by Charlton Stanley
By this time of the day on October 7, 1780, it was all over. The dead and dying laid together on a chilly Carolina hillside on this date 234 years ago. It only lasted an hour, but what an hour it was.
By early September 1780, General Charles Cornwallis had just defeated the Continental troops under the command of General Horatio Gates. Cornwallis was in the area of Charlotte, NC, but a substantial body of his troops were in Georgia and South Carolina. Cornwallis made the tactical and strategic decision to move his troops north, into North Carolina. He knew he could defeat the Colonials (they called themselves Patriots) to his east in the more heavily populated eastern seaboard, but could not do it with the threat of Colonial militias behind him to the west.
Cornwallis had another problem, related to the first. The King did not want colonial settlers moving west into the frontier where he would have no control over them, or be able to collect taxes from them. Furthermore, the frontier settlers were armed and had formed militias. In those days, the militia was literally everybody old enough and fit enough to shoot a rifle.
Before he could attack Colonial armies to his east, he had to first eliminate the threat to his rear. Cornwallis ordered the brilliant, but quirky, Major Patrick Ferguson to take an army of about 1,000 Loyalists to the northwestern region of North Carolina. Their mission was to drive out the settlers in the area of the Watauga River.
There was a fort on the Watauga River, near a shallow water crossing called Sycamore Shoals. The settlers on the Watauga had created a self-governing community of a type never before seen in the English speaking world: a democratic government. Fiercely independent, they mostly just wanted to be left alone.
Major Ferguson was a brilliant man. The first breech loading rifle was his invention, but was too complex and expensive to manufacture in quantity in the late eighteenth century. That was a Good Thing for the Americans. Had they been issued to British troops, the American Revolution would almost certainly have failed. Despite his brilliant mind, Ferguson definitely was not a diplomat. He wrote a letter to the leaders of the Wataugans.
In the history of human conflict, seldom has there been a more ill-considered and arrogant missive. Ferguson knew nothing of the Wataugans, their culture, or their temperament—and apparently didn’t care to learn. He called the people who lived over the mountains barbarians and “Backwater Men.”
He paroled a prisoner and made him a courier. The former prisoner was sent to warn the rebels of the Watauga valley, that, if they did not desist from opposition, he would march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and “…lay their country waste with fire and sword”.
Isaac Shelby received the message, passing it along to other militia leaders John Sevier, Joseph McDowell and William Campbell. The four men decided to not wait for the war to come to them, but to go looking for it. They really had no choice. It was either fight or die, and they would much rather do battle at a time and place of their choosing rather than Ferguson’s. The horrors visited upon Patriot settlers by the despicable Banastre Tarleton at Waxhaws were fresh on their minds.
Colonel Sevier, as commander, sent for militias from what are now Sullivan County Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina. A few days later, about 1,100 militiamen from the region mustered at Fort Sycamore Shoals, in what is now Elizabethton, Tennessee. Those coming from the north and west waded across the Watauga River at the shallow waters of Sycamore Shoals.
Many women and younger children came along to take shelter at the fort while their menfolk were gone to war.
September 25, 1780. Morning. The combined militias of the overmountain settlers mustered at Fort Sycamore Shoals, ready to march. The most prominent clergyman in the area, Reverend Samuel Doak, founder of the Elizabethton Presbyterian Church, stood to address them. And what a sermon it was, ending with a prayer that still stirs the blood more than two centuries later:
Samuel Doak’s Sermon and Prayer
Sycamore Shoals Muster
26 September 1780
My countrymen, you are about to set out on an expedition which is full of hardships and dangers, but one in which the Almighty will attend you. The Mother Country has her hands upon you, these American Colonies, and takes that for which our fathers planted their homes in the wilderness–OUR LIBERTY. Taxation without representation and the quartering of soldiers in the homes of our people without their consent are evidence that the Crown of England would take from its American Subjects the last vestige of Freedom.
Your brethren across the mountains are crying like Macedonia unto your help. God forbid that you shall refuse to hear and answer their call-but the call of your brethren is not all. The enemy is marching hither to destroy your homes.
Brave men, you are not unacquainted with battle. Your hands have already been taught to war and your fingers to fight. Will you tarry now until the other enemy carries fire and sword to your very doors? No, it shall not be. Go forth then in the strength of your manhood to the aid of your brethren, the defense of your liberty and the protection of your homes. And may the God of Justice be with you and give you victory.
