Rebuffed in his attempt to command the South Carolina militia, newly commissioned General James Williams returned to North Carolina with his small Regiment. While there, he requested permission to recruit men for his regiment and a return to the south. On September 8, Governor Nash of North Carolina provided him with written orders to recruit up to 100 mounted men “to act against the enemy, and in this you are to use your own discretion.” The general could not have asked for a better order or a freer hand in building an army. Nash had even provided authority to impress horses and take men already drafted for service elsewhere. The process reinvigorated Williams even though he only signed up about 70 men.
While Williams recruited in North Carolina, Colonel William Hill of the South Carolina militia called an officers’ meeting for the purpose of determining “some plan respecting General Sumter’s commission as it was protested by Williams.” Of the seven officers present at the meeting, five would travel to North Carolina so they could assure Governor Rutledge that Sumter needed to be officially promoted over Williams. Colonels Lacey and Hill were the only senior officers remaining in camp to lead South Carolina’s army. Since Hill was still recovering from a wound received at the battle of Hanging Rock, Colonel Edward Lacey held the overall command in Sumter’s absence.
Being the same man who previously held a gun to General Williams’ chest while accusing him of thievery and desertion, Colonel Lacey possessed a rather questionable character. After participating in a small battle known as Huck’s Defeat six weeks earlier, Lacey was involved in a nasty dispute over who deserved credit for commanding that American victory. After the dispute, Lacey became “so unpopular among the Chester Whigs” that he would later be omitted from memorial picnics at the battle site. In any case, Colonel Lacey had already gained a reputation as a violent man given to private grudge.
General Williams rode into Lacey’s camp near Beattie’s Ford a couple of days later and read his commission stating intention to assume command. Lacey and Hill reacted defiantly stating that “not an officer or man in the whole army would submit to his command.” They also told of Sumter’s departure to meet with Governor Rutledge to clear up the command issues. Unfortunately for Lacey and Hill, British Colonel Patrick Ferguson was marching in the area looking for Isaac Shelby’s Overmountain Men and generally making Hill nervous about the safety of his men. Hill and Lacey tried a number of proposals to share command or otherwise avoid being commanded by Williams but he spurned them all and traveled separately with his men.
Approaching King’s Mountain
As the two columns continued along in the same general direction across the backcountry, Hill noticed that Williams and another colonel were missing. He came around again later that evening and asked about their absence. Williams hesitated a bit but then admitted they had met with Shelby and agreed to bring their respective armies together for a junction at the Old Iron Works. Hill realized that such a junction would be favorable to operations in the Ninety-Six district and immediately confronted Williams with accusations of using deception to lead the Overmountain Men away from Ferguson and their own home districts. Returning to the same argument that split the army after the battle at Hanging Rock in early August, the confrontation grew heated with Hill and Lacey accusing Williams of trying “to get that army in his own settlement as well as to get some of his property” back from the Tories. Williams stood his ground that the army should defend South Carolina instead of staying north along the border. Neither side backed away.
After the confrontation, Lacey and Hill decided a secret personal visit to Shelby was necessary to clarify the changes made by Williams. Lacey had information that Ferguson was camped atop King’s Mountain daring an attack from Shelby and he went off to meet the Overmountain Men. At first Lacey had difficulty convincing Shelby that his old ally Williams was leading them away from Ferguson but, with a bit of effort, he finally got Shelby to change marching plans and proceed for an October 6th rendezvous at the Cowpens.
Early the next morning, Williams got his men moving early and tried to convince Lacey’s men to accompany them to the Old Iron Works and operations in the Ninety-Six district. An uproar resulted with Williams and Hill taking turns haranguing the men to follow their respective commands. The argument continued until Colonel Lacey returned from his meeting with Shelby around 10am. With the announcement that Shelby was now moving for Cowpens, Williams realized his idea for operations in the Ninety-Six District was over by default and the two columns returned to their separate places on the road to meet Shelby at the Cowpens. The command disputes had left such hard feelings on both sides that, as the march continued, Williams was “obliged to keep at such a distance as required our rear guard, who held him & his men in such unfavorable light that they were throwing stones & otherwise offronting them the whole day.”
Battle of King’s Mountain and Death of Williams
October 7, 1780
After joining with Shelby, Williams and the other colonels continued along the Road until they reached King’s Mountain. As each Regiment reached its position around the base of the mountain, they would dismount, form, and begin their assault up the heavily wooded slope. Shelby and Colonel John Sevier started the action by leading their respective regiments up the slopes at the narrow end of the mountain. As the Overmountain Men reached the plateau Major Ferguson and his loyalist regiment responded by forming into a bayonet charge that sent them running back down the mountain.
As the battle progressed, Colonel Williams and his men filed into position and immediately turned up the rugged hillside. Still on his horse, Williams led the way. One of his men later said, “he charged by me, at full speed, around the mountain; toward the summit, a ball struck his horse just below the jaw, when he commenced stamping as if he were in a nest of yellow jackets. colonel Williams threw the reins over the animal’s neck, sprang to the ground and dashed onward.” Once at the summit, the South Carolinians found themselves standing at the tree line looking across an open area into the loyalists’ camp. They poured continuous fire into the loyalist positions preventing escape from the wide end of the mountain.
After being repulsed three times, Shelby and Sevier finally gained the upper hand and forced Ferguson to retreat from the narrow end of the mountain. His regiment, the American Volunteers, turned and found themselves moving directly into a very hot fire from the South Carolina militia further along the line. Realizing the hopelessness of his position Major Ferguson attempted to ride across the broad end of the mountain and escape. However, instead of getting away, Ferguson rode directly to his death in front of militia units from North Carolina on the far side of the mountain.
Now commanded by Captain DePeyster, the remaining loyalists stacked their arms and began waving white flags of surrender. One pension applicant tells us that Colonel Williams jumped forward ahead of his men “and was killed after the British raised then flag to surrender by a fire from some Tories.” He went on to say that “Col. Campbell then ordered a fire on the Tories & we killed near a hundred of them after the surrender of the British & could hardly be restrained from killing the whole of them.”
However, not all sources agree that Williams was killed after the white flag. Thomas Young, a young man who knew Williams from childhood, said, “On the top of the mountain, in the thickest of the fight, I saw Colonel Williams fall, and a braver and a better man never died upon a battlefield.” Young also described a hero’s death for Williams. “They carried him into a tent, and sprinkled some water into his face. He revived, and his first words were, ‘For God’s sake, boys, don’t give up the hill!’ He died the next day, and was buried not far from the field of his glory.”
Colonel Hill introduces yet another very real possibility for the death of James Williams. Hill believes that Colonel Lacey or one of his men saw an opportunity to vent his frustrations and shot Colonel Williams in the chest. Apparently, the sight of Colonel Williams heroically leading the fight at King’s Mountain as a hero was simply too much to bear and the shooter snapped in bitterness. “At this moment (while the Tories were surrendering) this Colonel Williams was killed. It is generally supposed & believed that it was done by some of the Americans as many of them had been heard to promise on oath that they would do it when they had an opportunity.”
If Colonel Williams or any of his men knew the fatal shot came from a patriot rifle, they did not come forward with any accusations. Instead, they took on the task of making the colonel as comfortable as possible. They stayed the night on top of King’s Mountain with the cries of wounded and dying men all around. The next day, the men of his own Little River regiment took the colonel down the mountain to the relative comfort of the local farmhouse where he died the next day.
Yet another version of Williams’ death surfaced in a newspaper that got published in 1823. The somewhat improbable story goes like this: “In the various reports of Colonel Williams’ death, all agree that he and Colonel Ferguson fell within a few feet of each other, and in the last of the battle; Williams was probably the last man that fell in that battle. I remember to have heard, in Charlotte, N. C., when a child, and not long after the battle, that Colonel Williams, seeing Ferguson fall, advanced to afford him personal relief and assistance, but that Ferguson, mistaking the intentions of Williams, killed him, in the last effort of life.”
Regardless of which death sequence one believes or finds otherwise preferable, the battle of King’s Mountain would go down as a success with brave Colonel Williams listed first among the dead on its monuments and other reports. The folklore of the era developed songs that marveled at his gallant behavior. If indeed Colonel Williams was killed in a fit of jealousy by one of his own, he can sit and smile as the glory of history shined on him far more brightly than on Col Lacey who would later drown in obscurity while having a seizure trying to cross a river.
 Nash to Williams, 8 September 1780, reprinted in William T. Graves, An American Patriot in the Carolina Backcountry, (New York, Writers Club Press, 2002), 37.
 William Hill, Col. William Hill’s Memoirs of the Revolution, (Columbia, SC, Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1921), 17.
 Joseph Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences, Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South, (Charleston, SC, Walker & James, 1851), 578.
 Joseph Gaston, “Joseph Gaston Narrative”, Historical Magazine, August 1873, 92.
 Hill, Col. William Hill’s Memoirs, 18.
 Hill, Col. William Hill’s Memoirs, 20.
 Hill, Col. William Hill’s Memoirs, 21.
 Hill, Col. William Hill’s Memoirs, 22.
 Thomas Young, Memoir of Thomas Young, (Orion magazine, 1843), 87 reprinted in part in Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences, 490.
 Joseph Hughes, Pension Application, transcription at – http://revwarapps.org/s31764.pdf.
 Thomas Young, reprinted in Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences, 448.
 Hill, Col. William Hill’s Memoirs, 23.
 Samuel Hammonds to ____, dated Bellevale, New Herculaneum, Missouri, September 5, 1823, in Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences, 494.