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But, they are well worth the stop.  Both are in South Carolina, close to its border with North Carolina, and both have well-marked exits. They are managed by the National Park Service as a National Military Park (Kings Mountain) and a National Battlefield (Cowpens).  Kings Mountain is so close to the border that its exit is just in North Carolina. 

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The  American Revolution Cowpens Battlefield  in South Carolina today
The Cowpens Battlefield today
History of the Battlefields

By 1780 a stalemate existed in the northern campaign of the Revolutionary War and the British were forced to establish a southern strategy.  The plan was to restore the southern royal colonies, then sweep across the Carolinas to link with loyalist troops on Virginia’s Tidewater. The British would then control the southern seaboard. This strategy started with the capture of Savannah in 1778 and then of Charleston in the spring of 1780. By the summer of 1780 most of South Carolina was subdued and General Charles the Earl Cornwallis began the march to Virginia.

A log cabin at the  American Revolution Cowpens Battlefield  in South Carolina today
Robert Scruggs House today, near the battlefield.  Visitors to Cowpens will
have the chance to see an 1800s log cabin of the type that provided homes
for yeoman (rural middleclass ) farmers in the South Carolina backcountry.
The first two major battles on the march occurred at the Waxhaws (near modern-day Lancaster, South Carolina) and Camden. Both battles were British victories.  After the capture of Charleston, the Patriot governor of South Carolina, John Rutledge, was forced to flee north and was protected by a small Patriot force led by Colonel Abraham Bufford.  Cornwallis sent Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarelton, the most feared and hated British soldier in the South to pursue Rutledge. The two forces met at the Waxhaws and, while Rutledge managed to escape, Tarelton achieved a decisive victory. The battle was noteworthy in that Bufford asked for terms of surrender, but instead over 100 Patriots were massacred.  Tarelton earned the name “Bloody Ban,” and the term “Tarleton’s quarter” came to mean massacring troops under a white flag of surrender.  This would play a role in a later battle at Kings Mountain. A few months later Tarelton was with Cornwallis at the Battle of Camden, a second major victory for the British.

A lmonument  at the  American Revolution Cowpens Battlefield  in South Carolina today
One of the monuments on the Cowpens Battlefield.
In September 1780 Cornwallis began his northward invasion and headed towards Charlotte, North Carolina.  Tarelton protected his right flank and Major Patrick Ferguson, with 1,100 Loyalists, protecting his left flank.  A group of Patriots from the mountainous regions of the Carolinas, Virginia, and present-day Tennessee, called the Overmountain Men, had been harassing Loyalist troops in the Upcountry and Ferguson was to see they caused no more problems. His approach to this was to send a message that unless the Overmountain Men immediately stopped their resistance he would “march over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay the country waste with fire and sword.” This did not set well with the Overmountain Men and troops from the region were gathered into one single force to counter Ferguson.

Ferguson learned of the gathering force and moved his troops to Kings Mountain. He had superior advantage there on a spur of the Blue Ridge, rising about 150 feet over the surrounding terrain.  He was confident and said, “The situation of Kings Mountain was so pleasing that he concluded to take post there, stoutly affirming that he would be able to destroy or capture any force the Whigs could bring against him.” He is often quoted as saying to his troops, “This is Kings Mountain and I am king of this mountain. God Almighty and all the rebels of hell cannot drive me from it.” 

 Grave of Col. Fergerson at the  American Revolution Kings Mountain Battlefield  in South Carolina
Grave of Col. Ferguson.   The grave is covered
by a rock pile that  originates from the Scottish
tradition of placing a cairn over the grave of a
fallen chieftain.   The story  goes that one of
his mistresses, a redhead known as Virginia
Sal, was also killed and is buried with him.
The Overmountain Men did not want Ferguson to escape, and 900 of the best riflemen were sent forward to corner him, with Colonel William Campbell of Virginia in charge. They located Ferguson on Kings Mountain and surrounded his position. The Patriots opened fire from below and the Loyalists fired from above. The Patriots used guerrilla tactics and made use of the heavily forested slope for cover. Plus, the downward slope of the hill caused the Loyalists to overshoot their targets. It was over in just over an hour. Patriots had learned Ferguson was wearing a checkered shirt and he was a prime target.  He and nearly 300 of his troops were killed.  Cornwallis had lost his entire left flank.  General Clinton, the British Commander-In-Chief in North America, later called  the Battle of Kings Mountain, “The first link in a chain of evils that …that ended in the total loss of America.”  Thomas Jefferson called it, “The turn of the tide of success.”  

