A Hanging at Sunshine
Following the famous battle at Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780 between Patriot (pro-independence) and Loyalist (or Tories, loyal to the British monarchy), over 30 Loyalists, including the notorious Ambrose Mills, were captured at the battle scene. They were force-marched to Rutherford County and put on trial. Although all received death sentences, only nine were hung, Mills among them. Here, as provided by county historian Chivous Bradley, are details about those nine men and the location where the gory execution occurred.
Kings Mountain Aftermath
Loyalist Prisoners Executed at Biggerstaff’s Old Fields
By Chivous Bradley
Once the Battle of Kings Mountain was won, the nearly starved American army quickly attended to burying the dead. With the expectation that [British Commander Banastre] Tarleton’s Legion might be coming their way, and having limited equipment for digging, the graves were shallow but done as well as could be under the conditions. Colonel [William] Campbell stayed with a few men to supervise the burials. Colonel [Edward] Lacey stayed with Doctor Uzal Johnson who attended to those on the battlefield who were wounded too severely to be moved.
On the morning of October 8, the return march to North Carolina was begun. The Loyalist prisoners were marched three abreast and carefully guarded. Those with injuries were moved as gently as possible on horse litters. The wounded patriot Colonel James Williams succumbed to his wounds and died that day. It was decided to pitch camp for the night after travelling only twelve miles from the battle field. Here on the plantation of Matthew Fondren, the weary Americans and their prisoners enjoyed a meal of sweet potatoes from Mr. Fondren’s patch. For most, this was the first bite they had eaten in two full days.
The next morning, a funeral was held for Colonel Williams. Campbell and Lacey returned to the troops with Dr. Johnson who treated the injured of both sides. The men on foot who had been left behind at Green River on October 6 also arrived in camp. For most of the tired soldiers, it was a day of welcome rest. By October 10, the Over Mountain men had marched back into Rutherford County hoping to find forage for their horses, round up what scant provision could be found for themselves, and locate beds in homes around Gilbert Town [later Rutherfordton] for the wounded.
The rank and file Loyalist militia prisoners were confined at Gilbert Town in the same pens Ferguson had built for patriot prisoners a month earlier. The officers were lodged at John Walker’s home. While waiting for orders regarding where the prisoners should be delivered, the camp was moved to the Biggerstaff Old Fields on the plantation of Loyalist Aaron Biggerstaff who had been wounded at Kings Mountain and later died at York, South Carolina. Nearly-dry ears of corn and green pumpkins were to be had from the Loyalist’s fields. One American patriot later shared that those fried green pumpkins tasted as good as anything he had ever eaten. Because there were not enough cooking utensils, the prisoners were given theirs raw.
During the previous month, several patriots had been executed by hanging at Camden and at Augusta. Colonel Isaac Shelby shared that when they reached Gilbert Town, a paroled officer from Ninety-six informed him eleven had been hanged there, a few days before, for no other crime than being rebels. This information so agitated the officers from the two Carolinas that they united in presenting a complaint to Colonel Campbell that among the prisoners were robbers, house-burners, parole-breakers and assassins. A copy of North Carolina law was presented and on October 14, court was convened.
By that evening as many as thirty-six had been charged and tried. At least thirty of them were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Nine were actually “turned off three at a time” before Campbell stopped the proceedings late that night and began to move the troops toward the Catawba River. The executed men were Ambrose Mills, Robert Wilson, James Chitwood, Captain Grimes, Thomas Lafferty, Walter Gilkey, John McFall, John Bibby, and Augustine Hobbs.
Colonel Ambrose Mills, the highest ranking man executed and probably the best known, had close ties to the Crown from the time of the Regulator Movement. He was associated with David Fanning in the early days of the Revolution. He was in command of the Rutherford County Loyalist militia troops at Earle’s Ford when Andrew Hampton’s son Noah was killed. He was also at the Battle of the Peach Orchard in Spartanburg District when one of Hampton’s friends was killed. Animosity naturally existed between the two. He was sentenced to die based primarily on a charge of instigating the South Carolina Cherokee to desecrate the frontier. His wife was at the trial and sat all night in the rain as his body dangled from the tree.
Captain Robert Wilson, from the Ninety Six area, commanded a group of Tories who captured a strategic gun placement on Sullivan’s Island facing Charleston Harbor. Hampton knew some of the men killed by Wilson’s troops in seizing that location from the patriots. He had joined Ferguson, just before the Battle of King’s Mountain, from Cruger’s command at Ninety Six. He was present when some of the prisoners at Ninety Six were hanged. For that reason, he was a prime target for retaliation. The exact charge against him is not known, but he was an influential Loyalist and one of the first three to be executed.
