Skulking Shots on the Flank: The Skirmish at Cane Creek

Historical marker thought to be near the skirmish site, fourteen miles north of Rutherfordton, North Carolina. (Author)

The October 7, 1780 Battle of Kings Mountain is likely familiar to those even casually interested in the American Revolution. For those who look deeper into its context within the contentious Southern Campaign, there were many battles and small skirmishes preceding Kings Mountain which account for the developments between the fall of Savannah and the death of Maj. Patrick Ferguson atop his hill. These range from pitched engagements at Camden and Waxhaws, to a plethora of smaller actions including Huck’s Defeat, Musgrove Mill, and countless partisan raids by militia commanders Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion into British lines. Yet one such small engagement is largely overlooked, although it had consequential impacts for both sides engaging later at Kings Mountain. The Battle of Cane Creek was more than a chronological prelude; it influenced leadership decisions, tactical actions, and perhaps most importantly, Major Ferguson’s attitudes towards militia forces.

On September 12, 1780, Patrick Ferguson led a contingent of Provincials and Tory militia into an offensive action against rebels gathered in the Cane Creek region of Burke County, North Carolina.[1] Ferguson specifically volunteered for this task. He petitioned Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis for permission to venture into the former Tryon County area, writing while in Camden that he hoped to provide the more numerous Loyalists in the backcountry with a solid footing. Ferguson looked for a fight, sensing his militia being raised in the South Carolina backcountry at Ninety-Six needed confidence which could be gained “upon offensive service.”[2]

Miniature of Patrick Ferguson, c. 1774-77, from a private collection. (Wikipedia Commons)

As Ferguson prepared to move, his subsequent adversary faced a less-confident future. Col. Charles McDowell, though an experienced backcountry warrior against the Cherokee, seemingly no longer inspired his men. Two months earlier on July 15, McDowell and Col. Andrew Hampton, another local commander, had been surprised by a nighttime attack from Capt. James Dunlap at Earle’s Ford on the border of the Carolinas. Dunlap led fourteen dragoons and sixty Tory militia into the Patriot camp on the Pacolet River, killing and wounding several before learning the full extent of the Patriot force, upwards of 400 strong, and withdrawing .[3] McDowell and Hampton both apparently acted less than heroically, as at least one survivor noted they were “panic stricken and retreated with the foremost of those who fled” while another officer rallied men in defense.[4] Ferguson himself first assessed McDowell’s leadership at the August 8 battle at Wofford’s Iron Works near the Cherokee Ford of the Broad River. He took note, writing to Cornwallis’s aide de camp in mid-August that of the approximately 450 men under McDowell, Hampton, Col. Elijah Clarke and others, several hundred abandoned them after their retreat, though the Patriots eventually rallied to win the fight.[5]

After Patriot victories at the iron works and at Musgrove Mill, Ferguson waited and corresponded with Cornwallis for almost three weeks before pushing into Rutherford County in western North Carolina. He raided Gilbertown on September 7, hoping to surprise the rebels there.[6] He moved his “miserable naked corps” into this region, believing he could not keep the Tory militia in the area without professional soldiery assistance any longer.[7] Ferguson’s insistence came in part because of Col. Ambrose Mills, who Cornwallis noted as the “first to rise” in North Carolina, offering to raise a company of Tories for Captain Dunlap.[8] Ferguson appraised his own movement as cautious, leading “650 old and infirm men (a part of whom neither arm’d or train’d).”[9] Despite the tenuous state of his mounted militia and a small contingent of Provincials, Ferguson justified his offensive actions, presuming the local rebel forces would “withdraw undisgraced to the mountains.”[10] On September 9, Ferguson, assured that those rebelling against the king did so because of the misleading rhetoric of their local leaders, issued a proclamation from Gilbertown urging them to submit to the Crown and receive assurance of protection for themselves and their families.[11]

Ferguson had only partial inklings of nearby militia strengths as he attempted provoking McDowell to a gap in the nearby mountains which the local forces reportedly boasted as impassible.[12] Upon learning that the rebels were encamped near this pass at the head of Cane Creek, Ferguson began moving towards them on September 12. His force left Gilbertown at two in the morning, hoping to surprise McDowell’s men by taking a different route than expected.[13] They followed the namesake creek on the way to the Patriot encampment some fourteen miles away, crossing its winding course over twenty times.[14] Ferguson’s mounted force consisted of forty provincials of the American Volunteers and one hundred militia, armed and accoutered to various degrees.[15] He knew that McDowell had recently operated in Burke County collecting militia, but likely had no estimate of the number. The Patriot forces moved to an unidentified location after receiving word of Ferguson’s oncoming force through scouts and runners, some of whom were captured and held until Kings Mountain.[16]

Modern US Highway 64 parallels Cane Creek through a pass near its head. (Author)

The battle began at an undetermined location, somewhere in the hills at the head of Cane Creek, as Ferguson’s advance guard took off to their left pursuing a small party. Soon after, “Colonels Macdougals and Hampton appear’d suddenly within 100 yards of our front, descending from a commanding ridge” before racing back up this hill to form up.[17] By the perception of Lt. Anthony Allaire of the Volunteers, it appeared McDowell’s Patriots genuinely meant to oppose the Crown forces.[18] The decisive Major Ferguson quickly ordered part of his force to “turn their right flank, where there was an easy ascent, and the few bayonets . . . advanced upon their center.”[19] The Patriots gave scattered shots (described alternately by Ferguson and a Tory captain as idle or determined) into these on-rushing horsemen before breaking to flee, with few losses.[20]

Though some Patriots mis-remembered the timing of the battle, those who mentioned it in their pension applications clearly recalled being “whipped” at Cane Creek.[21] As the men fled back into Burke County, Ferguson’s force found two dead rebels on the ground and captured seventeen prisoners, along with their arms and horses.[22] Crucially, especially considering their pitiful state of arms, they captured a horse loaded with twenty pounds of gunpowder.[23] In return, the Crown forces lost one Provincial killed and one militia man badly wounded. Most direly, Captain Dunlap was also wounded by “skulking shots on the flank” and spent several weeks recovering.[24] Ferguson claimed the rebels had 220 men while Lieutenant Allaire counted them at approximately 300.[25] Ferguson assuredly held that the rebels inflated their numbers, perhaps influencing his rather blasé attitude towards the Overmountain Men chasing him later.

Militarily, the Battle of Cane Creek had appreciable effects upon Ferguson’s recruiting efforts. He wrote to Cornwallis that the Tory militia gained confidence each day from their small offensive operations, while assessing the surrounding rebels as “utterly dismay’d.”[26] Ferguson likely could have inflicted even greater losses upon the retreating Patriots, but his pursuit was thwarted as his horses already seemed “jaded” from their lengthy march through wooded country.[27] In the wake of the battle, Allaire noted that “The poor, deluded people of this province began to be sensible of their error, and come in [to British protection] very fast.”[28] With confidence, confiscated arms, and a reprieve from the Patriot threat, Ferguson marched back to Cane Creek soon after, and then into Burke County to assist Loyalists and search for rebel cattle.[29] Perhaps the only substantial downside for the Loyalists was the temporary loss of Dunlap, who would have commanded the force raised by Colonel Mills.[30]

The correspondence from Ferguson and those in his party after the battle demonstrates both great confidence in their standing, and an attitude of avarice towards the local Patriots. Ferguson, in his previous proclamation, derided the rebels from the “ceded lands” and the Nolichucky settlement, west of the mountains, as thieves and plunderers from a class of scoundrels on both sides.[31] He also sent another more famous proclamation to Col. Isaac Shelby, warning him that if he did not submit to the Crown, he would hang the leaders and lay waste to the country of the over mountain settlers.[32] His desire to crush those whom he truly detested possibly clouded his judgement in this battle and his preparation to fight at Kings Mountain. As to Colonel McDowell, though Allaire described him as a villain, Ferguson viewed him as humane and peaceful, even hoping he would desist antagonizations and submit to the Crown.[33]

For the Patriots, Cane Creek may have signaled the last hurrah of their confidence in Major McDowell. From poor showings at Earle’s Ford, Wofford’s Iron Works, and his defeat at Cane Creek, McDowell likely held a withering support among Patriots in this western area of the Carolinas. One veteran also wrote that McDowell refused to assist Colonel Clarke in his taking of Fort Thicketty in late July of that same year.[34] In late September 1780, the Overmountain Men coalesced in their expedition against Ferguson. Their officers, all colonels, decided to elect Col. William Campbell of Virginia as the overall commander, despite being younger than McDowell and unfamiliar with the area. It is telling that this body made their decision soon after passing the site of McDowell’s recent defeat at Cane Creek.[35] Isaac Shelby described McDowell as “too slow an officer for his views of the enterprise in which they were engaged.” McDowell volunteered to ride to Horatio Gates instead, requesting an undetermined senior officer to preside over the expedition.[36]

Seven days after the fighting at Cane Creek, Ferguson learned from witnesses of 800 men mustering under Isaac Shelby in the Nolichucky settlement in modern Tennessee. Echoing his belief in the exaggeration of rebel strength at Cane Creek, he expressed disbelief that even 300 would effectively come against him. He delayed at Gilbertown for several days, awaiting intelligence and reinforcements, assured that “We shall be ready for to strike at whatever comes within our reach, and situated centrical as we are, I shall think us unfortunate if we do not prevent a general junction and remain masters of the field.”[37] Since his incursion into Rutherford and Burke Counties, Ferguson raised 500 “first class and arm’d” Loyalists, almost doubling his strength. Additionally, owing to his offensive actions and proclamations, he reported approximately 200 rebels submitted under the offer of protection.[38]

By September 30, the gravity of the situation finally dawned upon Ferguson, moving southwards, as he received a letter from the waylaid and recovering Dunlap, urging him not to make light of the 1,500 or more Patriot militia marching towards him. Acknowledging he could not face close to 2,000 men, Ferguson planned to retreat eastwards towards Cornwallis in Charlotte if he could not intercept and fight Col. Elijah Clarke’s refugee Georgia partisans within two days.[39] The major wrote the next day to Cornwallis that he could not muster half the numbers as the Overmountain Men. Nevertheless, Ferguson stuck to his offensive maxim, reinforced by his experience at Cane Creek. As he implored Cornwallis for dragoons and mounted infantry, he maintained that if the “Back Mountain men” were to draw up for action, he would, “at any rate rather give than receive an attack.”[40] This was not the case, however, as Ferguson posted up on the wooded eminence of Kings Mountain, hoping for reinforcements, fully aware of his outnumbered situation.

Ferguson found himself surrounded and defeated on October 7 by many of the same forces he fought against at Cane Creek. This time though, without McDowell in command, the Patriots did not quickly break. Many of the same Loyalists, now better equipped and more experienced, surely were surprised at the determined tenacity of these backcountry rebels as they repeatedly charged up the mountain. Ferguson’s haughty overconfidence, though founded upon experience, caused him to toe the line perhaps a few days too long. The major found himself forced into a defensive stand when he had found previous success in offensive maneuvers. McDowell, though unceremoniously absent from this battle, later returned to the thick of the fighting at Cowpens and other battles through the remainder of the war, albeit under the leadership of his younger brother Joseph.[41] In warfare, where battles almost never occur without precedent or subsequent actions, the Battle of Cane Creek proved just such a contributing factor in the defeat of Ferguson’s forces atop Kings Mountain.

 

[1]Patrick Ferguson to Charles Cornwallis, September 14, 1780, in Ian Saberton. The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War (East Sussex: Naval & Military Press, Ltd., 2010), 2: 148 (CP).

[2]Ferguson to Cornwallis, August 29, 1780, in CP, 2: 146-147. In 1779, Tryon County, in western North Carolina, was broken into several smaller counties including Rutherford and Burke. British sources generally referred to Tryon County still in 1780.

[3]Anthony Allaire. “Extract from a Letter from an Officer, Dated Charlestown, January 30, 1781,” Loyalist Institute: King’s Mountain, Letter from Anthony Allaire, 1781, www.royalprovincial.com/history/battles/kingslet.shtml, accessed March 06, 2018.

[4]Freeman Jones, Pension Application W7900, transcribed by Will Graves, revwarapps.org/w7900.pdf.

[5]Ferguson to Alexander Ross, August 19, 1780, in CP, 2: 141.

[6]Lyman Copeland Draper, ed. “Diary of Lieut. Anthony Allaire of Fergusons Corp.,” King’s Mountain and its Heroes (Cincinnati: P. G. Thompson, 1881), 506.

[7]Cornwallis to William Balfour, August 29, 1780, in CP, 2: 65.

[8]Cornwallis to Balfour, September 21, 1780, in CP, 2: 88.

[9]Ferguson to Cornwallis, September 14, 1780, in CP, 2: 148.

[10]Ibid.

[11]Ferguson’s Declaration, September 9, 1780, in CP, 2: 151.

[12]Ferguson to Cornwallis, September 14, 1780, in CP, 2: 148.

[13]Ibid., and Draper, “Diary of Lieut. Anthony Allaire,” 506.

[14]Alfred E. Jones, ed., “The Journal of Alexander Chesney: A South Carolina Loyalist in the Revolution and After,” The Ohio State University Bulletin Vol. 26, no 4. (1921), 15.