Let Us Pray.
Almighty and gracious God! Thou hast been the refuge and strength of Thy people in all ages. In time of sorest need we have learned to come to Thee-our Rock and our Fortress. Thou knowest the dangers and snares that surround us on march and in battle. Thou knowest the dangers that constantly threaten the humble, but well beloved homes, which Thy servants have left behind them.
Oh, in Thine infinite mercy, save us from the cruel hand of the tyrant. Save the unprotected homes while fathers and husbands and sons are far away fighting for freedom and helping the oppressed. Thou, who promised to protect the sparrow in its flight, keep ceaseless watch, by day and by night, over our loved ones. The helpless woman and little children, we commit to Thy care. Thou wilt not leave them or forsake them in times of loneliness and anxiety and terror.
Oh, God of Battle, arise in Thy might. Avenge the slaughter of Thy people. Confound those who plot for our destruction. Crown this mighty effort with victory, and smite those who exalt themselves against liberty and justice and truth.
Help us as good soldiers to wield the SWORD OF THE LORD AND GIDEON. AMEN!
The troop of twelve hundred frontiersmen marched down a trail beside Gap Creek, then to the Doe River. The first night, they camped at a natural campground beside the Doe River. The campground is near the headwaters on Roan Mountain, so the river at that point is little more than a creek. The campground was flat, and there is a shallow natural cave, called Shelving Rock. They stowed powder and provisions under the rock overnight.
By the second night, they had made it to the top of 6,285 foot Roan Mountain, camping on the bald at the top. In late September and early October, the mountaintops of the Blue Ridge can experience near-arctic conditions. These men were farmers, merchants, laborers, long hunters and tradesmen. The one thing they weren’t was soldiers. Shelby, Campbell, Sevier and McDowell understood discipline and the need for some training. They spent a day on the Roan Mountain bald practicing drilling in the snow, learning to understand shouted commands, and getting their gear in order. Fortunately, they did not have to be taught to shoot. They were all excellent marksmen with their Pennsylvania rifles.
Two deserters, or traitor spies, took off looking for Ferguson to let him know the overmountain militias were on their way. Ferguson delayed for a couple of days, and to this day, no one knows why. He finally decided to retreat toward Charlotte, sending a courier on ahead to Cornwallis in Charlotte, informing him he needed reinforcements. On October 1, Ferguson sent a letter out to Loyalist sympathizers in western North Carolina in what is now the Asheville area. Ferguson was arrogant and intemperate once again:
Denard’s Ford, Broad River,
Tryon County, October 1, 1780
Gentlemen:—Unless you wish to be eat up by an inundation of barbarians, who have begun by murdering an unarmed son before the aged father, and afterwards lopped off his arms, and who by their shocking cruelties and irregularities, give the best proof of their cowardice and want of discipline; I say, if you wish to be pinioned, robbed, and murdered, and see your wives and daughters, in four days, abused by the dregs of mankind—in short, if you wish or deserve to live, and bear the name of men, grasp your arms in a moment and run to camp.
The Back Water men have crossed the mountains; McDowell, Hampton, Shelby and Cleveland are at their head, so that you know what you have to depend upon. If you choose to be degraded forever and ever by a set of mongrels, say so at once, and let your women turn their backs upon you, and look out for real men to protect them.
PAT. FERGUSON, Major 71st Regiment.
Ferguson, being a properly trained professional solder, decided to camp on high ground, which under most circumstances made perfect sense. He chose a low mountain, just a hill really, called King’s Mountain, to make his camp. It is in South Carolina, only a few miles from the North Carolina border.Colonel Sevier got a message from a Patriot spy that Ferguson was on top of King’s Mountain with 1,200 men. Sevier knew time was of the essence. The overmountain militias marched fast, in a driving rainstorm. They marched all night October 6, continuing to press forward. Shortly after dawn on October 7, they forded the Broad River, about fifteen miles from King’s Mountain. The fast march continued. Those hard, lean, frontiersmen were relentless.
The attack came as a total and complete surprise. At 3:00 PM, Colonel William Campbell gave an order: “Shout like hell and fight like devils!”
They did. The battle lasted one hour. When the smoke cleared, 29 Patriot militia lay dead, and 58 more wounded.
