Kings Mountain and Cowpens National Battlefields

September 27, 2019

Kings Mountain State Park

We camped at Kings Mountain State Park. The campground road was full of potholes, the site driveways were almost as bad, and the sites were not even close to being level. Fortunately we were only there for a couple of nights.

The site we booked had a nonworking electrical connection. So we scouted the campground, made a list empty sites that would work as alternatives, went to the camp office, and asked for another site. They were happy to accommodate us. And they were shocked that our first choice was available. Apparently it had been booked but the reservation must have been cancelled at the last minute and no one else snagged it. That site was better, but only because it had electricity.

Kings Mountain National Battlefield

Kings Mountain Visitor Center

There is a 1½ mile loop trail that circles the crest of Kings Mountain. Along the way you will find informative signs and several monuments. Most of the signs have a map that show you who fought at that point.

The terrain today is quite different than what was here in October 1780. Oaks, hickories, and chestnut trees covered the slopes. The trees were massive compared to those standing today and were farther apart. There was also less underbrush. The top of the mountain was bare. The battle of Kings Mountain occurred on October 7, 1780. This battle was fought entirely between Patriot militia and a like number of Loyalist militia. So like in the Civil War the men who fought here very likely faced family and friends.

Major Patrick Ferguson, the British commander, had gathered and trained about 1,100 Loyalist Americans. These men comprised about one-third of the British Army south of New York. Surprisingly, no one was in overall command of the Patriot force of about 900 men. The Patriot units were loosely coordinated and each unit fought more or less independently.

Ferguson thought the ridge atop Kings Mountain could be easily defended. He learned soon enough that he was dead wrong.

Because few of the fighters wore uniforms, they needed a way to tell friend from foe. So Patriot fighters pinned strips of paper to their hats while Loyalist fighters wore small pine boughs in theirs.

Kings Mountain Terrain – Ridge
Kings Mountain Terrain – Slope

On the morning of the battle it had rained so the Patriot militia’s footsteps were deadened. These men came from the hills and forests of North and South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee. As they arrived, they surrounded the base of the mountain. These frontiersmen knew Indian warfare and were independent-minded, fierce fighters. They didn’t need officers to tell them what to do. They attacked up the hill three times, being repulsed twice by Loyalist troop bayonet charges.

Ferguson wore a red and white checked shirt which made him an easy target. While rallying his men, eight or nine rifle balls hit him. He fell off his horse, caught one of his feet in a stirrup, and was dragged behind the Patriot lines. Ferguson shot and killed a Patriot who had demanded his surrender and was in turn shot to death.

One problem defending a hilltop was described by a patriot militiaman who said, “Their great elevation proved their ruin, they overshot us altogether.” As a result there was a big disparity in casualties.

The Patriots lost about 90 killed and wounded while the Loyalists lost over 450 killed and wounded along with more than 650 captured. One reason the Loyalist casualty count was so high was that many of the Patriots gave no quarter to Loyalists who tried to surrender. They wanted to avenge fellow Patriots who were killed after they had surrendered to British commander “Bloody Ban” Tarleton’s forces at an earlier battle. (Tarleton shows up again later in this post.)

One interesting monument was erected in 2016 to honor the three known African-Americans who fought for the Patriots at Kings Mountain. I didn’t see any information about whether or not they were free blacks or slaves. If they were slaves, had they been promised their freedom in exchange for fighting for the Patriot cause?

African-American Monument

British LeadersAfter the battle the Patriot frontiersmen melted back into the forest and returned to their mountain homes.

After my walk I returned to the Visitor Center to take in the displays. What I liked about them was that they provided information from both the Patriot and British points of view. That’s quite different from when I was a kid more than half a century ago. Back then everything was filtered through American military and political lenses.

British Leaders
American Leaders

I liked the visitor center layout. The displays were well designed and readily engaged my interest.

Visitor Center Display

I particularly liked the 3-D battle map which was shaped like Kings Mountain. The blue (Patriot) and red (Loyalist) LED lights lit up and moved to show the ebb and flow of the battle.

Time-elapsed Map of Battle

Cowpens National Battlefield

Cowpens Visitor Center

American Brigadier General Daniel Morgan’s 970 troops faced off with British Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s 1,050. It was a sweet victory for the Americans because they defeated a man known for his harsh treatment of rebels and was detested by patriots everywhere. Here’s what one patriot, Dr. Christine R. Swager, thought of “Bloody” Ban:

They say that Tarleton’s in the
highlands, and his British troops are
near. There’ll be blood shed in the
meadows When Bloody Ban gets here.
With his troops riding swiftly,
Their sabers flashing high,
Bloody Ban will give no quarter,
Those who can’t escape will die.

The Battle of Cowpens occurred on January 17, 1781 and was a spectacular but unexpected victory for the Americans. While a small engagement by military standards, it forced the British to reconsider their strategy and pull back to the north and east. General Cornwallis, the British commander, ended up in Yorktown where American forces put the finishing touches on their revolution.

A skirmish line composed of sharpshooters waited until Tarleton’s men came within shooting distance then let loose two well-aimed rifle volleys dropping two-thirds of the British officers, a tactic the British thought uncivilized. When the skirmishers fell back the British thought they were retreating and quickly advanced. In the fog of battle, orders to several American units were misunderstood resulting in an orderly retreat of two Continental army units. The advancing British took that as another sign that the battle was won and surged forward. But Morgan quickly ordered Continental troops to about face and fire at point blank range into the charging British troops. The British attack was broken and panicked Redcoats began a hasty retreat. The Continentals continued to advance while American cavalry nipped one British flank and militia swarmed the other, completing a classic double envelopment. The battle began and ended in less than an hour.

Being summer, we decided to do the 45 minute walking tour of the battlefield first before it got too hot.

Walking tour

The park did a nice job of trying to restore the landscape to what it would have been like during the battle. Informational signs could be found all along the trail.

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Terrain at Cowpens

The visitor center had some nice displays. I especially liked the 3-pounder “Grasshopper” cannon. It got its nickname because of its appearance and because of how it “hopped” when fired.

Battlefield Map
Grasshopper

General Daniel Morgan

The visitor center had plenty of information about the battle itself and displays of the uniforms and weapons used by each side. It also gives you first person accounts from men who led and fought the battle on each side.

J

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