[15]Ferguson to Cornwallis, September 14, 1780, in CP, 2: 148. Ferguson had more men remaining at Gilbertown, but he wrote that the 140 dispatched were all he could mount. The local Tories were accoutered in many cases with captured arms, including from twelve of Hampton’s stragglers, captured a few days earlier with arms and horses.

[16]Aaron Deviny, Pension Application S8321, transcribed by Will Graves, revwarapps.org/s8321.pdf; Draper, “Diary of Lieut. Anthony Allaire,” 507.

[17]Ferguson to Cornwallis, September 14, 1780, in CP, 2: 148-149.

[18]Draper. “Diary of Lieut. Anthony Allaire,” 507.

[19]Ferguson to Cornwallis, September 14, 1780, in CP, 2: 149.

[20]Ibid. and Jones, “The Journal of Alexander Chesney,”15.

[21]Richard Ballew, Pension Application S15305, transcribed by Will Graves, revwarapps.org/s15305.pdf. Ballew’s recollection is particularly impressive as he remembers in his company James Hemphill was killed and John Creswell wounded. The specifics in these applications are particularly illuminating as veterans often recalled sparse details from their service.

[22]Ferguson to Cornwallis, September 14, 1780, in CP, 2: 149.

[23]Draper. “Diary of Lieut. Anthony Allaire,” 507.

[24]Ferguson to Cornwallis, September 14, 1780, in CP, 2: 149.

[25]Ibid., and Draper. “Diary of Lieut. Anthony Allaire,” 507.

[26]Ferguson to Cornwallis, September 14, 1780, in CP, 2: 149.

[27]Cornwallis to Balfour, September 21, 1780, in CP, 2: 88.

[28]Draper. “Diary of Lieut. Anthony Allaire,” 507.

[29]Ferguson to Cornwallis, September 14, 1780, in CP, 2: 149.

[30]Cornwallis to Balfour, September 21, 1780, in CP, 2: 88. While Ferguson was not encumbered enough by this to write about it, Cornwallis, reviewing from Waxhaws the risky progress of the Scotsman, viewed Dunlap’s loss as distressing.

[31]Ferguson’s Declaration, September 9, 1780, in CP, 2: 151.

[32]John J. Hardin. “Description by John J. Hardin of the Battle of King’s Mountain, Based on Isaac Shelby’s Recollections,” The Colonial Records of North Carolina, vol. 15 (1898), 104-111. Documenting the American South, University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2004, docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.html/document/csr15-0069,105.

[33]Draper. “Diary of Lieut. Anthony Allaire,” 507; Ferguson to Cornwallis, September 19, 1780, in CP, 2: 154.

[34]John McClain, Pension Application S31853, transcribed by Will Graves, revwarapps.org/s31853.pdf. Fort Thicketty was located in the Ninety-Six District in upper South Carolina, about eight miles south of the modern city of Gaffney.

[35]Abiud Fairchild, Pension Application S15420, transcribed by Will Graves, revwarapps.org/s15420.pdf.

[36]Hardin, “Description by John J. Hardin of the Battle of King’s Mountain,” 105.

[37]Ferguson to Cornwallis, September 19, 1780, in CP, 2: 155-158. Ferguson was indeed centrally located, roughly one hundred miles southeast of the Nolichucky settlement, another one hundred miles northeast of Ninety-Six, and nearly eighty miles from Cornwallis in Charleston.

[38]Ibid. Cornwallis may have contributed to Ferguson’s overconfidence of superior numbers, writing to him on October 1 that Col. James Williams was marching against him claiming 400 rebels. Cornwallis’s informant, however, counted only 150 men.

[39]Ferguson to Cornwallis, September 30, 1780, in CP, 2: 160-161.

[40]Ferguson to Cornwallis, October 1, 1780, in CP, 2: 162-163.

[41]Lawrence Babits. A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens(Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1998), 35.

Written By
More from Trevor Freeman

Skulking Shots on the Flank: The Skirmish at Cane Creek

The October 7, 1780 Battle of Kings Mountain is likely familiar to...
Read More

1 Comment

  • I have been researching my wife’s genealogy and Burke County for some time. Her 4th and 5th great grandfather was Capt Thomas Hemphill of the Burke Militia. While his Patriot service is well documented, I have found little on his younger brother James, who may have been one of the two fatalities. Best of luck in your endeavors. I hope to meet you one day at one of our battlefield parks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *