Monday, September 21, 2015

Exceptional American of the Day: Isaac Shelby and the Overmountain Men

In September 1780, Lord Cornwallis was sitting pretty in South Carolina. He prepared to head north and crush the rebellion once and for all. First, Cornwallis sent British Major Patrick Ferguson to take command of an army of 1,100 Loyalists -- American irregulars.

From the other side of the Appalachians stood the pioneers, a bunch of settlers who didn't like the Crown, the Indians, or bears, in that order. Led by Isaac Shelby, they harassed the Loyalists. The guerrilla tactics pissed Major Ferguson off. He sent an ultimatum.

He shouldn't have oughta done that.

But Ferguson did. His message to Shelby read, “If you do not desist your opposition to the British Arms, I shall march this army over the mountains, hang your leaders, and lay waste your country with fire and sword.”

As they say, them's fighting words.

He picked the wrong enemy. They had rifles and knew what to do with them. They also had nothing to lose. The Overmountain Men were poor, proud, and trying to scrape a living off the land. They already had declared their independence on January 20, 1775, with the Fincastle Resolution, which they sent to their representatives in the Continental Congress. It was the first resolution calling for independence, and came four months before Lexington and Concord.

It read, in part, "If no pacific measures shall be proposed or adopted by Great Britain, and our enemies will attempt to dragoon us out of those inestimable privileges which we are entitled to as subjects, and to reduce us to a state of slavery, we declare, that we are deliberately and resolutely determined never to surrender them to any power upon earth, but at the expense of our lives. These are our real, though unpolished sentiments, of liberty and loyalty, and in them we are resolved to live and die. We are, Gentlemen, with the utmost esteem and regard, your most obedient servant."

They sent that message after returning from Point Pleasant, where they defeated the Indians under the command of Evan Shelby, a Welsh emigrant, whose son Isaac Shelby was second in command.

Fincastle was the name of a county in Virginia that stretched to the Mississippi. It is now Montgomery County, Washington County, and the state of Kentucky.

So Isaac Shelby got this letter from Ferguson. Shelby read it and rode 40 miles to meet with John Sevier to figure out their next move. Shelby raised an army. Sevier raised an army. And eight of their friends raised armies: James Johnston, William Campbell, Frederick Hambright, Joseph McDowell, Benjamin Cleveland, James Williams, Joseph Winston, and William Chronicle. They called one another colonel and gathered at Sycamore Shoals near the modern city of Elizabethton, Tennessee, on September 26, 1780.

The Patriots numbered 1,000. They did not have a lot of food, and they combed the hillsides for lead to make ammunition. Mary Patton donated 500 pounds of gunpowder she had made at her own powder mill. They knew the woods, they knew how to hunt, and they had nothing to lose. The life expectancy in the Appalachians in the 18th century was sunrise. Waking up was a miracle given the many things that wanted to kill them: rivers, floods, trees, falling ricks, bears, lightning, Indians, and now, redcoats.

On September 27, 1780, the 10 colonels decided to march on the Loyalists, following the Yellow Mountain Road, also known as Bright’s Trace. They walked into snow. Yes, it was September. But there was the snow. Not much, just enough to make your feet cold and wet. Then two deserters from Sevier's army went to warn Ferguson. The Overmountain Men soldiered on.

On October 6, 1780, they found the Loyalists atop Kings Pinnacle, a ridge and the highest point on Kings Mountain. Then it started to rain. And rain. And rain. And rain.

Ferguson saw the army and sent a message to Cornwallis requesting reinforcements: “I am on my march towards you, by a road leading from Cherokee Ford, north of King’s Mountain. Three or four hundred good soldiers, part dragoons, would finish the business. Something must be done soon. This is their last push in the quarter, etc. – Patrick Ferguson.”

Ferguson also boasted that “he was on King’s Mountain, that he was king of that mountain, and God Almighty could not drive him from it,” according to one account.

They would bury him in a shallow grave by the end of the day.

