A Journey from Watauga to Freedom
This story is based on history from the facts of the preparation for and the ensuing battle, with the addition of a fictional accounting for the “first person” involvement. It was written for my Granddaughter to help her with a history lesson, giving her a feeling of involvement rather than just dull dates and facts. My ancestor, Francis Hodge was at the Battle of King’s Mountain but not being an Officer was not mentioned in reference books.
I think that is is very important, especially in these times, that we and our children remember our ancestors and the sacrifices they made so that their children could live in security without the threat of being controlled by a disinterested Government. — Kenneth Hodge, author
It was cool and overcast that morning on the 25th of September, 1780 when we gathered on the field around the fort at Sycamore Shoals. Two hundred and forty of the best sharpshooters from Washington County under Col. John Sevier and the same number under Col. Isaac Shelby from the newly formed Sullivan County. We were all there at the urging of Col. Sevier and Col. Shelby to march against the Tories and Regulars of Col. Patrick Ferguson in North Carolina who was defeating our Patriots. In the past few years we had remained out of the battles with King George, concerning ourselves with trying to bring in crops and protect our families from the Indians. Now, based on the latest news, there was no choice but to respond to Col. Ferguson’s threat.
For the last few days, all that were able, had met and listened to a message from Col. Ferguson threatening that if we didn’t stop our opposition and join with the British under their royal standard, they would march over the mountain and lay waste to all that we had built. Our small band of families, having descended from the Scotch-Irish, Huguenot, and German immigrants, had their fill of oppression, and being isolated in a new land we had developed a love for freedom. It was decided that we would save the British the problem of crossing the mountains and take the fight to them and away from our farms.
I had left before daybreak to ride the four miles to the fort. Elizabeth was busy finishing the hanging of the pork in the smokehouse and parching corn to use over the winter. The wood was piled beside the house and I had started the fire in the smokehouse last night. With milk and cheese in the spring and potatoes under the floor, she had plenty to last until my return. If she needed anything, her brother, Isaac, was nearby. She wasn’t worried about being left alone anymore, since the town had grown around us and there were friends and family close by.
Our small crop of corn and wheat had been cut and stored, our animals were fenced close to the house and the younger men and women should be able to defend themselves from the small bands of Indians who continued to attack. Some number of men from Carter’s and the Cumberland settlements were moving to assist in this defense. The grist mills of Baptist McNabb and Mathew Talbot were busy grinding corn for bread and Mary Paton’s mill was making powder for our guns. Lead for bullets had been mined near Nolichucky River in Bumpass Cove, so sufficient ammunition for our short Deckard rifles should be ready by morning. Our food could be obtained on the way for there was much game in the mountains. Being accustomed to hunting for weeks in the woods we had no worries of our abilities to fend for ourselves, and so eager were the men to go they had to draft some to remain and protect their homes. This task was left to the very young and the very old.
Colonel’s William and Arthur Campbell arrived with about four hundred more Militia troops from Virginia. After we meet Col. Charles McDowell’s one hundred sixty men in North Carolina,our force will be over one thousand. Even now, our strength is impressive, every one of us armed and ready to go. Most of the night was spent with our leaders making plans at the fort, and us getting re acquainted with relatives and friends who had located in other areas.
I found my brother Francis near the bank of the Watauga where he had just crossed from his farm on the North bank, in Sullivan County. The river was low on the shoals and his feet were barely wet. He said that he had left his sons, Ambrose and Francis, Jr. to guard the farm in his absence. Ambrose had been named for our father, as I was. Francis and I talked some and decided that we would stay in the same group, no matter who would lead. All of our leaders were of equal rank and we didn’t know which would be the senior officer.
It was almost sunrise on the 26th and the men had gathered into a tighter group to hear the Reverend Samuel Doak deliver a sermon and prayer. Most of us knew Reverend Doak as the Presbyterian minister who had organized many of our new churches and was opening several schools to educate our children. He was well liked by the men because he fought alongside of us to open the frontier. My brother Francis and I were well acquainted with Rev. Doak. After the service was over, the battle cry of “The Sword of the Lord and Gideon” echoed through the valley.
