By Vikki L. Jeanne Cleveland
In September Ben and his 350 Bulldogs had joined Colonel William Campbell, Colonel Isaac Shelby, Colonel John Sevier, and other militia leaders at Quaker Meadows near Catawba River. Since there were so many officers of equal rank (the Battle of King's Mountain is sometimes called the Battle of Colonels because of this particular military phenomenon), it was agreed that command should rest with the board of colonels. Colonel Campbell was elected officer of the day to execute the board's decisions. Ben was to be one of the principal officers in the conflict. Most of the united forces of 1600 were afoot, but approximately 700--including Ben--were mounted on the fastest horses and overtook Ferguson at King's Mountain.
These mounted troops were divided into three division under Ben, Colonel Campbell, and Colonel Lacey, and each division would storm the mountain from a different direction: Lacey from the west, Campbell from the center, and Ben from the east.
Just before the beginning of the battle, Ben addressed his troops in what historian Dr. David Ramsay called "plain unvarnished language" that showed Ben's good sense and knowledge of human nature. This speech doubtlessly added greatly to the triumph of the American cause by inspiring the courage and patriotism of the over-mountain men:
"My brave fellows! We have beat the Tories and we can beat them again. They are all cowardly. If they had the spirit of men, they would join with their fellow citizens in supporting the independence of their country. When engaged you are not to wait for the word of command from me. I will show you by my example how to fight. I can undertake no more. Every man must consider himself an officer and act from his own judgment. Fire as quick as you can and stand as long as you can. When you can do no better, get behind trees, or retreat; but I beg of you not to run quite off. If we be repulsed, let us make a point to return and renew the fight. Perhaps we may have better luck in the second attempt than in the first. If any of you be scared, such have leave to retire; and they are requested immediately to take themselves off."
His men followed his suggestions precisely. In fact, details of Ben's speech proved to be amazingly prophetic. His men hid behind rocks and trees and fired, they were repelled, they rallied and came back to the charge and renewed the fight, and they had better luck in the second attempt.
Previous to the battle, the Whig horsemen approached the mountain and sought out their respective pre-assigned positions. Many of the men threw aside their hats and tied their handkerchiefs around their heads so that limbs and bushes would not hinder their charge up the mountain. Ramsay says that Ben was the first to reach his position and that his men were the first to receive the shock of the enemy's charge. Other researchers maintain that Ben was delayed by having to cross a marshy place and that Colonel Sevier was the first one to engage the enemy. Either way, Ben was in position on time and in the hottest of the contest.
Sword in hand, he rode to the front of his column and led the ascent, calling for his men to follow. Ferguson's troops poured "galling fire" into the advancing line, and Ben's beloved war horse, Roebuck, was hit twice and shot out from under the colonel. Ben was not prone to say, "Go on without me, fellas!" Snatching his flintlock pistols, he dismounted and ran on foot ahead of his men until another horse was brought to him from the rear. (Because of his three-hundred-pound weight, he kept two horses with him so that one could rest while he rode the other.)
By then the patriots were ascending the mountain from all sides. The mountain was ablaze with gunfire, unceasing gunfire amid the rattle and roar of men shouting and officers bellowing words of encouragement to their troops. Above the din there was the shrill whine of the silver whistle Ferguson used to direct his troops.
Eventually the British line wavered and broke in confusion. Ferguson, who had fought desperately, dashed for liberty but was drilled by a dozen bullets. His command immediately surrendered to the patriots. Ferguson's gray charger ran away when its master fell in battle, but it was soon recaptured and by general consent presented to Ben to compensate for the loss of Roebuck.
When the smoke of battle cleared, the "back water men" whom Ferguson had ridiculed had slain 225 Loyalists, wounded 163, and taken 716 prisoners with the loss to themselves of only twenty-eight killed and sixty-two wounded.
As darkness descended, the aftermath of the battle was cruel and gruesome. One of the freedom fighters wrote that the victors had "to encamp on the ground with the dead and wounded, and pass the night amid groans and lamentations." Another wrote, "The groans of the wounded and dying on the mountain were truly affecting--begging piteously for a little water; but in the hurry, confusion, and exhaustion of the Whigs these cries, when emanating from the Tories, were little heeded."
