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Kings Mountain: A South Carolina Skirmish Becomes a Defining Moment in American History

By October 1780, the American Revolution had been raging in the northern colonies for over five years. The British, hoping to secure a decisive victory, set their sights on the South, where they had recently captured all of Georgia and most of South Carolina. British Major Patrick Ferguson was sent to the western edge of the Carolinas to rally the support of mountain peoples. But instead of loyal subjects, Ferguson found restless revolutionaries.

Two hundred twenty-six years after Patrick Ferguson's loyalist troops surrendered atop Kings Mountain—a low peak at the border of North and South Carolina, Documenting the American South remembers this important battle in the war for American independence. When patriot militia men engaged and defeated their loyalist foes at Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780, they destroyed the left flank of the British forces and set in motion a series of events that would lead to the British commander Cornwallis's surrender just one year later.

In his 1859 commencement address, University of North Carolina President David Swain called the battle "decisive" and remarked: "The defeat of Major Ferguson was the pivot on which the war in the south, if not upon the continent, turned. If Ferguson had not fallen the battle of Guilford would not have been fought, and the Revolution would not have closed at Yorktown." (p. 106).

In addition to turning the tide of the war, the Kings Mountain patriots forged an ideological legacy for that October day that would endure past the Revolutionary era to the Civil War and beyond. Since only loyalist and patriot colonists—no British troops—fought at Kings Mountain, some see the battle as foreshadowing the Civil War. It became a symbol of revolutionary spirit that would drive liberty-loving Americans to fight fellow Americans, even brothers to fight brothers. In his 1852 novel Horse-Shoe Robinson: A Tale of Tory Ascendancy, John Pendleton Kennedy provides an insightful perspective on this fratricidal nature of the American Revolution, perhaps reflecting on the looming conflict between the states. He uses Kings Mountain as a backdrop for the dramatic ending of this story of a colonial family divided by their conflicting allegiances.

Also, since this pivotal battle and many that followed raged on the Revolutionary War's southern front, later authors used Kings Mountain as evidence of the South's fidelity to the most fundamental Revolutionary principles. In one Civil War poem, "A Poem for the Times" by John R. Thompson, the fallen heroes of Kings Mountain rise up to fight for the South against the implied tyranny of the North: "And the bugle its echoes shall send through the past,/ In the trenches of Yorktown to waken the slain;/ While the sods of King's Mountain shall heave at the blast,/ And give up its heroes to glory again" (p. 21). Thomas Dixon also invokes this sentiment in his white-supremacist novel The Leopard's Spots when describing his choice of setting. He situates his fictional town of "Hambright" in the shadow of Kings Mountain and peoples it with "the sons of the men who had first declared their independence of Great Britain in America and had made their country a hornet's nest for Lord Cornwallis in the darkest days of the cause of Liberty" (p. 5). These citizens go on to triumph over "Carpetbaggers" and corrupt northern politicians during Reconstruction.

Thompson's poem is part of "The Southern Homefront, 1861-1865" collection, which contains documents related to all aspects of southern life during the Civil War. Interested readers should also browse "The Library of Southern Literature" collection. This collection includes Dixon's and Kennedy's works as well as a wide range of other literary works of the American South published before 1924. David Swain's speech is part of DocSouth's "True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students at the University of North Carolina," which presents one hundred twenty-one edited and transcribed primary documents from 1795 to 1868. Most of these documents were written by students and tell the story of the University of North Carolina from their perspective.

Jennifer L. Larson