Former park ranger's account of key battle worthy of study

The Battle of Kings Mountain, on Oct. 7, 1780, is so familiar that we may not realize how little we actually know about that fight, which took place virtually in our backyard and which many historians say was key to the eventual defeat of British.

"Bert" Dunkerly, formerly a park ranger at Kings Mountain National Military Park, will be one of eight presenters in a symposium, "The Beginning of the End," about the first two years of the American Revolution in the South, July 13, at McCelvey Center in York.

The appeal of this slim volume (158 pages, including bibliography) is that it recounts the battle in the words of the men who actually lived through it.

Many of the accounts come from statements veterans of Kings Mountain made in applying for government pensions long after the war was over. While the gap of time undoubtedly contributed to inconsistencies as to who did what and when, there is ample corroboration of most critical aspects of the encounter.

Among the facts that surprised me was that the battle was more substantial than I recalled. Somewhere near 2,000 soldiers, on either side, were involved.

Most were from the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia or Virginia. We think the Civil War was fought between brothers, but such internecine warfare was more characteristic of what took place in the Upper Piedmont during the American Revolution, according to Michael Scoggins, historian for the York County museums.

The Over the Mountain Boys, no doubt, are better known, but the rebel forces were commanded by a Virginian, Col. William Campbell. Reportedly, he was chosen to lead the combined troops in deference to the fact that his men had traveled the greatest distance.

Contrary to romantic accounts, the men who fought at Kings Mountain were not simple farmers pushed into a fight they would have preferred not to have joined.

Pension statements indicate many were veterans of conflicts elsewhere in the South, including the Battle of Savannah, and a few had served in the French and Indian War.

What's also made clear from these accounts is that these seasoned riflemen demonstrated remarkable courage under fire. The Loyalists not only held numerical superiority, but also they enjoyed the advantage of higher ground.

Their commander, Major Patrick Ferguson, ordered a series of bayonet charges, but each time they were rebuffed.

In the end, the rebels had a better strategy. Their commanders divided forces, attacking Kings Mountain from different sides. Whether Ferguson realized this isn't clear, but by concentrating his attacks against Campbell's Virginians, he allowed his forces to be flanked. The result: Ferguson was slain; his troops either were captured or killed; and the beginning of the end of the British domination in the South was underway.

Finally, there was disagreement as to whether Campbell was a hero or a coward, who remained at the rear during the entire battle. Specifics cited by his men would give the nod to the former argument, but the accounts demonstrate how eyewitness testimony can be misleading.

Despite the frequently dry nature of such accounts, Dunkerly's book should be a welcome addition to the shelf of both the serious student of the American Revolution and anyone interested in a battle that shaped the course of our national destiny.

THE BATTLE OF KINGS MOUNTAIN: EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS By Robert M. Dunkerly. The History Press, Charleston. 158 pages. $19.99.