Patriot Veterans Then and Now: The Overmountain Men
“It is the soldier, who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.”
“If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude than the animating contest of freedom, go from us in peace. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!” —Samuel Adams (1776)
From the first shots of the American Revolution until this day, what has distinguished American Patriots then and now is their willingness to sacrifice all in defense of Liberty — for themselves and their posterity. Our devotion has always been to a higher purpose than our own self interest. It’s an unfortunate truth today, however, that too many Americans know too little of such devotion and sacrifice.
Veterans Day was first designated Armistice Day marking the end of World War I at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. In 1954 President Dwight D. Eisenhower, former Supreme Allied Commander of World War II, signed legislation formally changing Armistice Day to Veterans Day.
The largest segment of constitutionally conservative Americans are veterans, active duty military and their families – those who actually know the price of freedom. Uniformed service personnel are required by law to honor their oaths “to Support and Defend” our Constitution, but there is no such legal mandate for most elected officials, too many of whom discard their oaths their first day in office.
Rarely has the contrast between those who support Liberty with blood and life and those who want to destroy it been so striking. Few among the political Left and their MSM propaganda machine have any understanding of the price paid by our Patriots in uniform, and the consequence as measured by military morale has been heavy.
Occasionally, there is a new dawn for Patriots in uniform, when a Commander in Chief who honors their service and sacrifice is elected, but when political leaders disgrace to their office, the result is a decline in military morale and particularly, military recruitment.
If I might digress, antithetically, this week coincides with the centennial of the rise of socialism/communism and what would become a reign of murderous terror over hundreds of millions of civilians in the 20th century. Despite the historical record, there are still plenty of socialism deniers in Congress. Untangling eight years of the most invasive socialist policies in our nation’s history will take more than one election cycle, but our course has been temporarily reset.
20th-century philosopher George Santayana concluded in his treatise, The Life of Reason: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
History provides us context, good and bad, for who we are as a people, which is why the historical revisionism in recent years is a disgrace.
Two years ago, I wrote about the life and death of the most influential veteran in my life — my father. He was an exceptional example of his “Greatest Generation,” having served in WWII as a Naval Aviator, and he was always vigilant in his commitment “to Support and Defend” Liberty to the day he departed. It was with his encouragement two decades ago that we launched The Patriot Post.
Of the interests I shared with my father in his later years, one was our family’s history, particularly that of the rugged frontier men and women who settled in the hills of what is now East Tennessee prior to the Revolutionary War. That history includes many Revolutionary War veterans in our 18th century family line, but their story is America’s story, not just that of our family.
Among our hardheaded Appalachian ancestors was an early Patriot militiaman George Gillespie (1730-1794). In 1772, he migrated from Maryland to the wild and mostly uninhabited frontier area of what was then Washington District, North Carolina (now Tennessee). Over the next four years he constructed Fort Gillespie at the mouth of Big Limestone River on the Nolichucky River and started farming. He derived the rank of Colonel serving with “Watauga Rifles” militiamen in the nearby Watauga settlement.
Theodore Roosevelt wrote that the Watauga settlement was “the first free and independent community on the continent made by men of American birth; in the struggle carried on in that far wilderness for the cause of American independence.”
Gillespie and those bold settlers in the region suffered constant attacks by warring bands of Cherokee, many under the leadership of Dragging Canoe.
Early in 1780, the British shifted their Revolutionary War campaign to the south, their “Southern Strategy” to control the Carolina and Virginia colonies — the breadbasket providers for the other colonies. King Gorge III’s principals, Commander Sir Henry Clinton and General Lord Charles Cornwallis, dispatched British regulars to seize the southern ports of Wilmington, Savannah, Beaufort, and ultimately Charles Town – present day Charleston, South Carolina.
