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.