As the United States celebrates 243 years of independence on July 4, it is easy to forget amid the barbecues and parades just how difficult earning our independence was.
When the Second Continental Congress announced the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, its members agreed to “pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” That was no empty vow. By that time, the Revolutionary War had already been going on for more than a year.
Four years later, in 1780, still no conclusion was in sight. George Washington and the Continental Army had endured defeat and hardship but remained in the fight, now aided by an alliance with France. With stalemate in the north, the British turned their sights south.
The British pinned hopes for success in the South partly on recruiting Loyalists from the population. An army led by the British General Lord Charles Cornwallis pressed into North Carolina after defeating a Patriot force at Camden. He ordered his subordinate, Major Patrick Ferguson, to the western frontier to enlist Loyalists and suppress the rebellion.
To the settlers that resisted, Ferguson threatened to “lay their country waste with fire and sword.”
That threat did not sit well with Patriots along the western frontier. Instead of being intimidated by Ferguson, they decided to seek his force out first. And the pursuit started in what is now Abingdon.
There at the Muster Grounds on September 24, 1780, 400 Virginia militiamen from around the region gathered under Colonel William Campbell and began their trek south. They met more militiamen at Sycamore Shoals in what is now Tennessee. The minister Samuel Doak instructed them to “go forth, then, in the strength of your manhood to the aid of your brethren, the defense of your liberty and the protection of your homes.”
This force set out after Ferguson, with more men joining as they traveled. They brought their own rifles and supplies along for the 330-mile journey over the mountains. The ragtag band of over 1,000 closed in on Ferguson and met him on October 7 at Kings Mountain, near the border of North and South Carolina.
The Overmountain Men climbed the ridge where Ferguson’s force of Loyalists was encamped. They crept up to the camp and charged. Within an hour, Ferguson was dead and his force had been killed or captured, with the loss of 28 killed and 62 wounded among the Patriots.
What had begun at the Muster Grounds in Abingdon proved fateful for the future of our country. Cornwallis suffered a blow by losing Ferguson at Kings Mountain. He eventually gave up on his invasion of the Carolinas and went to Virginia instead, where he would surrender to Washington just a year later.
Thomas Jefferson called Kings Mountain “the turn of the tide of success which terminated the Revolutionary War, with the seal of our independence.”
Today, you can visit the Muster Grounds in Abingdon and see where some of the Overmountain Men began their heroic trek, as well as browse its museum. You can also follow their path along the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, as many reenactors do each year.
As we celebrate Independence Day this year, we should remember the stories of Patriots such as the Overmountain Men, whose deeds made sure that the Declaration’s words were not hollow. But we don’t just have to remember. We can also encourage the patriotic spirit of the country in our own time.
I remember an Independence Day I once spent in Shawsville. Close to where I awaited the evening’s fireworks was a group of school-aged young ladies in a pickup truck. As the fireworks began, they began singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” not as part of a program, but spontaneously, apparently moved by the spirit of the day.
I did not motion or say anything to them, not wanting to make them feel self-conscious, but I felt hopeful that the next generation was moved by the same sense of American pride that has filled generations before.
Let us recommit to that patriotic spirit again this July 4.
(Several years ago, we did a column on place names in the Ninth Congressional District linked to Patriots of the American Revolution. If you wish to see that column again, the link is here.)
If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov. Also on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.