One of the most devastating conflicts America ever endured was the Civil War that raged from 1861-65. Its destruction came in part from the fact that it not only splintered the nation but also shattered families. For four years, friend fought against friend, and brother slew brother. It was not the first time Americans took up arms against each other, however. The first American civil war occurred nearly eighty years earlier during the American Revolution. As they strived to secure independence, “rebel” colonists were forced to fight not only the mighty British army but also their fellow countrymen who remained loyal to King George III. Hostility burned bright as both sides committed barbarous acts in defense of their cause. Nowhere was the struggle more ferocious than in the backcountry of North and South Carolina. One patriot commander was so outraged by the cruelty he vowed to vanquish the monster responsible. In October 1780 he and his army of frontiersmen crushed the savage commander and his Loyalist army. His name was Isaac Shelby. This is the story of his fight and ultimate triumph over the brutal Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of King’s Mountain.
By the time the American Revolution erupted, Isaac Shelby was fully acquainted with the ruthless nature of frontier warfare. Long before he was born in December 1750 in Clear Spring, Maryland, now part of Washington County, Indian attacks had terrorized western inhabitants. Isaac’s grandfather participated in retaliatory strikes against the natives, and at the request of Maryland’s governor, he helped construct several forts to stem the frequency of such attacks. As a teenager, Isaac joined the colonial militia and served on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border in the closing days of the French and Indian War in the early 1760s. He understood and accepted the inherent brutality of war, as demonstrated when he caught and beat an Indian spy to death with a tomahawk. In 1774 he again led men into battle against the Indians as a lieutenant in the Virginia militia. At the climactic Battle of Point Pleasant, Isaac and his men held firm against repeated Indian attacks and ultimately forced the enemy to retreat. Shelby’s command pursued the Indians and destroyed each village it passed through. Following the battles, Isaac explored the wilderness of modern Kentucky and saw boundless opportunities for westward expansion. He decided to make the region his home, but before he could do so, he became involved in the conflict between the thirteen colonies and Great Britain.
Throughout the early years of the American Revolution, Isaac Shelby served his country along the western frontier. Realizing the region had to be defended against the British and their Indian allies, Isaac and other local leaders formed militias and petitioned Virginia’s new state government for military supplies. Heeding the request, Governor Patrick Henry appointed Isaac to serve as the chief supply officer for the territory. Over the next few months, newly promoted Captain Shelby commanded numerous expeditions travelling from Virginia to the forts located throughout the region. Although he excelled at the task, he yearned for a more proactive role in defending the new country’s frontier. His chance came during the 1778 campaign against the Ohio Valley Indians. In command of thirty militiamen, he was charged with safeguarding the Virginia-Tennessee border. He took up position at the aptly named Fort Shelby and led patrols throughout the nearby countryside. By late 1779 the Indian menace had so diminished Isaac was transferred to North Carolina. He soon realized he had been so focused on the Indians he had overlooked a more sinister and immediate threat facing America’s frontier inhabitants.
By the summer of 1780 the struggle for American independence appeared to be turning in favor of the British. Unable to defeat the Continental Army in the North, Britain had invaded the American South and captured Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina before moving inland to consolidate their control. Even more menacing, however, were the Loyalists, or Tories, waging a war of retaliation against the patriots. Such atrocities as the ransacking of homes and violent attacks on women became common. Among those outraged by these horrific acts was Colonel Isaac Shelby. He energetically organized 200 mounted riflemen and marched into South Carolina to link up with other patriot forces and combat the savage barbarians. On July 30th he arrived outside Fort Thicketty, and he spread his troops out as if preparing to attack. The display so overwhelmed the Tory commander he surrendered without firing a shot. Shelby returned to camp victorious, but almost immediately, he set out to engage British forces advancing towards his camp. On August 17th he faced the enemy along Cedar Shoal Creek and ordered his men to open fire. The patriots were outnumbered and were on the verge of withdrawing when a sniper felled the Tory commander. Shelby quickly rallied his troops and went on the offensive, forcing the Loyalists to retreat. Isaac began advancing further south, but the crushing defeat of General Horatio Gates’ American army at Camden, South Carolina on August 16th compelled him to fall back to the western mountains.
As Isaac reestablished a base in western North Carolina, he received reports of the cruelties visited upon inhabitants. Each story to reach him deepened his hatred for the British officer responsible — Major Patrick Ferguson. Under orders from British General Lord Charles Cornwallis, Ferguson turned his 1,500 Loyalists loose on the Carolina countryside with orders to kill every cow and horse belonging to any patriot family. He also supervised the destruction and looting of patriot homes. Ferguson even permitted his men to tear rings off women’s hands, no matter how much pain was inflicted. Fear and loathing soon inflamed every patriot heart, but the greatest outrage was yet to come. Ferguson sent an ultimatum to Shelby demanding the patriots cease their armed resistance or he would “lay their country waste by fire and sword.” The local populace was infuriated that this British officer and so-called “gentleman” would threaten that which they prized most — their lives and property. Hundreds of men and women clamored that action be taken against this barbarous officer. Shelby agreed and observed, “It is better that we go after him than he come after us.”
