The Battle of Kings Mountain was fought on October 7, 1780 in the upcountry of South Carolina near the border with North Carolina. As the gunsmoke dissipated and Patriot officers rallied their men, they found themselves victorious and in possession of the mountain-top; but still in danger. British General Charles, Lord Cornwallis and his army were only thirty-five miles to the east at Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Patriots knew that the now-deceased British Major Patrick Ferguson had sent numerous requests for reinforcements over the week prior. The frontier Patriots still had a long way to go before they would return to their settlements in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and beyond in the Overmountain settlements. Their return journey seemed even more daunting due to the fact they were now burdened with roughly 700 Loyalist prisoners. What were they to do with so many prisoners? Where could they safely house these men away from British rescue? The fate of these 700 Loyalists began forming the next day as the Patriots started retracing the long trail homeward.
The morning of Sunday October 8, the weary Patriot soldiers awoke on the ridge of Kings Mountain. They had slept on the battlefield as best they could amid rain and the sounds of wounded men, and had been busy gathering captured supplies and guarding their prisoners. The elected Patriot leader, Virginia Col. William Campbell, recorded capturing sixty-eight Loyalist provincials (uniformed soldiers mostly from New York and New Jersey) and 648 Loyalist militia (local men from the Carolinas) for a total of 716 prisoners, 163 of whom had injuries of varying severity. The Patriots gathered the captured equipment of the Loyalist army, disabled the muskets by removing the gun flints, and forced each prisoner to carry one, or sometimes two, of these captured weapons. Loyalist militia who were too wounded to travel were paroled by Patriot officers and left on the battlefield in the care of local people who had been drawn by the sounds of the previous day’s fight. At 10:00 a.m. the long line of over 700 marching prisoners and roughly 900 mounted guards began retracing their steps to the west, towards the rest of the Patriot army who were coming from the Cowpens to reunite with them. Colonel Campbell remained on the battleground with a small force to bury the dead and destroy the remaining Loyalist supplies: three shallow mass graves (one for the Patriots, one for the Loyalist militia, and one for the Loyalist Provincials) were dug and seventeen supply wagons were pulled over campfires to burn.
That first day of the return march covered twelve miles to a plantation on the east bank of the Broad River near Buffalo Creek. The Loyalist who owned the property is recorded in different sources as “Waldrop,” “Waldron,” or possibly “Fondren.” Patriot Benjamin Sharp recorded that it was here they discovered a patch of sweet potatoes, and that “This was most fortunate for not one in fifty of us had tasted food for the last two days and nights.” This meager feast was supplemented when the rest of the Patriot army joined them from the Cowpens driving an unrecorded number of beef cattle. Campbell and his burial detail also reunited with the army here and joined in the needed food and rest. The next day, October 9, the march was delayed by the burial of Patriot Col. James Williams who was mortally wounded in the final moments of the fierce battle, making him the highest-ranking Patriot casualty. The Patriots and their prisoners proceeded to march a few miles and camp was made further along the banks of the Broad River. Here, the prisoners were finally allowed the first food they had received in two days: a single ear of corn.
Come daylight on October 10, the march quickened to add distance between the Patriots and potential British pursuit. The journals of two Loyalist prisoners record a march of twenty miles, with camp made in a piece of woods “where we lay contented with our lot on the cold ground.” The hatred between Patriots and Loyalists was sometimes ferocious, but Campbell tried his best to control tempers. On October 11, he issued a general order asking his officers to help stop the “disorderly manner of slaughtering and disturbing the prisoners,” threatening punishment to any abusive Patriot guards.
Other than the rare night camping in the woods, this army of starving men and horses tried to encamp at Loyalist farms to confiscate their produce and livestock, a tactic familiar to both sides in this bitter fighting. The night of Wednesday, October 11, the army camped at the plantation of “Colonel Walker” where a wooden pen, previously used by Patrick Ferguson to hold Patriot prisoners, was now used to hold the Loyalists. At this sizable farm with assumedly plenty to eat, the army rested for one extra day. The Loyalist prisoner Doctor Uzal Johnson wrote that he and the other captured officers “had the mortification to see our baggage divided to the different corps.” Fellow prisoner Lt. Anthony Allaire recorded that this division of their personal goods was especially insulting as “they had promised on their word we should have it all.” Further insult was added when a change of clothes was given to the prisoner officers: five dirty and torn shirts for nine men to share.
