Here’s a story about a woman whose investigations into her family’s history uncovered the true story behind a 1926 shootout in southwestern Virginia. Newspapers dismissed the incident as just another violent hillbilly squabble; turns out they were wrong.
This bit of genealogical research is sort of a microcosm of Appalachian history in general. The more you study it, the more the stereotypes and assumptions start to give way to fascinating and complex realities.
I finished reading Sharyn McCrumb’s novel King’s Mountain night before last, and I’ve got to say that I’m pretty impressed at how much Overmountain Men lore she managed to pack into it. The gang’s all there, even fairly obscure characters like Enoch Gilmer. McCrumb is obviously passionate about the subject, and she’s done her homework.
The book’s not totally free of historical slip-ups. McCrumb indicates that Ferguson’s posting to the Carolinas was essentially a banishment to a backwater of the war, but the South had become the seat of Britain’s major offensive efforts by the time Ferguson arrived with Clinton’s Charleston expedition. At one point she says in passing that Light-Horse Harry Lee was an Overmountain Man, which is an error I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else. Finally, her characterization of James Williams as a first-rate scoundrel traces back to questionable statements found in Col. William Hill’s 1815 memoir. Hill’s account is like Super Glue—it’s handy to have around, but you’ve got to be extremely careful when using it. It’s the work of an old veteran nursing a grudge, and some of his charges against Williams just don’t hold up in light of other sources. (For a detailed discussion of the whole Williams/Hill kerfuffle, I recommend William T. Graves’s new book. I’m not as inclined to exonerate Williams as fully as Graves does, but he makes an excellent case for taking Hill’s memoir with a generous dose of salt.)
When it comes to matters open to novelistic license, my only complaint is that McCrumb’s Ferguson is a pretty humorless, embittered guy. Although Ferguson endured repeated disappointments during his military career, his letters also indicate an endearing charm and wit, and they don’t really come across in the novel.
These caveats aside, I enjoyed the book and I hope it sparks widespread interest in the battle. If you like the Southern Campaign and early Tennessee history as much as I do, you’ll get a kick out of it. McCrumb employs John Sevier and Virginia Sal as dual narrators, and as much as I’m drawn to Sevier as a historical figure, I found the Virginia Sal chapters the most compelling. We know so little about Ferguson’s purported lover and the other women who followed the armies that they’re among the voiceless participants in the Revolution; McCrumb effectively lends them a voice of their own. Reading the story in fictional form as told by the people who lived it reminds you that they didn’t have our benefit of knowing how things would turn out, and they endured the pivotal autumn of 1780 with all the hopes and fears of flesh-and-blood human beings.
It’s worth noting that the novel is a distinctly Appalachian story, written by an author who specializes in the region. This is an interesting modern example of Appalachians claiming King’s Mountain as their own American Revolutionary moment, a process that began with regional historians and antiquarians of the nineteenth century. If you’re interested in how this regionalized memory of the battle emerged, you might enjoy my article on that subject in the Fall 2009 issue of Tennessee Historical Quarterly.
- I can’t believe I forgot to mention this until now, but it’s time for John Sevier Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville, TN. The action starts tomorrow and continues through Sunday—reenacting, demonstrations, food, and presentations on the Lost State of Franklin and King’s Mountain. It’ll be a blast, so stop by if you get the chance.
- While we’re talking about Marble Springs, let me also recommend a great way to support the site and get some nifty benefits for yourself. Join the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association and you’ll get free admission when you visit, discounts on gift shop items, access to special events, and more. Memberships start at just $25.
- Late September-early October is King’s Mountain season. If you can’t make it to Knoxville for the Marble Springs event, there’s another option for those of you in southwestern Virginia. On Sunday, Abingdon Muster Grounds is hosting Sharyn McCrumb, who will read from her new novel about the battle. They’ll also have living history demonstrations and the unveiling of a new painting of William Campbell, whose unit marched from Abingdon to Sycamore Shoals to meet the other Overmountain Men.
- Some Connecticut parents are quite understandably upset over a school function where students got a taste of slavery…including the racial slurs. What. Were. They. Thinking?
- Here’s a Rev War infographic from 1871.
- Some folks are working to preserve the area around Kettle Creek battlefield in Georgia.
- A supplementary AP history text is drawing criticism for the way it refers to the Second Amendment.
- Next time you’re driving through Shepherdsville, KY keep an eye out for the new John Hunt Morgan mural on an underpass along Old Preston Highway.
If you’re free at noon tomorrow, pack your lunch and head over to the East Tennessee History Center in downtown Knoxville for a brown bag lecture on the 1793 massacre at Cavett’s Station. The speaker is Dr. Charles Faulkner, who’s spent years studying Tennessee archaeology. Admission is free.
The Tennessean reports that “the state park at Rocky Fork will showcase the frontier battle in which John Sevier, the future governor of Tennessee, led his troops against a large band of Cherokee Indians.”
A little more precision would be helpful here, since “the frontier battle in which John Sevier, the future governor of Tennessee, led his troops against a large band of Cherokee Indians” is about as specific as “that time Lindsay Lohan ran into trouble with the law.” I’m assuming it’s the Battle of Flint Creek (Jan. 1789), but I could be mistaken.
In case you haven’t heard, Jurassic Park 4 will be here in 2015 instead of 2014. I hate having to wait another year, but oh well.
Hey, speaking of Hollywood, my mom didn’t know World War Z is a zombie movie until yesterday. I asked her if she assumed, based on the trailers, that it was a movie about Brad Pitt running from crowds of normal people.
Okay, on to business.
- A woman who claims to have a photograph of Lincoln on his deathbed is suing the Surratt House Museum for $100,000 because of a statement on the museum’s website about the photo’s authenticity.
- BBC America listed ten connections between Lincoln and Britain, but they left out the most obvious one: Lincoln’s ancestors came from England.
- If you want to take in the anniversary festivities at Gettysburg but can’t make the trip, C-SPAN3 has got you covered. They’ll be airing the festivities in both live and taped form during the anniversary weekend, and July 4th will feature 24 hours of non-stop Gettysburg programming. For those of you in the Gettysburg area, the C-SPAN bus will be in town starting June 25th, and the Lincoln Diner will even have C-SPAN coffee mugs for the occasion. (That’s the one across the street from the train station, right? I’ve eaten there a couple of times. Neat place.)
- Sorry about the short notice on this one, but Dr. Earl Hess will discuss the Battle of Campbell Station at the Farragut Folklife Museum on June 23rd (that’s tomorrow) at 2:00.
- Finally, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park has obtained an original Civil War document.
Well, as of today, I’ve been given the honor and privilege of being associated with one of the coolest historic sites in East Tennessee. I’m now on the Board of Directors for the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association, which oversees Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville. Sevier spent the last fifteen years of his remarkably eventful life there.
Needless to say, this is pretty exciting for an early Tennessee/King’s Mountain enthusiast like me. Marble Springs has an extremely dedicated and talented staff, and I’m looking forward to being involved.
The Museum of East Tennessee History will debut a new Civil War exhibit tomorrow. “Of Sword and Pen: Pivotal Moments in Civil War East Tennessee” features Andrew Johnson’s desk, original documents, and contemporary sketches. They’re hosting a preview tonight with a lecture by Ed Ayers at 7:30, so if you’re in the Knoxville area you might want to check it out.
Sharyn McCrumb is taking on my favorite historical subject for her next novel. Looks pretty cool!