The Defeat Of The Red Dragoons

If what the proverb tells us is true, that it is always darkest

before dawn, the patriots of the South in 1780 must indeed have

prayed for the light. Affairs had gone rapidly from bad to worse. Sir

Henry Clinton had come again from New York, and in May of that year

had captured Charleston with all of Lincoln's army.

Sir Henry went back to New York, leaving Lord Cornwallis in command.

Washington desired to
send his right-hand man, General Greene, to

stem the tide of British success, but the Continental Congress chose

to send General Gates.

In August, this weak general was utterly defeated in the battle of

Camden, in South Carolina. How the bitter words of General Charles

Lee, "Beware lest your Northern laurels change to Southern willows,"

must have rung in his ears! Gates fled from Camden like the commonest

coward in the army. Mounted on a fast horse, he did not stop until he

reached Charlotte, seventy miles away.

No organized American force now held the field in the South, and the

red dragoons easily overran Georgia and South Carolina. There seemed

to be little left for {91} Cornwallis to do; for the three Southern

colonies were for the time ground under the iron heel of the enemy.

Crushing blows, however, only nerved the leaders, Sumter, Pickens,

Marion, Davie, and others, to greater efforts. The insolence, the

cruelty, and the tyranny of the British soldiers, and the bitter

hatred of the Tories, had brought to the front a new class of

patriots. These men cared little about the original cause of the war,

but the burning of their houses, the stealing of their cattle and

their horses, and the brutal insulting of their wives and their

daughters, aroused them to avenge their wrongs to the bitter end. And

many were the skirmishes they brought about with the British.

Thirty days had now passed since the battle of Camden, and Cornwallis

on his return march had not yet reached the Old North State. It was

still a long way to Virginia, and the road thither was beset with

many dangers.

Meanwhile, the British commander had intrusted to two of his

officers, Tarleton and Ferguson, the task of pillaging plantations,

raising and drilling troops among the Tories, and breaking up the

bands of armed patriots.

The brutal manner in which Tarleton and his men plundered, burned,

and hanged does not concern this story.

Ferguson was the colonel of a regular regiment that had been

recruited in this country, instead of in England. With his kind heart

and his winning manner, he was bold {92} and brave, and always ready

to take desperate chances in battle. He was noted for hard riding,

night attacks, and swift movements with his troopers; and as a

marksman he was unsurpassed. In short, Ferguson was just the leader

to win the respect and the admiration of the Tories; and they eagerly

enlisted in his service.

With a few regulars and a large force of loyalists, he pushed his

victories to the foot of the mountains, in the western borders of the

Carolinas. For the first time, he learned that over the high ranges

in front of him were the homes of the men who had been causing him

annoyance, and who were harboring those that had fled before his


The proud young Briton now made the mistake of his life. He sent a

prisoner, Samuel Phillips, over to the frontier settlements, to

Colonel Isaac Shelby, with the insolent message that, if the

"backwater" men did not quit resisting the royal arms, he would march

his army over the mountains, and would straightway lay waste their

homes with fire and sword, and hang their leaders.

He little knew what kind of men he had stirred to wrath. The frontier

settlers of Franklin and Holston, which grew into the great

commonwealth of Tennessee, were, for the most part, Scotch-Irish

people. They had grappled with the wilderness, and had hewn out homes

for themselves. Along with their log cabins they had built

meetinghouses and schoolhouses. Their life was {93} full of

ever-present peril and hardship; for they were engaged in a ceaseless

struggle with the Indians. The minister preached with his gun at his

side, and the men listened with their rifles within their grasp.

As we should expect, these hardy settlers were generally stanch

patriots. They believed in Washington and in the Continental

Congress. They knew that British gold bribed the Indians, and

furnished them with weapons to butcher their women and children. It

was British gold, too, that hired the wild and lawless among them to

enlist in the invading army; and it was British officers that drilled

them to become expert in killing their brethren of the lowlands.

