Tag Archives: King’s Mountain

Patrick Ferguson’s two Virginias

Sharyn McCrumb’s novel King’s Mountain is out now.  I was hoping to pick up a copy yesterday, but the nearest bookstore didn’t have it in yet.  I don’t read much fiction, but it’s not often somebody writes a novel about your favorite historical subject, so I’m really interested in this one.  You can read an excerpt at Appalachian History.

The main characters in the excerpt are two women who share the same nickname, Virginia Sal and Virginia Paul (or Poll), both of whom reportedly accompanied Ferguson on the campaign and were present during the battle.  Quite a few books dealing with King’s Mountain refer to them, and they also appear in the film shown at the battleground’s visitor center.

When it comes to documenting their presence in Ferguson’s camp, things get as little tricky.  As with so much of what we know about the battle, the tale of the two Virginias owes as much to later oral tradition as it does to firsthand source material.  I’m about to discuss these two women in some detail, so if you’re unfamiliar with their story and you’re planning to read McCrumb’s novel, you might want to skip this post until you finish the book.

The fate of the two Virginias is one of the more colorful aspects of King’s Mountain lore.  The red-headed Virginia Sal reportedly caught a fatal bullet and was buried on the battlefield, either next to Ferguson himself or in a common grave with some of the dead Tories.  Virginia Paul is variously said to have been captured in the action and later released by Col. William Campbell, to have traveled with the Whigs back to North Carolina before going off to join Cornwallis, and to have pointed Fergsuon out to the attacking Whigs.

Patrick Ferguson’s grave. By National Park Service Digital Image Archives [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, women frequently accompanied Revolutionary War armies into the field as camp followers in order to cook, haul water, provide laundry and nursing services, and so on.  But many accounts of King’s Mountain have the Virginias providing Ferguson with services of a less respectable character, claiming that the officer was keeping a mistress or two in camp.

In his 1881 book on the battle, Lyman Draper claimed that this tradition had been circulating in the Carolinas for fifty years.  His inquiries about Ferguson’s women yielded reports from about half a dozen correspondents in the region.  These letters date from about a century after the battle, but they do provide some tantalizing details.  W.D. Glenn claimed that Ferguson had dual mistresses with him at King’s Mountain, based on reports from “two old citizens near me” who got the information from veterans.  Wallace Reinhardt told Draper that Ferguson’s woman was named “Featherstone,” while J.R. Logan mentioned a string of beads taken from Virginia Sal’s body after her death.  Always fascinated by a good anecdote, Draper included the tale of the two Virginias in his book, and the story of Ferguson’s dual mistresses has become an inextricable part of the story of the battle as a whole.  Some early writers took it as proof that the Scotsman lacked any scruples.  For example, in his 1920 history of southwestern Virginia, William C. Pendleton wrote, “That Ferguson had no regard for morality and decency was evidenced by the fact that he had two mistresses with him when he was killed.”

If the “mistress” angle is correct, Ferguson wouldn’t have been the only British officer to do so while on campaign in America.  But since female camp followers performed a number of legitimate services for troops in the field, the fact that two women were reportedly with Ferguson at King’s Mountain doesn’t necessarily mean that he was sleeping with either of them.  To modern ears, the notion that Ferguson was keeping a buxom red-headed lover in his camp, that she died during his famous last stand, and that they were both buried on the battleground sounds like the sort of romanticized, unsubstantiated baloney that would appeal to a credulous nineteenth-century antiquarian.  Yet as tempting as it might be to dismiss the tale of the two Virginias as nothing more than a backwoods Carolina legend, there are actually a couple of sources that lend some confirmation to the story.

The first is this statement in the pension application of King’s Mountain veteran John McQueen:

That there was a woman who Ferguson had been keeping who had left the British army and had come with news to Capt. Lewis [presumably Capt. Joel Lewis] and she told him that Ferguson could be known by him using his sword in his left hand as he had been wounded previously in the right and Capt. Lewis communicated this to Col Cleveland and after the battle commenced, he pointed out Ferguson and selected 8 or 9 of his best riflemen and told them he had to fall, and there was 6 or 7 bullet holes through him after the battle….

This may reveal a kernel of truth to the story that Virginia Paul identified Ferguson, but McQueen’s claim that the woman “had left the British army” indicates that she had already departed from the camp before the battle started and then encountered the Whigs later at some point on their approach to King’s Mountain.  That seems to contradict the story that she was among the Tories taken on the field, as well as Draper’s statement that when the battle ended she “was seen to ride around the camp as unconcerned as though nothing of unusual moment had happened.”  Still, it’s significant that a veteran of the battle believed Ferguson had taken up with a woman who was accompanying the army.

The other source isn’t on paper.  It’s on the battlefield itself—or rather underneath it.  In his book on Tories in the American Revolution, North Callahan reports that in 1845 Dr. J.W. Tracy of the town of King’s Mountain, NC found two sets of remains in Ferguson’s grave and identified one of them as female.  And in his guidebook to the battleground and collection of eyewitness accounts, NPS ranger Robert Dunkerly notes that ground penetrating radar confirms the presence of a second body.  So just because some historical anecdote sounds too dramatic and juicy to be true, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bunk.

