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September 13, 2023

Profiles of Valor: BG George Lewis Gillespie (USA)

The connection between the Revolutionary War’s Overmountain Men militia and today’s Medal of Honor.

The White House Medal of Honor ceremony honoring Larry Taylor was an outstanding day for American Patriots.

Up next on my schedule of Patriot events is a weekend trip to Fort Watauga near present-day Elizabethton, Tennessee, for the annual observance of the Overmountain Men militia mustering at Sycamore Shoals. This encampment of American militia preceded the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780, a very pivotal battle in the American Revolution when a rugged group of settlers turned the Red Coat tide in the South, ultimately leading to victory at Yorktown.

It is the one living history reenactment I will attend this year because among the Patriots who engaged in that battle were some of my hardheaded Appalachian ancestors, including Col. George Gillespie, who, along with his brother and sons, joined others to form a gauntlet against British tyranny in the Carolinas.

There is a notable connection between the Army Medal of Honor awarded to Larry Taylor, and Col. Gillespie.

Early in 1780, the British shifted their war strategy to the south in an effort to retain the Carolina and Virginia colonies — the breadbasket for the other colonies. General Lord Charles Cornwallis sent British regulars to invade South and North Carolina, and his officers were instructed to force pledges of Tory support from settlers. The British were bolstered by the fall of Charleston in May 1780 and victory at Camden in August. In early September, Cornwallis charged his campaign henchman, the infamously brutal Scotsman Major Patrick Ferguson and his large regiment of Loyalists, with protecting Cornwallis’s left flank in the Carolinas. He hoped to force all in the region to take loyalty oaths to the Crown.

Ferguson sent word to the Appalachian settlers over the mountains that they must pledge their loyalty to the British or he would destroy them. He demanded that Patriots “desist from their opposition to British arms” or he would “march over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country to waste with fire and sword.” He grossly underestimated the courage and resolve of these fiercely independent mountain folks — character traits that persist to this day.

After receiving Ferguson’s “fire and sword” message, Patriot militia leaders John Sevier and Isaac Shelby met and determined they would not wait on Ferguson and his legions to arrive and execute his threat. On September 25th, Sevier, Shelby, Virginia Militia Col. William Campbell, Burke County (NC) militia commander Charles McDowell, Col. Gillespie, and more than 650 militia volunteers, who would become known as “The Overmountain Men Militia,” mustered at Ft. Watauga at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River near present-day Elizabethton, Tennessee.

It was there, before advancing over the mountains, that Reverend Samuel Doak concluded his prayers: “O, 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 Overmountain Men set out east on 300 miles of trails across the mountains, intent on taking the battle to their enemy. As they marched toward Ferguson’s position, they were joined by 360 additional mountain militiamen.

On October 1st, Ferguson was in North Carolina’s Broad River area, where he issued another warning to Patriots that they best abide by his demands or they would be “pissed upon by a set of mongrels.”

On October 6th, the Patriot militiamen determined that Ferguson and his 71st Foot force of 1,100 men, were just east of them, making camp at Kings Pinnacle. To catch up with Ferguson, the Patriot militia put 900 men on horseback. By sunrise on October 7th, they were just 15 miles from Kings Mountain. By mid-afternoon, they were in the ridges around Ferguson’s position and ready to confront the Loyalists. The militia identified themselves by putting scraps of white paper in the brim of their hats.

The American commanders ordered their men: “Don’t wait for the word of command. Let each one of you be your own officer and do the very best you can.” The American plan was to assault the Loyalist’s hillside position from all sides. Patriot William Campbell told his men to “shout like Hell and fight like devils.”

As the Overmountain men advanced on the British, once in position they fired from all sides. British Captain Abraham de Peyster exclaimed to Ferguson, “These things are ominous — these are the damned yelling boys!” Another Loyalist exclaimed the Overmountain men looked “like devils from the infernal regions…tall, raw-boned, sinewy with long matted hair.”