The men mounted their horses and after sending their wives and children back, started up Gap Creek towards McNabb’s mill. Passing the mill we turned East and proceeded several miles to the Doe River and on to the Little Doe where we followed it toward Roan Mountain. The going was slow since it had been decided to drive some beef cattle with us to supplement our hunting. The beeves didn’t care to walk in the river and kept wandering out into the fields to graze. We traveled farther getting them back in line than making progress toward the pass into North Carolina. As we passed just North of Roan and South of Yellow Mountain through the gap into North Carolina and realized that we had only traveled about fifteen miles, everyone knew that something had to be done to speed up the march.
Near sunset we arrived at Shelving Rock for our first camp and while the leaders made their plans,we killed some of the cattle and packed the meat in salt. Everyone was supplied with enough meat to last four days. All of us had decided that we could not drive the animals and still advance through the terrain quietly and quickly enough to surprise the British, so we figured to turn out the remaining cattle to do as they might. We later found that our leaders had come to the same conclusion and the cattle were to be driven back to the fort in the morning.
During the night, Samuel Chambers and James Crawford, whom some thought had Tory leanings, had deserted. It was suspected that they had gone on to warn Col. Ferguson of our advance. Scouts were sent out to find them but since it had snowed through the night, no tracks were seen.
We spent most of the day of the 27th getting prepared for a hard march through the snow and the bitter cold. One of our men from Virginia had decided not to seek shelter under the overhanging rocks as many had done. We found him at dawn, frozen to death in the open. He was buried with a short sermon by Col. Sevier at the top of Yellow Mountain.
Johnson, a local settler, owned a forge near where we were camped and after the climb through the pass some of our horses had lost shoes that needed to be replaced quickly. Many of our men were skilled blacksmiths and were kept busy all this day and part of the next replacing shoes.
The men busied themselves around the camp trying to keep out of sight of Col. Campbell who had been appointed to the chief command. Campbell tried to get his militia to teach us volunteers how to be soldiers but we were accustomed to our own ways of hunting alone, with just our guns. We wanted nothing to do with the marching and drilling and group maneuvers. We all heard and understood the orders of the day from Col. Campbell; when the battle started we were to stay together and fire when ready. To a man,we just wanted to get on and get the job done. We knew we had only advanced twenty seven miles from Sycamore Shoals and from now on would have to move faster.
Early in the afternoon of the 28th, we descended Roaring Creek by Bright’s Trace and followed it to its mouth in the North Toe River, one mile from the Crab Orchard (Avery’s Quarter) where we bought more powder from Dorry and Loddy Oaks. We then proceeded Southwest through the gap between the Yellow Mountains and the Smoky Mountains until we could see the Silver Mountains and found Linville Creek flowing South. We made camp and rested, having covered thirty five miles from Shelving Rock since the day before yesterday; much of it in the dark to make up for time that was lost.
On the 30th we followed Linville Creek, passing the Silver Mountains to the North, and arrived at the head of the Catawba River near Quaker Meadows, the home of Col. Charles McDowell. Col. McDowell’s group consisted of one hundred sixty men from Burke and Rutherford Counties.
The next day we were joined by Col. Benjamin Cleavland and Major Joseph Winston from Surry County with three hundred fifty men whom they had recruited from Surry and Wilkes Counties. Our force now numbered over fifteen hundred with about five hundred being Militia. Those that were Militia were dispersed though the companies to help give military guidance to the rest of us.
