The Legend of Molly Tynes and Her Ride





Frank Emerson





 
© Copyright 2021 by Frank Emerson



Molly Tynes.

Throughout history, the accepted view of the role of women during warfare has been one of support. Certainly, in fact and in legend, there have been numerous instances of proactive females during hostilities. Just think of the Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s Pirate Queen of the 17th century, 18th century British buccaneers, Anne Bonny and Mary Reed and the American Revolution’s Molly Pitcher. However, until the enlightened views of the present day, women largely embodied the John Milton quote, “They also serve who only stand and wait” and basically kept the home fires burning while the men were away.

One further, albeit little-known example of a female coming to the fore in time of a national emergency is the action taken by one Molly Tynes during the American Civil War.

A young woman from the Appalachian mountains of Southwest Virginia, Molly’s perilous ride over the night of July 17, 1863 rivaled those of Jack Jouett and Paul Revere during the Revolutionary War. By warning Thomas Jefferson of an impending British raid Jack Jouett has been referred to as the “Paul Revere of the South”. Surrounded by the intriguing mixture of fact and legend, Molly Tynes is recognized in many corners as the “Paul Revere of the Confederacy” In fact, she did Paul Revere one better: she completed her mission.

That she lived, there is no doubt. She was born Mary Elizabeth “Molly” Tynes in Shawsville, Virginia in 1837 and educated at the Valley Union Seminary (now Hollins College near Roanoke, Virginia). Her family had moved to Jeffersonville, Virginia (now Tazewell) in the 1850's, where Samuel Tynes, the family patriarch, farmed and operated a sawmill, gristmill and woolen mill. At the outbreak of the war, Molly still lived near Roanoke.

Legend has it that she was visiting her family in Jeffersonville in July of 1863 to help her father care for her invalid mother. Having left Huntington, in newly established
 
West Virginia on July 13th, Union troops of the 34th Ohio Infantry and the 2nd Virginia Cavalry (Union) under the command of Colonel John T. Toland were now bivouacked at the William Peery farm, Ben Bolt, which was a short distance west of the Tyne family farm, Rocky Dell. Afraid of Yankee looting, Mr. Tynes had taken the precaution of having a Negro servant named Tom take most of the livestock and horses into hiding on Clinch Mountain. Only Molly’s mare, Fashion, was left at the farm.

According to an article published in of The Confederate Veteran (Vol. 18) in 1910, by Molly’s brother Captain Achilles J. Tynes (8th Virginia Cavalry, CSA), their father learned that the soldiers were on their way to attack the town of Wytheville. This was of strategic value as a railhead and its location adjacent to the leadmines in Austinville. According to Professor James I. Robertson of Virginia Tech, the mines at Austinville supplied fully 1/3 of the lead used by the Confederacy during the war. Their mission was to disrupt the Virginia-Tennessee railway, effectively breaking the back of east-west supply lines. This would cut off supplies of salt – used both as a preservative as well as in the making of saltpeter to make gunpowder from the mines at Saltville to the west. Finally they would seize and destroy the leadmines at Austinville. Top the east.

Though advanced age prevented him from doing so himself, Mr. Tynes was determined to warn the town of the imminent attack. With bravery bordering on foolhardiness, Molly determined to warn the citizens herself.

With family friend, fifteen year-old mail carrier, Samuel Houston Laird, who was familiar with the shortest routes through the mountains, Molly is said to have made the forty-odd mile trip on Fashion through the night of July 17th, arriving bedraggled and frightened in Wytheville on the 18th of July. She warned the citizens who were able to prepare for the Yankees. She then rode some miles further to the farm of a family friend, Robert Crockett, where she rested for several days.

There are people today that swear that’s exactly the way it happened. Maybe it did. The noted Civil War reenactor and scholar, Janice Busic states that numerous oral histories by contemporaries, while not etched in stone, confirm the events. She states that as a 9-year old boy, the late Dr. Caleb Thompson was in the doorway of his family home in Burke’s Garden, on the trail to Wytheville and witnessed Molly shout out warnings as she rode by.

Consequently, all along the invasion route, citizens went into hiding. Due to this, the Union troops met no resistance until they arrived in Wytheville. That’s when the shooting began.

The home guard, made up largely by old men, women and boys had been issued small arms by militia commanders Lieutenant Colonel Abraham Umberger and Major Joseph Kent. The citizens stationed themselves in houses and stores and behind walls and fences along the entrance to town. Word of the impending raid had also reached Confederate Major General Sam Jones 30 miles away in Dublin, Virginia. Jones detached two companies of soldiers - about 130 men - and two artillery pieces under the command of Major Thomas Bowyer, who commandeered a passenger train and arrived in Wytheville in time to confront the enemy. As a result, the citizens and the Confederate soldiers proceeded to engage the Federal forces until about 8:00 PM whereupon both sides withdrew

In the official report of Lieutenant Colonel Freeman E. Franklin, of Toland’s command, he states.