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Various items worthy of note

  • 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.

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Pinpointing the Cane Creek battlefield

Thanks to a grant from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program, the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina is going to try and delineate the precise location of the Battle of Cane Creek.

Patrick Ferguson’s Tories shot it out with Charles McDowell’s North Carolina Whigs at Cane Creek on Sept. 12, 1780, less than a month before Ferguson lost his life at King’s Mountain.

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Additional King’s Mountain book news, albeit less definite and without a big name attached

Well, the good news is that somebody’s working on a new book-length account of the expedition which ended in Patrick Ferguson’s defeat, utilizing extensive research in the primary sources as well as the latest scholarship on militia and the Revolution in the Carolina backcountry.

Here’s the bad news.  The guy working on it is me.

I’ve actually been at this project for a while now, but I haven’t had the gumption to tell anybody about it.  I played this one pretty close to my chest until reassuring myself that I could actually pull it off, but at this point I’m far enough along that I think it might actually see the light of day.

King’s Mountain has fascinated me since I was in college, and I’ve long wondered why there are so few books about it.  The last really intensive treatment was Lyman Draper’s 1881 book King’s Mountain and its Heroes, which is thorough but also badly outdated, heavily dependent on tenuous oral tradition, and saturated with the filiopiety that characterizes many nineteenth-century historical works.

Since I can’t seem to stop poring over everything I can get my hands on related to King’s Mountain, I decided a good while ago that I might as well do something productive with my obsession.  I’ve gone over quite a bit of the published source material, both primary and secondary, and now I’m digging into the manuscripts and putting the finishing touches on a proposal.

Let me talk a little bit about what this project is and what it isn’t.  I’m studying the campaign which led to Ferguson’s defeat as a whole, so I’ll be looking into his organization of the Carolina Tories, the British march into North Carolina, and the Whigs’ march across the mountains, as well as the actual battle.  In other words, this won’t be a study of the tactics and troops movements alone.  I’ll be dealing with all that, of course, but what I’m aiming for is an analysis of the series of events of which the Battle of King’s Mountain was the climax.  I’ll also be discussing the battle’s nasty aftermath, and I’ll have at least one chapter (probably two) on the way Americans have remembered it, which was the subject of my MA thesis.  Tradition and legend have played such an important role in interpretations of the battle that I don’t think I could exclude an examination of memory from this project even if I wanted to.

So this will be an attempt to make sense of what brought Ferguson’s Tories and the Whigs into action on a wooded ridge that October day, what happened when they met, and the impact this confrontation had on the war and the way Americans have interpreted it.

And now that you guys are in on it, I guess I’m committed to keep plugging away until the thing’s done.  Gulp.

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Some King’s Mountain book news

Sharyn McCrumb is taking on my favorite historical subject for her next novel.  Looks pretty cool!

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Memorial Day weekend at Marble Springs

If you don’t have plans for Memorial Day weekend, then head over to John Sevier’s place.  May 25-26 is the annual Statehood Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville.  They’re hosting militia drills, eighteenth-century demonstrations, a display of guns from the War of 1812, and a presentation on veterans of the Battle of King’s Mountain by yours truly.  (I think my talk is scheduled for 11:30 on Saturday.)

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And speaking of tomahawks…

The most dynamic visual representation of tomahawk combat in modern times is probably the electrifying rescue sequence in The Patriot, in which Mel Gibson turns a detachment of British soldiers into hamburger.

This portrayal of tomahawk fighting is as elegant as it is ugly, equal parts martial art and straightforward butchery. I suspect the reality was a lot more grab-and-hack and less Jackie Chan.

One account of a tomahawk in action—or about to be put into action—comes from the pension application of Charles Bowen, who fought at King’s Mountain. During the battle, Bowen somehow heard that his brother Reese had been killed in action. As he tried to find him, he came across his own captain, dead or dying from a shot to the head. At that point, something in Bowen apparently snapped.

Making his way to a spot “within fifteen or twenty paces of the enemy” and taking cover behind a tree, Bowen shot down a Tory who was attempting to raise a flag of surrender. He was reloading when Col. Benjamin Cleveland approached him and demanded he give the countersign, which was “Buford” (after the commander of a Virginia unit defeated by British dragoons earlier that year). Bowen couldn’t come up with the word, perhaps because he was still in some kind of a berserk rage, so Cleveland assumed he was a Tory. Here’s Bowen’s recollection of what happened next, as transcribed and amended at revwarapps.org:

Col Cleveland instantly leveled his rifle at Declarant’s breast and attempted to fire, but the Gun snapped. Declarant jumped at Cleveland seized him by the collar, drew his tomahawk, and would have sunk it in Cleveland’s head if his arm had not been arrested by a soldier by the name of Beanhannon [sic, Buchanan?], who knew the parties. Declarant immediately recollected the countersign which was “Blueford,” [sic, Buford] named it and Cleveland dropped his gun and clasped Declarant in his arms.

There’s nothing fancy about what Bowen was about to do; he simply “seized him by the collar, drew his tomahawk, and would have sunk it in Cleveland’s head.” If this was typical of tomahawk combat, then that scene from The Patriot is probably too elaborate on the choreography, even though it gets the raw brutality exactly right.

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