Similar Battles for Indepenence

By Tom Strickland and Andries Marais

The Battle of Kings Mountain was a combat between Patriot and Loyalist militias in North Carolina during the Southern Campaign of the American Revolutionary War resulting in a decisive victory for the Patriots.  The Patriot militia under joint command of Colonels Benjamin ClevelandJames JohnstonWilliam CampbellJohn SevierJoseph McDowell and Isaac Shelby defeated the Loyalist militia commanded by British Major Patrick Ferguson of the 71st Foot.

Major Ferguson had arrived in North Carolina in early September 1780 to recruit troops for the Loyalist militia and protect the flank of Lord Cornwallis' who was the leading British General of the main force in the American War of Independence. Ferguson - in true British arrogant style issued an ultimatum to the rebel militias to lay down their arms or suffer the consequences. In response, the Patriot militia groups individually led by  Colonels Cleveland, Johnston, Campbell, Sevier, McDowell and Shelby, got together for an attack on Ferguson.

Receiving intelligence of the oncoming attack, Ferguson, despite his previous words of bravado ran for the safety of Lord Cornwallis' army.  However, the Patriots caught up with him at Kings Mountain near the border with South Carolina.  The Patriot militiamen attacked and inflicted heavy casualties. After an hour of battle, Ferguson was fatally shot after which his men surrendered. 

The Battle of King's Mountain, North Carolina, Oct. 8, 1780
The Battle of Mount Majuba in the Transvaal Republic, South Africa at the border of the British Colony of Natal, Feb. 27 1881

The Battle of Majuba (the Zulu word for "Mountain of the Pigeons") was the final decisive and humiliating defeat suffered by Queen Victoria's well trained (or so it was proclaimed) and equipped expeditionary army from the Boer farmers and their sons, armed with single shot Wesley Richards Falling Block hunting rifles in .500-.450 - with  no bayonets of course. The British forces were armed with .577-.450 Martini Henry Mk.III military rifles (about the same ability as the US .45-100) and long, sword-like bayonets - a rifle with a distinct advantage in both long distance accuracy and for close combat.

 

In fact the rifles used by both forces were quite similar in manufacture, sighting, calibre, weight, and ammunition. 

The Boer victory in this war can largely be attributed to their prowess in handling their rifles, and to superior tactics employing fire and movement.

 

Burgher Law had been in force in the Cape since the early days of the settlement in South Africa. This law stipulated that every male from 16 to 60 years of age had to supply himself with a horse, saddle and bridle, a musket, 30 lead balls, and 30 charges of black powder, as well as three days’ rations, and he had to be ready for combat service at a moment’s notice. In the Transvaal Republic in 1881 each person of 16 years and older had to have a horse and three days rations as well as a breech loading hunting rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition.

 

The Boers learned to shoot from an early age. They were keen hunters, wild game was plentiful, and they shot daily for the pot. When the occasion arose they were able to defend their isolated homesteads from marauding AmaXhosa tribesmen. Tactical shooting contests were held from time to time to improve their marksmanship and youngsters soon became excellent shots even while on horseback.

 

The British soldier on the other hand was never a good shot, being trained in the main to use mass volleys. There is therefore no doubt that any slight advantage the British might have had from their overall issue of the Mk III Martini Henry 0.450” breech-loading rifle was outweighed by Boer markmanship.  It will also be seen in the narrative that the arrogant disposition by the British commanders hid a lack of battle tactical thinking and knowledge, and poor discipline in general.

The Battle

Colley just weeks before had suffered two crushing defeats at Laingsnek and Schuinshoogte (in the very same area from the very same Boer Commando).  It would also appear from his various writings that he tried to convince the British High Commissioner in the Cape  Colony that the Boer successes up to that time were merely a "flash in the pan".  They were just lucky. In his strategic plan to his sub-ordinate Genl. Wood (who in fact had years more battle experience in India) and who was marching  in from the coastal city of Durban was that he was going to attack the Boers who were in zig-zag trenches (another world first) awaiting the British columns even before Wood would arrive, because: "You will also, I am sure, understand that I mean to take the Nek myself!", Colley informed him.

"Laingsnek" is a "saddle" between two insurmountable hills and the only place where the British convoy of wagons could pass. The ambush had been carefully prepared  by the Boers, Colley knew about it and needed the Reserves from Natal to push through to the Vaal River at Standerton (my home town as a school boy), but his rash personality got the better of him and he attacked, only to have had to withdraw in shame when his force was decimated by the Boer sharp shooters, suffering no loss of their own. At the other ambush at Schuinshoogte ("Slanting Heights" ) he also lost too many men to proceed and withdrew to his encampment to lick his wounds and plan his next move.

