One April a few years ago, I drove down South Carolina Highway Six through Eutawville to a wide spot in the road where a road sign said simply “Eutaw Springs.” Just a little past that sign is about an acre of ground encircled by a black-painted wrought iron fence. There are trees here and there and a few monuments and markers scattered around. It looks like a graveyard. In a way it is. Both inside that fence and in the fields around it the bodies of roughly two hundred men are buried not too far below the surface of the sandy soil.
The brown sign with the white lettering gives some attempt at explanation. It says “Eutaw Springs Battle Ground.” I pulled up beside it and took a picture of it, wondering why Carolinians call them “battle grounds” while everyone to the north calls them “battlefields.”
I wandered through the wrought iron gate and walked to the middle of the enclosure. It wasn’t the first time I had been there. About two years ago, I had come on a steamy August morning and looked about with much the same incomprehension that I felt now.
Eutaw Springs was the last battle in the American Revolution’s Southern Campaign. It was also the last battle that Nathanael Greene commanded, and since I hope someday really soon to start writing a biography of Greene, it is a battle in which I am particularly interested.
If battlefields are texts, they are ones which immediately after being written begin to be buried, until few might believe a battle had ever taken place anywhere near this McDonald’s, or this auto-body shop, or the Apollo Theater in Harlem (to speak only of the battles of Monmouth, Harlem Heights, and Brooklyn).
As I stood at Eutaw Springs, wondering what all the strange hummocks and knolls in the ground were, and just where the heck were those springs, a car pulled up and parked next to mine. Then another. And another. And another. Men in woodland camouflage and black berets pulled over their foreheads emerged and walked slowly into the field. A short, brisk man with a beret pulled down at a jaunty angle detached himself from the growing crowd—there were now about six or seven cars parked up alongside mine—and approached me. On his shoulders were the eagles of a colonel. Once again the United States Army was arriving at Eutaw Springs.
“Battlefields, in their way, are as dissimilar as human faces. Not only are there abundant physical differences — hill and plain, swamp and mountain, desert and suburb — but their less easily defined ‘feel' — their personality, if you will — is different too.”
I had come south to attend an academic conference on religion and church history held that year in Savannah. On the way down, I had made a leisurely progress through the Piedmont of the Carolinas, seeing old friends, attending a lecture on Virginia anti-slavery activists, eating barbecue, doing some light hiking—but mostly I was there to visit battle grounds.
The first of these was near the border of North and South Carolina. Kings Mountain is like an enormous frying pan set face down onto the Carolina Piedmont, visible from a surprising distance across the rolling plain. From the top, it seems as if you are much higher than you actually are, an illusion I have noticed in England, where just a small height above a fl at plain
The Cresset makes you feel that you are atop a minor Alp.
Here on this hilltop, on 7 October 1780, a force of a little over one thousand Americans led by a Scotsman made their final stand. They were all American Loyalists, led by Major Patrick Ferguson, a son of the Scottish Enlightenment, whose father was a colleague of the bench with Lords Kames and Monboddo, the latter of whom once had argued over the Ferguson son’s education with David Hume, another friend of the family. Of those thousand, just Ferguson and seventy New Yorkers and Jerseymen of the American Volunteers were in uniform, and like the American general Daniel Morgan, Ferguson wore a hunting shirt over his uniform. All the rest were Carolinians who had flocked to Ferguson’s call to defend their homes and the King’s government against the rebels in control of their states.
Opposing them were men much the same as they. The majority were Carolinians. But there were also men who would in time be known as the “Overmountain Men,” settlers from the other side of the Smokies and the Blue Ridge, from far western Virginia and from what is now far eastern Tennessee. The Overmountain men had been persuaded by their commanders that once Ferguson was finished dealing with the Patriots on the eastern side of the Appalachians, they would be next. So they had ridden over the mountains, and now they surrounded Ferguson and the Loyalists on top of the hill. The only way to tell between most of the soldiers on either side was that the Loyalists wore pine twigs in their hats while the Patriots had squares of white paper attached to theirs.