Captain James Chitwood, whose home was only a few miles from the site of the executions, was one of the best known Rutherford County Tories. He was commander of the troops who took Colonel John Walker’s home and helped Alexander Chesney turn it into a hospital for Loyalist Major James Dunlap. His Tories established a garrison around the Walker Plantation to protect Dunlap and Loyalist Surgeon Uzal Johnson while the major was recuperating from the wounds he received at Cane Creek. While the exact details are not known, he was charged with murder and other barbaric acts. His daughters arrived at the camp to visit him but soon learned his fate. His two sons took allegiance and were paroled. They took his body across Roberson Creek on a board for burial in a nearby cemetery.
Captain Grimes does not have a given name recorded in official documents of the British or Americans. He is thought to be Arthur Grimes who came from Pennsylvania to the North Pacolet area of Tryon County in 1771. Shortly after arriving in Tryon County, he was accused of being a land-grabber and reprimanded by Royal Governor Tryon. During the early days of the revolution, he moved to the over-mountain area of Washington County which was then in North Carolina but later a part of Tennessee. There he organized a band of self-proclaimed Tories who became highway men and horse thieves. He and a group of his associates forced a Mr. Grubbs to turn over his property to them. They killed a Mr. Millican and attempted to kill Grubbs and another gentleman by the name of Roddy. These men were all acquaintances of Colonel John Sevier. Sevier’s men had pursued him but only caught a few of his men before they came over the mountain to join Ferguson.
Lieutenant Thomas Lafferty, from Rutherford County, was born in Ireland and came to Virginia before settling in Rutherford County. He owed money to several of his neighbors. A local tradition says he took the British side because Ferguson promised him that when the war was over he would have a clear title to his land. He had insulted Colonel McDowell’s troops on at least one occasion. Other than treason, the exact charge brought against him is not known.
Captain Walter Gilkey was another Rutherford Tory whose home was near the state line with South Carolina. When he went to the home of a prominent Whig who was not at home, he demanded that the man’s son report where his father was. The lad said he didn’t know the whereabouts of his father, but if he did he wouldn’t tell a Tory. Gilkey testified at the trial that he shot the boy in the arm in self-defense because he held a pistol. The youth was with the Over Mountain men at the trial and testified against Gilkey as the man who “attempted to murder him.”
Captain John McFall from Burke County had been a scout with Griffith Rutherford on the Cherokee Expedition. He later became a noted Tory leader and, on one occasion, went to the home of Martin Davenport at the head of a mounted party of Loyalists. Some of his men verbally abused Mrs. Davenport and McFall ordered her ten-year-old son to get corn and feed the horses. The boy refused and told the Tory officer if he wanted the horses fed to do it himself. The captain fell into a rage, cut a peach tree limb, and whipped the boy smartly. The McDowells spoke on behalf of McFall and his brother Arthur who was reprieved. However, Colonel Cleveland who was well acquainted with the Davenports, said John McFall didn’t deserve to live.
Lieutenant John Bibby was from Rutherford County. Not much is recorded about him and even his name is somewhat obscure. Several correspondents from Rutherford informed Draper when he wrote Kings Mountain and Its Heroes that the correct spelling was Bibby. There were Bibby families in the Sunshine area for a few generations after Kings Mountain. Clarence Griffin spelled it Biddy with no explanation. Bibby was likely an associate of Captain Chitwood and not popular with his accusers. No record has been found of the charge against him.
Lieutenant Augustine Hobbs was from South Carolina and was connected with Robert Wilson and Alexander Chesney. He was obviously not popular with the officers in charge of the court. No record has been found of the exact crime for which he was convicted.
The following day, Mrs. Biggerstaff and an old farm hand cut the bodies down and buried them in a shallow grave. While the action taken at Biggerstaff’s may seem extreme, it had its desired effect. The practice of routinely hanging captured patriots by the British and Tory officers ceased. Very few local militia men were willing to become Loyalist soldiers after this event.
Read more about the actual people and events of this era in Joe Epley’s historical novel, A Passel of Hate. With a background that included service with the Army’s elite Green Berets, television journalism and a successful global public relations practice, Epley retired to the North Carolina mountains [near Tryon] to become a gentleman of leisure. But he couldn’t learn that avocation, so he began researching the revolutionary war activities in the western Carolinas and writing this outstanding book.
