Cornwallis at Apogee
Sir Henry Clinton's instructions to General Cornwallis made holding Charleston and South Carolina his first priority. A cautious man, Clinton recommended only gradually expanding the area of British control as the rebels were worn down. Charles Cornwallis was a bolder and more aggressive commander. He wanted to strike north. He believed that only by securing North Carolina could he cut off the partisans from support and protect his most vulnerable outposts from American counterattacks.Cornwallis Moves North
Cornwallis's arguments persuaded his superiors in London and New York, and he received permission for a movement northward. On September 8, Cornwallis set off for Charlotte, North Carolina. His march took him into a region that was strongly Patriot in its sympathies. Dragoons led by Colonel William Davie and riflemen under the command of Major George Davidson bedeviled his advance. On September 25, Cornwallis's troops had to chase away a rearguard of Davie's and Davidson's men as they occupied Charlotte. The Americans continued to harass British outposts and forage parties as long as Cornwallis stayed in North Carolina.
As he prepared to head north, Cornwallis ordered Major Patrick Ferguson and his force of loyalists to join him in Charlotte. Ferguson would form the left wing of the British invasion of North Carolina. Ferguson had been operating in western South Carolina, recruiting loyalists and ravaging the homes and property of known Patriots.
A professional British soldier, Ferguson had invented a breech-loading rifle that could get off five to six shots a minute, far faster than a muzzle-loading rifle. At the Battle of Brandywine, Ferguson declined to snipe at a mounted American officer. He learned later the man was George Washington.
Because of the depredations of the loyalists under his command, Ferguson became a hated man. As he prepared to head north, his reputation preceded him. Ferguson did nothing to allay the fears of the people near his route. The frontiersmen who lived over the Blue Ridge Mountains in what is now eastern Tennessee were notoriously Patriot in their sympathies. Ferguson sent them a message warning them to submit to the Crown; otherwise he would devastate their settlements and hang their leaders.The Battle of King's Mountain
The men of eastern Tennessee decided that the best defense was a determined offense. Led by colonels Isaac Shelby and John Sevier, they poured over the mountains in pursuit of Ferguson. The Tennesseans were joined by Virginians commanded by William Campbell and North Carolinians under William Cleveland. Altogether, 1,400 Patriot militiamen were hunting Ferguson's 1,100-man force. Ferguson, realizing his peril, tried to evade his pursuers, and finally took station on King's Mountain, where, a Patriot spy reported, “he defied God Almighty and all the rebels out of Hell to overcome him.” He had some reason for this confidence. King's Mountain rose sixty feet from the surrounding ground. Its rocky and heavily wooded slopes rose steeply to its flat summit.
When the Patriots learned of Ferguson's destination, they sent 900 mounted men ahead to run him down. They reached King's Mountain at noon on October 7. Dismounting, they surrounded Ferguson's position on three sides and launched their assault, scrambling up the mountain and shooting from the cover of trees. Ferguson's men held their attackers at bay for a time, pushing them back with bayonet charges every time they reached the summit. But the Patriots' rifle fire took a heavy toll as more and more men neared the top and fired into the increasingly demoralized mass of loyalists. Ferguson kept his men in hand for a time, personally cutting down white flags that were being raised. At last, realizing the hopelessness of the situation, he tried to force his way out with a few men but was shot down. The remaining loyalists clumped together, trying to surrender and calling out for quarter. For a time, the enraged frontiersmen fired into their helpless enemies, but their officers finally brought an end to the slaughter.
Aside from 200 men sent on a foraging party that morning, Ferguson's entire command was wiped out. The loyalist casualties amounted to 157 killed, 163 wounded so badly that they were left behind, and 698 captured. The American militia casualties were twenty-eight dead and sixty-two wounded. The prisoners were marched to Gilbert Town. The hatred of these loyalists was intense. Many wanted revenge for the plundering and murder of local Patriots. Some three dozen of the prisoners were put on trial and twelve condemned to death. Of these, nine were hanged.
When Cornwallis heard of the loyalist disaster at King's Mountain, he realized that his position in Charlotte was untenable. He had to retreat to protect his bases in South Carolina. On October 14, his army started south. It was an ordeal. Much of the time it rained, and supplies were short. American militia cut off stragglers. The men were wracked by malaria and yellow fever. Cornwallis himself was sick. The army finally reached shelter on October 29.