At the time of the Revolution, these backwoodsmen were still fighting

with the savages, and so had not taken an active part in the war on

the seaboard. Like a rear guard of well-seasoned veterans, they stood

between the Indians and their people on the coast.

Now these hardy mountaineers took Ferguson's threat seriously. Their

Scotch-Irish blood was up.

Colonel Shelby, one of the county lieutenants of Washington County,

rode posthaste to John Sevier's home, sixty miles away, to carry

Ferguson's threat.

Sevier lived on the Nolichucky River, and from his deeds of daring

and his hospitality was nicknamed "Chucky Jack." When Shelby arrived,

it was a day of merrymaking. They were having a barbecue; that is,

they were roasting oxen whole on great spits; and a {94} horse race

was to be run. The colonel told his story, and the merrymakers agreed

to turn out.

Shelby now rode home at full speed to muster his own men, and sent

urgent word to Colonel William Campbell, a famous Indian fighter, who

lived forty miles away, to call out the Holston Virginians.

The place appointed for meeting was at Sycamore Shoals, a central

point on the Watauga River. The day set was September 25.

Hither came Shelby and Sevier with about five hundred men, William

Campbell with four hundred Virginians, and McDowell with about one

hundred and sixty refugees from North Carolina.

Word was sent to Colonel Cleveland, a hunter and Indian fighter of

Wilkes County in North Carolina, to come with all the men he could

raise east of the mountains.

Colonel Sevier tried in vain to borrow money to furnish the men with

horses and supplies. The people were willing to give their last

dollar, but they had paid out all their money for land, and the cash

was in the hands of the county entry taker, John Adair.

Sevier appealed to him.

This patriot's reply is historic: "I have no authority by law,

Colonel Sevier, to make that disposition of this money. It belongs to

the treasury of North Carolina, and I dare not appropriate a penny of

it to any purpose. But if the country is overrun by the British,

liberty is {95} gone. Let the money go, too. Take it. If the enemy,

by its use, is driven from the country, I can trust that country to

justify and vindicate my conduct. Take it."

This money, thirteen thousand dollars in silver and gold, was taken,

and the supplies bought. Shelby and Sevier pledged themselves to

refund the money, or to have the act legalized by the legislature.

September 25 was a day of intense excitement in those frontier

settlements. The entire military force of what is now Tennessee met

at Sycamore Shoals. The younger and more vigorous men were to march,

while the older men with poorer guns were to remain behind, to help

the women defend their homes against the savages. But all came, to

bid good-by to husbands, to brothers, and to lovers. Food, horses,

guns, blankets,--everything except money was brought without stint.

The backwoodsmen were mounted on swift, wiry horses. Their long

hunting shirts were girded with bead-worked belts. Some wore caps

made of mink or of coonskins, with the tails hanging down behind;

others had soft hats, in each of which was fastened either a sprig of

evergreen or a buck's tail.

Nearly all were armed with what was called the Deckhard rifle,

remarkable for the precision and the distance of its shot. Every man

carried a tomahawk and a scalping knife. There was not a bayonet in

the whole force. Here and there an officer wore a sword.

{96} There was no staff, no commissary, no quartermaster, and no


Early in the morning of September 26, the little army was ready to

march. Before leaving camp, all met in an open grove to hear their

minister, the Rev. Samuel Doak, invoke divine blessing on their

perilous undertaking.

Years before, this God-fearing man had crossed the mountains, driving

before him an "old flea-bitten gray horse" loaded with Bibles, and

had cast his lot with the Holston settlers. By his energy in founding

churches and in building schoolhouses, as well as by his skill in

shooting Indians, he had become a potent influence for good among

these frontier people.

Every man doffed his hat and bowed his head on his long rifle, as the

white-headed Presbyterian prayed in burning words that they might

stand bravely in battle, and that the sword of the Lord and of Gideon

might smite their foes.