The Patriots rode quietly to the mountain encampment, the rain-soaked ground softening the sound of the horse hooves. They charged the Loyalist position and began an assault that led to a rout. The 900 Patriots suffered 29 dead, 58 wounded.

The 1,100 Loyalists suffered 290 dead, 163 wounded, and 668 captured. It wasn't disrespect. Many of the dead and most of the wounded were left on the field.

The survivors faced starvation. Provisions were almost gone. The Patriots marched their prisoners to Loyalist Aaron Biggerstaff's property. Biggerstaff was mortally wounded in the battle. On the Biggerstaff land, trials were held. Patriots hung nine Loyalists until the pleas of the Biggerstaff women made Shelby intervene. Enough was enough.

Born on December 11, 1750, in what is now Hagerstown, Maryland, Shelby and his father moved to Bristol, Tennessee, in 1770, after his father's fur trade failed due to an Indian attack and a fire. Shelby knew hardship. They all did. They had enough after this battle. For the most part, the men disbanded and went home to hunt, farm, and settle this great nation.

The battle wiped out one-third of the forces Cornwallis planned to use in his North Carolina campaign. He called off the invasion.

Thomas Jefferson said, "The turn of the tide of success."

At the 150th anniverssary of the battle, President Herbert Hoover visited Kings Mountain and said, "This is a place of inspiring memories. Here less than a thousand men, inspired by the urge of freedom, defeated a superior force entrenched in this strategic position. This small band of Patriots turned back a dangerous invasion well designed to separate and dismember the united Colonies. It was a little army and a little battle, but it was of mighty portent. History has done scant justice to its significance, which rightly should place it beside Lexington, Bunker Hill, Trenton and Yorktown."

In some respects, this was the first battle of the Civil War. The Overmountain Men mainly were poor subsistence farmers, while the Loyalists represented many plantation owners. The tensions between the two groups would rise in the 19th century as white workers found they could not compete against slave labor. Poor white men like Thomas Lincoln would move to Illinois to escape this situation. Their children became abolitionists and won the real Civil War.

One of the Overmountain Men was John Crockett, whose son Davy was king of the wild frontier. He died at the Alamo fighting to free Texas from a lousy dictator.

Some of the Overmountain Men formed the Republic of Franklin in the western North Carolina hills, but the 13 colonies never formally recognized it. Franklin became eastern Tennessee.

The battle also crystallized the war. Ferguson's contempt for Americans cost him his life, just as King George III's contempt for Americans cost him his colonies. Elitists underestimated the people, who finally rose and defeated them.

The Battle of Kings Mountain was a moral victory for the Patriots. The Loyalists slithered away. The battle also was a proving ground for leaders. Shelby went on to become the first governor of Kentucky; Sevier became the first governor of Tennessee. Many counties and towns are named for them and the other eight colonels, including Cleveland, Tennessee, for Benjamin Cleveland.

Shelby and Sevier also served under Colonel Francis Marion in the Battle of the Pee Dee, which came after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

While governor of Kentucky, Shelby later served in the War of 1812, becoming a hero in his third war. Shelby raised twice General William Harrison's request for soldiers. The general told the governor to saddle up and lead his men. He did. Shelby was nearly 63 when he won the Battle.of Thames on October 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontario, defeating the British and the Tecumseh Confederacy. Shelby received a Congressional Gold Medal for his efforts.

A stroke on on July 18, 1826, killed him at age 75 -- not the fire or the sword of Patrick Ferguson.


I am publishing the best of these tales, in Kindle and on Amazon. Volume I covering American history from the 16th through the 20th century is here. And Volume II on The Capitalists is available here.


  1. Is this the same Ferguson that was the designer of the the breech loading Ferguson rifle?

    1. Absolutely. They took his rifle as a prize that day and it is on display. Unknown how many Ferguson rifles were used in the war. I thought of including that information, and likely should have.

    2. When you include in your next book.