Southwest Virginia Campbells

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Letter of Thomas Jefferson to John Campbell of Richmond, Virginia Concerning the Battle of Kings Mountain

The following letter of Thomas Jefferson to John Campbell of Richmond, Virginia concerns the Battle of Kings Mountain (fought on 7 October 1780) and the conduct of the American battlefield commander, Colonel William Campbell (1745-1781) of Washington County, Virginia. The letter was in response to an inquiry from John Campbell (1789-c. 1864), younger brother of Governor David Campbell of Virginia, who would, in 1829, become Treasurer of the United States under Andrew Jackson. John Campbell had written Jefferson as a result of disparaging comments made by Isaac Shelby, the former Governor of Kentucky, concerning the conduct of Colonel Campbell during the battle.

Shelby had commanded the militia regiment from Sullivan County, North Carolina during the battle, serving under the overall command of William Campbell. In July 1822 two private letters, written by Isaac Shelby to Colonel John Sevier in 1810, were published by Sevier’s son, Colonel G. W. Sevier. In these letters, Shelby strongly implied that Colonel Campbell had displayed a less than appropriate degree of courage during the fighting. The Campbells were, of course, incensed by these remarks and immediately rallied to the defense of their long deceased kinsman – hence the letter to Jefferson, who at the time of the battle had been the Governor of Virginia. The transcript of Jefferson’s letter, taken from the Campbell Papers (from microfilm reel no.1, available at the Tennessee State Library) is as follows:

To: John Campbell, Esq.


Monticello, Nov. 10, 1822


I have to acknowledge your favor of the 4th instant which gives me the first information I have ever received that the laurels which Col. Campbell so honorably won in the battle of Kings Mountain had ever been brought into question by anyone. To him has ever been ascribed so much of the success of that brilliant action as the valor and conduct of an able commander might justly claim. This lessens nothing the merits of his companions in arms, officers and soldiers, who all and every one acted well their parts in their respective stations. I have no papers on this subject in my possession – all such received at that day having belonged to the records of the Council; but I remember well the deep and grateful impression made on the minds of every one by that memorable victory. It was the joyful annunciation of that turn of the tide of success which terminated the Revolutionary War, with the seal of our independence. The slighting expression complained of as hazarded by the venerable Shelby might seem inexcusable in a younger man, but he was then old and I can assure you dear Sir, from mortifying experience that the lapses of memory of an old man are innocent subjects of compassion more than of blame. The descendants of Col. Campbell may rest their heads well on the pillow of his renown. History has consecrated and will forever preserve us in the faithful annals of a grateful country. With the expressions of the high sense I entertain of his character, accept the assurance to yourself of my great esteem and respect.

/S/ Thos. Jefferson

P. S. I received at the same time with your letter one from William G. Preston on the same subject. Writing is so slow and painful to one that I must pray you to make for me my acknowledgement to him and my request that he will consider this as an answer to his as well your favor.