Traveler's Checklist: A Winter Trip to Kings Mountain National Military Park
Every American Revolutionary National Park System site might look the same on the surface. They all have a film, a museum, and a short walk around the battlefield. But look behind the surface and you'll find that each has its own flavor based on history, topography, and surroundings.
Kings Mountain, 39 miles southwest of Charlotte, North Carolina, lies in a quiet, pastoral setting. The area was named for an early settler and not King George. The park encompasses almost 4,000 acres and adjoins Kings Mountain State Park, which has camping facilities. The Ridgeline Trail goes from Crowders Mountain State Park in North Carolina down into South Carolina, skirting the edge of the military park and the state park.
More than 16 miles of well-marked hiking trails ramble across this landscape. The area around Kings Mountain National Military Park offers more recreational opportunities (hiking, horseback riding, and camping) than the other two Revolutionary War sites I recently visited.
Winter is a perfect time to spend the day here. The weather is usually mild and the views from the top of the hill are unobstructed. Summer, though, "gets pretty buggy here," says Ranger John Hanbright.
A Short History of the Battle
South Carolina had more Revolutionary War battles and skirmishes than any other colony. Most of these encounters were fought entirely between Americans. This was certainly the case at Kings Mountain where, on Oct. 7, 1780, Patriots -- Americans who wanted to break away from Great Britain -- defeated the Tories -- Americans loyal to the British Crown -- in little more than an hour.
Kings Mountain was one of several battles aimed at reestablishing British rule in the South. At first, this strategy looked right for the Crown. In South Carolina, the British had captured Charleston in early 1780. Later in the year, they triumphed at Camden, and Waxhaws. In the latter battle, the successful Tories under Col. Barnastre Tarleton continued killing after the Patriots waved the white flag of surrender. This massacre was not forgotten.
Later in 1780, Lt. General Charles Earl Cornwallis, commander of the British forces in the South, ordered Major Patrick Ferguson into western North Carolina to recruit and train Loyalists. Maj. Ferguson sent a message to the "backwater men," the Overmountain settlers in the Appalachians, and warned them that he was going to kill them all if they didn't submit to him. The major didn’t try to win hearts and minds; he operated by threats. Although he was a brave leader and considered the best marksman of his day in the British Army, Maj. Ferguson rubbed everyone the wrong way.
The Overmountain men of Scot-Irish descent lived west of the Blue Ridge Mountains and in doing so defied King George's Proclamation of 1763 that English settlers stay east of the mountains. These tough men were well-versed in guerilla tactics, having fought the Indians. Instead of being cowed by Maj. Ferguson's threats, the Overmountain men from North Carolina, Virginia and, what is now Tennessee, organized under three commanders at Sycamore Shoals, which is present-day Elizabethton, Tennessee. They marched 200 miles in 14 days to Kings Mountain where Maj. Ferguson and his men were waiting. The Overmountain Victory Trail commemorates this march.
Maj. Ferguson was the only Brit to fight at Kings Mountain. To tell each other apart, Tories wore twigs in their hats while Patriots stuck bits of paper in theirs. According to the visitor center film, "these mountain men knew each other and they hated each other. Unrelenting civil war had scourged the South with partisan plunder, bushwalkers, and brutal massacres. Neighbors against neighbors, fathers against sons."
The Patriot commanders knew the intense independence of the Overmountain men and didn't lay out an explicit strategy. Isaac Shelby, a Tennessee patriot leader, called out:
When we encounter the enemy, don't wait for a word of command. Let each of you be your own officer, and do the very best you can... If in the woods, shelter yourselves and give them Indian play: advance from tree to tree... and killing and disabling all you can...
In other words, "you're on your own, fellows." That suited the Overmountain Men. They didn't take directions well. Like Indians, they hollered each time they fired a shot.
Kings Mountain, a 150-foot rocky spur in the Blue Ridge foothills, was treeless at the time of the battle. Maj. Ferguson took the top, which seemed to be an excellent position. But the Patriots opened fire from below and took cover in the trees. It doesn't take much elevation gain to affect the battle. The patriots ran from tree to tree to reach the summit.