The next morning the sun came out for the first time in several days. Fearing that Cornwallis would soon send a force in pursuit, the Revolutionary troops were eager to begin their march home. The dead were carelessly buried in piles under logs and rocks, the wounded were tended, and the plunder divided. Ben had captured an English drum that he kept and exhibited to friends who visited him years later in the Tugaloo Valley in South Carolina.
Feeling that their work was now complete, many patriots at this point simply walked away from King's Mountain to return to their homes, but a strong force of patriots remained to march the prisoners north to turn them over to the Continental Army at Hillsborough, North Carolina.
On this journey a number of prisoners were brutally beaten, some even hacked with swords. A week later, when the procession reached the Bickerstaff settlement about fifty miles from King's Mountain, a committee of Whig colonels appointed themselves as jury to try the "obnoxious" Loyalists. In a trial that lasted throughout the dismal, rainy day, thirty-six Tories were found guilty of "breaking open houses, killing the men, turning the men and women out of doors, and burning the houses." The trial was concluded after dark. Ben was instrumental in the immediate execution by hanging of nine of the convicted thirty-six.
According to President Theodore Roosevelt in his history of the American Revolution, the Battle of King's Mountain was the turning point of the war. This British defeat delayed the plans of Cornwallis for three months. During this time, the Continental Army was able to organize a new offensive in the South while Cornwallis began a rapid retreat toward Ninety-Six, now the only point in the interior of South Carolina dominated by British and Tory influence.
In addition to these logistical benefits, the victory generated within the patriots new life and energy. Cornwallis was never able to regain his hold from these rejuvenated freedom fighters. In fact, Ben and his men continued to harass Cornwallis whenever possible by cutting off his foraging parties and making British lives generally miserable. One year after King's Mountain, Cornwallis was forced to surrender at Yorktown, Virginia.
The pension claim of William Lenoir vividly details Ben's action at King's Mountain. To his Heroes, Ben was the supreme hero whose "spirit of adventure and self-reliance, quickness of thought, and rapidity of action in times of emergency and danger" contributed greatly to the American victory. According to one historian, "These men, with their rough ways, helped forge a nation out of the furnace of King's Mountain." When Ben returned home and to the General Assembly in February of 1781, his fellow legislators presented him with "an elegant mounted sword," as were the other commanders of King's Mountain. A resolution was passed stating that Ben was in readiness to leave the assembly again in defense of his country.
Though King's Mountain was the crowning glory of Ben?s service in the militia, it by no means marked the end of his Revolutionary adventures. Ben himself became a prisoner in 1781 when he was captured by Tories. His reputation and a one-hundred-guinea reward (about $225) for his head certainly diminished his chances for living through this particular escapade.
There are actually two stories detailing how Ben came to be captured by his Loyalist opponents:
According to one account, Ben was one day visiting in Ashe County with his friends Richard and John Calloway when his presence was betrayed by a local Tory named Joseph Perkins. (There are records existing which show that the Perkins family lived with the stigma of this betrayal for many years.) Perkins sent word to a Tory leader named William Riddle, whose men surrounded the Calloway house and burst in on the occupants. In the blast of gunfire, Richard Calloway was shot in the leg, but John managed to jump out a window and escape into the forest. Ben expected to be executed instantly, but instead he was taken prisoner.
In the meantime, John was running for help from friends assembled at a church meeting he knew was in progress seven miles down the road. Word spread quickly in the settlement. When Ben's brother Robert heard of Ben's capture, he assembled a rescue party of six to nine men and set off in search of the colonel.
In the other story connected with this adventure, the rescue party numbered thirty men. Ben had been captured not by any betrayal but by plain ol' dumb luck as he rode across the Blue Ridge to inspect New River grazing lands. Unfortunately the ride coincided with that of William Riddle, whose military party was taking a Whig to Ninety-Six, where the British were offering big rewards for Whig prisoners. Riddle was smart enough not to accost ben face-to-face. His strategy was to wait until nightfall and steal Ben's horses, and when Ben pursued, Riddle and his men could ambush the King's Mountain hero at a place of Riddle's choosing.
Because Ben scoffed at the idea of traveling with a guard, he had with him this day only two servants and was, therefore, easily taken by the Tories. In the confusion focused around Ben, the servants were able to escape. They ran immediately to brother Robert, who gathered his rescue party of thirty men.
The Tories suspected that someone would pursue them, and they left for Ninety-Six immediately. Satisfied by their own cleverness, they walked down streams to avoid being tracked. Ben had some clever ideas of his own, however, and he secretly turned up stones and broke off twigs to mark the trail.