 

That plan was to scale the 2,000 ft. Majuba mountain at night and Colley may have had the idea to put a bombardment from this perch onto the Boer camp right below. Only, the ascent was too steep to take any artillery up to the summit - and even had he done that the Boer camp was too close to the foot of the mountain to depress the gun barrels sufficiently. In the end they could not even get their three Gatling guns up the slope.  Still, Colley took 640 men up at night, leaving two sections at two strategic protection points, and waited.  He set up his new headquarters there. It was in no way any tactical position from whence to launch an attack on the Boer encampment and historians have debated the possible reasons for this move for many years. Only one reason seems obvious, as is mentioned later - Colley had no more guts for fighting and needed a reprieve and a safe space to wait for Genl. Wood.

Having visited the area a number of times the only conclusion any battle tactician can come to was that Colley had feared a Boer attack on his own encampment and wanted to be in some fortress while awaiting the arrival of the support Army under Genl. Wood. The high ground indeed would have given a battle weary occupational force an advantage if the soldiers were ready and under good command.  At daybreak the following day the Boers saw and even heard the rowdy Brits on top of Mount Majuba. Scouts reported that the encampment was in high spirits. It appeared that the Brits assumed themselves to be untouchable on top of Majuba.

 

Some Boers rode out in full view and were being fired at but the bullets passed harmlessly overhead.  A most extraordinary discovery was made when the British rifles were later gathered: ALL the rear sights were set at 1,000 yards. To this day that funny British battle field doctrine of the soldier being instructed when to fire while aiming in the general direction and with sight settings as instructed by the platoon commander or whoever. The Boer style always has been to pick an individual  target and depending on the distance either aim for the brain or the heart. In essence every Boer rifleman was acting as a sniper during every battle.

 

What Colley should have known was that the Boers were not unaccustomed to storming hills, as seen from their attacks on the Basutos who had retreated into the Amatola mountains after raids on the Boer wagons, and also in the Sekukuni Wars in the Lydenburg area. All those reprisal attacks were carried out in mountainous terrain. So, Genl. Piet Joubert had a quick war counsel and ordered an immediate attack under Commandant Nicholas Smit with the following broad plan:

The tactic employed at Majuba was to deploy the older, less fit, and less agile Boers, but who were often the more experienced and better shots, under cover of the natural terraces at the foot of Majuba. These kept up a sustained and deadly sniper fire directed at the crest line, shooting at any British head that showed.  At a distance of about 400 yards it appears that virtually every helmeted head that was skylined received a bullet through the brain.  This enabled the assault force, divided into three groups to safely run accross the obvious killing grounds of the terraces until they again were shielded by a precipice.

 

The assault parties were the younger men and boys who made rapid progress upward with little hindrance from British fire from above. Flanking fire from the two main Boer assault groups covered each other in turn as they moved upwards, zig-zagging from cover to cover. The marksmanship by the 50 years and older men in sniping positions down at the foot of the mountain ensured that very few British soldiers leaned over the ridge long enough to bear any accurate fire on the advancing Boers.

Later reports from the British prisoners indicated that total chaos ensued on the mountain. Soldiers were corralling themselves like sheep in safe coves, and very few had even been issued with ammunition yet (this strange doctrine in itself was the downfall of British defences at every single battle where they had held a position or had marched into an ambush - ammunition was only issued on command of the force commander as the battle developed). It was reported that Colley merely said: "Impossible" when he was informed of the advance and did not even come out of his tent. 

When the first Boers crested the mountain top they were met by true chaos. Even though this might have been the opportunity for the British to restore the position with a bayonet charge nothing happened. To the contrary the target presented by the massed troops was so inviting that the Boers again poured in a heavy fusillade as they ran into the almost hand to hand battle . A great number of Colley's  reserve force were immediately knocked down as these were the first force the Boers encountered. The surviving balance rushed headlong back into the dip formed by the summit, only to be met by the flanking assault of the Boers.

Lt. Hamilton of the Highlanders who were bearing the brunt of the attack and now wounded, ran down to General Colley's tent and saluting, said: "I do hope, General, you will let us have a charge, and that you will not think it presumptuous on my part to have come up and asked you". To which the arrogant Colley replied: "No presumption, Mr. Hamilton, but we will wait until the Boers advance on us, and then give them a volley and charge."  He was in total denial of what was already happening. It is on record that other appeals were made but to all these the general merely returned non-committal replies.

