"King's Mountain Day" remembered...

On October 7, 1780, the Battle of King's Mountain pitted a Patriot militia, led by William Campbell, John Sevier, Isaac Shelby, and other notable figures, against Loyalist forces, commanded by British Major Patrick Ferguson. The Patriot's victory at King's Mountain on that day has been described as the "turning point" in the Revolutionary War. The battle forged John Sevier's identity as "Tennessee's First Hero," as he gathered his Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals in what is present-day Elizabethton, Tennessee, and marched them towards a quick and decisive victory over Ferguson's army. Even though the Battle of King's Mountain did not take place on Tennessee soil, it is an important event in Tennessee history, as it created for many Tennesseans feelings of state pride in John Sevier's role in the American Revolution.

Among the themes that I explore in my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, is how King's Mountain was remembered by scholars and writers, and how the battle -- and John Sevier's participation in it -- was commemorated by future generations through monuments and memorials. A speech delivered by Judge John Allison at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville on October 7, 1897 speaks to how descendants of the Overmountain Men who fought at King's Mountain chose to remember the battle, and how Tennesseans used the battle to generate patriotic feelings among its citizens.

On October 7, 1897, Tennessee’s Centennial Exhibition in Nashville observed “King’s Mountain Day” as several members of the Tennessee Historical Society, government officials and dignitaries gathered in what the Nashville Banner described as “an unusually cultivated and educated assembly.” As the renowned Bellstedt and Ballenberg Band of Cincinnati, Ohio played patriotic music, the day’s ceremonies commenced at 10 o’clock in the Exhibition Auditorium with an introduction by the President of the Tennessee Historical Society, Judge John M. Lea, followed by a prayer.

Judge Lea then introduced Tennessee Governor Robert Love Taylor, who delivered a rousing speech to the 500 men and women assembled in the Exposition’s Auditorium. Governor Taylor spoke with patriotic fervor about the importance of King’s Mountain and John Sevier's role in the American Revolution. "I thought how destiny had led John Sevier and his fearless comrades through the trackless wilderness from homes and families that were beleaguered by the scalping knife and torch, to this far-away mountain top to fight a battle, the result of which changed the map of the world and heralded the dawn of a new era in the history of mankind," Taylor exclaimed. He then evoked Christian symbolism in his tribute to John Sevier and the heroes of King's Mountain. "God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform," Taylor said, "He led old Moses to the mountain top to write his law on the tablets of stone; He landed the ark on a mountain top, and Christ preached his grandest sermon on the mount."

Five hundred people crowded into the Auditorium of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville on October 7, 1897 to hear tributes to the Overmountain Men who fought at the Battle of King's Mountain.

After Governor Taylor concluded his remarks, an introduction was given to John Allison, a Tennessee jurist whose grandfather was a veteran of King’s Mountain, having served as part of Isaac Shelby’s regiment during the battle. Captain “Jack” Allison, as he was known to his regiment, suffered a wound to his leg during the Battle of King’s Mountain, causing him to walk lame from a stiff knee for the remainder of his life.

Judge Allison spoke of his grandfather’s service with authority. Not only was he a direct descendant of a King’s Mountain veteran, he was also a noted scholar who had edited a book entitled, Notable Men of Tennessee, a multi-volume publication filled with biographical sketches of Tennessee’s most well-known historical figures. He also authored the book, The Dropped Stitches of Tennessee, which was published in the same year as the Centennial Exhibition in 1897. Allison dedicated the latter title to the memory of his mother, who first sparked his interest in the early history of the pioneers of his native state. In his book, Allison also wrote fondly of his memories visiting “old gentlemen and aged ladies in Eastern Tennessee and a few in North Carolina” conversing with them about “old times and their early lives,” giving him a unique perspective on the Battle of King’s Mountain.

On “King’s Mountain Day” at the Centennial Exhibition, Judge Allison delivered a lengthy address, describing in great detail the turmoil that would eventually lead America to war with the British crown. His speech then focused on the events of 1780, digressing periodically into Tennessee’s history of “voluntary service and voluntary action” on behalf of the entire nation. He described the scene at Sycamore Shoals where John Sevier had assembled his men along with the forces of Campbell, Shelby, McDowell, and Williams. He then observed:

"This assemblage of pioneer, patriot soldiers, at Sycamore Shoals, on the banks of Watauga River, in sight of old Fort Watauga, on September 25, 1780, may properly be called the genesis of “the Volunteer State.” The signal service they were entering upon was voluntary, as they were not enlisted as militia, and therefore not subject to the call of a superior officer; they had simply been requested to meet there for the purpose of crossing over the mountains to attack the British; they did not know exactly where they would find the British, nor in what force, nor were they concerned as to these questions; they were absolutely confident, as subsequent events show, that they would be the victors."

Allison again digressed, calling forth the memory of Napoleon and Hannibal, whose motives for victory Allison said were “unholy ambition,” “plunder” and “spoils.” He then turned his attention to Sevier, Shelby, Campbell, and their Overmountain Men. “When the latter ascended, camped upon and crossed over the Alleghany Mountains, they were not moved to do so by a desire to plunder and despoil a neighboring people, nor by a desire to form a great empire and make one of themselves emperor,” Allison exclaimed. “No, no; patriotism in its purity was the motive.” Allison then concluded his remarks by once again reminding his audience of the volunteer spirit of the King’s Mountain men, and called for a proper memorial to their sacrifice on the field of battle:

"From the time our ancestors fought the battle of King’s Mountain there has not been a battlefield where the soil was wet with human blood in defense of liberty, freedom and right principles that Tennesseans were not there voluntarily… The flowers of a century of springs have blossomed and faded over most of the graves of the heroes of King’s Mountain, and the snows of a hundred winters have sifted gently down upon the remaining mounds that mark the spots where rest their sacred dust, and the birds have sung their sweetest songs in the bush and bramble that have overgrown their hallowed ashes, and yet we, their descendants and beneficiaries of their bravery in the liberties we enjoy and the magnificent and beautiful state we possess, have neglected to erect a suitable monument to commemorate their deeds, virtues and patriotism."

As Judge Allison stepped away from the podium, Bellstedt’s band played “Dixie” in a triumphant conclusion to the ceremony. When the piece was finished Allison rose from his chair, turned to the bandmaster and said, “Unfortunately the heroes of the revolution had no martial band to stir their hearts. Had Bellstedt and his men been there Cornwallis would have been driven into the sea.”

A few short years after Judge Allison's speech, the King’s Mountain men received their tribute. In 1899, members of the King’s Mountain chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution initiated efforts to reclaim the battlefield from neglect, and launched a campaign for national recognition of the battlefield site. After a long fight in Congress, their efforts proved successful. In 1909 a grand monument, an obelisk of white granite 86 feet high, was erected. It was a duplicate of a monument at Gettysburg, and was said to be one of the finest in the South. Bronze tablets on the four sides commemorated "the brilliant victory" which "marked the turning point of the American Revolution." Judge John Allison's call for "a suitable monument to commemorate their deeds" was finally answered.

Image credit: Kings Mountain National Military Park

Selected Sources:

  • “Battle of King’s Mountain: Anniversary Celebrated at the Centennial Exposition,” Nashville Banner, October 7, 1897.
  • John Allison, Dropped Stitches in Tennessee History. Nashville, Marshall & Bruce, 1897.
  • Address Delivered by John Allison on “King’s Mountain Day, Oct. 7” at the Tennessee Centennial Exhibition in Nashville, May 1 to Oct. 31, 1897. Nashville, TN: Press of Marshall & Bruce Co., 1897.

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 offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee. His book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory.