Colonel Benjamin Cleveland
Hero of the Battle of Kings Mountain
The Clevelands, it is said, were an ancient family deriving their name from a tract of country in
the north Riding of Yorkshire, England, still to this day called Cleveland. In history there are
two Alexander Clevelands mentioned. The junior of this name was father of John Cleveland
(1695-1778), who was the father of Benjamin, the subject of this sketch.
John Cleveland in the early 1700’s, migrated to Virginia and married Martha Coffee. He settled
on the famous Bull Run Creek in Prince William County. It was here where their fourth child,
Benjamin Cleveland was born on the 26th of May, 1738. His early educational advantages
appear to have been very limited. Much of his early life was spent in hunting. He learned much
from his good friend, Daniel Boone. It is said that he, like Boone, had an unconquerable
aversion to the tame drudgery of farm life. His favorite resort, in early youth, was in the
wilderness where he secured pelts and furs, which found a ready market. He was also fond of
hunting deer by torch light, commonly called fire hunting.
In early manhood, he married Miss Mary Graves of Orange County, Virginia. It is said that he
participated in the French and Indians wars, but this is not proven in history, and that his
marriage did not tame him. He was fond of horse racing, gaming and other wild sports common
on the frontiers. During harvest times the neighbors would be invited. A fiddler and plenty of
liquor were provided, and the day’s work usually ended in a debauch.
To break away from these habits and associations, Benjamin Cleveland moved with his family to
Roaring Creek in Surry (now Wilkes) County, North Carolina. Here he started a farm and
devoted much of his attention to stock raising and hunting. In 1772, in company with a party of
friends, he set out to Kentucky in quest of Daniel Boone. On the way he and his friends were
captured and deprived of their horses, guns, ammunition and shoes. In this pitiful and almost
starving condition they returned home. Several months after this Cleveland raised a select party
and visited the Cherokee country and recovered the stolen horses. In this he was aided by a
friendly chief, Big Bear, who furnished him an escort to visit the several towns and assist in
recovering the stolen property.
The settlers in the colonial frontier were a hard and hearty lot. Their survival and the survival of
their friends and families required it. Their ways, when viewed by today’s gentle society, might
be considered harsh, even barbaric. This is the setting where Cleveland lived and thrived. He
earned the reputation of being a ferocious fighter and leader.
He early espoused the patriotic cause and on the first of September, 1775, was appointed an
ensign in the 2nd North Carolina regiment, under the command of Col. Robert Howe. This
honor, however, he declined, preferring rather to serve with the militia from his own locality in
and around Surry County.
During 1775 Cleveland’s neighbors had occasion to go to Cross Creek to purchase their supplies
of iron, sugar, salt and other necessaries. They were compelled, before they could buy or sell, to
take the oath of allegiance to the King. Cleveland, hearing of these acts of tyranny, swore that he
would dislodge those “Scotch scoundrels at Cross Creek”. He raised a select party of riflemen
and, marching down upon them, soon scattered them. He scoured the country and captured
several of the outlaws, one of whom he executed. This scoundrel’s name was Jackson. He had
set fire to the home and storehouse, with merchandise inside, of one Ransom Sunderland.
In the campaign of Colonels Williamson and Rutherford against the Cherokee Indians, in 1776,
Cleveland, as captain of a company in the Surry Regiment, served gallantly sharing all the
hardships and privations which the soldiers had to endure.
In 1777, Captain Cleveland again led his company to the Watauga settlements against the yet
troublesome Cherokees, where he served at Carter’s Fort until a treaty of peace was concluded in
July of that year.
While securing the country around Cape Fear, Ben and his men engaged in the Battle of Moore’s
Creek and captured and executed several outlaws while burning many Loyalist towns.
“Cleveland’s Bulldogs” were earning Ben a reputation for brutality in partisan warfare
characterized by “inhumanity, summary hangings, and mutilation.” On some occasions he would
hang Tories by their thumbs until they confessed to British movements–thus creating a local
expression “hanging one by his thumbs”. While Ben did resort to the severest measures of
punishment against Tory outrages and marauding, he still had a commanding influence over
many and caused them to abandon their Loyalist associations and unite with the patriots.
Ben’s fiercely loyal mountain men were “untrained but hardy and accurate of fire”. Admirers
and countrymen called them “Cleveland’s Heroes” or “Cleveland’s Bulldogs”, but to the British
and the Tories they were “Cleveland’s Devils”. According to Ben, each of his men was equal to
five ordinary soldiers. Ben summoned them to his side by walking into his elevated Round
About yard and sounding a huge hunting horn.
Tory depredations were considered worse than those of the Indians. Though by today’s standards
some might think Ben was excessive in his punishment of the Loyalists, the colonists victimized
by Tory aggression and brutality realized that Ben was administering “an eye for an eye” justice
at a time when there was no dependable centralized means of law enforcement. Many Tories in
North Carolina and South Carolina joined the British only for plundering and robbing. They had
no political or moral principles and cared nothing for king and country. These Tories particularly
In 1778, the new County of Wilkes, North Carolina, was organized. Ben was made colonel of
the militia. Despite his reputation for brutal justice (or perhaps because of it!), he was appointed
justice of the Wilkes County court and placed at the head of the Commission of Justices.
