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.