{97} Our little army now pushed on over the mountains. On the third

day they crossed the Blue Ridge, and saw far away the fertile valleys

of the upper Catawba. The next day they reached the lovely lowlands,

where Colonel Cleveland with three hundred and fifty militia joined


Hitherto, each band of the mountain army had been under the command

of its own leader. Some of the men were unruly; others were disposed

to plunder. This would never do, if they were to be successful; and

so, on October 2, it was decided to give the supreme command to

Colonel Cleveland.

Before the army set out on the following day, the colonels told their

men what was expected of them.

"Now, my brave fellows," said Colonel Cleveland, "the redcoats are at

hand. We must up and at them. When the pinch comes, I shall be with


"Everybody must be his own officer!" cried Colonel Shelby. "Give them

Indian play, boys; and now if a single man among you wants to go back

home, this is your chance; let him step three paces to the rear."

Not a man did so.

The pioneer army continued its march, picking up small bands of

refugees. When they reached Gilberttown the next night, they numbered

nearly fifteen hundred men. They hoped to find Ferguson at this

place, but the wily partisan had sharp eyes and quick ears. He had

been told by his Tory friends that the army of riflemen were after


{98} The Briton sent posthaste to Cornwallis for more men; he called

upon the Tories to rally to his support; and he issued a

proclamation, in which he called the backwoodsmen "the dregs of

mankind," "a set of mongrels," and other bad names. "Something must

be done," he wrote to Cornwallis.

All this showed to the patriot riflemen that Ferguson was retreating

because he feared them. Doubtless he would have escaped easily enough

from ordinary soldiers; but his pursuers were made of different

stuff. They had hunted wild beasts and savages all their lives. Now

they were after the redcoats in the same way they would pursue a band

of Indians. They had come over the mountains to fight, and fight they


Seven hundred and fifty men, mounted on the strongest horses, now

hurried forward, leaving the rest to follow.

At sunset, on October 6, they reached Cowpens, where three months

later Morgan was to defeat Tarleton. Here several hundred militia

under noted partisan leaders joined them. Seated round their blazing

camp fires, the hungry men roasted for supper the corn which they had

stripped from the field of a rich Tory.

The colonels decided in council to pick out about nine hundred men,

and with these to push on all night in pursuit of their hated foe.

Some were so eager to fight that they followed on foot, and actually

arrived in time for the battle.

{99} All this time Ferguson was working to keep out of the way of the

patriots. Several large bands of Tories were already on their way to

help him. He also expected help from Cornwallis. The one thing needed

was a day or two of time, and then he would be able to make a stand

against his pursuers.

On the same night of October 6, Ferguson halted at King's Mountain,

about a day's march from the riflemen at Cowpens, and thirty-five

miles from the camp of Cornwallis. The ridge on which he pitched his

camp was nearly half a mile long, and about sixty feet above the

level of the valley. Its steep sides were covered with timber.

The next day the British did not move. The heavy baggage wagons were

massed along the northeast part of the ridge, while the soldiers

camped on the south side.

{100} In his pride, the haughty young Briton declared that he could

defend the hill against any rebel force, and "that God Almighty

Himself could not drive him from it."

Through that dark and rainy night the mountaineers marched. It rained

hard all the next forenoon, but the men wrapped their blankets and

the skirts of their hunting shirts round their gunlocks, and hurried

on after Ferguson. A few of Shelby's men stopped at a Tory's house.

"How many are there of you?" asked a young girl.

"Enough," said one of the riflemen, "to whip Ferguson, if we can

catch him."

"He is on that hill yonder," replied the girl, pointing to the high

range about three miles away.

Shelby had sent out Enoch Gilmer as a spy. He came back, saying that

he had met a young woman who had been at the enemy's camp to sell

chickens, and that Ferguson was encamped on the spot where some

hunters had been the year before. These same hunters were with

Shelby, and at once said they knew every inch of the way. Two

captured Tories were compelled to tell how the British leader was


It was now three o'clock. It had stopped raining, and the sun was

shining. All was hurry and bustle. The plan was to surround the hill,

to give the men a better chance to fire upward, without firing into

each other.

