By Rick Schwertfeger
“I will not stop until night if I follow Ferguson into Cornwallis’ lines.”:
This is the fourth in a series of articles about Southern Backcountry Patriot Frontier Partisans in the American Revolutionary War. Readers may want to read or reacquaint themselves with the previous article on King’s Mountain at: https://frontierpartisans.com/10405/the-scottish-marksman/.
When British Major Patrick Ferguson in September 1780 issued his proclamation aiming to rally backcountry Tories to his cause and dissuade Patriots from rising up, he also sent a messenger to one particular frontiersman over the Appalachian Mountains. Paroled rebel prisoner Samuel Phillips was to inform Colonel Isaac Shelby — and the Over Mountain Men — that, “If they did not desist from their opposition to the British arms, he would march over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.”
We can almost hear the 18th century version of, “Oh yeah, right.” But who was this Shelby that Ferguson singled out? What would his response be? And who led the frontier partisans who defeated Ferguson and his American Tories?
Indeed, “Shelby needed no further goad.” Within days he linked up with Colonel John Sevier and the Over Mountain Men began assembling. Both these partisan leaders were experienced fighters. Isaac fought Indians in a militia company under his father, Welsh born Evan Shelby. His most notable action was as company second in command against Shawnee in the 1774 Battle of Point Pleasant. And Isaac had crossed the mountains just months earlier in July 1780, leading 200 mounted riflemen in support of Colonel Charles McDowell against the British at Cedar Springs and Musgrove’s Mill.
Colonel John Sevier had been deputy to James Robertson, leading the original 16 families over the mountains to settle in Cherokee lands. He had fought Indians on the frontier in more than 30 battles, including the siege of Fort Watauga in July 1776, and was known to be “fearless in the face of danger.”
Sevier had first settled just six miles from Shelby’s home. They became close friends — “almost brothers.” This despite different personalities. James Swisher describes Shelby as “the tireless, reserved frontiersman” who “demonstrated…innate leadership.” Sevier, on the other hand, “enjoyed life’s pleasures” and “possessed great charisma.” He “enjoyed a frolic or party and could become quite wild while in his cups.” In his youth in the Shenandoah Valley Sevier became an expert woodsman through frequent excursions around the valley.
“A born adventurer and much admired frontiersman,” Sevier became “perhaps the most popular of men on the frontier.”
Shelby and Sevier raised their militias. They also recruited Colonel Charles McDowell and his North Carolina militia that Shelby had just ridden in support of. And most importantly, Shelby recruited Colonel William Campbell and his Virginia militia. They needed McDowell’s and Campbell’s boys because Shelby and Sevier had to leave enough fighters behind to protect their frontier settlements from Cherokee attacks – which were likely with the militias gone. McDowell’s and Campbell’s men brought the force up to necessary size.
Shelby and Sevier wanted to move fast. The various units gathered at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River on September 25. That night, a tender scene unfolded around the campfires:
“Women, children, and men too old for…campaigning were there to see the riders off …knowing when they returned there would be empty saddles among the…horsemen.”
In the morning, Rev. Samuel Doak’s sermon had the Over Mountain Men shouting, “The sword of the Lord and of our Gideons!” 1,040 fighters moved out, headed for Ferguson.
These fighters resembled the Boer Commandos of the next century. The Over Mountain Men and their Back Country comrades “neither had nor needed an administrative structure.” Each man “had a rolled blanket, a cup, and saddle bags filled with food.” The horses would find their own forage. Along with tomahawks and knives, they carried the “Kentucky rifle.” Most actually were made in Pennsylvania by German gunsmith Jacob Dickert, famous “for the accuracy of his barrels.”
“Long, slim, elegant, the American rifle at its best was a masterpiece of the gunsmith’s craft.”
It was “deadly at 200 yards in the hands of an expert marksman….” But it had limitations. Really a hunting rifle, it took a minute to reload, lacked a bayonet mount, and was too fragile to be used as a club. It’s effectiveness in combat depended on fighting from cover in rough terrain.
As the force approached Ferguson, the Colonels became concerned about assuring discipline among “some of the unruliest men in America.” A commanding officer was needed. They considered requesting the Continental Army’s Daniel Morgan. But Isaac Shelby knew they couldn’t delay. In a savvy move, he proposed that Virginian William Campbell be appointed. Shelby, “best qualified to command,” avoided dispute among the North Carolina colonels, and proposed a daily council of war where he knew he would be influential. All agreed.
“William Campbell was the commander in name, but Isaac Shelby was the driving force.”
To assure speed, a “flying column” was formed of 440 Over Mountain Men and 470 Back Country militiamen. Through rain they moved to 15 miles from King’s Mountain. Here Shelby showed his stuff: His comrade colonels wanted a halt due to the heavy rain. Shelby responded, “I will not stop until night if I follow Ferguson into Cornwallis’ lines.” “Silently, the three colonels…took their places at the heads of their regiments,” and they moved on.
When really close to King’s Mountain, the council of war met and devised “a very simple plan. They would surround the hill and attack.” They knew the wooded slopes of the 6o foot high hill gave them perfect terrain and cover for their deadly rifles. The colonels sorted out where each regiment would position to start the attack.
“Fresh prime your guns, and every man go into battle firmly resolved to fight till he dies.”
Fighting courageously and utilizing “the Indian style” of war they had learned, the frontier Patriots carried out that simple plan to perfection and a stirring triumph.
Shelby “was perhaps the first to recognize the serious threat” to the backcountry from Ferguson and his Tory militias. Shelby and John Sevier responded decisively, rapidly and aggressively to the danger – key Frontier Partisan attributes. And Isaac Shelby provided the assertive, inspirational leadership that resulted in a key, momentous victory by the Patriot Americans.
1. John Buchanan, “The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas,” 1997.
I want to thank Frontier Partisans reader Wayne for recommending. When I got it I thought the detail would slow it down. Wrong! This book is so well written that the significant detail adds to its effect. Most of the time when reading I was “lost” in the story. It’s 400 pgs.; but truly a terrific history book. Recommended.
2. James K. Swisher, “The Revolutionary War in the Southern Back Country,” 2008. Also a tremendous book. Less detailed, a bit easier to read at 330 pgs.
3. The Wikipedia pages on Isaac Shelby and John Sevier.
© Rick Schwertfeger. Used with permission.