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In April 1775, the slow burning match finally erupted into full flame as Massachusetts militiamen clashed with British troops at Lexington and Concord. As the American Revolution spread throughout the colonies, settlers in the Southern Backcountry faced an uncertain future. The eruption of warfare in New England had little immediate impact on their lives. That would soon change.     

Rebellious colonists stymied British efforts to control the Southern colonies by repulsing the first attack on Charleston, South Carolina, in June 1776. Simultaneously, Cherokee warriors, at the instigation of the British, attacked the Watauga settlements and the Southern Backcountry. This oft forgotten episode of the Revolutionary War resulted in hundreds of skirmishes and ambushes in Tennessee. Fought on July 20, 1776, between settlers and Cherokee warriors, the Battle of Long Island Flats (modern day Kingsport) was the largest battle of the Revolutionary War within the boundaries of Tennessee. The Cherokee suffered defeat in the battle and their attack brought retribution from the settlers as well as from militia commanders in Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

Edward Roche Certificate for the Society of Cincinnati signed by George Washington, 1787

Edward Roche Certificate for the Society of Cincinnati signed by George Washington, 1787

Meanwhile, Patriot forces confounded British efforts to subdue the rebellious colonies of New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. Patriot leaders such as George Washington, Horatio Gates, and others continually harassed the British and, when confronted by overwhelming odds, retreated into the hinterland while occasionally pulling off surprising victories. In the fall of 1777, a Continental Army, under Horatio Gates, surrounded and forced the surrender of a British army, under John Burgoyne, at Saratoga, New York. The Continental victory brought French recognition and a formal alliance with the colonies. With the war in the north nearly at a stalemate, the British again turned their attention to the Southern colonies.

Battle of Saratoga, October 10, 1777

Battle of Saratoga, October 10, 1777

In December 1779, British forces captured Savannah, Georgia. In the spring of 1780, the British took Charleston, South Carolina. The loss of these important coastal cities provided the British with two bases to move into the interior. Anticipating strong support, British troops moved inland and began recruiting amongst the loyalist. The British theater commander, Lord Cornwallis, relied heavily upon two veteran subordinate officers, Colonel Banastre Tarleton and Colonel Patrick Ferguson.

Tarleton, a British dragoon officer noted for his dash and impetuosity, earned a reputation for dealing rather harshly with the rebellious colonials in the Carolinas. Just two weeks after the fall of Charleston, Tarleton happened upon a patriot force at the Waxhaw along the North Carolina-South Carolina border. Charging in amongst the Virginia troops, Tarleton’s men reportedly continued to slash at the Virginians as they attempted to surrender. Although what happened at the Waxhaw remains clouded by history, the immediate perception amongst the patriot forces was that Tarleton massacred many of these troops and violated the rules of war.

The Lad Andrew Jackson at the Waxham (i.e. Waxhaw) Massacre

The Lad Andrew Jackson at the Waxham (i.e. Waxhaw) Massacre

The Waxhaw Massacre pushed many in the Carolina Backcountry from a stance of apathy or neutrality into the camp of the rebellious colonist. A witness to these actions in the Waxhaw was a young Andrew Jackson, who would personally suffer under the British oppression during the Revolutionary War. As a teenager, Jackson served in a militia unit until captured by the British. A British officer slashed Andrew with his sword for refusing to clean his boots and brutally struck his brother Robert on the head. Both boys remained prisoners until their mother secured their release. While Andrew eventually recovered from the illness acquired in the prison camp, Robert died a few days after their release.

British heavy handed treatment in the backcountry began to impact their recruitment efforts adversely. Colonel Patrick Ferguson, a Scottish officer in the British army, strove to recruit loyalist throughout the Carolina backcountry in 1780. In an effort to persuade the settlers west of the Appalachian Mountains to abandon the patriot cause, Ferguson openly threatened to invade the Overmountain settlements if the colonist did not support the Crown.