The battle began at 3:00 pm, after a morning of rain. It was over in about an hour. Ferguson was dead along with 156 of his men. One hundred and sixty-three were so badly wounded that they were left to die by the Patriots on the hillside. On their march into captivity, nine of the Loyalist militia were hung after the merest figment of a trial.
As you drive up towards the Visitors Center at the Kings Mountain National Park, you parallel an old road which lies sunken along the modern paved road, like a broad ditch. The battles fought out here in the Carolina Backcountry, you realize, were not fought in a completely howling wilderness. They were fought along a road network, however primitive that might have been. The battles of Cowpens, Kings Mountain, and Eutaw Springs were all fought along roads whose traces remain on the palimpsest of the Carolina landscape, writings seen only if you are looking for them.
The British historian Richard Holmes claims to find Kings Mountain possessed by an eerie presence. I cannot say that I felt it. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, and were it not for the interpretive films, the Visitors Center might have felt like the backcountry registration center at any national park. There were people out on the paths through the battlefield who seemed oblivious to any presence, eerie or otherwise. Some were in very high tech clothes, speed walking the paths. The park was, for them, just a venue for physical fitness; any other associations were accidental. It could have been any recreational park.
Except for the grave. The grave is the jarring note. It lies on the slopes of the ridge facing the Visitors Center, at the end of the circle hike around the northern base and back across the top of Kings. An elaborate marker is there, a high tombstone marking the grave of Colonel Patrick Ferguson, which was not his rank, of the Seventy-First Highlanders, which was not his regiment—in fact, it hadn’t even been formed by the time Ferguson died. The inaccurate tombstone is really a monument to Anglophilia, dedicated in 1930 in the presence of the British ambassador.
Behind it is another monument that, though as artificial as the tall 1930 tombstone, is nonetheless very powerful. Some time in the late nineteenth century, a retired offi cer in the area began to build a cairn over the grave where Ferguson and many of his men lie. He followed a Highland custom—or a romantic interpretation of a Highland custom—of placing a few stones atop the pile each time he visited. Ferguson, it must be said, was no Highland chief. He was born and bred in Edinburgh, in a townhouse to which David Hume, Lord Kames, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith were all frequent visitors. His family’s tomb in Scotland is not beneath a pile of rocks, but in a mausoleum in a city churchyard. Yet it is not, aft er all, an inappropriate way to memorialize the man whose shatt ered body, pierced by at least five .54 caliber rifle bullets and perhaps as many as fifteen, was wrapped in the hide of a freshly killed bull and buried with the Americans he had commanded. Even the speed walkers stopped for a while to stare at the cairn and wonder.
The day before they cornered Ferguson atop Kings Mountain, the Patriots had camped for the night at the Cowpens, a little less than thirty miles west of Ferguson’s last stand. It was a backcountry stockyard, where herds of Carolina cattle were gathered before being driven towards Charlotte, North Carolina, or to low country South Carolina. Thus it was a backcountry crossroads, a place where trails and what passed for roads came together. On 15 January 1781, it became a batt le ground.
The essentials of what happened are, as they are for most battles, fairly simple to comprehend. An American general pursued at top speed by a very young British cavalry commander decided to stop. He let his men eat and sleep, and he waited for the battle. The next morning they fought, and about two hours later, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan had annihilated the British force under Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Only one hundred or so of the British force, including Tarleton, escaped. Every other soldier was killed or captured.