Over Two Centuries Later
The Hanging Tree
Forrest Lyda returns to the spot where ancestors died 205 years ago
By TONY EARLEY
Daily Courier Staff Writer
SUNSHINE — Baxter Hollifield led Forrest Lyda to where Stowe Upton told him years before that the hanging tree stood. Upton grew up close to the spot and Samuel Long, who owned the farm, showed him the place. Long, who lived to see the far side of 80, died close to thirty years ago. His father farmed the place before him.
“This is the spot, as near as I can figure it,” Hollifield told Lyda in a clearing surrounded by scrub woods. The walk in was on the bed of an old road, where maybe armed frontiersman and condemned men walked 205 years ago. Skeletal briars reach for travelers now, and beggars’ lice cling to pant legs, trying to get somewhere else.
Lyda stepped forward into the clear place and looked around like a man expecting to see ghosts rise from the ground. “Within a hundred feet of here,” he said quietly, “my great-great-great-great-great grandfather’s buried. Mills is buried here. Merrill hung here, too.”
Ambrose Mills and William Merrill are Lyda ancestors — men on opposite sides of the Revolutionary War. Both men were hanged from the same tree in the bloody days following the Battle of Kings Mountain.
Mills, a Tory, was hanged by Merrill, along with eight other supporters of the Crown. Merrill, a patriot, was dragged from his Rowan County home four months later by Tory nightriders and taken back to the hanging tree. Mills’ son William, who had been left for dead on top of Kings Mountain, swung him off.
Forrest Lyda is a talker. He can’t finish one story without starting 100 others. A historian, he talks about what he has learned backtracking his ancestors into the past. The farther back he looks, the more he has to say. He can’t explain every capillary of a bloodline to a listener, but he tries.
In conversation, two Lyda ancestors rise above their kin like apparitions because of their violent deaths. Their trails cross in a Sunshine honeysuckle patch at a place where an old man, when he was young, was told by an older man that a famous tree once stood — a tree where horses galloped from underneath men with ropes around their necks.
Baxter Hollifield found a waist-deep hole underneath the honeysuckle with his walking stick. Maybe a hanging tree once stood there. “I have always wanted to visit here,” Forrest Lyda said.
Ambrose Mills (for whom Mill Spring in Polk County is named) likely sentenced himself to hanging years before the Revolution broke out. Mills turned Captain Benjamin Merrill of the Rowan County Militia over to Governor Tryon for his part in the “War of the Regulators” tax revolt. Tryon had Merrill hanged and drawn and quartered. His head was placed on a pole outside Tryon’s palace. Benjamin Merrill was William Merrill’s brother.
Ambrose Mills was captured during the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780 along with 40 to 50 other Tories. They were lucky they ever made it off the mountain. One hundred British troops and Loyalists were gunned down in a mountaintop hollow that day after they laid down their weapons. William Mills, bleeding from wounds in his shoulder and heel and left for dead, was discovered by a party of Tories who had been foraging for food when the blood ran on the mountain.
The victorious over-the mountain-men marched their captives westward and decided to hang them a week into the march. Nine Tories swung from the tree before Captain John Sevier caught up with the frontiersmen and convinced them to stop the slaughter. Mills was the second man hanged that day. William Merrill slapped the horse, avenging his brother’s death.
Legend says that Martha Biggerstaff and a slave buried the nine men in a common grave. Charles Chitwood’s body was exhumed later by his family and buried in the Biggerstaff family cemetery several miles away.
William Mills, who later founded Henderson County’s Fruitland community, set out after with a party of Tories as soon as he was able to ride. One of the Tories slit the tongue of the screaming Mrs. Merrill before they started for the hanging tree with her husband. Under the tree, after a ride of a hundred miles, William Mills slapped the horse on which Merrill sat.
Forrest Lyda loves telling the story of how the Mills and Merrill families united in marriage 40 years later. William Merrill’s granddaughter Catherine married William Mills’ grandson, Ambrose Jones Edney, knotting a happy ending of sorts around the violence of the war and the hanging tree.
Even so, the differences between the families weren’t easily forgotten and new ones rose within the political struggles of the new nation and the coming of the Civil War. As a child, Lyda heard handed-down stories of old disagreements from the older members of his family. “We don’t have to talk about anyone else,” Lyda says of his family. “We can talk about each other.”
Lyda’s a historian and a genealogist at heart, but he manages the Hendersonville water treatment plant for a living. The plant sits on land once owned by William Mills. Lyda has seen the deed, which is dated 1789.
William Mills died from internal injuries after being thrown from his horse on his 88th birthday.
Reprinted with permission from The Daily Courier. Copyright owned by The Daily Courier.
Clipping courtesy Chivous Bradley.