Robert rode all day and night, and by morning of the second day he had caught up with the Tories. As he surveyed the scene before making his move, he saw his three-hundred-pound brother sitting on a log and laboriously writing on bits of paper. Some accounts claim that a Tory held a cocked pistol to Ben?s head. In any event, Ben was being forced to write out passes for the Tories to use in Whig territory. Because Ben realized that he would be killed as soon as the Tories had their passes, he was taking his time. His lack of education served him well here, for the many mistakes he made--some actual and some faked--bought him extra time.
Finally, amid much hooting and shouting, Robert and his men blazed into the Tory camp. As they fired their guns into Riddle's men, Ben rolled off his log and tried to shield his bulk behind it. Some of Riddle's men escaped, but Riddle himself and two others were captured and taken to Mulberry Field Meeting House (later known as Wilkesboro), where they were all hanged from the same limb of a large oak tree. The place where Riddle was captured is part of the mountain range in northern North Carolina which was afterwards known as Riddle's Knob.
Since Ben was away from home so much during this time, his plantation was frequently left unprotected. "A notorious Tory leader of the Upper Yadkin," Bill Harrison, "routinely raided Cleveland's farm, stole his stock, and destroyed his property." Perhaps in retaliation for all the Tory executions, Harrison captured Ben's overseer, John Doss, and hanged him.
Soon afterward, Ben's scouts caught Harrison and took him immediately to the enraged colonel.
"I hope you will not hang me, Colonel," Harrison said softly. "You know I am a useful man in the neighborhood...and I have heard you curse Fanning and other Loyalists for putting prisoners to death. Where are your principles? Where is your conscience?"
"Where is my conscience?" Ben snapped. "Where are my horses and cattle you have stolen, my barns you have burned--and where is poor Jack Doss?"
Ben then dragged Harrison to the same spot where Doss had been hanged. Tying a vine around the Tory's neck, Ben called to his men, "Run up the hill, boys, and butt him off the log!"
Even when Ben was away from Round About, his influence was constantly present, as was demonstrated one day when some Whig scouts brought four Tories to the Cleveland plantation and asked Mary Cleveland what to do with them. Without hesitation, she ordered, "Go and hang them to the gate post!" The Tories were hanged. Some sources credit Ben's son John with ordering the execution, but more sources credit Mary.
Ben's impatience with injustice was not limited to Tories. A captain in his regiment apprehended a man for stealing stirrups from a saddle and took the thief to Ben, who ordered that the robber's thumbs be locked in the notch of an arbor fork as the culprit received fifteen lashes. This punishment gave rise to yet another localism inspired by Ben's activities: "to the notch."
After the war Ben returned to his beloved Round About, but he was able to remain there only three or four years before he lost his plantation to a "better title." At that time in North Carolina history, land speculation and claim jumping were rampant in the Yadkin Valley. Anyone who had been away fighting in the war for any length of time could expect to be victimized. Even Daniel Boone encountered problems.
At this time Ben directed his ambitions toward the beautiful land he had seen in the Tugaloo River Valley in South Carolina. In 1785 when he was granted 1050 acres on the Franklin County, GA, side, he began selling off his remaining Wilkes County property. Sometime between 1786 and 1787 he moved his family to their new home in the fork of the Tugaloo River and Chauga Creek in the present-day county of Oconee, South Carolina, then called Pendleton District.
Though results were usually favorable, Ben's migrations were because of losses he had incurred. He had moved from Virginia to North Carolina to absent himself from the influence of wild companions who had once caused him the loss of one whole harvest, and then he moved this final time, to the Tugaloo Valley, partially because of his loss of Round About.
He added to his new farm by buying land from other Revolutionary grantees. Between 1779 and 1793 he acquired, through grants and purchases, nearly seven thousand acres of land on both sides of the Tugaloo River. Some of this land he kept as part of his "estate," and some he sold. One record, for example, shows him selling 650 acres on Mill Creek of the Chauga River to a blacksmith named Littleberry Toney (November 29, 1790). All the land retained in his estate was eventually passed on to Ben's son Absalom, and from Absalom to Absalom's one son and six daughters. Over the years this large estate has been bought in small portions by local residents and newcomers to the area. Two hundred thirty acres of the most desirable portion of the original estate were purchased in 1969 by Paul and Lucy Wilkerson, who were still living there in 1987. The land is referred to as both Cleveland Plantation and Rivoli Farms.
