Evans: Was final battle of Revolution fought on Lookout Mountain?

Evans: Was final battle of Revolution fought on Lookout Mountain?

September 6th, 2009 in Opinion Columns

EDITOR'S NOTE: In August's history article, John C. Echerd argued that the last battle of the American Revolution was fought at Lookout Mountain. Today, E. Raymond Evans argues that it wasn't.

By E. Raymond Evans

We know the "last battle of the American Revolution" was at Yorktown. In 1782, John Sevier conducted a militia raid against pro-British Cherokees that was described by Tennessee historians Haywood (1823) and Ramsey (1853). Neither mentions a battle on Lookout Mountain. In the North Carolina State Papers, first published in 1895-96, Gov. Alexander Martin confessed the failure of this expedition: "The Indians fled on the approach of our Militia and were not to be found. Their huts were destroyed and some trifling plunder taken." The only detailed description of the campaign by a participant is that of James Sevier, the son of John Sevier. In letters to Lyman C. Draper, James Sevier explained that John Watts, who supported the British cause as early as 1776 and became the Cherokees' war leader upon the death of Dragging Canoe in 1792, guided the expedition. Watts was able to guide Sevier's men away from the hostile towns by taking them down South Chickamauga Creek to destroy the corn fields at the abandoned towns devastated by Evan Shelby three years earlier, and on to the peaceful Cherokee refugees on the Coosa River. There was no engagement of any kind, much less a battle, and the campaign consisted of burning abandoned houses and vandalizing corn fields belonging to Cherokee refugees. One elderly Cherokee woman and a British deserter were killed; three Cherokee men, four Cherokee women and about 13 children were captured.

The first written account of Sevier's mythical battle on Lookout Mountain was published in 1886 by a then-popular writer named Edmund Kirke. It was included in a semi-fictional version of the American Revolution on the frontier called "The Rear Guard of the Revolution." Kirke's account of the victory of white pioneers over "savages" on Lookout Mountain was also well received by the American public, coming as it did at a time when the U.S. Army was conducting a campaign of systematic extermination against the western Indians. During the late 19th century, the reading public was conditioned by the newspapers to accept a policy of genocide, unequaled until the days of Nazi Germany, and completely different from the Indian-white warfare that had existed during the 18th century in Tennessee and Kentucky. Although examples of "savagery" flourished on both sides during the 18th century Indian wars, those involved usually viewed the struggle as a clash between equals, with no claim to racial superiority.

Nevertheless, the validity of Sevier's battle on Lookout Mountain did not go unquestioned. Three years after the first publication of the story, in 1889, Theodore Roosevelt, in his "The Winning of the West" series, strongly questioned the credibility of Kirke:

"Mr. Kirke ... puts in an account of a battle on Lookout Mountain, wherein Sevier and his two hundred men defeat 'five hundred tories and savages.' He does not even hint at his authority for this, unless in a sentence of the preface where he says, 'a large part of my material I have derived from what may be termed "original sources" - old settlers.' Of course the statement of an old settler is worthless when it relates to an alleged important event which took place a hundred and five years before, and yet escaped the notice of all contemporary and subsequent historians. ... It is with great reluctance that I speak thus of Mr. Kirke's books ... On first reading his book I was surprised and pleased at the information it contained; when I came to study the subject I was still more surprised and much less pleased at discovering such wholesale inaccuracy -- to be perfectly just I should be obliged to use a stronger term. Even a popular history ought to pay some little regard to truth."

This should have put an end to the story, but other amateur historians continue to cite the Kirke account and make up additional details of their own. Later writers quote them, and now there is a whole "bibliography" concerning the fictive battle. It is doubtful, however, that many readers are deceived by the outrageous claim that the last battle of the American Revolution was actually fought on Lookout Mountain.

For one thing, there are several other areas making a similar claim regarding well-documented Indian skirmishes that took place after Sevier's campaign. In Georgia, Andrew Pickens, originally scheduled to act in conjunction with the North Carolina expedition, led a raid against the Cherokees about a month after Sevier's campaign. In Kentucky, the Battle of Blue Licks, in which a combined British and Indian force decisively defeated the Kentucky militia, is called the last battle of the Revolution. Similarly, in Ohio, George Rogers Clark destroyed a number of pro-British Shawnee towns only a few days before the provisional peace treaty between England and the United States was signed on Nov. 30, 1782.

The "last battle of the American Revolution" presents a dramatic example of the growing need for historians and persons seriously concerned with the interpretation of regional history to exercise greater care in the documentation of significant historical sites. The truth about Chattanooga's mythical battle can only contribute to a healthy skepticism that in the end will enhance the public understanding and appreciation of legitimate local history.

E. Raymond Evans, an anthropologist, has written more than 80 books and articles and has done research in the United States, Mexico and Guatemala. He works with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Lookout Post 1289 on Lee Highway in Chattanooga. First published in Volume 1, No. 1 of the Journal of Cherokee Studies in spring 1980, this article was reprinted in Volume 12, No. 1 of the Chattanooga Regional Historical Journal.