Remember studying the Revolutionary War in school? Paul Revere’s ride, Lexington and Conord, Bunker Hill, Saratoga, Washington crosses the Delaware, the British surrender at Yorktown. And that was it.
Well, not quite. While school textbooks focus attention on the war in the New England colonies, a compelling argument can be made that the struggle for American independence was won in the South, in the Carolinas. And that the pivotal battle in that campaign was fought on a low ridge called Kings Mountain, just below the border between the two Carolinas. That is the subject of my new play, Liberty Mountain, which premiers this Fall.
In early 1780, the war in New England was at a stalemate. The British held New York and not much else, and George Washington’s Continentals were unable to force a decisive battle. The British had grown weary of the war and its drain on the royal treasury and national patience, but King George III was determined to force a victory in the Colonies. The answer: Go South.
The Carolinas until then had been a backwater in the five-year-old war – a few battles and skirmishes between those loyal to the Crown and those who advocated independence – but nothing on the scale of the New England campaigns. So the British thought the Carolinas might be ripe for the picking. The strategy would be to invade and capture Charleston, subdue South Carolina and then its northern neighbor, drive into Virginia, and trap Washington between the southern and northern British forces.
It almost worked. By May of 1780, Charleston was in British hands, the Continentals had been dealt a crushing defeat at Camden, and the British commander, Lord Cornwallis, reported to London that South Carolina was firmly in his hands. But the British – brutal and arrogant in victory – were their own worst enemies. Their Loyalist allies, many of them little more than outlaws, murdered Patriots and their families, burned and looted homes. A British force massacred Patriot militiamen trying to surrender after a battle in the Waxhaws area. And suddenly the Carolinas were enraged and up in arms, staging successful guerilla raids and defeating British and Loyalist troops in a series of pitched battles.
Still, Cornwallis persisted in his plan to drive north. He ordered one of his best officers, Major Patrick Ferguson, to recruit and train a force of a thousand Loyalists, march them into western North Carolina, subdue the area, and protect Cornwallis’s left flank while he captured Charlotte and prepared for the next phase. Ferguson thought his main threat would be from the area known as the Overmountain Territory, across the Appalachians in what is present-day Eastern Tennessee. The Overmountain Men were fierce, rugged frontiersmen, staunchly independent, veterans of Indian wars. Ferguson sent them a message: lay down your arms and swear allegiance to the King, or I will cross the mountains, hang your leaders, and lay waste to your homes.
That was a fatal mistake. The frontiersmen didn’t take to threats. As depicted in this famous painting by Lloyd Branson, a thousand of them quickly organized and set out on a grueling journey across the mountains, bent on fighting Ferguson. They were joined by militia units from both Carolinas and on October 7, 1780, they found Ferguson atop Kings Mountain. Within an hour they had destroyed his militia – hundreds killed (including Ferguson) and wounded, the rest taken captive. The Patriots lost 28 killed, 58 wounded.
Historians agree that it was a turning point in the Revolution. Cornwallis retreated, and though there were other battles in the South, he never regained the momentum. Just over a year later, he surrendered at Yorktown.
Kings Mountain was a battle between Americans. The only British soldier in the fight was Ferguson. It was neighbor against neighbor, even brother against brother. The play, Liberty Mountain, tells the story of the people who settled the Carolinas – mainly hardy Scots-Irish Presbyterians, the lives they carved out of the frontier for themselves and their families, the will and courage they showed in the cause of American independence.
Liberty Mountain takes the stage the first two weekends of October at the Joy Performance Center in Kings Mountain, North Carolina with a cast of more than fifty under the direction of theatre professional Caleb Sigmon.
The play will become a summer fixture in southern drama. In the future, the company will stage the play for a month every summer in Kings Mountain, beginning June 26, 2015.
Auditions for the premier production are Monday and Tuesday, July 28 and 29 at the Joy Performance Center. No theatre experience required, just an interest in re-creating and making history.