"Thus ended the war of 1782."

Looking again at how writers have viewed John Sevier through the lens of history and memory, I examine the work of anthropologist E. Raymond Evans who in 1980 wrote a detailed and scholarly account of the historical evidence, or lack thereof, surrounding the so-called "Last Battle of the American Revolution." In his article, first published in the Journal of Cherokee Studies and later reprinted in the Chattanooga Regional History Journal and The Chattanooga Times Free Press, Evans argued that the engagement, fought on September 20, 1782 on the slopes of Lookout Mountain nearly one year after Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown, was a product of legend. Described by writers and historians of the 19th century as an armed confrontation between Cherokee Indians loyal to the British and John Sevier's "Nolichucky Riflemen," the "Last Battle of the American Revolution" remains shrouded in myth and mystery.

The caption in the lower left corner of this image reads as follows: "The last battle of the American Revolution, an indecisive skirmish on the slopes of Lookout Mountain involving Chickamaugas and frontiersmen, took place in September 1782. Courtesy of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau. Illustration by George Little."
Image credit: James W. Livingood, Chattanooga: An Illustrated History (1980).

Evans described the build-up to the alleged confrontation by stating, "on July 23, 1782 North Carolina Governor Alexander Martin ordered Charles McDowell, a North Carolina militia general, to raise five hundred men for a campaign against the Chickamauga Cherokees... Following the mission, McDowell was to act in conjunction with John Sevier, commander of the east Tennessee militia, to arrange a treaty with the Cherokees that would include substantial land cessions."

In his article, Evans presented documented evidence which revealed that John Sevier's 1782 campaign was not a battle, but rather a systematic effort to burn and vandalize homes and crops "belonging to Cherokee refugees who had no connection with the pro-British Chickamauga Cherokees." The actual campaign was an abject failure. According to Evans, letters from key participants in the campaign revealed that John Sevier's guide, a man by the name of John Watts, was loyal to the British cause as early as 1776, and led Sevier's men away from hostility. Even Governor Martin, declared:

"The expedition against the Chickamaugas hath not answered our expectations. The Indians fled on the approach of our Militia and were not to be found. Their huts were destroyed and some trifling plunder taken."

Evans argued that the early Tennessee historians John Haywood and J.G.M. Ramsey, who were among the first to record the "Last Battle of the American Revolution," relied too heavily on stories told to them by elderly veterans of the expedition, and the only contemporary account of the battle, found in the North Carolina State Papers, was largely ignored. A few years later, Evans noted, the writer James Gilmore took the accounts written by Haywood and Ramsey and embellished them further. In his book, The Rear Guard of the Revolution, Gilmore made the bold assertion that Sevier's campaign took place "on the identical spot where, eighty years later, Hooker fought his famous 'battle above the clouds.'" While this claim could never be substantiated by primary sources, the story continued to build to mythic proportions. Evans believed that there was a more sinister motive behind the effort to connect Lookout Mountain with both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.

In the mid-1880s, Evans argued, Civil War Veterans conventions held significant influence over local economies, and there was keen competition among southern cities to host these veterans reunions. In the "Last Battle of the American Revolution," real estate speculators in Chattanooga saw an opportunity. If it could be documented that Chattanooga was the site of significant battles during both the American Revolution and the Civil War, it would give the city a competitive advantage over other cities in the South desiring to host conventions.

According to Evans, amateur local historians began to embrace this particular narrative, repeating what had been written before. Years later, during America's bicentennial celebration, the myth of Sevier's battle on Lookout Mountain was repeated in an effort to stake a claim to the founding of our nation. In his article, Evans noted:

"Attention was directed to this previously obscure event by the bicentennial celebrations. All during the year of 1975, a local TV station punctuated each station break with the phrase 'patriots fought the last battle of the American Revolution on the slopes of Lookout Mountain.' George Little, a prominent local artist, executed a vivid painting of the battle. The National Park Service erected a suitable marker on the site of the battle. 'Confederama,' a local tourist attraction featuring models of the Civil War battles of Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain, added a small section devoted to the 'last battle of the Revolution.' Another popular tourist spot, Reflection Riding, introduced a dramatic live re-enactment of the battle that has grown to an annual event."

Evans beleived that this "proliferation of dubious historical attractions" threatened to "smother and erase the credibility of legitimate local history." He further stated that efforts to connect the region to a national bicentennial celebration had ultimately obscured what really happened atop Lookout Mountain. Evans wrote:

"The myth of the battle on Lookout Mountain was created by a real estate dealer and a popular writer, enlarged by amateur historians and given general acclaim by a professional historian's concession to local civic groups seeking a focus for the regional bicentennial celebration."

American Revolutionary War Battle Marker atop Lookout Mountain
Image credit: The Historical Marker Database

E. Raymond Evans was not the only writer to question the claim that Lookout Mountain was the site of the "Last Battle of the American Revolution." In his 1889 book, The Winning of the West, Theodore Roosevelt called James Gilmore's account of the battle, "pure invention," yet the legend continued to build. Although well-documented evidence suggests that John Sevier's men were never involved in any real engagement with the Cherokee atop Lookout Mountain, the mere fact that Sevier's 1782 campaign was sanctioned by the Governor of North Carolina gave many steadfast believers in John Sevier's legend cause to embrace the ongoing narrative. As recently as 2007, the John Sevier Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution erected a historical marker which declared:

"On September 20, 1782, after several minor encounters, Sevier and his men engaged the Chickamaugas in a battle high in the palisades at the north end of Lookout Mountain. The Frontiersmen's accurate rifle fire soon overcame their foes. This was an official Revolutionary War engagement and is considered by many to be the LAST 'OVERMOUNTAIN' BATTLE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION."

In contrast to this description of the battle, the only documented account of the campaign was provided by James Sevier, the son of John Sevier, who served as a militia captain under his father. In a letter dated August 19, 1839 James Sevier recalled:

"We set out for the Indian country in the month of September, 1782. On the Highwassee river and Chiccamauga creek we destroyed all their towns, stock, corn & everything they had to support on. We then crossed a small range of mountains to the Coosa river, where we found and destroyed several towns, with all their stock, corn & provisions of every kind. The Indians eluded our march and kept out of our way in the general, although a few men, women and children were surprised and taken. We left the Coosa river for home about the last of October... Thus ended the war of 1782. We all set out for our homes without the loss of a single man."

Selected Sources:

Gordon Belt is the Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library & Archives, and past president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists. On The Posterity Project, Gordon blogs about archives, local history, genealogy, and social media advocacy for archives and cultural heritage organizations. His ongoing research project, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory.