Storming up Kings Mountain (1780)

Above:  I spent the morning exploring Kings Mountain National Military Park in South Carolina, the site of an important battle in 1780 during the Revolutionary War.  Then I got on Interstate 85 and headed south, back into Georgia and camped that night at a state park near Athens.

I headed out of Kings Mountain State Park early on this sunny morning and stopped at Kings Mountain National Military Park, just a few miles from the campground and the site of another important Revolutionary War battle.  By now you might be saying, "Heck, I thought you were the Extreme Geographer, Del, not the Extreme Historian!" Actually I wear both hats and today I donned the latter.

And as the Extreme Historian, I’ve read countless books about the Revolutionary War over the years, so let me try to summarize the entire war (1775 – 1781) in just a few sentences.  During the War, as you may recall, the British army first tried beating the colonists in the north around Boston.  That didn’t work too well (Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, etc.), so they moved south to the middle colonies like New York and Pennsylvania in 1776-77 and tried beating the Americans there.  That didn’t work too well either (Trenton, Saratoga, Valley Forge), so the British headed farther south in 1780 and tried to whip the pesky Americans down there.  The British army invaded Charleston, South Carolina in early 1780 and worked their way north, hoping to have a single, large battle with the Americans so they could crush them and end the revolt.  But the Americans were evasive and wisely adopted hit-and-run tactics and guerilla warfare, while dodging the main British army.  Consequently, the southern strategy didn’t work well for the Brits, either, so they finally surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown in 1781 and sailed home.  They had tried beating the Americans in every part of the colonies but failed, so they gave up.  And that’s my all-too-brief summary of the Revolutionary War.

My ancestors sailed from England to America in the 1630s and 140 years later, some of their descendents fought on the Patriot side against the British during the Revolutionary War, including two of my cousins, Generals Israel and Rufus Putnam.  Israel is purported to be the fellow who told his fellow Patriots at Bunker Hill, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes," while Rufus was the first official Geographer of the United States (it runs in the blood, I guess), America's first Surveyor General, and the fellow who devised the Township and Range system for surveying America. 

But certainly not all American colonists supported the revolution.  In fact, many American colonists supported the British during the revolution.  Historians generally agree that about a third of the colonists supported the British, about a third supported the rebels and independence, and about a third were neutral.  Many troops in the British army were actually “Tories,” American colonists loyal to the King who fought against their Patriot neighbors.  Why am I telling you all this, you might be wondering?  Well, Kings Mountain was the largest battle during the war between Americans, with pro-British Tories on one side and rebel Patriots on the other.

In October 1780, a branch of the British army, comprised of about 1,000 Tories and one British officer, marched north through the Carolinas but were surrounded here at Kings Mountains by an equal number of Patriot militia.  After surrounding the Tory/British on the top of Kings Mountain, the Patriots gradually fought their way up the slopes, ultimately defeating the Tory loyalists in a climactic battle on the ridge.  It was the largest “American-vs.-American” battle of the Revolutionary War and was a stunning victory for the Patriots.  A few months later, the Patriots beat the British again, nearby at Cowpens.  And nine months after that, the war was over.

Between the terrific Visitor Center and a mile-long paved trail which you can follow, the National Park Service has done a great job at Kings Mountain describing the battle.  I walked on the trail and read every sign, beginning at the foot of King’s Mountain and then working my way up to the crest, just as the Patriots had done against the Tories in 1780 but with fewer casualties – dodging an acorn that a tree-borne squirrel nearly dropped on my head.  I’d read about this battle several times but for the first time, I really understood it.  I've posted a panorama photo of the top of Kings Mountain here.

There’s a common misconception about the Revolutionary War that the Patriots were “smart” because they fought the British while crouching behind trees and boulders, while the British were “dumb” because they fired while standing up in neat rows.  Actually, in most battles during the war, both sides faced each other standing in neat rows while firing at each other because, given the inaccuracy of smooth-bore muskets, that was the most effective way to fight.  However, at this one battle, King’s Mountain, the Patriot army did indeed shoot behind trees and boulders as they fought their way to the top of the hill.  And it worked.

After soaking in the history for a few hours, I got back in the truck and continued my southward drive, traveling on Interstate 85 into Georgia.  I stopped at a grocery store near Athens to resupply and had a pleasant chat with the woman at the checkout stand, who told me all about her husband and kids, who were looking forward to Halloween that evening.  She asked if I had any plans, not realizing that I lived 3,000 miles away, and I just smiled and said, “No.”   I’ve never been a big fan of Halloween, with strange people wearing strange clothes knocking on my door and asking for stuff, but I didn't tell her that.  To be honest, Halloween scares the crap out of me.  Instead of that, I could've told her all about the battles of Cowpens and Kings Mountain, but I didn't talk about that either.  Sometimes when talking to strangers who might not understand one's unusual predilictions, like a fascination with Revolutionary War tactics or an innate fear of Halloween, travelers should just keep their mouths shut, as I've learned from experience. 

Anyway, after the pleasant chat it was back in the truck and onto my evening’s destination:  nearby Fort Yargo State Park.  The weather was perfect, sunny and about 75 degrees, and the campground was mostly empty so I was able to select a choice campsite.  And those, as I've also learned from experience, are the best kind.

The Battle of Kings Mountain, then Back to Georgia


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