As the American frontiersmen continued moving their prisoners northward away from British reinforcements, Continental Army leadership was trying to figure out what to do with this many captured enemy combatants. Continental General Horatio Gates attempted to order Virginia Col. William Preston to take command of the prisoners and build barracks for them at his base at Fort Chiswell in southern Virginia. Preston flatly refused, citing that his men were already stretched too thin guarding forts and lead mines against local Loyalist sabotage and the potential of an attack from British-allied Cherokee warriors. Preston claimed to be incapable of taking on any more duties but suggested Boutetourt County, further up the Shenandoah Valley, would be a safer location to house this many prisoners. Colonel Campbell suggested to General Gates that the Loyalist militiamen be drafted into the Continental Army in the north under George Washington. The Continental Army was always in need of men, and the great distance from any friends or neighbors would keep these southern Loyalists from being able to easily desert. Gates was unsure of what action to take and sent these suggestions to the Continental Congress to let them decide the fate of the prisoners.
While Campbell awaited directions from Gates, he fought to hold his army together as they marched further into North Carolina. Patriot desertion rampantly increased, making the prisoner-to-guard ratio dangerously close. The exhausted and starving Patriots were reported to rob any homes they passed regardless of the occupants’ allegiance. Campbell described it as “leaving our friends, I believe, in a worse situation than the enemy would have done.” He ordered that no discharges be issued to soldiers until their prisoners were safely secured.
The fate of some Loyalist prisoners was decided by their captors. On October 14, after marching to the plantation of now-prisoner Loyalist Aaron Bickerstaff (or Biggerstaff), a court martial was formed of twelve Patriot officers, including at least three magistrates. During the rainy night of October 14 into the pre-dawn morning of October 15, charges and testimonies were heard against some of the Loyalist prisoners. Samuel Chambers and James Crawford, two former Patriots who had deserted and warned Ferguson of the approaching Patriot Overmountain Men, were pardoned by Patriot Col. John Sevier: Chambers was his old friend and neighbor, and it was argued that Crawford was young and easily misled. Thirty-six Loyalists were condemned to death on counts of “breaking open houses, killing the men, turning the women and children out of doors, and burning the houses.” These described actions were familiar to many of the on-looking Patriots, being both victims and perpetrators of similar acts in the brutal civil war that raged in the southern backcountry. Loyalist accounts of the trial testified that the condemned were hanged “for their Loyalty to their Sovereign. They died like Romans, saying they died for their King and his Laws.” One of the condemned men named Baldwin, escaped from the gallows when his younger brother, feigning being distraught with grief, was permitted to hug his brother one last time. During their embrace, the younger Baldwin pulled out a hidden knife, slashed his brother’s restraints, and the two boys escaped through the surprised crowd into the dark woods. By 2 a.m., nine of the condemned had been hanged from a large tree outside the Bickerstaff home: Ambrose Mills, Mr. Lafferty, Walter Gilkey, James Chitwood, Mr. Grimes, Robert Wilson, John McFall, John Bibby, and Augustine Hobbs. One Patriot soldier, Paddy Carr from Georgia, was noted to have gestured to the tree limbs decorated with executed Loyalists and remarked that “Would to God every tree in the Wilderness bore such fruit as that.” Loyalist prisoner Dr. Uzal Johnson noted how the melancholy scene was worsened by the rain and the presence of the wives and daughters of some of the condemned, who were following behind the army in hopes of their loved ones being released. Johnson noted that “Mrs. Mills, with a Young child in her Arms, set out all Night in the Rain with her Husband’s Corpse, and not even a Blanket to cover her from the inclemency of the Weather.” The executions ceased in the early morning hours and the army immediately resumed its march north towards the Catawba River. Recent rains had begun to raise the rivers, and time was running out before any further escape northward would be impossible. The bodies of the nine executed Loyalists were left in the tree outside Mrs. Bickerstaff’s home for her to bury.
