“A high, grey cairn”—Upstate South Carolina

SECOND MUSICIAN.
A high, grey cairn. What more is to be said?
FIRST MUSICIAN.
Eagles have gone into their cloudy bed.

–William Butler Yeats, Deirdre (1907)

Kings Mountain National Military Park
2625 Park Road
Blacksburg, South Carolina

By many accounts, Major Patrick Ferguson was refined and cultured, hardly the rough, war-mongering hawk as he is described by Americans. He came from a genteel family that was at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment. As a boy, he was personally acquainted with many of those involved with the flourishing of thought, art, and the sciences that occurred in Scotland starting in the early 18th century. He grew up hearing the discussions between philosophers like David Hume and Adam Ferguson, economist Adam Smith, and writers John Home and Tobias Smollett in his family’s drawing room. He eventually was drawn into the military, which brought him here to meet his death on the unrefined Carolina frontier.

Patrick Ferguson miniature
A miniature portrait of Major Patrick Ferguson, artist unknown.

His nickname, “The Bulldog,” played on his small stature coupled with an outsized intelligence and tenaciousness. As the British began ramping up military operations against the rebellious colonies, Ferguson feared having to face skilled American marksmen armed with superior long rifles. From this worry Ferguson began to make improvements to the breech-loading rifle which was put into service by the military, though difficulty in production and the gun’s large price tag led to very few actually being put into service.

During the Revolution, the disastrous 1777 Saratoga campaign left the British floundering for a victorious way forward. Efforts began to focus away from the northeastern colonies and towards the South. Both Charleston and Savannah were targeted, and the British secured the cities for themselves. British General Henry Clinton turned over command of troops in the region to General Lord Cornwallis. Throughout the Carolinas troops sparred and the British were victorious at Camden, South Carolina in 1780. Cornwallis ordered his men into the backcountry to recruit loyalists to assist in the fight and to protect his right flank as he dug in in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Cornwallis underestimated the loyalty of the hardy frontiersmen. In early October, Ferguson entrenched his men on a rocky outcrop called Kings Mountain in what is now the Upstate region. The story of the Patriot’s attack on larger British forces is much better told in old ballad:

Ferguson’s Defeat—1780

Come all you good people, O pray you draw near,
A tragical story you quickly shall hear,
Of Whigs and Tories, how they bred a great strife,
When they chased old Ferguson out of his life.

Brave Colonel Williams from Hillsboro came,
The South Carolinians flocked to him amain,
Four hundred and fifty, a jolly, brisk crew,
After old Ferguson we then did pursue.

We marched to Cowpens—brave Campbell was there,
And Shelby, and Cleveland and Colonel Sevier,
Taking the lead of their bold mountaineers,
Brave Indian fighters, devoid of all fears.

They were men of renown—like lions so bold,
Like lions undaunted, ne’er to be controll’d,
They were bent on the game they had in their eye,
Determined to take it—to conquer or die.

We marched from Cowpens that very same night,
Sometimes we were wrong—sometimes we were right,
Our hearts being run in true Liberty’s mold,
We regarded not hunger, wet, weary nor cold.

Early next morning we came to the ford,
Cherokee was its name—and Buford the word.
We marched through the river, with courage so free,
Expecting the foemen we might quickly see.

Like eagles a-hungry in search of their prey,
We chased the old fox the best part of the day.
At length on King’s Mountain the old rogue we found,
And we, like bold heroes, his camp did surround.

The drums they did beat, and the guns they did rattle,
Our enemies stood us a very smart battle;
Like lightning the flashes, like thunder the noise,
Such was the onset of our bold mountain boys.

The battle did last the best part of an hour,
The guns they did roar–the bullets did shower,
With an oath in our hearts to conquer the field
We rushed on the Tories resolved they should yield.

We laid old Ferguson dead on the ground.
Four hundred and fifty dead Tories lay round—
Making a large escort, if not quite so wise,
To guide him to his chosen abode in the skies.

Brave Colonel Williams, and twenty-five more,
Of our brave heroes lay rolled in their gore;
With sorrow their dead bodies we laid in the clay,
In hopes that to heaven their souls took their way

We shouted the victory that we did obtain,
Our voices were heard seven miles on the plain.
Liberty shall stand—and the Tories shall fall,
Here’s an end to my song, so God bless us all.

–This ballad was found among the papers of Revolutionary soldier Robert Long after his death. The author is unknown. Published in Rev. J. D. Bailey’s Commanders at Kings Mountain, published 1925.

As the battle waged, Major Ferguson rallied his troops astride his horse.

One of Sevier’s men, named Gilleland, who had received several wounds and was well-nigh exhausted seeing Ferguson and his part approaching, attempted to arrest the career of the bold leader, but when his gun only snapped, he called out to Robert Young, one of his comrades: “There’s Ferguson—shoot him!” “I’ll try and see what Sweet-Lips can do,” muttered Young, as he drew a sharp sight, firing his rifle, when Ferguson fell from his horse, and his associates were wither killed, or driven back.

1863 engraving of the death of Patrick Ferguson at Kings Mountain
The death of Patrick Ferguson from an 1863 engraving by Alonzo Chappel and Charles Henry Jeens, published by Virtue and Yorston.

Ferguson was knocked from his mount, and his foot caught in one of his stirrups. Wounded, the Major was dragged by his horse towards the Patriot line. A Patriot soldier approached him, and Ferguson drew his gun and killed him. Moments later, the Major’s body was riddled with a number of bullets, bringing an ignominious end to the illustrious soldier. His body was stripped and urinated upon by the Patriot troops.

After the brief battle—it only lasted about an hour—Ferguson’s remains were buried near the spot where he expired, and a cairn was constructed atop his resting spot. The origins of the cairn extend back into pre-history and many are found throughout the Scottish countryside. Generally, these piles of stones were created to mark the graves of heroes with mourners adding stones to mark their visit. In a practical sense, these stone piles prevented wild animals from reaching the remains. Beyond these uses, a cairn is also supposed to keep a spirit within the grave.

Marble monument in front of Ferguson's cairn, 2000. Photo by Victoria Stauffenberg, courtesy of the National Park Service.
Marble monument marking Ferguson’s cairn, 2000. Photo by Victoria Stauffenberg, courtesy of the National Park Service.
Ferguson cairn Kings Mountain Battlefield
Major Ferguson’s cairn, 2016. Photo by Ser Amantio di Nicolao, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Some years ago, two reenactors were camping on the battlefield and in the evening went to visit Ferguson’s cairn. Both men deposited rocks on the grave. As they began to walk away, both had a sense that someone was standing nearby. They turned expecting a park ranger, though instead they saw a form that resembled the British Major. The figure spoke in a thick Scottish brogue saying, “It doesn’t always work, my lads,” and let out a hearty laugh.

A moment later in front of the frightened witnesses, he fadeded into the darkened forest. If you decide to approach the high, gray cairn of Major Ferguson, just be wary that the spectral Scotsman may be standing nearby.

Sources

  • Bailey, J. D. Commanders at Kings Mountain. Originally published 1925. Reprinted in Greenville, SC: A Press, 1980.
  • Barefoot, Daniel W. Spirits of ’76: Ghost Stories of the American Revolution. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2009.
  • Battle of Kings Mountain. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 20 August 2022.
  • Roberts, Ricky and Bryan Brown. Every Insult & Indignity: The Life, Genius and Legacy of Major Patrick Ferguson. Ricky Roberts and Bryan Brown, 2011.
  • Toney, B. Keith. Battlefield Ghosts. Berryville, VA: Rockbridge Publishing, 1997.
  • White, K. K. King’s Mountain Men. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing, 1985.
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