African Americans also played a role in the Battle of Kings Mountain

Editor’s Notes: This article first ran on Oct. 7, 2020, in the Herald and Tribune for the 240th commemoration of the Battle of Kings Mountain in 2020. This year is the 243rd anniversary of the battle. Follow the Overmountain Victory Trail Association on Facebook as they retrace the steps of our ancestors.

Over the past few weeks, many organizations and individuals have been commemorating the 240th anniversary of the Gathering of the Overmountain Men and remembering their journey to Kings Mountain, South Carolina, and back, as well as paying tribute to the battle itself on Oct. 7, 1780. Yet history seems to forget one set of individuals who were also on the journey and at the battle. African Americans played a role in the Battle of Kings Mountain — the turning point of the Revolution — and the Revolution itself. Some of these men were enslaved, while others were free. This period of history is oftentimes overlooked and not interpreted. Many accounts of Kings Mountain, including by early Tennessee historians Judge John Haywood, Dr. J.G.M. Ramsey and Judge Samuel Cole Williams, never discuss African Americans’ role within the battle for freedom. Others mention them just a little. Indeed, Bill Carey’s “Runaways, Coffles, and Fancy Girls: A History of Slavery in Tennessee,” states, “East Tennessee’s history generally doesn’t bring to mind the institution of slavery. But slaves were there. Slaves were there when it was known as the Washington District of the Southwest Territory and when the state of Tennessee was organized. Slaves were there in East Tennessee before some of the counties were formed. … Slaves were there, being bought and sold, being given away in lotteries and even running away from their owners. … Slaves — dozens of them, in fact — were killed and kidnapped during the frontier battles with the Chickamaugan Indians. Many of the people who first cleared East Tennessee’s forests and planted the land with cotton and corn for the first time were slaves.”

Even though, as Carey suggests, slaves were already in the Overmountain region by the time of the Battle of Kings Mountain, not much is known about them other than the few notes in deeds, wills and even estate records that dot our county archives, courthouses and family records throughout the region. Yet, as with other areas, more is continually coming to the forefront with organizational efforts such as Black in Appalachia and the Langston Education and Arts Development Inc. and individual efforts of genealogists, historians, librarians and archivists. Even still, African Americans still have been left out of the narrative of many historical endeavors like the Revolution, even though the path to record their stories has continued to evolve and progress. According to Gary B. Nash’s “The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution,” the work to record African Americans who served in the Revolution began in the 1850s with Boston’s William C. Nell. Nell published his first pamphlet on the subject, titled “The Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812” in 1851. He eventually went on to publish an expanded version called “Colored Patriots of the American Revolution.”

Even though Nell’s record and many others have been compiled, not much is known about free or enslaved people of color during the time of the Revolutionary era. At the time, nearly one-fifth of the population of the United States consisted of African Americans. It is important to remember that even though these men of color fought for the Patriot cause, many of the liberties and freedoms they fought for would not be given to them for almost 200 years. In Randell Jones’ “Before They Were Heroes at Kings Mountain,” talking about John Broddy, Jones states, “Although these Patriot militiamen (talking about the Overmountain men) were fighting for ‘Liberty,’ the freedoms they sought to secure for themselves would not extend to everyone there at King’s Mountain on their behalf.”

According to Caleb Perry Patterson’s “The Negro in Tennessee, 1790-1865, A Study in Southern Politics,” “It is probable that the first slave was brought to Tennessee in 1766.” Patterson footnoted Will Thomas Hale and Dixon L. Merritt’s “A History of Tennessee and Tennesseans,” which in turn quotes Judge Haywood. Haywood wrote about a journey of men, probably longhunters, who came into the Holston River area with a young mulatto slave of about 18 years old, who was owned by Mr. Joshua Horton, in 1766 to explore. Only two years later, William Bean would settle at the forks of Boones Creek and the Watauga River. Bean himself probably brought a slave with him or purchased one afterward, as his 1782 will states he left his slave woman, named Grace, to his wife, Lydia, at the time of his death. In addition, Patterson elaborates by the time Tennessee became a state in 1796, a census showed the population of East Tennessee at 65,339, of which 12.5% were slaves. Many of the early settlers in the region brought slaves with them during the settlement period. They brought with them a long legacy of African American heritage within our region as well. Yet much of this heritage has still not been documented or interpreted for future generations.

My interest in African Americans’ role in Washington County, Tennessee, history came mostly from the development of a more inclusive narrative of history for the Washington County, Tennessee, Heritage Fair in 2019. In those discussions, many organizations came together to provide school-aged children and the public with a more correct story of our past, including organizations like the Langston Heritage Group and living historians like Starlet Williams from Rocky Mount State Historic Site. After this fair and earlier this year, I met with Adam Dickson, Jonesborough alderman and supervisor of the Langston Centre in Johnson City, on many of our efforts of putting together programs that were more inclusive, as well as the development of the second Heritage Fair. One of the items that he gave me comment on was the Battle of Kings Mountain. Dickson told me that someone had told him that African Americans fought at the Battle of Kings Mountain. I had never heard anything about them throughout school or college or ever thought to research the group in my own genealogical research, even though I had researched my own ancestor, David Hughes, and his siblings who were at the battle.

After this meeting, I Googled it and found that not many sources exist online that showcase their role in the battle, but according to literature from the (Kings Mountain) National Parks Service, “A number of black soldiers fought in the patriot ranks at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Pension records indicate that five and possibly six African Americans fought for the Patriot cause.” These men include: Essius (Esaius) Bowman, a free man of color from Virginia; John Broddy, a servant of Col. William Campbell; Andrew Ferguson, a free man of color from Virginia; Primes (also called Primus), a free man of color who applied for his pension in Roan County, Tennessee, in 1846; and Ishmael Titus, a slave of Lawrence Ross, who substituted for him during the Revolution. The American Revolution by Bruce Lancaster also mentions free “Negroes” at other battles during the Revolution, including a “Negro regiment” under Christopher Greene, which became known as the African American 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which was made up of former slaves. Yet, there were also enslaved and free men of color on the British side. One book, titled “The African American Odyssey of John Kizell” by Kevin G. Lowther, discusses John Kizell, a South Carolina slave, who joined the British Army in 1780 when Charleston fell and was with them at Kings Mountain. Kizell went on to receive his freedom and return to his African homeland of Sierra Leone. In this book, Lowther wonders if the men of color on both sides, speaking of Broddy and Kizell as well as other African Americans at the battle, would have spoken to each other or even understood each other’s plight.

After discovering these resources and finding an article about a placement of the African American Patriots Monument at Kings Mountain, South Carolina, in 2016, I began to wonder if there were any slaves or free men of color who accompanied the Overmountain Men from Sycamore Shoals 240 years ago. I had not found any names in particular, but I wonder about the slaveholders of the time from our area who went to Kings Mountain, if they took a slave with them on the journey? Did they need a servant, a cook or a washer? In Lyman C. Draper’s “Kings Mountain and Its Heroes” (1881), he notes in a footnote that “No doubt others of the sons of Africa, besides Broddy, sided in menial occupations on the campaign. It is worthy of record, that ‘there is a tradition in the King’s Mountain region,’ says Colonel J.R. Logan, ‘that something more than a dozen negroes were under arms in the battle, in behalf of liberty, and demeaned themselves bravely.” Dave Dameron, in “King’s Mountain: The Defeat of the Loyalists: October 7, 1780,” states, “There were at least four black men among the patriots, and while these men traditionally performed subservient labor, they were capable fighters as well.”

Draper mentions one man of color by name — John Broddy, who I believe would have been at the Gathering at Sycamore Shoals on September 25, 1780, as well, because his master and illegitimate family member, Colonel William Campbell, left the Muster Grounds in Abingdon, Virginia, on his way to Sycamore Shoals on September 23, 1780, with 200 militiamen, and arrived at the Cobb Home, (now Rocky Mount) on Sept. 24, and Sycamore Shoals on Sept. 25.

Today, Broddy’s grave in Saltville, Virginia, is honored each year by the Overmountain Victory Trail Association as well as the Fort Blackmore Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, yet he received no pension or land grant for his service during the War of Independence that has been found. Even in the midst of a pandemic the Overmountain Victory Trail Association and the Fort Blackmore Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution held a wreath laying ceremony at his grave in Broddy Cemetery, Saltville, Virginia, on Sunday, Sept. 20th. Yet who was this man of color? Not much is known about his beginnings or even the 109-year story of his life from what I can find, but there are several descendants including those in Washington State and Southwest Virginia, as well as historians who are conducting research on the man. One program to be given next summer in Washington County, VA is titled, “Patriot John Broady, Free Man of Color.” Broddy was indeed a slave and man servant of Colonel William Campbell. Some historians record that Broddy looked just like Campbell. Further research shows that Broddy was mixed race, in some text called a mulatto, and was most likely an illegitimate son of William Campbell’s father, Charles, while some suggest he was Campbell’s own — which is probably unlikely due to his birth year. The two being very similar in looks caused much a stir in the history of Kings Mountain, causing his service to be recorded and eventually preserved for future generations. Today, His military tombstone reads,








