William Campbell was a well-known General during the Revolutionary War – scorned by the British and beloved by his fellow Virginian revolutionaries. He was personally responsible for one of the more important (but lesser known) battlefield victories of the Revolution. His triumph at the Battle of King’s Mountain convinced the Virginia state legislature to carve out a new county from the already-existing Bedford and name the new county in the General’s honor. Campbell County, therefore, became one of the first American-named counties in the nation’s history.
To understand William Campbell’s propensity to fight, we must understand his Scotch-Irish background. The Scotch-Irish were no strangers to controversy. People from this hearty stock traced their origins to the Ulster region of Scotland, where they embraced Presbyterianism and vociferously opposed the dominance of the Church of England. Their stand led to their flight from Scotland and subsequent settlement in the northern reaches of Ireland. However, the predominantly Catholic Irish did not particularly fancy their presence. Around the year 1726, the Campbells had had enough of the persecution they endured and migrated like most others to Pennsylvania. The family eventually absconded to Virginia, where the Tidewater English made it very clear that they were not welcome amongst the landed gentry. Determined to worship and live as they wished, the Scotch-Irish had a tendency to settle at the foothills of the Appalachians. Finally, they had a home to call their own and they were relatively well removed from the control of the King’s tyrannical whims, the foolishness of Parliament, and the arbitrary transgressions of their Royal Governor.
William Campbell’s father, Charles Campbell, married a Miss Buchanan and their only male issue was William Campbell. One nineteenth century source claims that William was named after the Scottish revolutionary William Wallace, and while it makes sense, it has not been substantiated. Charles Campbell was a successful and enterprising pioneer who was intent on opening settlement in Virginia’s wild western reaches. He explored southwestern Virginia with the likes of Dr. Thomas Walker, who was the first white man to locate the Cumberland Gap – a route that opened western migration. Campbell was more interested, however, with the salt springs he found near the Holston River in what was then part of Augusta County. He patented the land in 1736 from the Virginia Royal Governor and intended to derive profit from this natural resource. Campbell later served as a Captain in the local militia, no doubt rendering service in the numerous conflicts with Native Americans that occurred during that time. It is believed that, in later years, Charles Campbell became intemperate. He died at a fairly young age in 1767. After his father’s death, young William Campbell acted quickly to move his mother and sisters to Black’s Fort, which would soon come to be known as Abingdon. Campbell no doubt reasoned that the land served the family’s need for a place to settle and profit financially without being isolated and vulnerable to Indian attacks. Black’s Fort was designed to repel these attacks and to serve as a buffer between land claimed by the Scotch-Irish frontiersmen and those inhabited by the Cherokee, Chickamauga, and related tribes
William Campbell quickly became regarded as a mover and shaker in his region. In 1773, he was appointed as a local justice, and in the following year he was commissioned a Captain of colonial militia. Although he was the sole inheritor of massive tracts of land, young William despised the fashions of eastern Virginia’s “macaroni” gentlemen and the long red hair he pulled into a ponytail was his own hair – not a foppish wig. He fancied that gentry’ men were a lot of common fools who spent money extravagantly and spent more time primping and grooming than registering honorable labor. He was at least six feet, two inches tall, although some accounts list him as taller. He possessed a muscular frame, ruddy complexion, and piercing blue eyes. His spare time was dedicated to praying and reading the Bible. He addressed the rich the same as he would the poor. He was pleasant in conversation and always endeavored to help elderly women with a steady hand. He was generally reserved and thoughtful in a discussion, but anyone who dared an impudent attitude with him was met with a formidable Scottish temper. He wished to be left alone and allowed to mind his own business – the business of opening the wild frontier. All of that was interrupted in 1774 when he laid his axe down and took musket in hand to participate in the conflict that became known as Lord Dunmore’s War.
John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, was His Majesty King George III’s Royal Governor of Virginia. In 1774, he asked the House of Burgesses to declare war on the Mingo and Shawnee Indians who were, at that time, attacking English-speaking settlers who were acting in accordance with previous treaties to hunt on those lands that we now know as West Virginia and Ohio. In an effort to pacify these warlike tribes, Dunmore offered to personally lead an expedition to defeat these tribes using military force. The war was concluded in one climatic battle, the Battle of Point Pleasant, on October 10, 1774.
Eager to avenge the deaths of English settlers who had been killed prior to the war, Campbell was disappointed to arrive at the seat of war too late. The defeated Shawnee and Mingo had already surrendered. Thus, the anxious Captain sheathed his sword and returned to the peaceful management of his farm.
On January 20, 1775, Virginians reacted to what they considered continued abuses by the British by adopting the Fincastle Resolutions in present-day Fincastle, Virginia. This body of independent-minded men included William Campbell and they issued the first call for independence from England. They declared that “if no pacific measures shall be proposed or adopted by Great Britain, and our enemies attempt to dragoon us out of those inestimable privileges which were are entitled to as subjects, and reduce us to slavery, we declare that we are deliberately and resolutely determined never to surrender them to any power on earth but at the expense of our lives”. This declaration came three months before the first shots of the conflict were fired at Lexington and Concord, five months before the first major battle at Bunker Hill, and one and a half years before the Declaration of Independence was formally adopted.
