Thursday, January 05, 2006
A letter (edited) to Peter Robinson in response to this post on National Review's blog, "The Corner":
So Washington was a gentleman, and so was Howe. How very civilized of them!
You know, I've almost come to hate the stories of those early "battles" that they teach in school. They make it seem as though all we were fighting were some unwelcome house guests; as though all that winning required was some posturing and a bit of endurance.
I'm sure you know that the war wasn't won in 1776 - it lasted five long years - nor was the fighting always so genteel. But you may not know that the decisive battle wasn't won by Washington's cautious, gentlemanly, and largely ineffectual retreats, and it wasn't won by Congress's underfunded, half-hearted, self-aggrandizing army of New Englanders. It was won by "Backwater Men" defending their freedoms in a brutal response to a brutal occupation at the battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina.
It happened in 1780. The Revolutionary War was still undecided. The Americans had never won a decisive battle, but the English were a bit tired of the whole conflict. The English decided to try one last push. Their plan was to take Charleston, build strength from the loyalist coastal cities in the south, then roll North, forcing Washington into a decisive battle which the British forces were sure to win.
Not everyone in the South was a loyalist, of course, so the British tried to force everyone to take an oath of loyalty. Failure to do so, or violations of that oath after it was taken, were harshly punished. Houses were burned, men killed, women and children hung. It was appallingly brutal.
At that time, the borders of South Carolina extended over the mountains to include part of present-day Tennessee. King George had forbidden settlement beyond the mountains, but a few had done so anyway. In a sense, those "Backwater Men" and their families were uninvolved in the politics on the other side. Though they were outraged by the atrocities that were occurring - many had family and friends down who were affected - they themselves had their hands full with Indian attacks (encouraged by the British) and the sheer effort of survival on the frontier. They engaged in a few minor skirmishes, and they harbored a few American militiamen who had escaped the defeats in the Carolinas and Georgia, but otherwise were not engaged.
In late September 1780, the English Col. who had been assigned to the area nearest the mountains, Patrick Ferguson, sent a message over the mountain to Isaac Shelby, whom he considered to be the leader of the "backwater men". In it he said that they did not stop opposing the British, Ferguson would march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders and "lay the country waste with fire and sword."
Their response was immediate. To make a fascinating story very short, these "backwater men" organized themselves, marched over the mountains, and hunted down Ferguson and his men. They bypassed other targets to make a bee-line for him. Ferguson got wind, and retreated. He could, perhaps, have escaped back to the main force in Charleston, but instead, on Oct 6th, chose to turn and fight at Kings Mountain.
Ferguson has the high ground, trained soldiers, bayonets and the training to use them, good provisions, a slight advantage in numbers, and time to prepare. The backwater men had their long rifles, experience fighting Indians, and the fire in their bellies.
You can read about the battle yourself. But it was a complete rout, a massacre almost incomprehensible to the British. In just over one hour, the "Backwater men" took that hill, killing Ferguson and more then 300 of his Loyalist troops, and capturing all the rest.
The point in telling this story is not the battle, though. It was a turning point in the war, dispiriting the enemy both here and in England, but that's not the point either.
The point is the incredible resolve and will of those backwater men. Remember, this all started in September. Any farmer knows how valuable the days are at that time of year, to prepare for the coming winter. And remember, they, their farms, and their families where under constant threat of attack by hostile Indians. But they rose up, crossed the snow-covered mountains, and marched through rain-filled swamplands.
They had scant provisions, but came anyway, eating mostly game and corn collected along the way. Some were militia, but most had no formal military training or uniforms, were under no orders, and were never promised any pay. That is not why they rose and fought. They were threatened by Ferguson, but that is not why either. After all, they could as easily have stayed put, played safe, and avoided the effort, the risk, and the consequences.
But they saw that doing so would not help them avoid the long-term threat. If they could be threatened when they had done so little against the British, how long before they came and drove them from the homes they'd made for themselves? Most were Protestants - Scots, Irish, Huguenots - outcasts unwelcomed by the established colonies like Massachusetts and Virginia. How long until the Church of England was imposed on them as it was on the coast, and even their marriages considered invalid and their children bastards?
That is why they rose and fought. It was their duty - to themselves, their honor, their religion, their family, and their freedom - in short, duty to the principles which (used to) lay at the heart of this country. They were true American soldiers before there was an America... and there are still plenty just like them today.
That, in my opinion, is the story about the Revolutionary war that ought to be told in big-budget books and schools.