Regarded as one of the most popular leaders of the mountain section of the state, Ben was easily
elected to the state’s House of Commons during this year.
When the British forces invaded Georgia, Colonel Cleveland served in this campaign, his
regiment being a part of General Rutherford’s command. Returning home from this service he
was elected to represent his county in the State Senate.
Even while Ben was busy with these affairs of county and state, he was active in sending
scouting parties into certain mountain regions to break up Tory bands infesting the frontier. One
detachment of Cleveland’s Bulldogs caught a Tory desperado named Zachariah Wells and
brought him to Hughes Bottoms, about a mile from Round About. Here thirteen-year-old James
Gwyn and a Negro boy were at work in a cornfield when Ben joined those who had taken Wells
prisoner. The band of freedom fighters included Ben’s two sons, his brother Robert, and
Lieutenant Elisha Reynolds.
Needing something to hang Wells with, Ben borrowed the plow lines from James Gwyn’s horse.
James, innocent of the ways of war, was shocked at so summary an execution and begged his
neighbor not to hang the poor fellow who looked so pitiful and was suffering from a former
“Jimmie, my son,” Ben explained gently, “he is a bad man. We must hang all such [damned
men]”. Captain Robert Cleveland was cursing “at a vigorous rate” as he prepared the wincing,
squirming prisoner for execution. Ben was not unaffected by the boy’s naive pleas, and tears
flowed down his cheeks as he adjusted the rope around the neck of Zachariah Wells. The
big-hearted colonel regretted the necessity of hanging the trembling culprit, especially in front of
young Jimmie, but he also knew that the lives of the Yadkin River patriots would be much safer
and they would all sleep more peacefully when the country was rid of such vile desperadoes.
Wells soon dangled from a convenient tree, and his body was buried in the sand and loam on the
bank of the Yadkin.
In the summer of 1780, he was actively engaged in suppressing the Tories at different places;
first in marching against the Tories assembled at Ramsour’s Mill, arriving there shortly after their
defeat; second, in chasing British forces under Colonel Samuel Bryan from the State, and finally
in scouring the region of New River, checking the Tory rising in that region. In some instances
some of their notorious leaders and outlaws were hanged.
In 1780, General Lord Cornwallis led a British army into the Carolinas and won several victories
over the patriots. Major Patrick Ferguson, a Scot, was appointed Inspector of Militia on 22 May
1780. His task was to march to the old Tryon County area of North Carolina, raise and organize
Loyalist units from the Tory population of the Carolina Backcountry and protect the left flank of
Lord Cornwallis’ main body at Charlotte, North Carolina.
In late September, Ferguson camped at Gilbert Town (in present day Rutherfordton). He sent a
message to Colonel Isaac Shelby, whom he considered to be the leader of the “backwater men.”
The message said that if Shelby and his men did not stop their opposition to the British, Ferguson
would march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders and “lay the country waste with
fire and sword”. The Patriots would have none of it. The Overmountain Men first mustered at
Sycamore Shoals organized a militia to eventually fight Ferguson and his British Loyalists at
King’s Pinnacle, an isolated ridge on the border between the Carolinas.
Cleveland played a key role in the Battle of Kings Mountain. According to legend, Cleveland
climbed up Rendezvous Mountain near his home and blew his horn to summon some 200 Wilkes
County militiamen. He delivered an address to his Wilkes County troops in plain, unvarnished
language, which did much to inspire their courage and patriotism on this occasion, and doubtless
added greatly to the triumphant success of the American cause. He led his Wilkes County militia
to intercept Ferguson. They joined with forces under Colonels Charles McDowell, Isaac Shelby,
John Sevier, William Campbell, Joseph Winston and South Carolina Colonel James Williams.
On 7 October 1780, the two armies clashed during the Battle of Kings Mountain. The battle went
badly for the Loyalists positioned high on the mountain ridge. During the fighting, Cleveland’s
horse was shot from under him, and Major Ferguson was himself killed in the battle. Cleveland’s
brother, Robert, is said to have rallied the militiamen during the heat of the battle, contributing to
the patriot victory. Ferguson was shot from his horse. With his foot still in the stirrup, he was
dragged to the rebel side. According to Rebel accounts, when a Patriot approached the major for
his surrender, Ferguson drew his pistol and shot him as a last act of defiance. Other soldiers
retaliated, and Ferguson’s body was found with eight musket holes in it. They buried him in an
ox hide near the site of his fall. Benjamin Cleveland claimed Ferguson’s white stallion as a “war
prize”, and rode it home to his estate of Round About.
Noted historian, Lyman Draper, in his biography of Cleveland, gives an extended account of a
narrow escape by him not long after the Kings Mountain expedition. It appears that on one
occasion he captured two Tory outlaws, Jones and Carl, and hung them. Soon afterwards and
while all alone, he was captured by a gang of Tories. His life hung on a thread. His name and
influence was worth everything to the Tories, who decided before they executed him to require
him to write passes for them, certifying that each was a good Whig, to be used when in close
quarters. Cleveland was a very poor scribe and wrote passes very slowly, believing they would
kill him as soon as he finished this work. While he was thus engaged a party of Whigs came up,
under the command of his brother, Capt. Robert Cleveland, and he was fortunately rescued.