The essential narrative is easy, but everything else is difficult.. Take the place itself. Cowpens, to use Richard Holmes’s metaphor, has a very different face than Kings Mountain. At Kings, it is obvious what has to be done: if you are a rebel, take that hill; if you are a loyalist, hold that hill. From whatever perspective, the hill is the obvious and overwhelming fact. The ground at Cowpens, in contrast, is subtle and elusive. It has qualities that are not easily seen. At first, it looks like an open park. Then, as you walk it, you begin to see the folds and swales and slopes that you previously had missed. You realize, suddenly, that Tarleton did not see them either and that within every swale and behind every slope is where Daniel Morgan carefully placed his men. Batt le grounds—or, rather, the ground upon which battles are fought—do indeed have personalities, as Richard Holmes suggests. If Kings Mountain were a face, we would think of it as open; Cowpens we would think of at first as open, but then would on acquaintance with the personality behind it realize was open to nothing. The first task of the commander, before he contemplates his enemy, is to understand the personality of the land on which he will risk his men. That understanding is inextricably bound up in aspects of the commander’s own personality.
The military historian Mark Grimsley has argued provocatively that interest in personalities of the Civil War is related to the interest men have (and yes, it is invariably men who are so interested) in these figures as models:
I have long noticed that Civil War buffs, as a rule, are not really interested in the Civil War. It’s not so much that they have a restricted view of history (although they do). It’s rather that only certain aspects of the conflict comprise elements that belong within the sphere of personalities and events known as the “American Iliad,” a term first coined by amateur historian Otto Eisenschiml in 1947. Within this sphere, the emphasis is disproportionately on great statesmen and generals, and within that subset, the emphasis is mostly on their personalities. A team of Clydesdale horses could not make me let go of the notion that what is going in here is a sort of men’s studies hidden in plain sight: Iron John Goes to See the Elephant.
Grimsley does not, I think, mean to be provocative so much as truthful, and he does not condemn this interest, but simply notes it.
If ever there was a worthy topic for this area of Men’s Studies, it is the American commander at Cowpens. Dan Morgan showed up in Winchester, Virginia, in 1754. He was about sixteen or seventeen years old and arrived just in time to be a teamster in the wagon train that followed Braddock to his defeat near Pittsburgh. A year later he struck a British offi cer and received the standard five hundred lashes for this offense, timed by the beat of a drum, a corporal punishment that was often capital. In Morgan’s case, it was 499 lashes, for he forever claimed that the drummer miscounted. He recovered from that, and just as miraculously gained an appointment as ensign in George Washington’s Virginia Regiment, and later recovered from an Indian’s bullet that passed through his cheek or neck, knocked out half his teeth, and exited through his upper lip. The French and Indian War over, he went back to brawling (which damaged him further), roistering, drinking, and driving wagons. By 1775 he had himself a freight business, a wife, land, and a certain amount of respect in the Valley of Virginia.
But it was the Revolution that showed that, whatever his other abilities and gifts, Daniel Morgan was a tactical genius. He knew how to lead his men; what to get them to do, and how to get them to do it. He also understood how to place those men on any given bit of ground. At Saratoga he used his chosen band of riflemen and sharpshooters from the Shenandoah Valley as if they were themselves one great sniper rifle under his personal control. He aimed them at the heart of the British army, killing its officers, breaking apart key formations, and allowing other Continental Army regiments the opportunity to exploit the chaos he had created. Yet Morgan was also, like just about every American officer, a man from humble origins who wished to be recognized as a gentleman. When he was passed over for command of the new light infantry wing of the Continental Army, he left the army in disgust. The honor of a would-be gentleman demanded nothing less.
It was only the return of his friend and neighbor Horatio Gates to command in the South, and a commission as Brigadier General by Congress, that drew Morgan out of his Shenandoah Valley retirement. He had not reached the Southern Army before it was destroyed at Camden in August 1780, and Gates was disgraced for both the loss and his hasty flight from the battlefield. Despite the departure of a man he regarded as a friend, Morgan stayed. The new commander, Nathanael Greene, gave Morgan command of most of the elite formations of the Southern Army, and sent him west into the Carolina backcountry to make trouble and yet avoid defeat. That was how Morgan came to be at the Cowpens the night he decided to stop running from Tarleton.
There is, of course, no good reason why Morgan stopped. He gave several contradictory ones in subsequent years, with varying degrees of tactical and strategic rationale. But the fact was that he stopped with an untested army and with his back against a river, cutting off his retreat. He was opposed by some of the best soldiers of the British Army, led by a commander who had been highly successful in destroying the American units he had encountered. Why did he stop?
In the end, all the military doctrine and theory in the world cannot help the historian who contemplates the decisions of a commander, or any soldier, or indeed any historical actor. Dan Morgan, semi-retired semi-professional brawler, did not feel like running any more. He had had enough of it. He thought he knew his men well enough to trust them with their own lives and his honor, and he thought that Banastre Tarleton couldn’t take a good hard jab to the gut. So he stopped and waited.
Leave the battle to one side. Maybe Grimsley is right. When we study these things, come to these places, we are looking for simpler answers to simpler questions than we often know. To quote him again:
Behind the general’s scowl, the politician’s grin, the diplomat’s gaze of cool aplomb, are men, mere human beings, wrestling with questions, trying to squeeze them into answers? The questions most important to them rarely concern affairs of state, no matter how momentous. Instead they involve more personal issues, the same puzzles that afflict less famous, less powerful men. Who am I? What is the world around me like? How can I be happy? Which things, in the last analysis, are truly of importance? Each man answers these questions differently, but his answers affect every other decision he makes.
South of Cowpens is the city of Spartanburg, and in Spartanburg is a legendary greasy spoon known as The Beacon. It is a deluxe burger joint with excellent onion rings, and if you visit more than once a year you should probably put a cardiologist on retainer. As I was confronting my “Chilecheese-a-plenty,” more food than any person should eat in two separate meals, two men came into the dining room, both probably in their early sixies. One was black; one was white. They sat down together, and then the white fellow hopped up and got utensils and ketchup and things. The Beacon was segregated not all that long ago, something these two gentlemen can easily remember. They grew up as kids with segregation being their great social reality. Now here they are, eating together, with a white man fetching condiments for the black man.
It is a simply amazing sight. That is what Yankees don’t realize about the South. It is adaptable. John Shelton Reed, who knows more about this than I do, claims that the South is really more European than any other part of America. But what I saw at the Beacon anecdotally shows me that the South is America in its essence. It shapes and remakes itself every generation. Just like Daniel Morgan.
The Colonel who approached me at Eutaw Springs explained that he and his officers were serving in the South Carolina National Guard. They were on a staff ride, a mobile seminar on a battlefield dedicated to explaining and understanding the tactical problems confronted by previous officers. As National Guard officers they were lineal descendants of the men of the South Carolina militia who had fought at Eutaw Springs under the command of Francis Marion, usually known as “the Swamp Fox.”
Marion was, as the Guardsmen’s guide David Reuwer explained, just one of the notable personalities in the field that day. Also present was Nathanael Greene, the American commander in the Carolinas; Harry Lee, cavalry officer and father of Robert E. Lee; Andrew Pickens, the sober Presbyterian elder who also had fought at Cowpens; and John Eager Howard of Maryland, after whom about half of all geographical features in Baltimore seem to be named; and Wade Hampton I, after whose family half of the things in South Carolina are named.
David gives a fine lecture, not only because he knows so very much about each fork in the road and each knoll and hummock in the ground at Eutaw Springs, but because he conveys all of this with fire and enthusiasm. When someone expressed surprise at the number of historical notables who were at Eutaw Springs, David responded, “That’s why this is sacred ground—because such men fought here.”
Sacred? That word brought me up short. I had just come from a three-day conference of the American Society for Church History, and I didn’t think I had once used the word sacred, and I don’t remember hearing the word in any of the sessions I attended. I had come to Eutaw Springs to hear the word for the first time that weekend.
A while ago, I had a mild argument with my friend Andy on whether places could be sacred. I argued that they could be. He didn’t think so. In the end, I think we had partially convinced each other so that, while we didn’t wholly switch positions, we were closer to a median. Andy told me that he had changed his mind when he heard of someone moving into a house where a terrible murder had been committed and of the new owner’s intent to transform the room where the murder had taken place into a playroom for their children. Surely, he thought, this was more than just a little strange.
What Andy was thinking, I believe, was that blood changes things; it is a fluid that, where it is spilt, alters the landscape. Indeed, it sets it apart, and setting things apart is the essential action at the heart of sacrality. That occurs even before one can assess the reasons why that blood was spilt. Such an understanding seems to be a very common human reaction. Perhaps we need to be scholars in order to ignore it.
There was certainly enough blood to spread around at Eutaw Springs. Compared to a battle of the Napoleonic Wars, or the American Civil War, it was a minor skirmish. Yet proportionally it was as terrible a battle as any in the Civil War. By the close of action, there were approximately thirty to forty percent casualties on both the American and British sides.
Nathanael Greene had been commander of the Southern Department of the Continental Army since November 1780. He had not yet won a battle, but he had engaged in one of the most extraordinary and artful series of maneuvers in American military history, the result of which was to leave the British Army with only its main base in Charleston, South Carolina and a series of other outposts in the Springs Battle Ground. Carolina Lowcountry.
Yet Greene wanted to win a battle. He wanted to smash the British Army and with that one bold stroke remove their presence from the Carolinas. Like other American revolutionaries, by 1781 he found the presence of British troops on American soil to be a foreign intrusion, an affront to the new nation’s honor.
He had, moreover, his own honor to think of, for he could not boast of a victory won on his own right. By defeating the British in open battle, he could put a proper finish to the strange career that took him from being an anchor smith and private in a Rhode Island militia company to a major general in the Carolinas.
This seems a fairly offensive motivation to a modern audience. The idea of a general spending the lives of others for his own honor is repugnant— even the idea of his spending his own life for honor is repugnant. But there are indications that Greene’s soldiers had their own sense of honor. At the siege of Fort Ninety-Six in June 1781, several sources indicate that Greene agreed to a final desperate assault on the British position because a representation was made to him from the ranks of the soldiery—particularly those serving in the regiments from Maryland—that it would impugn his and their honor to end the siege too precipitously. Honor had not been much of a concern, at least in theory, for Greene when he was a Quaker businessman in Rhode Island, but now he was a gentleman desirous of maintaining his position. Honor had not perhaps been a concern for jobless Irish immigrants in Annapolis and Baltimore before they had enlisted for the duration of the war in the First and Third Maryland Regiments, but they too thought of themselves differently now that they were the ones who had remained in the field, had suffered while others were at home, who had watched militia come and go while they stayed. They were now, as their commander had called them, “the Stamina of American liberty.” They, too, wanted to be not only survivors but also victors.
Violence, as some historians have begun to realize, creates identity for those who employ it. We can see this, I think, in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain in his violence murdered his brother, apparently in an attempt to cover his own shame. In doing so, he created a new identity for himself, became the father of a new race. This was his curse, but it was also, perhaps, what he was seeking all along. In killing his brother, he also killed his father, and became the father of his own people. One of the many lessons of Genesis is humanity’s inability to recognize curses for what they are, instead initially seeing them as a sought-after blessing.
Greene the ex-Quaker, and the immigrant Irishmen of the Maryland Regiments, found radically new identities through organized violence. Perhaps this is part of the fascination that they and other warriors have for those who visit battle grounds.
The contemplation of battle grounds inevitably leads to contemplation of how people interpret the historical past. Death, personality, and the sacred are things about which humans are inevitably concerned. It is not too surprising that these subjects are sought on batt le grounds, or, better put, that these subjects seek those who visit battle grounds. How people approach the historical past should probably not condition how historians present the past. But it should inform us. It should give us pause when we find ourselves in solipsistic conversation with ourselves.
People in the twenty-first century will seek transcendence in the strangest places. Battle grounds will not be the strangest of them. They are places where clues to the self, to life’s meaning, and to the nature of a good death will be earnestly sought.
Al Zambone is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Purdue University North Central.