We waited there, camped by the Catawba, while Col. McDowell rode to the militia headquarters near Salisbury to ask General Sumner or Davidson to assume the chief command. Since we were in Col. McDowell’s military district and he being the senior officer, it was his right to assume command. However, he chose to waive that right in favor of Col. Campbell, whom we had selected earlier. When McDowell returned on the evening of the 3rd of October, we were told that Col. Campbell would lead us but we were to remain organized under our own colonels. Francis and I decided to stay with Col. Sevier’s group so that we would not be separated. Col. Shelby agreed since our groups would be positioned side by side in any case.
Early in the morning on the 4th, we started our advance toward Gilberttown. Looking more like a military force even though only a few were dressed in uniform. Apparently Col. Ferguson had received the news of our advance and, being apprehensive of our numbers, decided to retreat to the South. We were tired and disappointed but still determined to catch Ferguson.
On the 6th, after chasing Ferguson to Cowpens in South Carolina, we were joined by Col. James D. Williams and Lt. Col. Hambright with four hundred sixty men from South Carolina. After much discussion among the leaders it was decided that a group of nine hundred ten of our group would mount their horses and pursue Col. Ferguson as fast as possible. The plan was to force him to stop and form a defensive position while the rest of our group caught up. Many of the men that had joined us were without horses or guns and were armed only with scythes and sharpened saws and a desire to bring an end to the threats against our lands and families.
We left at about eight o’clock that evening with Francis and I riding side by side through the dark, following Col. Ferguson’s trail toward Deer’s ferry on the Broad River. It was almost daylight before we reached the ferry since we had lost the trail numerous times in the dark. We crossed the river at Cherokee Ford, about a mile below the ferry, thinking that our enemy may have set up a position on the Eastern bank. We figured they were about three days ahead and we were not sure how far they had gone.
It was the morning of the 7th when we found the camp Ferguson had used two days earlier. We knew now that we were closing the gap, were less than two days behind them and gaining. It had been thirty six hours with only one stop at Cowpens and all of us were tired. Our horses needed rest as much as we did. We stopped there for a short time and ate our breakfast, parched corn and salt beef which we had in our saddlebags. While there, we heard that Major Gibbs had assembled between four and five hundred Tories within four miles of us and we were tempted to go to them, but we had come from Watauga to catch Ferguson. The rest of our group could take care of Major Gibbs.
As soon as we had finished eating, we started again following Ferguson’s trail. It was raining now and we had to cover our guns and saddlebags with our blankets to keep them from getting wet. The trail was easier to follow in this area and our scouts would raise their gun to show us the direction to go. After only about ten miles we met a young man named John Fonderin, riding towards us. Lt. Col. Hambright knew him to be a Tory and had him arrested. He was carrying a letter from Col. Ferguson to Cornwallis, who was then at Charlotte, asking for help since he knew we were right behind him. Hambright read us the dispatch and it renewed our confidence that we had Ferguson trapped. We were also told that Ferguson was wearing a checked duster over his uniform so he would be easy to locate among his men.
It was about three o’clock in the afternoon when we finally caught up to Ferguson. He had chosen King’s Mountain for its elevation and proclaimed that he could not be driven off. The rain had stopped and the sun was bright when we came across King’s Creek, up a ravine and between two rocky out croppings. There just ahead, we could see the camp and wanted to attack but were told to wait until some of our others could join in. No more than two hours later we had formed a half circle around the battleground with Col. Campbell and Shelby in the center, Col. Cleveland and Williams on the left, and us with Col. Sevier and Major Joseph McDowell on the right.
When Col. Campbell’s group started firing we left our horses and moved closer before the enemy knew we were there. We were so close we could not miss when we and the group from Surry started firing at about the same instant. The enemy was caught in a crossfire and there was no way for them to retreat down the North side of the mountain. The whole battleonly lasted about an hour before we saw a white flag go up in the camp. Ferguson was dead. His checked duster was covered in blood and there were over fifteen rifle balls that had found their mark. We heard later from Captain DePeyster, Ferguson’s second in command, that Ferguson had three horses shot from under him and had been hit multiple times before he fell for the last time. It was then that Capt. DePeyster raised the white flag.