The sunrise of October 15 brought no relief from the pouring rain. For the next eighteen hours, guards and prisoners alike slogged through thirty-two muddy miles, determined to cross the Catawaba River before it flooded. Loyalist accounts describe making this march without having bread or meat for two days, but being offered the chance to purchase from the guards one ear of “Indian corn” for thirty-five Continental dollars, or forty dollars for a drink of water. Due to the distraction of fatigue and hunger, poor visibility caused by rain, and desperation among the Loyalists as they headed deeper into Patriot territory, nearly 100 prisoners escaped during that one day’s march of October 15. In the darkness of 10 p.m., the prisoners were forced to ford the cold chest-deep waters of the swelling Catawba River to arrive at Quaker Meadows, home of Patriot leaders Charles and Joseph McDowell. Here the Patriot army finally found a breath of relief with the flooding river guarding them from the phantom of any pursuing British cavalry. With the prisoners now secured from immediate rescue, the Patriot army began to disband: Edward Lacey and his men returned to South Carolina, Isaac Shelby and John Sevier’s Overmountain Men recrossed the Blue Ridge Mountains, and William Campbell’s infantry began their long walk back to Virginia. Remaining to guard the prisoners were the North Carolinians under Joseph Winston, Benjamin Cleveland, and Joseph McDowell, and William Campbell with his mounted Virginians. These guards barely outnumbered the approximately 500 prisoners who remained, but they were determined to see their mission completed. At daybreak, the army pushed northeast deeper into North Carolina.
Over the next several days, the pace of the march slowed as the threat of British rescue faded away. Fear of their unknown fate forced some prisoners to risk escaping. Three Loyalists made a dash for the woods on October 17; two escaped while their third comrade was wounded by a guard and hanged the next morning. News of the decisive action at Kings Mountain spread quickly, and the army with its prisoners drew attention from both local Patriots and Loyalists. Small groups of Patriot militia arrived to join the army and assisted escorting the prisoners. On October 21 relief was provided to the prisoners by some local Loyalist women who brought them “butter, milk, honey, and many other necessaries of life.” Some Loyalist officers were allowed to stay in a local tavern with their guards, where they met two Continental Army officers who were traveling through the area. The Continental officers observed the soiled, exhausted, and starved condition of the prisoners, and as one Loyalist recorded, they “pitied our misfortune in falling into the hands of their militia.”
October 23 began a new chapter in the struggles of the remaining Loyalist prisoners. The now-roughly 300 prisoners and their Patriot guards arrived at Bethabara, North Carolina, a settlement of the Moravian Church, or the United Brethren. The town diary notes that upon arrival, the prisoners were “placed like cattle in a small fenced off space, where they spent nineteen days and nights, and nearly starved.” The army’s occupation of the Moravian towns was such a drain on resources that aid was needed from the neighboring town of Salem: bread, flour, produce, oxen, and additional manpower were all sent from neighboring farms to assist in feeding this unannounced swarm of starving men and horses. While the Moravians were pacifists, the Patriots did not lower their guard and remained violent and aggressive towards the prisoners. The first night in town saw an armed Patriot storm into the quarters of the Loyalist officers, demanding their bed and refusing to leave until his commanders forced the man out. A snide comment to a Patriot guard almost caused one prisoner to be hanged, but he was able to escape before his execution date. Loyalist Dr. Johnson noted the practice of Patriot officers to cut the prisoners with their swords. While tending the wounds of one of the attacked prisoners, Dr. Johnson was himself assaulted by Patriot Col. Benjamin Cleveland. One social event allowed to the prisoners was when they were forced to attend a large church service in the woods near town, held in honor of the recent Patriot victory at Kings Mountain. As one Loyalist officer wrote, “we heard a Presbyterian sermon, truly adapted to their principles and the times; or rather, stuffed as full of Republicanism as their camp is of horse thieves.”
While imprisoned at Bethabara, the number of prisoners dwindled rapidly. Several Loyalists were able to escape and began their long journey to British lines in South Carolina, including Provincials Lt. Anthony Allaire and Dr. Uzal Johnson. Many of the prisoner losses were from Patriot North Carolina civil authorities claiming jurisdiction over North Carolina Loyalists and extraditing them for trial. Other Loyalists were allowed to join the Patriot militia or Continental Army for a period of service varying from several months to two years. One of the only mentions of laundry is from the Moravian diary about one of these groups of new Continental Army recruits: they were allowed enough time to get their clothes cleaned before reporting for service with the Patriots.