The site of Ben's new home was once the Cherokee town of Chauga. A large mound in the bottom land evinced the one-time Cherokee presence. When this site was excavated by the University of Georgia, Carbon 14 dating showed that it had been occupied by mankind as early as 700 A.D. and then had been continually occupied by Indians or white men up to the present.
Ben soon became involved in the affairs of his new state and served for many years as judge of the court of Old Pendleton District along with General Andrew Pickens and Colonel Robert Anderson. Despite his service to the area, Ben was odd man out when Old Pendleton was divided in 1828. The two newly formed counties were named "Anderson" and "Pickens," and when Pickens was divided yet again in 1868, "Cleveland" was once more passed over as a name in favor of "Oconee."
As a judge, Ben continued the philosophy he had perpetuated in warfare. Lacking the formal training of a lawyer, he relied on his own keen sense of right and wrong when issuing a legal decision. In truth, he had tremendous contempt for the technicalities of law and all the resulting delays. When lawyers expounded their legalese before his bench, he often fell asleep, sometimes lapsing into snores that interfered with the litigation until one of his associates nudged him awake. Consequently, all the long, prosy legal speeches had little effect on the judgments he rendered. Both on the field of battle and in the court of law, he was considered a fast man with a rope as he administered justice promptly and fairly. Any unfortunate horse thief brought before Ben received the same treatment as the Tories had, usually hanging.
Even the Indians in adjacent areas felt his displeasure. When a small band stole some of Ben's horses, he went to the headman of the Indian village and demanded the immediate return of his property. His horses were returned at once.
Several years before his death in 1806, Ben became so unwieldy in size that he could not mount his favorite saddle horse. Estimates placed his peak weight somewhere between 450 and 500 pounds. His arms could not meet across his body, and he became an object of curiosity to strangers. Because his obesity was so uncomfortable to him, he did have a quantity of fat physically removed from his body, but his family said the operation only made him appear fatter.
In his final years, he was able to wear only loose-fitting gowns made of light fabric in the summer and heavier material in winter. He was confined to a special chair that was built especially for him and mounted on rollers. By day he sat in it to direct the operation of his farm; by night he slept in it, for his bulk oppressed his breathing whenever he lay down.
Governor Perry's father often visited Ben on cold mornings and found the colonel wearing only a thin calico morning gown. Though Ben's legs were purple, he seemed oblivious of the temperature.
"This is a very cold morning, Colonel Cleveland," Mr. Perry pointed out to his neighbor.
"No, no," Ben argued, "it is a very fine morning, and I have come out to enjoy the fresh morning air."
Governor Perry later observed, "In consequence of his enormous size, he was so insensible to the cold as he had been in his younger days to fear.... Colonel Cleveland was one of nature's great men, great in every respect, great in person, great in heart and great in mind. He was never afraid to take responsibility."
Ben's special chair became his death chair, too, when he died in it at his breakfast table in October of 1806. He was sixty-nine years old. His beloved wife, Mary, had predeceased him by ten years, and his younger son John had also died a few years before. Ben joined them now in the family cemetery on his plantation. The grave, for awhile, was lost among the pines growing there, but eventually a marker was placed at the supposed site of the grave. Governor Perry wrote, "I remember visiting, when a boy, the grave of Colonel Benjamin Cleveland on the banks of Tugaloo, in Pendleton District--now Oconee County--and I found it in a neglected state...except, I think, there may have been a granite slab covering it; but the brambles and briars and bushes had grown up all around where lay the great hero of King's Mountain. Many years afterward in passing through the neighborhood, I inquired of a farmer if Colonel Cleveland's grave was still neglected, and he replied that it looked like an old hog pen! Someone had built, years before, a square pen around it out of pine saplings and they had rotted down." Fortunately, the gravesite has since been preserved in a more respectful manner. Ben's grave is now enclosed by a new rail fence. An American flag decorates the gravesite along with a commemorative plaque presented by the Boy Scouts.
On July 27, 1887, a large monument to Ben was dedicated at Fort Madison in Westminster County, South Carolina, near the Georgia border. Fort Madison is only a community by that name--it was never a military establishment. Because of its militaristic name, however, and its proximity to Ben's home, many mistakenly believe this monument marks Ben's final resting place.