Throughout my search for information on Broddy and his connections to the Overmountain Men and the Battle, a blog titled, “A Closer Look at Branson’s Sycamore Shoals Painting,” caught my eye. In this article, a closer look at the imagery in Lloyd Branson’s famous oil painting of the Gathering of Sycamore Shoals on September 25, 1780, completed in 1915 after 14 years of work, is shown, when it was on display at the East Tennessee History Center in Knoxville from November 7, 2015, to March 20, 2016. The Gathering at Sycamore Shoals showed the strength and passions of the men in the Overmountain region to protect their properties, families, and new democracy, which Branson’s painting showcases. Judge Samuel Cole Williams states, in his “Tennessee During the Revolutionary War,” that “When September 25th arrived, the valleys, large and small, almost emptied themselves of inhabitants. All were eager to see the clans gather and march away to battle, and to bid farewells. There were selected at Sycamore Shoals two hundred and forty men under Shelby, the same number under Sevier, and about two hundred men under Campbell. Colonel Arthur Campbell, also of Washington County, Virginia, fearing that all there from his county did not constitute a force sufficiently strong to cope with the enemy, arrived on the ground with more militia of his county, thus raising their aggregate to about four hundred riflemen under Campbell and the total to nearly nine hundred, and above if their be included the refugees.” Yet a booklet titled, “Kings Mountain National Military Park” by George C. Mackenzie (1955), describes the men who gathered in more vivid detail. Mackenzie writes, “On that date over 1,000 of the mountain men assembled at the designated meeting place. In appearance, it was a rough but resourceful looking gathering. Many of the fighters wore hunting shirts of buckskin, breeches and gaiters of tan home-dyed cloth, and wide-brimmed hats covering long hair tied in a queue. Each was equipped with a knapsack, blanket, and long hunting rifle; most were mounted on horse, but some were on foot. With some had come members of their families and friends to see them off on their dangerous mission. Notable among the militia units present was that of Col. William Campbell which numbered 400 men. To reach Sycamore Shoals many of his men had traveled almost as far as they would in the final march to Kings Mountain.”

Branson’s “Gathering at Sycamore Shoals” shows much of the lands of what is Elizabethton, Tennessee, today, covered in people, yet much of the painting depict white ethnicities. Yet, In the bottom left corner is a group of men near the Watauga River bank. In behind this group of men, stands an African American man. In Director of the Abraham Lincoln Library & Museum and Instructor of History at Lincoln Memorial University and blogger of “Past in the Present” Michael Lynch’s “A Closer Look at Branson’s Sycamore Shoals Painting,” he describes this detail of the painting, states, “I’d never noticed this African American before; he’s on the left-hand side of the painting, near the bank of the Watauga River. The force that attacked Ferguson did include some black men. Lyman Draper reports that Col. William Campbell’s mixed-race slave John Broddy was along for the march. Another black King’s Mountain vet was Ishmael Titus, who was born a slave in Virginia and earned his freedom by serving as a substitute for his North Carolina master.” Other details in the painting not normally noticed is the nod to another minority group – the Cherokee – to the right in the famous painting.

Yet, even with all these subtle details, no record has been found to show that Broddy was indeed at Sycamore Shoals, but substantial evidence suggests that fact, that he would have taken the same route to Kings Mountain as his master.

But what exactly did Broddy do at King’s Mountain that made his name to be recorded in history. Many sources record this information, but mainly source the information from Draper. Yet, Broddy never bore arms, he did get within 200 yards of the fight and observed the battle with his own eyes. Draper records, “In the beginning of the action, Colonel Campbell’s famous Bald Face, a black horse, proving skittish, he exchanged him with his namesake, a Mr. Campbell, of his own corps, for a baby animal; and Bald Face was sent to the rear, and placed in charge of the Colonel’s servant, John Broddy, who was a tall, well-proportioned mulatto, and in the distance very much resembled his master. Broddy’s curiosity prompted him to ride up within two hundred yards of the raging battle, saying “he had come to see what his master and the rest were doing.” Broddy, with his coat off, and sitting upon Bald Face, unwittingly deceived Colonels Shelby and Sevier, Captain Moses Shelby, and perhaps others, intently watching at a respectful distance, the progress of the engagement. But Campbell was all this time in the thickets of the fight, riding his bay horse till he became exhausted, when he abandoned him, and was the remainder of the battle at the head of his men, on foot, with his coat off and his shirt collar open.”