The Loyalists were the worse for it. 290 dead and 163 wounded. 668 were taken prisoner. Ferguson was dead. The first, and probably fatal shot, was fired by sixteen-year-old Robert Young. He had named his rifle after his endearment term for his sweetheart, “Sweet Lips.” Once Ferguson was spotted and shot, a volley from other riflemen rang out. Ferguson’s body had at least eight bullet holes in it.
Cornwallis received Ferguson’s plea for help the next day.
Most of the militiamen from over the mountains went home after the battle. A smaller group of them joined up with General Nathaniel Greene. Those troops were engaged in a number of skirmishes and battles with Cornwallis’ troops.
I place Samuel Brashears at the Battles of Cowan’s Ford and Beattie’s Bridge for sure. He was probably at Cowpens. We also have records of him being one of the troops that went to Yorktown to help relieve General Washington’s troops who had been under siege. Samuel was still there when Cornwallis troops were forced to surrender.
As President Theodore Roosevelt said more than a century later, the Battle of King’s Mountain was one of the most pivotal moments in the American Revolution. A ragtag bunch of ordinary citizens who wanted to be left alone ended any chance the Crown could wage a campaign in the southern colonies. And did it in one hour.
Without a southern strategy, the Crown’s troops were slowly forced back over the following year, culminating in Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.
Captain Robert Samuel Brashears was an officer in the Watauga Militia. His son, Samuel Brashears, joined the militia as a fife player at age 13. At age fifteen, he was made a Private. His sixteenth birthday was August 6. Two months after his 16th birthday, he was in a pitched battle at King’s Mountain. A year later, he was barely seventeen at the battle of Yorktown. On October 19, 1781, the teenage, but war-weary young solder watched the defeated red-coated British troops lay down their arms.
Captain Robert Brashears left the Army and set out to make his home further out on the frontier. He discovered what is now Roane County, Tennessee, and decided to make his home there near the river. He lived to a very old age for those days, passing away in 1816 at the age of 84.
Samuel stayed in the Army for at least another decade. He became what is called a mustang officer—that is an officer who comes up through the ranks as an enlisted man before receiving a commission. Congress disbanded the Continental Army in 1784, forming the United States Army. Samuel was discharged with the rank of Captain.
Later, he married a beautiful red-headed Irish lass, Margaret Eaken. He and Margaret had ten children. Samuel died on Christmas Day, 1829 at the age of 66. He was buried on a hilltop across the road from his home in present day Sullivan County, TN. A wooden marker was his headstone. Newly widowed Margaret had heard wonderful stories from Samuel’s father, Robert Brashears. Robert had gone long hunting several times with Daniel Boone up into Kentucky. On his return, he told the family what a wonderful place eastern Kentucky was. Margaret decided to move the family to Kentucky, settling in Perry County. The wooden marker disappeared over time and the exact location of his grave was lost.
When my son died, I became acquainted with the management of the National Cemetery. The manager told me about the headstones in Memorial Circle. I learned that a member of the service whose grave location is unknown is eligible for a memorial marker in a National Cemetery.
Normally the VA National Cemetery system requires a Form DD-214 or other official forms in order to qualify for interment or a memorial marker. In the case of Revolutionary War soldiers, this presents a problem. In talking with the officials, they did not sound encouraging, but told me to gather what I had. They would submit the material and see what headquarters said. I amassed about fifty pages of documentation. Included in that was an affidavit signed by Margaret when she applied for a widow’s pension. Additionally, there was an affidavit signed by a Lieutenant who attested that Capt. Samuel Brashears approved and signed his discharge papers from the Army in 1791. When I took the documents to the Cemetery office, the cemetery manager said he had never seen so much documentation for anyone going back that far. He faxed it to the VA in Washington DC. He called me the next day saying the memorial was approved, expressing surprise he got a response that fast.
The memorial service was held in October 2009, exactly 229 years after King’s Mountain. A full Colonel presided over the service. A 13-star Betsy Ross flag was used. That flag is in a cherry wood case in the living room, beside a Presidential Memorial Certificate bearing the signature of President Obama.
Samuel Brashears and Margaret Eaken Brashears were my ggg-grandparents.
The final resting place of Samuel Brashears father, Captain Robert S. Brashears, Watauga Militia, Continental Army. He is buried in Roane County, Tennessee in the family cemetery. My gggg-grandfather.