As October rolled into November, the weather turned cold and frost began to cover the field where the Loyalist prisoners were held. Rumors spread among the prisoners that they would be marched over the Blue Ridge Mountains or into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where other British prisoners of war were confined. The thought of another hard, cold, mountainous march drove many Loyalists to desperation. Loyalist Dr. Johnson noted on November 8 that “we received orders to be ready to March. The Militia had most of them enlisted in the Continental service rather than suffer Death by Inches starving with cold and hunger.” He further noted the next day, “This morning near Twenty of the soldiers made their escape, being apprehensive of a disagorable March over the Mountains.” Filled with fears of mountain marches and hard labor in Patriot lead mines, the remaining prisoners were marched out of Bethabara on November 10, 1780 towards the jail in Salisbury, North Carolina. The few remaining Loyalist officers were led to Salem, North Carolina, where they remained for ten days before heading towards the camp of the Continental Army further northeast in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Stories of the harsh treatment of the Loyalist prisoners reached General Cornwallis. He wrote to Continental Gen. William Smallwood in November 1780 complaining particularly of the executions at Bickerstaff’s. Cornwallis expressed his willingness to exchange captured Patriot militiamen to liberate the Loyalist survivors of Kings Mountain, but no exchange agreement was reached. On November 20, the Continental Congress ordered Virginia Gov. Thomas Jefferson to prepare places to receive the Loyalists wherever he saw fit. On November 23, the remaining prisoners arrived at the Continental Army camp in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where Gen. Horatio Gates was angered by the result: only 130 prisoners remained of the initial 700. When Gen. Nathanael Greene took command of the Southern Continental Army in December, he was likewise angered by the poor management of the Loyalist prisoners: Cornwallis had been willing to discuss exchange, with British prison ships in Charleston harbor filled with American prisoners, but any chance to redeem a significant number of them had been wasted. General Greene ordered the Salisbury jail better suited to house the remaining Loyalist prisoners with a picketed log wall constructed around the jail and huts built within the compound. As winter ushered in the year 1781, Patriot spies reported that nearly 200 Loyalist prisoner draftees who had joined the Continental Army had already deserted back to the British. Due to the lack of guards, the civil authorities being allowed to claim jurisdiction, and the practice of allowing the prisoners to join Patriot service, only sixty Loyalists remained by January 1781 of the original 713 who had surrendered on October 7, 1780. Continental Col. Henry Lee summarized the opinion of many Continental officers regarding the handling of these prisoners when in January 1781 he wrote, “The North Carolina government has in a great degree baffled the fruits of victory.”
The Patriot victory at Kings Mountain and the accomplishments of the Overmountain Men sent shockwaves through the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution, but many Patriot army leaders felt the results fell short of what could have been accomplished. The escape of hundreds of Loyalist prisoners and their return to British service made some Continental officers view Kings Mountain not so much as a deadly blow to the British campaign in the Carolinas, but only as a delay that temporarily slowed British progress. General Cornwallis was forced to abandon his plan to invade North Carolina upon hearing of the Patriot victory, but after resting at winter quarters in Winnsboro, South Carolina, and being reinforced with British regulars, Spring 1781 found Cornwallis prepared for another season of campaigning. Notably absent from this 1781 campaign were large numbers of local Loyalists. Kings Mountain and the devastation of the Loyalist ranks may have seemed miniscule on the maps of Continental Army generals, but along the banks of the Broad, Saluda, Catawba, and Yadkin Rivers, the impact was felt loud and clear. Never again would local Loyalists turn out to support the British army in large enough numbers to sway the loyalty of entire districts in the western backcountry. For the next twenty-six months until the British evacuated the southern states, Loyalist militia were relegated to supporting roles in small garrisons and raiding parties. For the rest of the war, the shadow of Overmountain Patriots haunted the plans of British commanders who sought to hold the western backcountry. The Overmountain Men, the Yadkin Valley Patriots, and all those who joined in the destruction of Maj. Patrick Ferguson and his Loyalist army may not have completely chopped down the tree of Loyalism in the South, but they undeniably sank their axes deep.
James Williams is referred to here as “colonel” due to his service at that rank. His commission as brigadier general issued by the exiled Patriot government of South Carolina held little if any influence over his South Carolina comrades, and none over the North Carolinians and Virginians.
Several theories attempt to explain why only nine of the condemned were executed and the other men reprieved. One theory suggests that Mrs. Bickerstaff came to Patriot Col. Isaac Shelby requesting a stop to the executions at her home. Another theory says that the hangings were in retaliation for the execution of Patriots who had violated their paroles and been captured at Augusta, Georgia; after an equal number of Loyalist prisoners had been executed, the trial leaders felt vengeance had been satisfied. Yet another theory says one of the pardoned prisoners told Isaac Shelby that the feared British officer Banastre Tarleton and his British Legion were close on their trail and soon to arrive, and he wanted to warn the Patriots in gratitude for being pardoned.
It is unknown by this author at this time what happened to the sixty remaining Loyalist militia who were held by the Continental Army in Salisbury in January, 1781. Further research into Loyalist regiment rolls and Loyalist Compensation Claims may reveal the names of these men and allow them to be followed them through the end of the war.