A description of Colonel William Campbell by Mackenzie suggests, “[Campbell] has been described as a man of commanding appearance, who an equally imposing figure… [H]e stood 6 ½ feet tall, was amiable when not enraged, and devoted to the cause of liberty.” With this description in hand, we can also interpret that Broddy, himself, was a tall, well-portioned man, as Draper described him. Still yet, this incident caused a controversy to come that would call Campbell’s military service into question. Yet this was not the first time Broddy and Campbell had been mistaken as each other.

In a footnote, Draper concludes that Broddy and Campbell looked so much a like that Colonel Benjamin Cleveland made a joke about it to Campbell on his way to the battle. Draper writes, “Colonel Cleveland was something of a wag. While in camp, en route for King’s Mountain, the obese and jolly Colonel walked up to Campbell’s markee, and seeing him at the entrance and very much resembling his servant, pretended to mistake him for the latter, and accosted him with – “Halloo, Jack, did you take good care of my noble Roebuck when you fed your master’s horse? – Ah! I ask your pardon, Colonel Campbell; you and your servant look so much alike, led to the mistake!” The joke was received, as it was given, in the best of good humor, and was much enjoyed among the officers. This anecdote was related to the author in 1843 by Benjamin Starritt, of Fayette County, Tenn., who was one of Lee’s Legion in the Revolution, and Lee’s and Campbell’s corps fought together at the battle of Guilford; and Starritt personally knew Cleveland, and had two brothers-in-law under Sevier at King’s Mountain.” Yet, this engagement also made it in Sharyn McCrumb’s best seller, King’s Mountain: A Ballad Novel in 2013.

The fight of the two look alikes did not end with these two engagements. Instead, Campbell’s military service at King’s Mountain came into question and a fire storm of letters and advertisements were published in the newspapers circa 1812-1813, with many accounts from many different persons throughout the Battle including locals Captain Christopher Taylor and Felix Earnest.

According to Robert M. Dunkerly’s The Battle of Kings Mountain: Eyewitness Accounts: The Battle that Turned the Tide of the American Revolution (2007), by the 1810s, both John Sevier and Isaac Shelby’s fame has bolstered them into success in their political careers, Shelby as governor of Kentucky and Sevier as governor of the States of Franklin and Tennessee. Dunkerly states, “Both commanders questioned William Campbell’s record, stating that he hid in the rear during the battle and was not present at the surrender. This is unfortunate, since it seems that during the camping all commanders got along fairly well, and letters written by Sevier and Shelby soon after the battle give due credit to Campbell.” In this book, Dunkerly, like Draper, gives many of the accounts from the newspapers, letters, and accounts of those who were at Kings Mountain, yet many are sourced and are the same as in Draper’s.

In Draper’s Kings Mountain and Its Heroes, he transcribes some of the earlier letters including the first letter was printed July 25, 1812 in the Kentucky Reporter entitled, “Narrator.” In this article published almost 31 years after Campbell’s death attacked Campbell’s leadership by stating: “The honor of the enterprise has been given Col. Campbell most undeservedly. There were six officers along who were entitled to command Col. Campbell by their rank; and Col. Shelby who was one of those six, deserves the nation’s thanks for the manner in which he conducted himself at that crucial junction… Shelby would have been elected but he was not the eldest officer, and he was aware, that should he contend for the command, the jealousy and offended pride of the others might defeat the expedition… Col. Campbell was not in this action except in the first onset. To Shelby the enemy surrendered – Shelby was the first man who spoke to them – was the first mand among them, and the fire on the opposite site of the mountain did not cease, as they did not know of the surrender, until Shelby, who, was actually among the British, ordered them to sit down. The American fire instantly ceased, and was succeeded by the huzzas of triumph. Campbell, hearing them, came up about twenty minutes afterward, and observed to Shelby, “that he could not account for his own conduct in the latter part of the action.”

This letter set off a fire storm of letters that would follow to contend for both accounts of the battle, but in the end would set the record straight on Broddy and Campbell, yet some still believe that this argument of the battle is still not settled 240 years later.

