Opinion: Finding Meaning

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These United States

“When in the course of human events…” Always searching for the best words, it seems good to begin with the opening words of the world’s greatest political statement—our Declaration of Independence. The Declaration didn’t start the Revolutionary War, the conflicts at Lexington and Concord, and Bunker Hill happened the year before. Rather it justified the Patriot rebellion by affirming the “inalienable rights” of mankind—including the right to revolt, listed 28 instances of British offenses against these rights, and pledged the signers’ lives, fortunes, and honor to the conflict underway.

This lofty rhetoric had to be defended in battle, a British strength. Over the next five years the British triumphed as Washington struggled to build the Continental army. Then, in three jarring defeats in the south, Cornwallis was forced to retreat to Yorktown to rebuild his forces. The timely arrival of the French fleet combined with a brilliant march by Washington’s Continentals besieged Cornwallis and forced his surrender. The Revolutionary War was effectively over, though it would drag on for two more years before the British granted the Colonies independence with the Treaty of Paris.

On this Fourth of July, we should remember the three decisive battles that set the stage for Yorktown. After the Patriot’s devastating defeat at Charleston, the British divided their forces into three groups to wrap up the south. The leader of the western most force issued a challenge to Patriots in the Appalachian Mountains to lay down their arms or he would “hang your leaders, and lay waste to your homes.”

The threat achieved the opposite result. The Overmountain men, armed with long rifles, were skilled Indian fighters and not to be intimidated. They gathered in an informally organized mounted force of 1,100 and went looking for the British. The British force was not British—it was made up of Loyalists, people faithful by choice or coercion to the King. The Patriots, after a night march through a steady rain, caught the Loyalist force at Kings Mountain and destroyed them in an hour of uneven battle. This battle between colonialists, practically neighbors, was the turning point of the war.

The next battle came three months later at a place called Cowpens. Daniel Morgan’s force of Continental soldiers, now a disciplined group, joined by Patriot militia encouraged by Kings Mountain, annihilated a British force with a double envelopment in which only 200 British escaped. Then, two months later at Guilford Courthouse, a Patriot force led by Nathanael Greene inflicted heavy casualties on the British then escaped with a skillfully executed retreat. The British held the ground but it was meaningless with a Patriot army on the loose. The British, needing to rebuild their forces, retreated to Yorktown where an alert Washington, aided by the French, trapped them in the last battle of the war.

We live in a polarized time. But it’s good to remember Kings Mountain, where we were similarly divided, neighbor battling neighbor. At Kings Mountain, Patriots turned the tide of the war and the Colonies, despite their differences, started the process of becoming these United States. There’s meaning in that. 

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email:  [email protected]

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