On this day 240 years ago, Wilkes County militia under Col. Benjamin Cleveland played a major role in a decisive Patriot victory over Loyalist militia under British Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain.
Although lasting only a little over an hour, the battle is considered pivotal in events leading to the young nation winning the war and its independence from Great Britain at Yorktown, Va., a year later. Thomas Jefferson called Kings Mountain, “The turn of the tide of success.”
Wilkes County, created from Surry County in 1778, was still on the edge of the frontier when the Battle of Kings Mountain was fought on Oct. 7, 1780.
The 350 or so volunteers who made the trek under Cleveland and Major Joseph Winston to fight Ferguson after he threatened to “hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword” were mostly first generation residents of Wilkes, Surry and what now is Ashe, Alleghany, Watauga, Caldwell and other nearby counties.
Most had experience fighting Tories (Loyalists) and Indians under the same men who led them at Kings Mountain. Many served in Gen. Griffith Rutherford’s expedition against the Cherokee in 1776.
Much of what is known about their individual experiences in the Kings Mountain and other campaigns is told in military pension applications and similar papers.
One such document tells about Samuel Johnson, one of Cleveland’s captains, attending church at Roaring River Meeting House (predecessor of Old Roaring River Baptist Church in Traphill) one Sunday when a messenger arrived with news of Tory depredations in today’s Alleghany County. Johnson immediately gathered available men and left in pursuit of the Tories, routing them near Peach Bottom Mountain.
Lyman C. Draper’s “King’s Mountain and Its Heroes,” first published in 1881, includes brief biographies of several Wilkes men, including Johnson, and other key participants in the battle.
Draper’s book is the definitive history of the battle and events before and afterwards. He interviewed participants and relatives of participants, collected their statements and other firsthand written accounts of the battle and other documents.
Due to the Patriots on horseback being sent ahead to fight and footmen left behind on the eve of the battle, companies were reorganized and Johnson served in the engagement as a lieutenant. According to Draper, Johnson’s “unique but effective command during the fight was, ‘Aim at the waistbands of their breeches boys.’ ”
Johnson received multiple wounds and some of the men with him were killed when they made a bold dash toward the enemy. Draper also wrote, “After Johnson had fallen, and while the contest was still fiercely raging around him, he repeatedly threw up his hands and shouted ‘Huzzah boys!’ ”
When Johnson asked to see Ferguson’s lifeless body after the battle, Cleveland and two other men obliged by carrying the wounded officer to the slain British major.
Quoting the memoirs of Col. Banastre Tarleton, another British commander in the South, Draper wrote, “The mountaineers, it is reported, used every insult and indignity, after this action, toward the dead body of Major Ferguson.”
Some of the others in Cleveland’s regiment wounded were William Lenoir, Charles Gordon, John Childers, J.M. Smith and the three Lewis brothers, Micajah and captains Joel and James.
At least two Wilkes men died at Kings Mountain — Daniel Siske and Thomas Bicknell.
Estimates of Loyalist losses in the battle vary, but it apparently was around 250 killed, 160 wounded and 670 taken prisoner. The Patriot militia suffered 28 killed and 60 wounded.
According to one account, Johnson’s lack of food in the three days before the battle helped him survive his worst wound, which came from a bullet hitting his abdomen.
The story passed down in Captain Johnson’s family is that Johnson, in his early 20s, was carried back to Wilkes by horse-drawn litter and was almost there when he was taken to the home of the Rev. Ambrose Hammon, a Baptist minister, due to his weak condition.
The captain remained there and was nursed back to strength by Mary Hammon, the preacher’s daughter. The two married about two years later.
They raised a large family and remained in what now is Traphill. Johnson was appointed a member of Wilkes County’s Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions by the governor. This was the county governing body until the current N.C. Constitution was adopted in 1868.
Johnson received a disability pension starting in 1809, and died at age 77 in 1834. He was buried in the Johnson family cemetery on what now is Grissle Tail Road in Traphill, near the East Prong of Roaring River.
In addition to a military stone identifying him as a captain in Cleveland’s N.C. militia in the Revolutionary War, an older soapstone marker on his grave calls him “Capt. Sam Johnson” and says he was wounded at Kings Mountain.
In his 1854 declaration as administrator of the estate of his mother, Mary Johnson, Ambrose Johnson said Cleveland presented his battle sword to Captain Johnson as a statement of his esteem for him. He further wrote that when the sword was broken, his father retooled the blade and continued its use for utility purposes.
Ambrose Johnson married Lucinda Franklin, niece of N.C. Gov. Jesse Franklin. Samuel and Mary Johnson’s other sons were Lewis, who married Nancy Elmira Martin; Robert, who married Celia Bourne; Samuel B., who married Susanne Alexander; and Col. John S. who married Nancy Holbrook and served in the militia, including when it participated in the Cherokee Indian removal (Trail of Tears) of 1838.
Their daughters were Nancy, who married Jesse Gambill; Chloe who married William Gambill; Mary, who married William Bourne Jr.; Rachel, who married William M. Forester; and Polly, who married Leander Johnson.
Samuel and Mary Johnson left numerous descendants, including many who still live in the Traphill area. The descendants hold the Capt. Samuel Johnson family reunion annually at the old Joynes school on Longbottom Road in Traphill.
The Wilkes/Surry Chapter Overmountain Victory Trail Association (OVTA) participates in events to raise awareness of the involvement of men from this area in the Battle of Kings Mountain. The OVTA and Wilkes Heritage Museum in Wilkesboro partner to provide educational programs on the battle for Wilkes County fourth-graders each year.