As for Lord Dunmore, he returned to Virginia a hero but that status was not to be enjoyed for long. His lavish parties and attractive wife could only carry him so far with the Williamsburg elite. In 1775, the winds of war were blowing between England and her American colonies. Virginia had joined her sister colonies in decrying the taxes placed by Parliament on paper, glass, tea, etc. without the benefit of Virginia representation. To these angry protests, Lord Dunmore responded by confiscating the colony’s gunpowder stores, thereby disarming the colonists.
Not surprisingly, this action made Virginians furious and was derided as an act of cowardice. He then made matters worse by informing Williamsburg’s mayor that, if the rabble-rousing didn’t settle down, that he would free Virginia’s slaves and burn the city down. Then, he dissolved Virginia’s legislature. Dunmore’s actions only worked to catalyzed Virginians’ repulsion with the British establishment.
These acts resulted in Lord Dunmore being run out of Williamsburg in his bedclothes and retreating to a ship in the York River, all the while claiming to be rightful governing agent of Virginia. Later, he stole away to Norfolk and tried to raise an army of slaves to counter the colonial revolt, now led by Patrick Henry. When that attempt failed, he fled to Gwynn’s Island on July 9, 1776 just five days after the Second Continental Congress went public with their Declaration of Independence. It was there that the Governor’s men were attacked by an amphibious force from Augusta County that included none other than Captain William Campbell. In his first taste of military action, Campbell’s men confused and overwhelmed the British soldiers and marines as they shouted “the hunting-shirt men are coming!” Dunmore was forced to flee this momentous disaster and never returned to Virginia’s shores.
His confidence bolstered, Campbell returned to his home on the Holston to find the Cherokee quiet and Fincastle County subdivided. The new county was named Washington County for the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. During the years 1777 and 1778, Campbell was engaged in providing the government of Virginia with salt from his land and organizing boundary lines between Virginian and Cherokee lands. In 1779, he made his name known in the area by speaking out against his neighbors who were loyal to the King. These people were collectively known as the Tories. On one occasion, the Tories attempted, unsuccessfully, to kidnap him under the cover of night.
Not long afterward, Campbell was returning home from church with his wife and several companions. At that time, a figure was seen riding his horse down the road in Campbell’s direction. When the figure drew close enough to see, Campbell recognized the face of Francis Hopkins, an infamous Tory. According to Campbell’s own account, Hopkins was a known Tory conspirator, thief, and murderer. Campbell did not hesitate to spring out of his carriage and pursued Hopkins and his horse toward the Holston River. Hopkins attempted to swim his horse across the Holston, but the frontiersman managed to catch up to the Loyalist and pull him from his saddle. From that point, Campbell claimed that Hopkins drew a knife and attempted a stabbing motion. By that point, Campbell’s comrades had arrived on the scene and assisted Campbell in subduing Hopkins. Once they pulled him to the river bank, Hopkins was quickly and unceremoniously hanged. Tories sprung upon this as proof that Campbell was a cold-blooded murderer. Campbell coolly replied to these charges that he had no choice but to hang without trial because he had previously sabotaged the local jail, making it impossible to hold a prisoner. Apparently, Campbell faced no strong reckoning and he certainly did not after the ensuing legislative session. The state legislature passed an act indemnifying Campbell and his associates given the emergency nature of the circumstances.
In April of 1780, Campbell was promoted to the rank of Colonel when it was discovered that his predecessor had apparently lied about his residence and was, in fact, from North Carolina. The newly ordained Colonel led an expedition against the Chickamauga down south in the Carolinas and foiled a Tory plot to sabotage lead mines near present-day Wytheville. He also dispersed Tory raiders in various parts of North Carolina.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Campbell was called upon to lead his militia against a force of British Loyalist troops being then organized by Major Patrick Ferguson. Ferguson was tasked with protecting the flank of General Charles Cornwallis, who was then attempting to advance northward through the hinterland of North Carolina. When Major Ferguson learned that the colonial militia – including Campbell’s men - was marching upon him, he withdrew in the direction of Lord Cornwallis’ army which was then encamped at Charlotte. Inexplicably, he made no haste for the safety of Cornwallis’ army and was encamped near King’s Mountain. He apparently wished to stay because he sent a message to Cornwallis requesting reinforcements (although the letter arrived a day after the battle had already been fought). By a forced march, the Patriots wasted no time and attacked at 3 PM on October 7th. They knew that they had to make the most out of this attack as the sun would be setting soon. The surging Patriots caught the Loyalists off guard and crept uphill, using rocks and trees for cover. The pattern of the battle became one where the Patriots would charge up the hill, then the Tories would charge down the hill with fixed bayonets, driving the Patriots off the slopes and into the woods. Once the charge was spent and the Tories returned to their positions, the Patriots would reform in the woods, return to the base of the hill, and charge up the hill again. The Patriots found their marks while the downhill grade of the Loyalist perspective led their men to overshoot their marks. The battle only lasted an hour and the Loyalists suffered 290 killed, 163 wounded, and 668 taken prisoner. The Battle of King’s Mountain was a pivotal event in the American Revolution. Historians credit this battle as being the turning point of the southern campaign – the war’s final phase. A grateful Virginia state legislature carved a new county out of Bedford and named it Campbell County in honor of the newly-promoted General Campbell. Continental Generals George Washington and Horatio Gates did not withhold their praise, while the General received the thanks of Congress. William Campbell would not live to see the end of the conflict, however. While serving under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette, Campbell suffered an apparent heart attack and died on August 22, 1781. He was 36 years old and only two months removed from witnessing Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.