 

By then British soldiers were jumping over the precipitous drops, running away in all directions, some directly into the flanking assault groups and were simply shot at close range.  At this time Colley appeared from his tent in full regalia shouting:  "Steady and hold the ridge!" to his fleeing troops and promptly received a bullet through the brain. The battle was over. 

The British losses on this fateful day were 92 killed and 134 wounded of whom a number succumbed during the following few weeks, and 259 taken prisoner.

The Boers lost 1 killed and five wounded. One of the five subsequently died from his injuries.

Commandant Nicholas Smit, the battle commander - and not even a soldier, but an intelligent, thinking man - carried out what was 60 years later in World War II termed a perfect text book infantry assault.

Majuba was the last battle of that war and the British left the Transvaal Republic shamed and wounded in their pride, but already making plans and designing new strategic doctrine, and  they returned in 1899 with 600,000 men, facing 50,000 farmers as old as 75 years and boys often as young as nine years who escaped from the concentrations camps (where the Boer women and children were imprisoned), to join their fathers and grandfathers on the battle field.

The Battle

No one in the Patriot army held command once the fighting started. Each detachment fought independently under the previously agreed plan to surround and destroy the Loyalists. The Patriots crept up the hill and fired from behind rocks and trees.

Ferguson organised his troops and launched a bayonet-charge against Campbell and Sevier. Lacking bayonets, the Patriots ran down the hill and into the woods. Campbell soon rallied his troops, returned to the hill, and resumed firing. Ferguson ordered two more bayonet charges during the battle. This became the pattern of the battle; the Patriots would charge up the hill, then the Tories would charge down the hill with fixed bayonets, driving the Patriots off the slopes and into the woods. Once the charge was spent and the Tories returned to their positions, the Patriots would reform in the woods, return to the base of the hill, and charge up the hill again.

 

During one of the charges Colonel Williams was killed, and Colonel McDowell was wounded. Firing was difficult for the Loyalists, since the Patriots constantly moved using cover and concealment to their advantage. Historians' opinions are that the downhill angle of the hill contributed to the Loyalists overshooting their marks. (Regarding such opinions expressed by historians the tactician within me shall always make the observation that cover and concealment equally existed for both sides, that the side holding a better elevation ALWAYS enjoys the advantage, that aiming uphill results in shooting high exactly  as much as shooting downhill does).

After an hour of combat Loyalist casualties were heavy. Ferguson rode back and forth across the hill, blowing a silver whistle he used to signal charges. Shelby, Sevier and Campbell reached the top of the hill behind the Loyalist position and attacked Ferguson's rear. The Loyalists were driven back into their camp, where they began to surrender. Ferguson drew his sword and hacked down any small white flags that he saw popping up, but he appeared to know that the end was near. In an attempt to rally his faltering men, Ferguson shouted out: "Hurrah, brave boys, the day is ours!" (Throughout the history of war the style of British commanders have regularly been to live in denial of the facts and plan their tactics and even strategy on their own virtual reality borne from a feel good "because I am superior" disposition).  He then promptly gathered a few officers together and tried to cut through the Patriot ring, abandoning his men, but Sevier's men fired a volley and Ferguson was shot and dragged by his horse behind the Patriot line. There he was confronted by an opposing officer who demanded a surrender from the major. Ferguson shot and killed the man with his pistol, but was shot dead by multiple Patriots on the spot. When the Patriots recovered his corpse they counted seven bullet wounds.  Seeing their leader fall, the Loyalists began to surrender.

Loyalist Captain Abraham DePeyster, in command after Ferguson was killed, sent out an emissary with a white flag, asking for leniency. For several minutes, the Patriots rejected DePeyster's white flag and continued firing, and a significant number of the surrendering Loyalists were killed. When DePeyster sent out a second white flag, a few of the rebel officers, including Campbell and Sevier ran forward and took control by ordering their men to cease fire. They took about 800 Loyalist prisoners.

The battle was a pivotal moment in the Southern campaign. This surprising victory of the American patriot militia over the Loyalists came after a string of rebel defeats at the hands of Lord Cornwallis and greatly raised the Patriots' morale. With Ferguson dead and his Loyalist militia destroyed, Cornwallis was forced to abandon his plan to invade North Carolina and retreated into South Carolina.

(Retold from Wikipedia)

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