DescriptionNear month’s end, Colonel James Williams was marching westward with his band of recent recruits, estimated at about 70. Among them were many experienced militiamen who had escaped from Georgia and South Carolina, but also many North Carolinians from Caswell and Rowan counties. Williams probably crossed the Catawba River at Sherrill’s Ford perhaps on the evening of September 28, in late September in any case. There he met up with Colonel Thomas Sumter and his men under colonels William Hill and Edward Lacey as well as the Lincoln County Militia under Colonel William Graham. These groups had advanced upstream from Tuckaseegee Ford.
According to Hill’s account written years later in his memoirs, Colonel Williams rode into the camp and “with an air of authority read his commission & required us to submit to his authority.” This announcement, whether actually made with the implied arrogance or not, created immediate friction especially with Sumter’s officers who preferred to follow him and who had already petitioned the governor for his own promotion to general. Colonel Hill wrote later that he told Williams straight out that no man in the camp would follow him. Many scholars doubt such reluctance was the case among the rank and file militiamen, but perhaps only the perspective of the aggrieved William Hill. Sumter’s seven officers then selected a delegation of five from among them to ride to Hillsborough to secure Sumter’s promotion to general, or otherwise resolve the matter of command. Sumter went along, leaving Hill and Lacey to deal with Williams. Aside from Hill’s biased accounts purporting to show active resistance by him and Edward Lacey to Williams’s command, it appears that at least among the South Carolina militiamen, Colonel Williams was actually in charge. These men followed his command.
Hill wrote his account years later and in his dotage. He wrote rather disparagingly of Colonel Williams and many scholars are suspicious of the reasons Hill gave for Williams’s actions. Williams was a capable and active South Carolina militia colonel and he may have felt his recent interaction with Governor Rutledge afforded him the right to take command of any South Carolina militia in the field. Hill served under Sumter and he obviously felt loyal to him. Sumter was from one area of South Carolina; Williams was from another. These leaders and their respective militiamen each wanted to protect their homelands. As it happened, neither Sumter nor Hill would fight at the Battle of Kings Mountain and the resentment of missing out on having participated in such a significant battle may have prompted Hill’s animosity toward Williams as he wrote his account so many years later. It is worth noting that, at the time, Sumter must have felt Williams did indeed have some claim to a superior rank because Sumter was the one who left his command to seek out a resolution to the matter. As it happened, Governor Rutledge made Thomas Sumter a brigadier general on October 6, the day before the Battle of Kings Mountain.
The exact date of this confrontation between Williams and Sumter and Sumter’s departure is not known for certain, but by October 1, news of the incident had made its way to General Cornwallis, who wrote to Major Ferguson that day:
"I am informed that Colonel Williams with part of Sumpter’s (sic) corps marched yesterday from Kerrel’s [Sherrill’s] Ford, giving out that they were going against you [Ferguson]. My informant saw only 150, but the enemy told him they had 400 more — that is not good authority. Sumpter (sic) has had a quarrel with Williams about command and is gone to Hillsborough to refer it to Gates." (Cornwallis 1780 in CPS 2010, II:158)
[Beattie's Ford is not an official site along the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, but it is part of the story told about patriot militia pursuing British Major Patrick Ferguson to what became the Battle of Kings Mountain.]