Wasting no time, Colonel Shelby dispatched messages throughout the region calling upon those able to bear arms to join his gathering army. He visited Colonel John Sevier in Tennessee and Colonel William Campbell in Virginia and secured their participation in the campaign. On September 26, 1780 Shelby led 1,000 men and boys out of Elizabethtown, Tennessee, and as the army crossed the mountains, dozens more soldiers joined the march. The army was enthusiastic at the thought of avenging the wrongs perpetrated by the brutal major. Many troops remembered the biblical story of Gideon and his victory over the Midianites. They believed God would bless them as He had blessed the Israelites. As the army drew steadily closer, Major Ferguson alerted British General Lord Charles Cornwallis to the advancing enemy, but he wrote of his intent to find a defensible position from where he could hold off the patriots until reinforcements arrived. Though the patriot army matched his in relative strength, Ferguson remained confident his well-trained and well-equipped force could easily defeat the backwoodsmen. As night fell on October 6th he stationed his soldiers along the high ground of King’s Mountain and waited for Shelby’s army to appear.
Informed of the enemy’s position by a patriot spy, Shelby marched the army through the night determined to fight the next morning. As the sun rose on October 7th Shelby and his fellow officers outlined a strategy whereby the army would surround the base of the mountain before marching up to engage Ferguson’s force. At 3:00 p.m. the men were in formation, and Shelby, who commanded the left flank of the attack, ordered his men to “prime your guns.” Then he began the long climb to the top. As he stumbled over rocks, he heard the sounds of battle from the far side of the hill, and he knew the patriots under William Campbell had engaged the enemy. His soldiers fought their way upward with a renewed determination. Finally, Isaac stood only feet away from the crest when a Tory soldier spotted him and called out the alarm. Ferguson shifted his men to the left and directed fire on Shelby and his comrades. The Tories leveled their bayonets and charged towards Shelby’s command, but in moments they were forced to withdraw as more patriots charged up the hillside. Confusion ruled as Shelby’s troops became mixed up with those led by Colonels Sevier and Campbell. Still, Isaac ordered his men to press on, and they surged up the hill. Ferguson’s soldiers fought doggedly, but the major saw he was being pressed from all sides. Loyalists dropped dead or wounded all around him, and as a result, the surviving Tories had to thin their lines. Ferguson knew he could not hold out much longer. From across the field, Shelby also watched as the enemy ranks began to fall apart, and he decided to take full advantage of the shifting tide of battle.
Believing the initiative had swung in his favor, Isaac Shelby ordered his men to push the final distance to the Tory lines. He followed the advance and crested the ridge in time to see the Tories falling back towards the backside of the mountain, but in moments, they were trapped as the remainder of the patriot army surged into Ferguson’s rear. Hand-to-hand fighting erupted as the Loyalists fought to the death. Attempting to escape through patriot lines to safety, the hated Major Ferguson was shot dead. The loss of their commander further demoralized the surviving Tories, but the patriots refused to show mercy until they had quenched their thirst for revenge. After several futile attempts, Isaac finally succeeded in reasserting control over his men, and he ordered them to cease firing. He then turned to the Tories and demanded their surrender. As his soldiers disarmed and herded their adversaries together, Shelby glanced at his pocket watch and was stunned to see the battle had lasted only one hour. The magnitude of the victory became even clearer after a brief count of the dead and wounded lying on the field. At the cost of only 90 casualties, Shelby’s army had killed or captured all of Ferguson’s 1,125 officers and men. With the Battle of King’s Mountain, nearly one-third of the British Southern army ceased to exist.
Despite the overwhelming nature of the victory, Shelby knew British forces would not tarry before advancing against the Americans. Most of the patriot army marched back into the western mountains to fight the British-allied Cherokee Indians while Shelby escorted the Tory prisoners to General Horatio Gates. He gave the general a detailed report of the action at King’s Mountain, and as word spread across the country, Shelby was proclaimed a national hero. North Carolina’s legislature awarded him a sword in honor of his triumph. In October 1781 Isaac learned of the British surrender at Yorktown, but he would not rest until the British left America for good. Along with Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion, he attacked British forts outside Monck’s Corner, South Carolina. Shelby’s deceptive tactics combined with a general loss of fighting spirit on the part of the British ensured the forts’ immediate surrender. He and his soldiers pursued the British army as it retreated to Charleston and ultimately abandoned the city in 1782.
With the war effectively won, Shelby left North Carolina and settled in Kentucky. Over the next ten years, he fought to secure Kentucky’s entrance into the United States, and on June 4, 1792 Kentucky became the fifteenth state to join the Union. On that same day, Isaac Shelby was inaugurated as the state’s first governor. In that capacity, he provided the state with financial and political stability, but he could not pacify the northern border, which was rife with Indian attacks. He returned to the governor’s office during the War of 1812 and soon learned of more massacres committed by the Indians. In response, he swore to retaliate in the same manner as he had when facing Patrick Ferguson over thirty years earlier. He formed a Kentuckian army and led it in a campaign that destroyed the Indian resistance, killing the feared Indian Chief Tecumseh in the process and finally securing the Northwestern territory. He left the governor’s office in 1816, but two years later President James Monroe chose him to negotiate the purchase of Chickasaw land situated between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers. Once the purchase was complete, he returned to his beloved homestead, known as Traveler’s Rest, and died there in July 1826.
Although his actions are little remembered today, Isaac Shelby was once considered one of America’s greatest patriot warriors. He had not only served courageously in America’s fight for freedom, but he had also helped secure the country’s borders and launch the U.S. on the road to prominence. His death was mourned across the country, but his memory remained etched in the hearts of his countrymen. Newspapers linked his name with that of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who had passed away only days before Isaac on July 4th. Cities and counties across the country took pride in bearing his name. But perhaps nowhere outside his beloved Kentucky was Isaac Shelby admired more than in the western mountains of the Carolinas where he had spent so much time fighting the enemies — both British and Loyalist — of his country. From that area and from that most glorious battle, Isaac Shelby forever carried the nickname given him by those grateful Americans he had so courageously defended — “Old King’s Mountain.”