Ferguson’s threat proved fatal. By threatening these over-the-mountain settlers, he forced them into the opposite corner. If the truth be known, most of them cared little for either side. They simply wanted to be left alone. Threatening these mountain folks moved them from being disinterested bystanders to being firmly set against the suddenly intrusive, overbearing symbols of British authority. As Ferguson continued to recruit and move westward, the over mountain men began to assemble to take the offensive. 

Isaac Shelby

Isaac Shelby

On September 25, 1780, several hundred men gathered at Sycamore Shoals in Carter County to move against Ferguson’s loyalist and British force. Militiamen from Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina joined the Overmountain men from Tennessee and their numbers swelled to around 900 men. Commanded by John Sevier, Isaac Shelby, Benjamin Cleveland, Joseph Winston, James Williams, and under the overall command of William Campbell, these frontiersmen moved against Ferguson. Mainly moving on horseback and armed with rifles, the Overmountain men soon surrounded Patrick Ferguson’s force of approximately 1,000 men encamped atop King’s Mountain in Western South Carolina.

Colonel William Campbell certificate

Colonel William Campbell certificate

The Overmountain men achieved a stunning and important victory at King’s Mountain. The battle changed the course of the war in the Southern Theater. Months later Gen. Daniel Morgan achieved another great victory over Tarleton at Cowpens and sent the remnants of Tarleton’s command fleeing the Backcountry. By 1779-1780 the Carolina militias under Gen. Griffith Rutherford and others had launched several expeditions against the Cherokee homeland to burn villages and destroy the capacity of the Cherokee to wage war. These militia campaigns effectively ended the Cherokee’s role as a British ally in the Backcountry.

The combined defeats at King’s Mountain and Cowpens convinced Cornwallis to abandon pacification of the Backcountry and he moved his army northward. On March 15, 1781, Cornwallis’s army attacked Gen. Nathanael Greene’s army at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina. The British victory was a pyrrhic one and forced Cornwallis to abandon North Carolina and move into Virginia. Patriot forces eventually compelled his surrender in the Yorktown Peninsula, which brought about American Independence.

Map of Yorktown

Map of Yorktown

As Cornwallis moved northward, guerrilla warfare between anti and pro-British sympathizers, which had started in the early days of the war, continued in the Carolina Backcountry. This brand of warfare was particularly brutal and included destruction of property, murder, and robbery and was often waged between neighbors. These guerilla activities continued until the ultimate relinquishing of the colonies by the British in 1783.

The Legacy of the Revolutionary War and the Impact on Tennessee

Before the American Revolution erupted in 1775, only the hardiest of souls took the bold step to move into the area now identified as Upper East Tennessee. These settlers snubbed British authority by openly defying the Proclamation of 1763, and many of them rallied to the Patriot cause in response to the heavy handed threats of the British. They made a significant contribution to the war efforts in the Southern Backcountry.

As the war waged in the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia and the Northeast, it became clear that the British could not enforce the prohibition of settlement west of the mountains. Settlers trekked westward into Tennessee and Kentucky lured by the prospect of free land beyond the reach of British authority. By 1780, settlers had pushed well beyond Upper East Tennessee and had begun to establish forts and blockhouses along the Cumberland, Stones, and Red Rivers in Middle Tennessee. These settlements faced continued attacks by many of the same Native American groups which attacked the Wataugan settlements in 1775-76. Despite desperate attacks which lasted until 1793, these settlements survived and became the centers of Middle Tennessee life.

Cumberland River Land Grant

Cumberland River Land Grant

The end of the Revolution brought about American independence and created a new nation. Tennessee reaped the benefits of this new found freedom. With the war ended, thousands of former soldiers received land grants in Tennessee for their war time service. While some of these grantees had no desire to relocate to Tennessee, other Americans were flocking to the region. A brisk business of buying and selling Tennessee land grants blossomed. Indeed, future president Andrew Jackson earned part of his income by speculating in land grants.

These land grants and the rapid population growth they encouraged were the most significant outcomes of the Revolution for what eventually became Tennessee. By 1796, just twenty years after the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Tennessee was admitted into the Union as the 16th state.


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