Bolstered by the fall of Charleston in May of 1780 and the decisive British victories at Waxhaw, Charlottetown (present day Charlotte) and Camden in August, the British turned their focus to North Carolina. In early September, Cornwallis’s campaign henchman, an infamously brutal Scotsman, Major Patrick Ferguson, in command of a large regiment of Loyalists militia, was charged with protecting Cornwallis’s left flank in the Carolinas, and forcing pledges of Tory loyalty from all settlers in the region.
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.”
Ferguson 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.
Gillespie, his brothers James and Thomas, their sons, and other relatives, were determined to form a gauntlet against British tyranny in what would, in the days which followed, be the pivotal Battle of Kings Mountain on the North and South Carolina border. George’s sons James, Thomas and William, were all militia officers serving under the fierce frontiersman, John Sevier, who would later become the first governor of Tennessee after statehood (1796).
It was at Ft. Watauga, before advancing over the mountains, that young Reverend Samuel Doak, who founded Salem Presbyterian Church in the nearby settlement of Limestone, issued his “Sword of the Lord and Gideon too” charge to the militiamen:
“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 own homes. Brave men, you are not unacquainted with battle. Your hands have already been taught to war and your fingers to fight. You have wrested these beautiful valleys of the Holston, and Watauga from the savage hand. 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.”
“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. O, in Thine infinite mercy, save us from the cruel hand of the savage, and of 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. 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”
After culling out one in seven men to stay behind and protect the settlements, the Overmountain Men set out east on 330 miles of trails across the mountains, enduring sleet and torrential rains, intent on taking the battle to their enemy, the world’s most feared and well provisioned army. 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 leaders picked the 900 best marksmen and the 900 of the fastest horses. They set out after dark in a pouring cold rain.
By sunrise on October 7th, having forded the swollen Broad River, 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. Col. 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.
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.”
On the effectiveness of the Southern frontier marksmen, British Colonel George Hanger recalled this observance at the Battle of Camden: “I never in my life saw better rifles (or men who shot better) than those made in America… To mention one instance, as a proof of most excellent skill of an American rifleman… It was in the month of August, and not a breath of wind was stirring. Colonel Tartleton’s horse and mine, I am certain, were not anything like two feet apart; for we were in close consultation, how we should attack with our troops, which laid 300 yards in the wood, and could not be perceived by the enemy. A rifle-ball passed between him and me; looking directly to the mill, I observed the flash of the powder. I said to my friend, ‘I think we had better move, or we shall have two or three of these gentlemen, shortly, amusing themselves at our expence.’ The words were hardly out of my mouth, when the bugle horn man, behind us, and directly central, jumped off his horse, and said, ‘Sir, my horse is shot.’”
Hanger estimated the distance between the riflemen and the horse to be a “full four hundred yards.” (Notably, another East Tennessee mountain Patriot, Sgt. Alvin C. York, would become legendary 140 years later in World War 1, because of his hunting and marksmanship skills.)
The Redcoats’ defeat at Kings Mountain was a significant turning point in the Revolutionary War.
Thomas Jefferson declared the battle “was the joyful annunciation of that turn of the tide of success which terminated the Revolutionary War with the seal of independence.”
British commander in Chief Sir Henry Clinton observed, “The [Kings Mountain defeat] was the first link in a chain of events that followed each other in regular succession until they at last needed in total loss of America.”
The victory reinvigorated George Washington and his army. Washington said of the Overmountain men, “The crude, spirited, hardy determined volunteers who crossed the mountains served as proof of the spirit and resources of the country.” Washington’s cavalry commander, General Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, called them, “A race of hardy men who were familiar with the use of the horse and the rifle, stout, active, patient under privation, and brave.”
Returning from the battle, Overmountain militia units killed additional loyalists in revenge for British Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s forces who murdered a sizable number of Abraham Buford’s Continental soldiers at the the Battle of Waxhaws, after the latter attempted to surrender under white flag.
After 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, before he retreated north into Virginia and Yorktown.