When the patriots came within about a mile of the ridge, they

dismounted and tied their horses. The {101} watchword was "Buford,"

the name of the brave officer whose troops had been massacred by

Tarleton after their surrender. Each man was ordered to fight for

himself. He might retreat before the British bayonets, but he must

rally at once to the fight, and let the redcoats have "Indian play."

Sevier led the right wing. Some of his men by hard riding got to the

rear of Ferguson's army, and cut off the only chance for retreat.

Cleveland had charge of the left wing, while Campbell and Shelby were

to attack in front. So swiftly did the different detachments reach

their {102} places that Ferguson found himself attacked on every side

at once.

On horseback the gallant Briton leads his regulars in a bayonet

charge down the steep hillside. With the Indian war whoop, which

echoes and re-echoes, Campbell's riflemen rush forward. They have no

bayonets, and are driven down the hill. In a voice of thunder,

Campbell rallies his men, and up the hill they go with a still

deadlier fire, as the regulars retreat.

Now Shelby's men swarm up on the other side. Again the bayonets drive

these new foes down the rocky cliffs. No sooner do the redcoats

retire, than up comes Shelby again at the head of his men, nearer the

top than before.

Meanwhile the riflemen, behind every tree and every rock, were

picking off the redcoats. Clad in a hunting shirt, and blowing his

silver whistle, the brave Ferguson dashes here and there to rally his

men. He cuts and slashes with his sword until it is broken off at the

hilt. Two horses are killed under him.

Some of the Tories raise a white flag. Ferguson rides up and cuts it

down. A second flag is raised elsewhere. He rides there and cuts that


Now he flies at Sevier's riflemen, who had just made their way to the

top of the hill. At once they recognize their man. In an instant,

half a dozen bullets strike the gallant officer, and he falls dead

from his horse. No longer is the shrill whistle heard.

{103} Colonel De Peyster, the next in command, bravely keeps up the

fight, but the deadly rifles have done their work. The British are

hemmed in and there is no escape. At the head of their men the

several colonels arrive at the top of the hill about the same time.

The Tories are now huddled together near the baggage wagons.

"Quarter! quarter!" they cry everywhere.

"Remember Buford!" madly shout the victorious patriots.

"Throw down your arms, if you want quarter!" cries Shelby.

In despair, De Peyster at last raises a white flag, and white

handkerchiefs are waved from ramrods. Some of the younger

backwoodsmen did not know what a white flag meant, and kept on

firing. The colonels ordered them to stop, and then made the Tories

take off their hats and sit down on the ground.

There had been fierce and bloody work this beautiful autumn

afternoon, on the crest of that rocky hill. Friends, neighbors, and

relatives, in their bitter hatred, taunted and jeered one another, as

they shot and stabbed in the desperate struggle.

Ferguson had about eleven hundred men in the action. Of these about

four hundred were killed, wounded, or missing, and some seven hundred

made prisoners. Of the patriots, twenty-eight were killed and about

sixty wounded.

{104} Under bold and resolute leaders, the backwoods riflemen had

swept over the mountains like a Highland clan. Their work done, they

wished to return home. They knew too well the dangers of an Indian

attack on those they had left in their distant log cabins.

After burying their dead, and loading their horses with the captured

guns and supplies, the victors shouldered their rifles, and, carrying

their wounded on litters made of the captured tents, vanished from

the mountains as suddenly as they had appeared.

Such was the defeat of the red dragoons at King's Mountain. It proved

to be one of the decisive battles of the Revolution, and was the turn

of the tide of British success in the South. The courage of the

Southern patriots rose at a bound, and the Tories of the Carolinas

never recovered from the blow.