On July 1st, 1822, the Nashville Gazette published four letters written by Col. Shelby to Gov. John Sevier. These letters were given to the Gazette by Col. G. W. Sevier, son of John Sevier, after his father’s death. In these letters, Shelby was mad that the Legislature of Virginia gave a sword that was worth 1,500 crowns made in France to the young grandson, William C. Preston, referred to in the letter as John. Shelby states, “Now, sir, what did Campbell merit more than your or I did? It is a fact well known, and for which he apologized to me the day after the action that he was not within less than one quarter of a mile of the enemy at the time they surrendered to you and myself. But I do not mean to detract from the honors of the dead, yet it is a fact I have told to many, both before and since his death – January 10, 1810.” Even though this was not the first letter or the last, Shelby went on to become Governor of Kentucky even though his military service at Kings Mountain came into question during the political feud, as he addresses in a letter to Sevier dated August 12, 1812, but Governor Shelby wrote a pamphlet to the public entitled, “Battle of King’s Mountain,” that combatted a publication in newspapers by William C. Preston (grandson of Col. William Campbell) that sought to give the credit for the victory to Campbell over Shelby.

Throughout this pamphlet dated April 1823, Shelby used statements by other men at the battle to prove his case. One within this document was that of Major Christopher Taylor of Washington County, Tennessee, dated February 25, 1823. Taylor stated, “That I was a Captain in the battle of King’s Mountain, and saw Col. Campbell twice in the heat of the action, before we were last beaten down the mountain – but that I did not see him in the latter part of the action, or at the surrender for some minutes afterwards. After the enemy were placed in a ring, and a guard four men deep placed around them, I saw him come up close to the place where I stood, and an opening was made for him to go amongst, them – before this, one of the Shelby’s, and I think Evan, had received the flag, the first one having been shot down, and I saw him ride round, or nearly round, the enemy, telling our men that they have given up, and endeavor in that way to stop the firing. I have always believed that Colonels Shelby and Sevier acted with distinguished bravery on that occasion.”

A reply by William C. Preston was given on May 10, 1823 in the Columbia, SC Telescope, while other replies were also sent by Francis Preston, son-in-law of Campbell, to the Abingdon, VA Gazette as well as General John Campbell in the Richmond Enquire. In John Campbell’s article appearing on June 24, 1823, he refutes, according to Draper, the charge of cowardice by Shelby as an error, stating that in fact Shelby saw “Campbell’s servant, John Broddy, who rode the black horse on that occasion.” As with Shelby’s pamphlet, these letters were accompanied with statements by men from the battle, showcasing Campbell was indeed in the heat of the battle originally on a bay horse before also being on foot. One statement by Israel Hayter states, “Affiant further well recollects, that Col. Campbell rode a bay horse in the action, and that his servant a black horse or a dark brown.”

Even after all of these accounts, the two different narratives continue to be known as the Shelby-Campbell Controversy. Yet, they prove that Broddy, a slave and eventual free man of color, was indeed at the Battle of Kings Mountain and served honorably in the American Revolution. His patriotism and service, eventually won his emancipation from Francis and Sarah Buchanan Campbell Preston on September 20, 1793, for his service to Col. William Campbell during his life, which is transcribed in Lewis Preston Summer’s History of Southwest Virginia, 1746-1786, Washington County, 1777-1870, where he states, “In the year 1795, a number of the citizens of Washington and Russell counties [Virginia] emancipated their slaves: among the number Elizabeth [Henry Campbell] Russell, sister of Patrick Henry and wife of General William Campbell, Francis Preston, Charles Bickley and others. The deeds executed by Mrs. Russell and Francis Preston are as follow:

To all whom it may concern:

Whereas my negro man John (alias) John Broady, claims a promise of freedom from his former master General William Campbell, for his faithful attendance on him at all times, and more particularly while he was in the army in the last war, and I who claim the said negro in right of my wife, daughter of the said General William Campbell, feeling a desire to emancipate the said negro man John, as well for the fulfillment of the above-mentioned promise, as the gratification of being instrumental of prompting a participation of liberty to a fellow creature, who by nature is entitled thereto, do by these presents for myself, my heirs, executors and administrators fully emancipate and make free to all intents and purposes the said negro man John (alias) John Broady from me forever. As witness my hand and seal this 20th day of September, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.


As you reflect on the Battle of Kings Mountain, the Overmountain Men and this year’s anniversary, also take time to remember the African American men who also honorable served in the War for Independence including the story and life of John Broddy – a slave, a servant, a Patriot.

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