Patrick Ferguson, the Loyalists, and the American Revolution

By Cheaney, J. B. | The World and I, May 2000 | Go to article overview
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Patrick Ferguson, the Loyalists, and the American Revolution

Cheaney, J. B., The World and I

J.B. Cheaney is a freelance writer and history buff who lives in rural Missouri. Her first novel, The Playmaker, is slated for publication by Random House in the fall of 2000.

October 7, 1780: On a rugged hill near the border of North and South Carolina, a fierce battle rages, one that will have far-reaching effects for the course of the American Revolution. An attack force has surrounded the mountain and now creeps toward its summit, using the dense foliage as cover. Desperately, the defenders pull back into a tight circle of blazing musket fire. Their leader darts this way and that on his white horse, shouting encouragement, waving a sword in his left hand, intermittently blowing a silver whistle whose shrill note barely pierces the din. Angrily he cuts down a surrender flag hoisted by one of his men. His face, smudged with dust and black powder, is unrecognizable, but he wears a red checked duster over his uniform--an item his foes have been told to watch for. When, in a last-ditch charge, he breaks through the ranks followed by a handful of officers, a cry goes up from the enemy: "That's him!" Eleven bullets slam into his body, knocking him from the white horse. The battle is over, though the killing continues as maddened men rush upon the defenders, many of whom have already thrown their weapons down and their hands up. Shouts from their officers--"For God's sake, stop!"--finally bring the carnage to a halt.

Thus ended the battle of King's Mountain, an undisputed American victory. Or so it would seem except for one awkward fact: every participant in the battle, on both sides, was an American. The one exception was Patrick Ferguson, the man on the white horse.

The term civil war invariably brings to mind images of blue and gray, Lee and Grant, Gettysburg. Though hugely significant, that conflict was only our second civil war; the first occurred "four score and seven years" earlier. In popular imagination the Revolution is an Us (Americans) against Them (British) scenario. But in a very real sense it was also us against us.


When the newly created United States declared independence from Britain in 1776, John Adams estimated that only about one-third of his countrymen were solidly behind the move. Another third were indifferent to politics altogether, and the remaining third believed that America had no business separating from the mother country. They called themselves Loyalists--their enemies called them Tories. These "other Americans" were a minority in New England. Their numbers were considerably greater in the mid-Atlantic colonies, where an estimated fifteen thousand from New York alone enlisted in the British army. But no region was more divided in spirit than the South, particularly the Carolinas and Georgia.

Southerners chose sides for any number and combination of reasons: geographic location, religious affiliation, family ties, personal conviction, long-standing grudges. Ultimately, as in all civil conflicts, the Revolution was a clash of visions, a bloody argument over what America was and should be.

William McLeod had recently immigrated from Scotland and settled near Cross Creek (now Fayetteville), North Carolina. He had fled rising land rents, not an oppressive government. Like most of his Scots-born neighbors, he found his situation improved in the New World and was content to live within the boundaries set by king and Parliament. Why rock the boat? Isaac Shelby, Maryland-born of Welsh parents, was interested in land also. He had staked a claim over the mountains, in territory barred from white settlement by a 1763 treaty between the British government and Native American tribes. Shelby scorned the notion that a king three thousand miles away could dictate land policy, and his independent-minded neighbors felt the same.

Each man envisioned his destiny and chose the side that conformed to it: McLeod the champion of the status quo, with reasonable dreams and reachable goals; Shelby the restless spirit who chafed at limits and boundaries.

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Patrick Ferguson, the Loyalists, and the American Revolution


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