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 militiaman in support of George Washington at Yorktown, until Cornwallis and his British army surrendered on October 19th, 1781.
After the War, George Gillespie returned home and for his service, received additional land grants of 1455 acres near his settlement on the Nolichucky and Limestone River. He, and later his son James, in addition to their successful tobacco enterprise, would become sheriffs of Washington County. The home George built in 1783 in the town of Limestone, stands fully restored today, next to the property of his adjoining neighbors at the time, Davy Crockett’s family.
Sidebar 1: Cherokee warrior Dragging Canoe, supported by the British, continued their bloody attacks on the Overmountain Settlements, which, prompted Col. John Sevier to call up 250 of his militia, the “Nolichucky Riflemen,” to pursue Dragging Canoe and his Chickamauga band. Their final clash was on the palisades of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee on September 20 of 1782, where Sevier’s men defeated Dragging Canoe in what is considered to be the last battle of the Revolutionary War before the November 30 treaty with the British. However, the the Cherokee American Wars lasted more than a decade after the end of the Revolutionary War.
Sidebar 2: Col. Gillespie’s great grandson, Gen. George Lewis Gillespie of Kingston, Tennessee, graduated second in his 1862 Class at West Point and received the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Cold Harbor during the War Between the States. The Medal of Honor was first awarded for actions around Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1862. As was the case with several of our kinfolk in East Tennessee, brothers fought brothers over divided loyalties. Gen. Gillespie’s brother, John, fought with the 43rd Tennessee Infantry in 1863. His wife provides our family lineage to Sam Houston, Governor of Tennessee before leading battles in Texas where he would become the first president of the Texas Republic in 1841 and then governor of the State of Texas in 1859. Gillespie later redesigned the modern Medal of Honor (its current form).
From the Revolutionary War forward, our family line has been represented in the American ranks of every major conflict – including in the last century the veterans who most influenced my life – my grandfather serving as an early experimental Naval aviator in World War I and as noted above, my father who served as a Naval Aviator in World War II. Their legacy extends to our son, a Marine Infantry officer.
But, these Patriots represent much more than our family line — their legacy is just a small part of our shared national heritage and belongs to all Patriot defenders of Liberty today! They are the founding spirit for The Patriot Post, extending the endowment of American Liberty to the next generation from our editorial offices in the foothills of the Great State of Tennessee.
This Veterans Day, join us as we honor generations of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coastguardsmen who have carried forward the banner of Liberty since the first shots at Lexington and Concord.
Of such Patriots, Gen. Douglas MacArthur said, “My estimate of him was formed on the battlefields many, many years ago, and has never changed. I regarded him then, as I regard him now, as one of the world’s noblest figures; not only as one of the finest military characters, but also as one of the most stainless. His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give. He needs no eulogy from me, or from any other man. He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy’s breast. But when I think of his patience under adversity, of his courage under fire, and of his modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot put into words. He belongs to history as furnishing one of the greatest examples of successful patriotism. He belongs to posterity as the instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom. He belongs to the present, to us, by his virtues and by his achievements. … Duty, honor, country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying point to build courage when courage seems to fail, to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith, to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.”
It is worth remembering the words of Army Veteran Charles M. Province: “It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier, who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.”
There are, and have always been, pathetic souls who know nothing of our history or the spirit of American Patriotism. These include today’s wealthy celebrity “NFL Kneelers,” protesting our national flag, and, by extension, all who have sacrificed under it, so that these self-absorbed celebs may demonstrate their abject ignorance.
That notwithstanding, it is with eternal thanks that we honor all those generations of military Patriots, more than 41 million veterans, who have served our nation.
On this Veterans Day, and every day of the year, may God bless our men and women in uniform — Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coastguardsmen who have stood and continue to stand in harm’s way. For their steadfast devotion to duty, honor and country, we, the American people, offer them and their families our humble gratitude and heartfelt thanks.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” —John 15:12-14
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