Guns and Gear

Guns & Politics: We All Owe A Debt To Southern Hillbillies

Susan Smith Columnist
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It certainly seems that hillbillies are all the rage right now.

For example, one of the bestselling books in America right now is  “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance, a story of America’s white working class.  It is considered to be an “urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country,”  and is vastly popular with hillbillies and urban “sophisticates” alike.

Then, there was a widely acclaimed column by the provocative columnist, Joe Bob Briggs, otherwise known as John Bloom, published in Taki’s Magazine in January of this year, which described in loving detail what it took to be an authentic of the genre, entitled, fittingly, “Brief History of the Redneck.”  This hilarious take on becoming, and being, a true hillbilly could have come only from a real one, and Joe Bob is a self-acknowledged and proud redneck.  As the author said of his own hillbilly self in introducing his column, “Let me make this clear: I’m not a nativist, I’m a redneck.”  As they say in lengthier publications, read the whole thing.

Then we find out in a recent well received tome, Patrick O’Donnell’s “Washington’s Immortals,” we wouldn’t be a country at all if it weren’t for a particularly brave and relentless band of hillbillies performing their standard independent best a couple of hundred years ago in the Carolinas’ Battle of Kings Mountain.

In the particularly significant (for the Revolution) year of 1780, it looked like the American Patriots had all but lost the American War for Independence.  The great British General Cornwallis had conquered Charleston, the Patriot Army of General Horatio Gates had been destroyed at the Battle of Camden, and the Battle of Waxhaws had been lost in a humiliating defeat to the hated British leader Banastre Tarleton, among other military disasters during that fateful year.

As a result, France was seriously considering recalling its troops, and even more catastrophically, ending its critical funding of the war; Loyalists (Americans still tied to Britain), were becoming more vocal and demonstrative; and Patriot morale had “plummeted to a new low.”  Many at this stage, among the Patriots and their opponents alike, believed that the American Revolutionary War, started in such hope, and intellectual and political fervor, “would come to an end with some sort of accommodation rather than complete independence.”   As that would be tantamount to a victory for the British, the Americans found these to be dark days indeed.

But some unlikely heroes rose to the fore: Americans from Appalachia, who have always been known, and will never be known by anything else, as hillbillies.  They took a look at how things were going for the Americans in their Southern campaign, and decided to take matters into their own hands.  To say the least, these fellows were not highly regarded by the Loyalist troops against whom they had done battle thus far in the Revolution; here is what the Tory troops’ Scottish Commander, the extraordinary Patrick Ferguson, had to say about the mountain men’s finest, when they decided to foray into South Carolina to put an end to the string of victories by British troops and their American sympathizers:

“Gentlemen: unless you wish to be eat up by an inundation of barbarians, who have begun by murdering an unarmed son before his aged father, and afterwards lopped off his arms, and who by their shocking cruelties and irregularities, give the best proof of their cowardice and want of discipline; I say, if you wish to be pinioned, robbed and murdered, and see your wives and daughters, in four days, abused by the dregs of mankind – in short, if you wish or deserve to live, and bear the name of men, grasp your arms in a moment and run to camp…if you choose to be pissed upon by a set of mongrels, say so at once, and let your women turn their backs upon you, and look out for real men to protect you.”

Ferguson threatened to “march this army over the mountains, hang your leaders, and lay waste your country with fire and sword.”

A melodramatic man, our Colonel Ferguson, but one of the great warriors of the Revolutionary War, of either side.   While he hoped to use this hyperbolic rant as a call to arms to gather more Loyalists to his cause, what it actually did was to thoroughly enrage a group of Americans known as the Overmountain Men, who were, in fact, the aforementioned, “barbarians,” “mongrels,” “dregs of mankind,” etc.  They were also referred to as “rugged, independent Americans,” who “had defied the King and settled beyond the Royal Proclamation Line of 1763,” which had established everything west of the Appalachian Mountains as Indian Territory.  These settlers were considered to be illegal squatters, and they were a mixture of Scottish and Irish immigrants, along with a few Germans and Welsh, who inhabited what is today the extreme northeast corner of Tennessee.  These were seen to have been formed by their rather difficult frontier lifestyle as “the most powerful looking men ever beheld, not overburdened with fat, but tall, raw-boned, and sinewy with long matted hair-such men were never before seen in the Carolinas.”

The Appalachian Mountain Men truly hated the Loyalists of Colonel Ferguson’s army every bit as much as the Tory troops hated them.  So down from the mountain they came to make sure their Revolution persevered, carrying equipment of their own making, as: “some carried swords, some butcher knives, and some wore war spurs made by the local blacksmiths.”

Ferguson chose the area of the battle they were to ultimately fight, on the “high ground on a steep, rugged ridge” of site known as Kings Mountain.  The Overmountain Men’s “only hope of success was to surround the (enemy) and attack from all sides, but that would expose many of them, particularly those on the left flank, to direct fire from the enemy.”

The mountain men knew it, and they didn’t care.  To them, “death or victory was the only way to escape suffering,” and to them, living under the yoke of the British was suffering, indeed.  The morning of October 7th, about 900 Overmountain Men “silently moved toward their positions around the mountain.  At the top, 1,125 men waited for them, mostly Loyalists with the only British soldier among them being Patrick Ferguson.”

The attack began with blood curdling shouts, as the “orders were: at the firing of the first gun for every man to raise a whoop, rush forward, and fight his way as best he could.”  They used yet another trick of their frontier trade by each man keeping “four or five balls in his mouth to prevent thirst, and to be in readiness to reload quick.” (sic)  Normally brilliant in fighting the new American style of guerilla warfare, Ferguson, when he saw “the horde of screaming mountain men charging him,” made a rare mistake: he ordered his men to form up battle lines rather than entrenching.    While managing to repel the Overmountain Men twice, by the third onslaught of the relentless Appalachians, the Loyalists “began to melt away.”  Though Ferguson was his typically courageous self, frantically riding his white charger from one end of the battle line to the other calling for his men to hold, the “Tory militia began to raise white flags and cry for quarter.”

Such was the rage of the Overmountain Men at their Loyalist brethren that it took them “quite a while” to recognize that the Tories had surrendered, and as a result, a slaughter ensued, despite several of the American officers knocking guns upward, imploring the men to refrain from shooting the prisoners.

It was too late for Colonel Ferguson, however.  When the shooting finally stopped, it appeared that at least 50 rifles had been “leveled at him at the same time.  Seven balls had passed through his body; both his arms were broken and his hat and clothing were literally shot to pieces.  It was said that one of his mistresses, a beautiful redhead who had accompanied him to battle, shared his fate.”

Though considered quite grisly, the victory of the Overmountain Men was a turning point in the Southern campaign of the American Revolutionary War, thus the entire Patriot effort, as the colonists “now saw the invincible British soldier as vulnerable to defeat.”

How this extraordinary feat was reported to General Washington and the American Congress was almost as remarkable as the victory itself. According to differing reports, a 6’7”, or 7’, or 7’2” tall, 20 year old, or 26 year old, frontiersman by the name of Joseph Greer, who was given the task to bring the news of the victory over Col. Patrick Ferguson’s Tory troops to General Washington, walked the 600 miles from Watauga, (in what is now Tennessee), after the Indians shot his horse out from under him, over mountains and through valleys, to Philadelphia.  When he arrived in the city one month to the day later, he requested directions to the location of the Continental Congress, and finally arriving at his destination, ignored the doorkeeper, walked into the chamber wearing his coonskin cap, his long overcoat, and carrying his musket, and announced to the assembled that the Overmountain Men had defeated the forces of the British Crown in the Battle of Kings Mountain.  Present in the chamber that day, a stunned but thrilled General George Washington said of this announcement: “With soldiers like him, no wonder the frontiersmen won.”

So thanks and Huzzah to the mountain men, and hillbillies, everywhere in our nation, and you’ll always be in fashion to us.

Susan Smith brings an international perspective to her writing by having lived primarily in western Europe, mainly in Paris, France, and the U.S., primarily in Washington, D.C. She authored a weekly column for Human Events on politics with historical aspects. She also served as the Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism, and Special Assistant to the first Ambassador of Afghanistan following the initial fall of the Taliban. Ms. Smith is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University and Georgetown University, as well as the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, France, where she obtained her French language certification. Ms. Smith now makes her home in McLean, Va.