Riddle, who commanded the Tory company which captured Cleveland, was afterwards captured
with his son and another follower and carried before Cleveland, and by his orders all three of
them were hung near the present town of Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
It is said of Cleveland that while in many instances he resorted to the severest measures of
punishment against the outrages and marauding of the Tories, he yet exercised a commanding
influence over them and caused some of them to abandon their Tory associations and unite under
his standard. Says a writer, “Cleveland was literally all things to all people.” By his severities
“he awed and intimidated not a few, restraining them from lapsing into Tory abominations; by his
kindness, forbearance and even tenderness, winning over many to the glorious cause he loved so
Cleveland’s last military service was in the autumn of 1781. He performed a three months tour
of duty on the Little Pee Dee, in South Carolina. His command of mountaineers routed the Tory
detachments. After this was accomplished he returned home.
At the close of the war, Cleveland lost his handsome “Round About,” by reason of a defective
title. His attention had been attracted to a beautiful country in the Cherokee Nation, while
participating in the expedition of Colonels Williamson and Rutherford against the Cherokees in
1776. Though the Indian title was not yet extinguished he resolved to become among the first
squatters of that country. He visited the Tugaloo Valley in 1784, and selected for his future home
a magnificent body of land lying between the Tugaloo River and Chauga Creek, in the present
County of Oconee, S. C. To this place Cleveland removed about the year 1785 or 1786.
To the history of Col. Ben Cleveland’s life after his removal to the Tugaloo, much is due to his
biography by South Carolina Governor B. F. Perry in his “Sketches of Eminent Statesmen”. It
was not long after his removal to his new home until his services were called into requisition.
When the new “County Court Act,” of which South Carolina’s Judge Henry Pendleton was the
author, went into force, Col. Benjamin Cleveland and Gen. Robert Anderson were appointed
judges of the court for Pendleton County. Colonel Cleveland was no lawyer, though a good
judge of right from wrong. He had a contempt for the technicalities of law and its delays. He
was fair in the administration of justice, and after hearing the evidence his mind was quickly
made up. He did not consult books, but decided according to his sense of justice and right.
It is stated by Governor Perry that Colonel Cleveland grew very corpulent during the latter days
of his life, weighing some four or five hundred pounds. It is further stated by this eminent writer,
that his (Perry’s) father, visited him one bitter cold morning and found him sitting in his piazza
with nothing on but a thin calico gown, and that his legs were of a purple color. Mr. Perry said to
him, “This is a very cold morning, Colonel Cleveland.” “No,” replied the colonel. “It’s a very
fine morning, and I have come out to enjoy the fresh morning air.” It is further related by him
that by reason of his fleshiness, he would, while sitting on the bench take a snooze, while the
lawyers were rendering their arguments, sometimes snore so loud as to interrupt the proceedings
of the court.
The remains of Colonel Cleveland were buried on his farm which belonged, in 1887, to Dr.
William Earle. Governor Perry states that he visited, when a boy, the grave of this immortal
hero. It was much neglected, brambles, briers and bushes having grown up around it. Some
years afterwards someone built a square pen around it of pine saplings, which soon rotted down.
A few years ago, under the leadership of one of his descendants, Vanoy Cleveland, Esq., a
handsome monument was placed over the last resting place of Colonel Cleveland by his
It has been truly said of Colonel Cleveland, that he “was one of nature’s great men – great in
every respect, great in person, great in heart and great in mind. He was honest, truthful and
honorable, and discharged his duties frankly and fearlessly. He was a man of extraordinary
judgment, good sense and practical wisdom.” Let his name and glory stand among the memories
of other heroes that are being perpetuated.
Cleveland‘s wife, Mary, died in the year 1800. Benjamin joined her in eternal rest on October
15, 1806. They are buried together on their farm in the Tugaloo Valley in Madison (Oconee
County) South Carolina.
In 2012, artist Don Troiani completed the first historically accurate depiction of Benjamin
Cleveland, titled “Benjamin Cleveland’s War Prize”. (See above.) Troiani teamed with experts
from across the nation to ensure accuracy. The painting features a victorious Cleveland leading
his troops back home to Wilkes County on Ferguson’s white stallion.
The research that contributed to the Don Troiani painting was used to create a statue of Colonel
Benjamin Cleveland. On April 19, 2013, the statue of Col. Benjamin Cleveland, sculpted by
local Cleveland artist, Joshua Coleman, was erected in Patriots Park in Cleveland, Tennessee. It
was commissioned and funded by the Col. Benjamin Cleveland Chapter, Sons of the American
Click Here for a short biography of Benjamin Cleveland provided by Wikipedia.com.
Click Here for another article of Benjamin Cleveland by The American Revolution in North Carolina.
Click Here for the official NC Highway Marker about Benjamin Cleveland.