To those who lived in the Eastern Appalachians in the last decades of the 1700’s, the Revolutionary War was a distant drumbeat being fought and stalemated somewhere up north. For these people, it was an echo in the mountains that surrounded their hard scrabble lives. For the most part, though there were others, these early settlers on the frontier were not English, per se, but came from the large Irish territory, the Ulster Plantation. These Scot-Irish whose ancestors where already displaced once, ignored the Royal Proclamation where George III promised the indigenous peoples that there would be no British subjects settling permanently west of the Alleghenies and dug out a tenuous life in the wilderness and lived as they wished.
The call of war sounded closer when the British decided to end the stalemate , invade the Southern colonies thus splitting the colonies and the resistance with the hope of ending the war. They banked on loyalists fighting along side the British soldiers. What they didn’t bank on was the ragtag group, these “mongrels”, “barbarians” , these “Backwater Men” as Major Patrick Furgeson disparagingly called them, who sometimes appeared in the low countries, who fought like devils with their strange Indian cries, who could fell a deer at 200 yards, who harbored rebels and their families in the depths of the mountains and lived to fight another day. The sound of war was made crashingly real when Furgeson,commissioned by Cornwallis to subdue the rebels on his western flank, out of frustration, threatened the leaders of this group by saying If the Rebels “did not desist from their opposition to the British arms,” he would “march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders and lay their country waste with fire and sword.” This enraged the leaders of these very independent people who mustered over a thousand men and set off on a 330 mile journey in a nine day march which brought defeat to the Tories and death to Furgeson. These men set off ,not to fight for a nation but to defend their cabins and farms and the mountain life they valued.
Every year in September, The Washington County Regiment , in conjunction with the OVTA (Overmountain Victory Trail Association) , holds its commemoration of the Overmountain Men’s gathering at Sycamore Shoals. This year it was held on September 25 through 27th. It threatened rain all weekend, so much so that the school day scheduled for Friday was cancelled. The day turned out sunny, however and the historic site hosted the Tennessee State Guard who were on maneuvers at the park. I didn’t stop for a head count but I bet there was a hundred if there was one, and It was really cool to see them mass together, so erect and so serious. The Watauga Valley Fife and Drum leading the way, the Militia, distaff members and the whole company of Guard participated in crossing the Watauga as the Overmountain Men did 235 years ago. Prior to the crossing, Steve Ricker told the story of the battle of Kings Mountain to a rapt audience and the Reverend Doak, played by George Cobb, gave that rousing sermon which rededicated the men and brought the men’s determination to a fever pitch.
After the crossing the Overmountain Men , followed by Representatives of the First Tennessee Regiment (War of 1812) and then the whole contingent of the Tennessee State Guard assembled in the ampitheater for a short program. It brought home that there has been a continuum of volunteer service protecting communities here and wherever they are needed for the last 235 years and that these last are the inheritors of a grand tradition. One member of the Guard sang the most beautiful rendition of the national anthem I’ve ever heard and there were speeches. Then three guardsmen were singled out for recognition for excellence.
The Guard, the OVTA and the National Park Service all had display stations at the visitors’ center and they stayed all weekend, providing the public with information and answering questions.
Saturday was another one of those days, threatening rain which never came. There was good traffic throughout the weekend where people came and saw various displays of 18th century living. one of the more interesting ones , I though, was Ken and Retha Reece’s display of trekking equipment and how one made pemmicin to take on trips. There were militia drills throughout the day and the crowd pleasing cannon demonstration in the latter part of the afternoon.
After the public left for the day, many of the members went to the burial site of Mary Patton who provided the excellent black powder for the Overmountain Men. She was remembered in a moving ceremony culimnating in a military salute and the pouring of black powder on her grave.
Sunday was less fast paced and more relaxed. Under cloudy skies, George Cobb preached the sermon explaining the references to the sword of Gideon and Macedonia. The park was lightly attended which was just as well as the militia got together for the first time, and actually was able to socialize.
I think the members were gathering their reserves to see the changing of officers in the afternoon. At 3 :30, Colonel Bob McCroskey stepped down as Colonel of the Militia and passed the baton to now Colonel Chadwick Bogart. It was very moving to hear Bob enumerate the accomplishments of the regiment over his six-year tenure, listen to his reasons for stepping down and read Chad’s commission to him and all assembled. Chad had tears in his eyes and he accepted the commission and praised Bob for his service, His first command , though, was to the distaff members as he bellowed ” you WILL Wear modesty cloths at ALL TIMES”. The verdict? Yep, he has what it takes as every woman looked down at her chest to see that her cloth was put on correctly.
It was a busy weekend, full of fun and emotion as the Washington Co. Regiment of North Carolina Militia, the OVTA and the TN State Guard met together to commemorate one of the most important events in the Up Country of North Carolina.