Ben's Tugaloo Valley home was once a large wooden-framed building commanding a "grand panoramic view" of the rivers, hills, and mountains of South Carolina and Georgia. The house later burned although Governor Perry remembered the chimneys still standing. As early as 1874 Colonel Robert A. Thompson recalled that Ben's house, outhouses, and even the brick lining of his house cellar were gone.
No biography of Benjamin Cleveland would be complete without mentioning his relationship to Oliver Cromwell. Cleveland family genealogists frequently encounter unsubstantiated stories claiming that the American Cleveland line is descended from Cromwell. Though most have dismissed the notion as romantic rumor, Ben seemed to have believed the story of the basis of a book The Life and Adventures of Mr. Cromwell, the Natural Son of Oliver Cromwell, written by the son of a great English beauty named Elizabeth Cleveland.
Elizabeth, the daughter of a palace officer of Hampton Court, attracted the attention of King Charles I. She subsequently won the sympathies of Cromwell when he assumed the reins of government. According to the family rumor, she became Cromwell's mistress and had a son by him. This son wrote the book that so influenced Colonel Ben Cleveland.
Despite the book's effect on Ben, serious historians give little credence to the concept. While King Charles was of the ilk to have a mistress or two lying around the castle, Cromwell was far too Puritan to engage in such extra-marital activities. A Cromwell biographer named Noble denounced the book as "too marvelous to be true...the extraordinary adventures recited in this book make it appear to be a fictitious narrative." Nevertheless, Ben and other Clevelands were convinced enough of the story's authenticity to include it in the family history, and the name Oliver Cromwell Cleveland shows up frequently in Cleveland genealogy.
Governor Benjamin F. Perry, who included Ben in his Sketches of Eminent Statesmen, maintained, "I have found great difficulty in collecting material for a sketch of Colonel Cleveland's life and character. The events of his life, like the pine poles which surrounded his grave, have rotted out of the memory of the new generation, and there are few living who know anything about him." Fortunately, since Governor Perry's efforts, another historian, Lyman C. Draper, has gathered and recorded an abundance of information on the colonel. As secretary of the Wisconsin Historical Society in the mid-nineteenth century, Draper corresponded with hundreds of people (including Governor Perry) in order to collect information for his book King's Mountain and Its Heroes. Draper was a meticulous researcher who contacted everyone who knew anything about the Clevelands. His manuscript collection is now recorded on thirty rolls of microfilm. Even though only a small portion of Draper's research concerned the Clevelands, there are still hundreds of letters, memoranda, affidavits, and sketches from Cleveland descendants, neighbors, and military and civilian associates, many dating from the 1840's.
Draper wrote of Ben, "While it is conceded Cleveland was a rough frontier man, and particularly inimical to thieving and murderous Tories yet he was kind hearted and his sympathies as responsive to misfortune as those of the tenderest woman."
There seems to be no shortage of glorification for the colonel. In 1855 General John S. Preston said, "Cleveland, so brave and yet so gentle. As a soldier he ranked among the bravest of the brave. A strict disciplinarian, he was so kind and gentle that all his men loved him. The idol of his men, he was the pet aversion and terror of the British and Tories. Stubborn and persistent in defense, he was intrepid and fearless in charge. Deeply imbued with the justice of his cause and burning with patriotic fervor, almost equal to the religious fanaticism of Cromwell, like the illustrious Cromwell he possessed the happy faculty of imparting to his men a part of his own fiery nature and stubborn courage. In battle he was ever superb..."
A few years later, at the dedication ceremony for Ben?s monument at Fort Madison, a speaker said about the colonel, "As a friend he was tried and true. No one ever had occasion to regret he ever trusted Cleveland. As true as steel, and brave as a lion, he never deserted a friend in time of trouble or danger; but when dangers thickened and foes multiplied, he stuck closer than a brother. All his friends had implicit confidence in the integrity of his heart, the valor of his arm, and almost unerring certainty of his judgment. Where he was best known he was best loved, and where that judgment was oftenest tried, it was most religiously trusted."
This man who had begun his life as a ne-er-do-well in Virginia grew up to be, according to Dr. Betty Linney Waugh, "a larger than life version of the Revolutionary War era." His deeds of glory laid the foundation for a new nation. While his name may not have the recognition factor of his buddy Daniel Boone, his vision, valor, and vitality contributed as much as Boone's to the legacy of the United States of America.
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