King's Mountain Controversy - James Williams #4
Monument where Shelby's men first came up to the mountain summit.
To the Kings Mountain patriot dead. James Williams listed as Col.
Death of Williams
In post #3 Williams conduct during the battle of KM was examined. Now is time to consider the circumstances of his death. In his Memoirs, Col Hill states that Col Williams and his party arrived at the summit after the loyalists held up their white hankerchiefs but before the patriots stopped shooting. He continues, "At this moment this Col Williams was killed. It is generally supposed & believed that it was done by some of the Americans as many of them had been heard to promise on oath that they would do it when they had an opportunity* * *. " The assertion here being that Williams was hated so much he was fragged at Kings Mountain. The further assertion appears that other historians who had written about KM did so on "very incorrect information".
The idea of a fragging soured Lyman Draper who refused to consider the possibility. Instead, he simply dismissed Hill's assertion of fragging with, "The suggestion made by Colonel Hill, in his manuscript narrative, that Colonel Williams was shot by some of Lacey's men, who were inimical to him, and had sworn to take his life is hardly credible; and, for the honor of humanity, we are constrained to discard so improbable and unpatriotic a supposition." Draper fails to explain exactly why he might find it hardly credible. So, is it? A few other accounts of Williams death;
One of Williams men, Thomas Young, told the story almost as a polar opposite. "On the top of the mountain, in the thickest of the fight, I saw Colonel Williams fall, and a braver or better man never died upon the field of battle. * * * The moment I heard the cry that Colonel Williams was shot, I ran to his assistance, for I loved him as a father, he had ever been so kind to me. * * * They carried him into a tent, and sprinkled some water in his face. As he revived, his first words were, 'For God's Sake, boys, don't give up the hill!" The main problem here is that Thomas admits he didn't actually see the shooting. He ran to Williams when he 'heard the cry'.
Another participant, Ensign Robert Campbell left an account that appears in the State Records of North Carolina, Vol 15. Of the death of Williams, he writes, "Col. Williams, who has been so much lamented, was shot through the body, near the close of the action, in making an attempt to charge upon Ferguson. He lived long enough to hear of the surrender of the British Army. He then said, "I die contented, since we have gained the victory," and expired." A couple of notable items about Campbell's account are 1) Williams is shot at the 'close of the action', and 2) Williams is making an 'attempt' on Ferguson. He says Williams was shot through the body but gives no indication of the source.
Dr. John Whelchel http://southerncampaign.org/pen/w6498.pdf was also among Williams men and is thought to be an eyewitness. He relates, "Colonel Williams was killed shortly after the enemy hoisted their flag as an evidence of their surrender." This short statement agrees to the timing of Williams death but doesn't provide insight into the fragging accusation from Hill.
In his 1824 military history of South Carolina known as statistics of South Carolina, Robert Mills had this to say of Col. Williams death. He "had the good fortune to encounter personally in battle Col. Ferguson, who attempted to force his way at this point. They both fell on the spot, being shot, it was supposed, by a ball from the British side-it was the last gun fired" the first thing I noticed in reading this brief account is Mills statement that Williams personally battled Patrick Ferguson. As I continue we can see other people pick up the same tidbit. While there are numerous eyewitness accounts of Ferguson's death none of them include personal combat with Col. Williams. The second problem immediately noticeable in the Mills account is the admission that he assumes the fatal bullet was fired by the British. He says it would have been their last.
Early Tennessee historian, J G M Ramsey published his Annals of Tennessee in 1853 based upon a lifetime of work. His sources for King's Mountain are the Isaac Shelby Papers, written memoirs of Graham and Lenoir, Mr. Foster's essay, the manuscript narratives of several participants, and Wheeler's North Carolina. Of Williams death he wrote, "Towards the close of the engagement he (Williams) espied Ferguson riding near the line, and dashed towards him with a gallant determination of a personal encounter. "I will kill Ferguson or die in the attempt!" exclaimed Williams, and spurring his horse in the direction of the enemy, received a bullet as he crossed their line. He survived till he heard that his antagonist was killed, and his camp surrendered; and amidst the shouts of victory by his triumphant countrymen, said: "I die contented," and with a smile upon his countenance, expired."
Analysis of Ramsey's account may provide an important clue to reconciling the history's that tell of a personal encounter with Ferguson to the other accounts of Ferguson's death. Ramsey never indicates Williams actually got anywhere close to Ferguson. Only that he saw him, shouted a challenge, and started to charge in that direction. At that moment, Williams 'received a bullet as he crossed their line'. Ramsey's account of the death fails to identify a shooter or state whether the shot came from loyalist camp. On the other hand, Ramsey says Williams jumped forward, to an exposed position, and was then shot. This might imply he was hit due to exposing himself to enemy fire.
Joseph Hughes clearly identifies the shooters as Tories in his pension application. http://southerncampaign.org/pen/s31764.pdf He says, "General Williams (James Williams) of S. Carolina was killed after the British raised their flag to surrender by a fire from some tories. Col. Campbell then ordered a fire on the Tories & we killed near a hundred of them after the surrender of the British & could hardly be restrained from killing the whole of them." His statement directly conflicts with the story of fragging from Col Hill's memoirs.
In addition to the eyewitness and early historian accounts of Williams death, there are also some 'traditions' handed down in books and songs. All of them have the gallant Williams fighting bravely. Some have Williams locked in personal combat with Ferguson. In reviewing some of these in Draper's volume, its fairly easy to join with him in dismissing these accounts from adding substantially to the analysis.
So what conclusions about the death of Col James Williams should be drawn from the various accounts. First, it seems clear he was shot as, or after, the white flags went up. Second, there is an excellent possibility James Williams jumped to the front of his line in an effort to go after Patrick Ferguson. As to exactly who shot James Williams, I think the record is not so clear. One potential eyewitness (Hughes) says the shot came from a group of Tories. With first hand knowledge, Col Hill says Williams was shot by a patriot. The other accounts are silent as to just who shot Williams but there may be an implication the shot came from the Loyalist side. If Williams got shot as he rode forward of the position along the forest edge, then it follows his exposure to the Loyalist may have caused him to be shot. On the other hand, the fact most loyalists had ceased fire while rebels continued to fire indirectly supports Hill's accusation of a fragging.
Final result = inconclusive. Certainly not ready to declare Hill correct as to a patriot having fragged General (Colonel) Williams. However, Draper's dismissal of Hill's claim looks poorly analyzed.
It looks like this research needs to go a step further. You see, there is a problem in declaring Colonel Hill to be off the reservation lying in his memoirs. Southern campaign historians rely on Hill's Memoirs for detail on several early partisan actions. Many details exist almost nowhere else. This is true of the King's Mountain account. Hill has provided a lengthy account with lots of detail. So tempting for historians that Draper himself included almost all of it verbatim except the one detail about fragging. If Hill's details cannot be relied upon then much of what we think we know about Huck's defeat, Rocky Mount, and Hanging Rock stands in real doubt. The next entry to this blog series really needs to be a discussion of Hill's memoirs and comparison to other accounts to determine overall reliability.
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