene. Both were seasoned officers and great leaders. As the year 1780 came to a close, events were shaping up for 1781 to be a bloodbath. The following year was a test of wills and the stage was set for several of the most important battles of the war.
- American Battlefield Trust
- Buchanan, John. The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas. New York, John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1997. The Road to Guilford Courthouse
- Brown, Robert W. Jr. Kings Mountain and Cowpens: Our Victory Was Complete. Charleston, SC, The History Press, 2009. Kings Mountain and Cowpens
- Maass, John R. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse: A Most Desperate Engagement. Charleston, SC, The History Press, 2020. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse
- Babits, Lawrence E. A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens. Chapel Hill & London, The University of North Carolina Press, 1998. A Devil of a Whipping
- Gordon, John W. South Carolina and the American Revolution: A Battlefield History. Columbia, SC, The University of South Carolina Press, 2003. South Carolina and the American Revolution
- Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. New York, NY, Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003. The Art of War
- Presbyterian Historical Society
 Buchanan, John. The Road to Guilford Courthouse (p. 242). Turner Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.
If you haven’t heard part one of the series. Be sure to listen to it.
My company, Alexandria History Tours, provides history tours in Old Town Alexandria, VA. We have a George Washington tour, a Revolutionary War tour, plus Civil War stops on our tours! Check out the website and learn more.
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