Maj. Ferguson was in the thick of the battle, using a whistle to command his troops from the top of the hill when he was struck by several bullets; he later died at the battle site. After the Tories surrendered, the Patriots showed no mercy and continued the killing, yelling "give them Tarleton's quarter" as revenge for the slaughter at Waxhaws, the previous battle. Finally, the leaders took control of the men.
The Overmountain men had won against the Tories, effectively ending Loyalist power in the Carolinas. At Cowpens, the next battle, the British side did not depend on American Loyalists but brought out its regular army.
Visiting the Park
Just shy of 4,000 acres, the park understandably can't compete with much larger parks in terms of activities. But a morning or afternoon could easily be spent taking in the exhibits at the visitor center and walking the grounds. I spent several hours at Kings Mountain on the film, exhibits, and bookstore at the Visitor Center and walking the battlefield.
* The Visitor Center shows an excellent 26-minute film, produced by the History Channel, which explains the battle in a historical context. The museum houses exhibits in large open tree trunk sculptures, meant to simulate the hilly landscape. When a visitor enters the tree trunk, the exhibit is activated by motion sensors. This includes:
A pioneer woman of Scot Irish descent stands in a typical Blue Ridge Mountain cabin and explains why her husband is going to fight the British. Her husband says that they live “Not at the end of the world but where the new world begins."
A battlefield panorama explains the movements of the armies. Fiber optic lights embedded in the map show the position and actions of both sides in the battle - red lights for the loyalists and blue lights for patriots.
* Out on the park's grounds, the 1.5-mile paved "Battlefield Trail" gives a good feel for how the battle played out and some of the challenges the two sides faced. If a visitor has a limited amount of time in the park, Ranger Hanbright recommends "walking the Battlefield Trail to understand what these men were up against. Being charged with bayonet and running from the enemy."
Small hills that might not be noticeable when you’re walking become major obstacles when you’re dodging an enemy from the top of the ridge. On the walk, you can’t see any modern infrastructure.
Two obelisks dominate the landscape along this loop trail. In 1880, the Kings Mountain Centennial Association erected a 28-foot monument known today as the Centennial Monument to mark the battle's 100th anniversary. Through the persistent efforts of the Kings Mountain Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the federal government put up an 83-foot-tall modern obelisk in 1909. The monument lists the dead and wounded, both officers and militia.
But the Kings Mountain battlefield was forgotten until 1930. At the 150th anniversary of the battle, President Herbert Hoover became the first president to visit an American revolutionary battlefield in the South. His address was heard by 70,000 spectators and broadcast coast to coast on radio. Kings Mountain became a National Military Park in 1931.
The loop trail passes at least two monuments to Maj. Ferguson, the enemy. An old stone with the inscription “Here Col. Ferguson fell Dec. 7, 1780”, is barely readable. Ranger Hanbright explains that Maj. Ferguson was promoted to Colonel when he became the inspector general of the militia but his rank remained major in the regular British Army.
Maj. Ferguson is buried on the side of the trail under a big pile of stones. His memorial gravestone was erected by the "Citizens of the United States" in 1930. The passage of time and our friendship with the British allows for acknowledgment of this one-time enemy.
* If you have more time, the 16-mile-long Park Loop Trail travels through both the military park and the adjoining Kings Mountain State Park. Along with providing some solitude, this trail offers more insights into the lay of the land.
* The Browns Mountain Trail is a 2.5-mile out-and-back trail (5 miles roundtrip) that runs from the visitor center to the summit of this 1,045-foot mountain that is the high point in the park.
* The Clarks Creek Trail is another out-and-back hike, 3 miles each way, that runs from the visitor center to Lake Crawford in the state park.
As the Park Loop Trail, Browns Mountain Trail, and Clarks Creek Trail all are considered backcountry trails, you are expected to register at the visitors center for setting out.
* Sections of a 20-mile equestrian loop trail that starts in adjoining Kings Mountain State Park run through the military park, but you'll need your own horses.
* Camping opportunities at Kings Mountain are limited to one site -- the Garner Creek Campsite, which you reach via a 3-mile hike. Free permits must be obtained from the visitor center. This is a first-come, first-served campsite that can accommodate a dozen campers. There is a 116-site campground at Kings Mountain State Park, with RV facilities, that is open year-round.
* Kings Mountain Military Park is a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. park (outside of the Garner Creek Campground). At 5 p.m. all trails and facilities close.