According to American Battlefield Trust historians: “Ferguson deployed his Loyalist militia in the center of the hilltop. He remained mounted and personally led the counterattack against the patriots surging from the southwest. After firing a volley and fixing bayonets, Ferguson’s men blunt the Overmountain men’s advance. But it was only on one side of the hill and the Overmountain men continue unabated to attack from the other sides using the undergrowth and woods to their advantage.”

The Overmountain men continued their yelling and whooping as they gained ground, and Loyalists suffered heavy casualties. One later recalled that the Patriots looked “like devils from the infernal regions… tall, raw-boned, sinewy with long matted hair.”

Notably, not only were their tactics well informed by their hunting skills, most of the Overmountain Patriots were equipped with their own rifled barrel hunting guns, which were slow to load but substantially more accurate than the British muskets. Rifles were accurate to 300 yards and beyond while muskets were accurate to only 100 yards.

With his defensive perimeter rapidly shrinking, attempting to rally his troops Ferguson shouted out “Hurrah, brave boys, the day is ours!” He then attempted to charge with is men through a Patriot line where they met with a volley of fire from Sevier’s men. High on his horse, and noted for wearing a brightly colored red shirt, which made him a distinct target even at some distance, he proved an easy mark for Robert Young, crack militia marksmen. Young shot Ferguson out of his saddle with his long rifle “Sweet Lips,” nicknamed for his young wife.

Falling from his mount, Ferguson’s foot lodged in the stirrup, and he was dragged by his horse into the militia lines, where a young officer demanded he surrender. In a final act of defiance, Ferguson drew his pistol, shot and killed the militia officer, which resulted in other militiamen firing on Ferguson and killing him. He was shot seven times more by the time the smoke cleared.

In 65 minutes, the battle was over. The British suffered 157 killed, 163 wounded and 698 captured or missing. The Patriot militia suffered 28 killed, 62 wounded and none captured or missing. One of the young Overmountain men recalled of the battle scene: “The dead lay in heaps on all sides, while the groans of the wounded were heard in every direction. I could not help turning away from the scene before me, with horror, and though exalting in the victory, could not refrain from shedding tears.”

With Ferguson’s Kings Mountain defeat and the loss of his western flank, Cornwallis retreated back into South Carolina, where his army was hounded relentlessly by emboldened Patriots. Some of our ancestor went on to fight with Gen. Francis Marion (the Swamp Fox), providing their own mounts and arms. They then served as a militiaman in support of George Washington at Yorktown, until Cornwallis and his British army surrendered in October of 1781.

So, what is the Gillespie connection to the Medal of Honor awarded most recently to Army Capt. Larry Taylor?

Col. Gillespie’s great grandson, Gen. George Lewis Gillespie of Kingston, Tennessee, graduated second in his 1862 Class at West Point. As a Union Army First Lieutenant, he received the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Cold Harbor during the War Between the States.

In 1904, he redesigned the United States Army’s version of the Medal of Honor because it was too similar to the widely issued Grand Army of the Republic medal distributed to Union veterans. He patented the design and turned it over to the War Department, which adopted it as the official Army Medal of Honor.

As noted by the U.S. Patent Office: “Gillespie’s design borrowed some elements from the Civil War-era medal while incorporating several unique features. Retaining the shape of a five-pointed star, the new medal encircled it with a green wreath. Both medals featured the Roman goddess Minerva, but Gillespie’s design replaced a depiction of her crushing the secessionist South, a scene known as ‘Minerva repelling discord,’ with the helmeted goddess in profile. The 1904 design also replaced the red, white, and blue striped ribbon with a ribbon of light blue, with 13 stars representing the 13 original states rather than 34 stars representing the size of the nation during the Civil War. The bar connecting the ribbon to the rest of the medal was inscribed with the word ‘Valor.’”

And it is that medal that Larry Taylor, and all other Army recipients have received, since 1904.

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776

“Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

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