BOOK REVIEW: The Battle of Musgrove’s Mill, 1780 by John Buchanan (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2022)
British victory in the Revolution required one thing above all: the ability of American Loyalists to retake and hold the civil and military functions of government. Then as now, occupying armies are expensive and cannot stay forever. In this light, a battle between Tories and Patriots involving no Redcoats, Hessians, or even Continentals, towers in importance — not because of casualty counts or territory gained or lost, but as a test of the basic requirement for ultimate British success. By 1780, the British had basically given up on holding the North. With a negotiated settlement increasingly likely, what mattered now was demonstrating civil and military control of the southern colonies. The British knew that holding two or three coastal cities wasn’t going to cut it. They had to control the backcountry.
Though still insufficiently covered in classrooms, the Battle of Kings Mountain is recognized as the key event in the demonstration of popular southern refusal to submit to Loyalist rule. Even less well-remembered is the smaller Battle of Musgrove’s Mill, without which there may have been no Kings Mountain. It was a little encounter in which just 200 Patriot militiamen faced off against 264 Loyalist regulars and militia. Though small, it sent a strong signal that backcountry Americans simply would not be ruled any longer by a foreign king.
Giving such small battles their due is the purpose of Westholme Publishing’s “Small Battles” series. The Battle of Musgrove’s Mill, 1780 comes from the pen of John Buchanan, the undisputed dean of southern Revolutionary War history. Now in his 90s, Buchanan writes as well as ever. In fewer than a hundred pages, he puts the story in context; explains the British, Tory, Indian, and Patriot perspectives; tells us about the key commanders on both sides; narrates the battle; and tells us why it matters. That is a lot to put into eighty-eight pages of text, but he has done it masterfully.
Reflective of the popular determination behind it, the little American army that engaged at Musgrove’s mill had no overall commander. Three colonels, Elijah Clarke, Isaac Shelby, and James Williams commanded the Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina militia units they brought. But they coordinated closely. Clarke could not read but fought with stunning courage. He eventually learned to sign documents with the letter “E.” Shelby was the son of prominent frontiersman Evan Shelby, and had fought in the 1776 Cherokee War and the 1779 Chickamauga Campaign. His mind was always on the Kentucky country and he was its first governor when the territory was spun off from Virginia in 1792. Williams was a Virginia-born South Carolinian who had fought on the eastern and western fronts of the war and would, in Buchanan’s characterization, be the victim of “a scurrilous campaign of calumny that blackened his name for almost two centuries.”
Reprising some of descriptions he used in The 10 Key Campaigns of the American Revolution, Buchanan takes time to show us who the determined militiamen were who came to fight at Musgrove’s Mill. They were (in the words of others) “crackers,” “riff-raff,” and “little more than white Indians.” A certain Reverend Woodmason called them “ignorant, mean, worthless, beggarly Irish Presbyterians, the Scum of the Earth, and Refuse of Mankind.” Buchanan uses an old frontier expression to give his own description. Backwoods settlers routinely let their pigs roam freely in the forest where they would dig for mast (acorns, chestnuts, and such). The phrase “Root, hog, or die” became a slogan of self-sufficiency and hard work. “‘A root, hog, or die’ mentality prevailed in their struggle to survive,” says Buchanan of the western men. “And they brought that mentality to war.”
The battle itself was the kind of engagement historians have worked hard to explain was not typical: Patriot marksmen armed with rifles, hiding behind trees, firing at a musket-wielding enemy foolishly advancing in compact formation. It was, says Buchanan, a “mini-Bunker Hill.” The difference, of course, is that this time the Americans won.
The Revolution in the South was ignored by historians for more than a century after the Civil War. Buchanan, a native of Ohio and a resident of New York, has done more than any other person to restore America’s memory of these neglected geographical and chronological halves of the war. He writes with a confidence that can only come from decades of study and also with blunt humor rarely seen in history-writing. “So much for the certainty of primary sources,” he comments after relating how British colonel Alexander Innes contradicted himself in different reports. He tells a story “that may be true and in any case is too good to ignore.” He complains that the argument made “by some historians that the South rebelled [during the American Revolution] to protect slavery is pure fiction.” After describing the “baseless accusations against Colonel James Williams,” he states, “Each charge was a lie.”
Though neither participated in the battle, Buchanan also shares his assessment of Banastre Tarleton and Patrick Ferguson, who were both important field-grade British officers in the Southern campaign. Tarleton was not just brutal on the battlefield; he was also a rapist and a liar. Buchanan forcefully rebuts the notion that Ferguson was a “humane” soldier, citing his advocacy for a scorched-earth strategy for British victory in New England and the threat that lead to his own death and defeat at King’s Mountain: “If they did not cease and desist from their opposition to the British arms, he would march over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.”
Buchanan set a high bar for himself with his celebrated prior works, but this short work is as good as anything he has written. In this look at one small, largely forgotten battle, readers will find a colorful and authoritative account of America’s “Overmountain Men” and set the book down convinced that the British never had a chance against them.
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See H. Allen Skinner, “Patriots and Politics, Redcoats and Reconstruction: General Nathanael Greene’s Grand Southern Strategy,” Journal of the American Revolution, January 10, 2023.