The Battle of Kings Mountain was, like that of nearby Cowpens, decisive in turning the tide of the American Revolution in the South. Not that I was ever taught that in any history class in school, where local prejudice made the Battle of Saratoga the only "turning point of the American Revolution." But better half a century late than never: I know it now, and we visited both Kings Mountain and Cowpens on one of South Carolina's most beautiful ever November days.
Another point of major importance that I never knew: in the South, the Revolution was actually a civil war. Having been brought up in the Northeast, I never thought of Tories as being all that important: the Revolution was a battle between patriotic Americans and their nasty British overlords. But in this part of the land the fight was brother against brother, or at least neighbor against neighbor, with loyalties somewhat fluid, and more about personal freedom than politics and breakfast beverages. The British did their best to encourage the Loyalist faction (Tories) against the Patriots (Whigs), much as we keep trying to do in other countries today. They'd hoped to get the Americans to do most of the dirty work for them, remaining themselves in more of a leadership and advisory position. (Not much has changed in 234 years.) At Kings Mountain, the officer in charge of recruiting and leading the Loyalists was Patrick Ferguson.
Ferguson was a Scottish major in the British army, and in many ways a remarkable man. He was considered to be their best rifleman by far, and he designed the Ferguson rifle, which was much more accurate, safer, and easier to use than the standard "Brown Bess" musket. (Alas, military life being what it often is, he had none of these guns available at Kings Mountain, and had lost the use of his right arm in a previous battle.) He had two mistresses, both named Virginia, who followed him on his campaigns (one died at Kings Mountain). Yet in many ways he was a man of honor, refusing the opportunity to take a clear shot at George Washington—and quite likely, in hindsight, change the outcome of the war—because Washington's back was to him and they were not in a battle situation. He also had a reputation for being more humane in battle than some other British officers.
In the weeks before Kings Mountain, Ferguson made a strategic mistake: he told the Patriots he would hunt them down and burn their homes if they did not lay down their arms. Previous Loyalist and British atrocities had given the rebels plenty of reason to fear, and to be very angry. You do not threaten the family of a Scots-Irish mountain man, heir of William Wallace, a "born warrior." And you don't try to take away his gun. (Not much has changed.) Assistance poured over the mountains and the rebel ranks swelled.
These were not trained soldiers, though they'd had plenty of fighting practice and came with battle skills learned from the Indians. As the narration at the Kings Mountain Visitors Center succinctly put it, these fighting units had leaders, not commanders. The leaders were "boots on the ground" fighters as much as their recruits. (However that might work or not work as a battle strategy, I think we need more leaders and fewer commanders in all areas of life today.) There was little discipline or coordination amongst these independent fighters, who were even given orders before the battle to "be your own leader." But they were warriors, defending their homes and their families, and they won a decisive victory.
It was a victory with a costly aftermath. The fighting over, the undisciplined, riled-up, and no doubt less-than-sober mob exacted revenge on their enemies—their neighbors and brothers—proving themselves no better than the men whose atrocities they were avenging. (Not much has changed.) Major Patrick Ferguson did not survive the battle, and his body did not escape the anger of his enemies. Eventually the leaders regained control over the men, but not before much damage was done.
I awoke this morning to news of Ferguson, the city, and thought about Ferguson, the man, and all the evidence that while civilization, education, and progress are very good things, those who look to them for changing basic human nature are worshipping a false god.
On a happier note, if you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend a visit to the King’s Mountain National Military Park and the Cowpens National Battlefield. They’re nothing fancy, but there’s no admission charge and I think they’ve done a wonderful job of honoring both sides of the battles that took place there, and showing the humanity of all the combatants. If I lived nearby and had young children with me, I'd bring them frequently just to enjoy running around, just as my family used to do at the Valley Forge Park—though sadly neither of these has cannons to climb on.