The Battle of Kings Mountain took place on October 7, 1780 and caused Cornwallis to exit Charlotte to the safety of Winnsboro, South Carolina.  He spent the winter there. Later in October General Nathanael Greene became commander of the southern Patriot forces.  He was to “an army to look the enemy in the face.”  This was easier said than done. Greene decided to split his forces. He has one of the American’s most capable Generals under his command, Daniel Morgan (as well as William Washington Henry Lee). Morgan was assigned to operate to the rear and left flank of Cornwallis.  He was to “annoy the enemy.” Cornwallis came to believe Morgan was threatening Ninety Six, a Loyalist stronghold. He needed to clear up Morgan as a threat before he began his second invasion of North Carolina.

Monument at the  American Revolution Kings Mountain Battlefield  in South Carolina
Kings Mountain Monument, atop the battlefield.
In January 1781 Banastre Tarleton was sent to destroy Morgan’s forces or at least to make them retreat from western South Carolina. Morgan’s force was greatly outnumbered by Tarleton’s force of 1,100 well-trained troops, but Morgan managed to secure militia reinforcement.  Morgan ended up with about 800 troops, half of them militia. Morgan developed a tactic that took advantage of the superior range of the American rifles and the terrain.  He chose the battle site.  It was a cow pasture, open woods with three low crests separated by wide swales. He positioned his troops in three lines, using militia sharpshooters in the front line.  Patriot troop positions were hidden by the terrain and troops movements would appear to show retreat when none was actually occurring.  The Battle of Cowpens turned into a second major Patriot victory. Tarelton was sent fleeing and his army was destroyed.  This is considered “one of the most skillfully fought battles in the annals of the American military. Cornwallis did finish his intended path through North Carolina and Virginia and it ended in Yorktown. 

Marker explaiining a battle with dragoons at the  American Revolution Kings Mountain Battlefield  in South Carolina
Marker explaining a Dragoons (would be Cavalry today) battle.
The Battlefields Today   

Both battlefields are similar.  Both are very close to the interstate.  Both have a large visitor’s center, with extensive historical displays, a well-produced video, and a book store.  Both have a well-developed trail that starts behind the visitor’s center and follows the battlefield to allow the best vistas and historical overview.  The trail at Cowpens circles a relatively open area, like what you’d expect a colonial cow pasture to look like.  You can easily see the low crests separated by wide swales; you don’t need a lot of imagination to see how the colonial troops remained hidden from the British view. The trail at Kings Mountain circles the hill and takes you to the top.  Strategic locations are well-marked on both trails. Each battlefield is worth at least a half-day, and that is only if you want an introduction to the history involved.  Like any historical site, the value of the experience is greatly enhanced if you do some homework and study the history of the battles first.

Marker explaiining a battle  at the  American Revolution Kings Mountain Battlefield  in South Carolina
Key spots on the Kings Mountain Battlefield are well-marked.
You don’t need to invest in a lot of history books to do that homework.  The Park Service has really well-developed websites, listed below, that give a great overview of the battles. Plus, while the battlefields may not be widely-known, the internet has voluminous amounts of history and images.  You quickly begin to realize how important these battles were.

It is a fantastic way to add a day to a trip that goes down I-85.

Map of the Cowpens Battlefield, in South Carolina Map of the American Revolution Southern Campaign that shows  the beginning in Charleston and the end in Yorktown, plus the pivotal battles at Kings Mountain and Cowpens.
Map of the Cowpens Battlefield,
showing the walking tour.
Map of the American Revolution Southern Campaign that shows  the beginning in Charleston and the end in Yorktown, plus the pivotal battles at Kings Mountain and Cowpens. 

 

Authors: Tom Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. His wife, Pat, is a consulting forester. Both have a keen interest in history.

For more information:  

Kings Mountain National Military Park Home Page

http://www.nps.gov/kimo/index.htm

 

Kings Mountain National Military Park Brochures and Maps

http://www.nps.gov/kimo/planyourvisit/brochures.htm

 

Cowpens National Battlefield Home Page

http://www.nps.gov/cowp/index.htm

 

Cowpens National Battlefield History and Culture

http://www.nps.gov/cowp/historyculture/index.htm

 

Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail

http://www.nps.gov/ovvi/index.htm

 

 

 

 

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