We found a company of rebels in Abb’s Valley, all of whom we captured excepting one. That one gave information to[Brigadier] General [John S.] Williams (at Saltville) of our approach, which was news they possessed at least twelve hours before we could reach Wytheville. Consequently they were better prepared than we had been anticipating” (OR, I, XVII/2, p.942).

General Williams notified Major General Sam Jones at Dublin. General Jones immediately notified Major William Gibboney, Assistant Quartermaster of Wytheville of the approaching enemy.(ORI, XXVII/3, p.1023). As General Jones stated in his official report:

The first information I received of the approach of the enemy was about mid day on July 18, just in time to enable me, by impressing the passenger train going west, to send to Wytheville two small and newly organized companies, the employees of this place, and a number of citizens of this neighborhood who volunteered for the service. They were commanded by Major Bowyer, my chief of ordnance”.. (OR I, XXVII/2, pp. 946-947).

The legend says that Molly arrived during the morning of the 18th. General Jones says that he didn’t hear about the advance until mid-day. Who is to say that both things could not have come to pass? General Jones did indeed send the telegram and the train of men - but the citizens already knew about the approaching enemy and fired upon Toland’s men as they entered town. Toland was killed in this first encounter, which took place before Confederate troops arrived at the town railroad depot. How were the citizens alerted? You be the judge.

On December 2, 1863, Molly married William B. Davidson of Mercer County, who was home on leave from the Confederate Army. After the war, they moved back to Mercer County, now West Virginia, where Molly taught Sunday school and William served several terms in the state legislature. They had no children.

Though this particular Battle of Wytheville, the first of several, was on a much smaller scale and less noted than other more prominent and famous engagements of the war, it was vitally important

According to one of a number of conflicting estimates, several of Wytheville’s buildings were destroyed and five civilians and three Confederate soldiers were killed. The Yankees lost 15 killed, including their commander. The Union column’s second-in-command, Colonel William Powell, was wounded and captured.

As more Confederate reinforcements arrived, the federal troops abandoned the town, reportedly taking more than 80 civilians with them as hostages and potential human shields. When they reached Big Walker Mountain, about 12 miles northwest of town, they released their captives and continued their retreat.

From a strategic point of view, the results of this ill-fated raid are as follows: The telegraph still worked, the railroad was still operational, as were the saltmines and leadmines. These are the facts, despite some Union reports to the contrary.

Albert J. Gibboney was a Wytheville native and a Confederate veteran. At the time of the incident, he was clerk/aide to Major General Henry Heth , whom he saved from capture earlier in the month at the Battle of Gettysburg. It was from Gibboney’s house, which was later that day put to the torch, that the ball was fired that killed Colonel Toland.

In 1894, Gibboney received a letter, now in the files of the Wytheville Department of Museums, from former Union Captain William Fortescue , who stated that he assumed command of the troops upon the death of Colonel Toland and the wounding and capture of Colonel Powell. In his closing remarks in the letter, Fortescue says, “Although I was afterwards on many hotly contested fields, I was never upon any that was more so than Wytheville.”

EPILOG

Molly died of tuberculosis in 1891. By mutual consent, while her husband was interred in Mercer County, she was buried next to her father and mother in Jeffersonville Cemetery in Tazewell. A tall, gracefully distinctive monument over Molly’s grave was erected by the William Watts Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1968. It still stands today. In addition, just west of Rocky Dell, toward Ben Bolt, on State Route 61, is a Virginia State Historical Marker extolling “Molly Tynes’s” Ride.

With the coming of peace, Molly’s brother, Achilles and his wife Harriet moved to Rocky Dell, where they proceeded to raise a family. One of their daughter’s, Eva St. Clair Tynes married James Robert Laird, the son of Molly’s guide, Samuel Houston Laird. In 1910, Achilles wrote a piece in The Confederate Veteran relating the heroics of his younger sister. The story of Molly’s ride has been passed down through generations of the families, all of whom swear to its truth.

There may have been embellishments along the way and there are some who question the story’s overall accuracy. Perhaps the nature of the conflict can be summed up in a quote from the 1962 John Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. To adapt the screen play only slightly, “These are the mountains, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Molly Tynes, slender, graceful, bruised and bleeding will not be forgotten while Tazewell’s mountains live”

-Wm. H.T. Squires Land of Decision

SOURCES:

The War of Rebellion: A compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies

Virginia During the War Between the States 1861-1865; Hoch, Beverly, Johnson, John, Emerson, Frank

The Confederate Veteran: Vol 18, September 1910

Wythe County Chapters: James Presgraves

Virginia Cavalcade: Vol 1, 1951

Fortescue Letter to Albert Gibboney, 1894

Annals of Tazewell County 1800-1922: J.N. Harmon, Sr.

Clinch Valley News : July 2, 1926

Tazewell Historical Society, Mrs. Pat Surface

Civil War Talk: Molly Tynes-Did She or Didn’t She? She Did! Busic, Janice

14


A veteran of the U.S. armed forces, I am a freelance writer and award winning singer-songwriter- performer living in Southwest Virginia with my wife, Frances – Director of Historical Resources for Wytheville, Virginia, and our Manx named Ginny.

I specialize in history, humor and folk music. I’ve been published on sites and in magazines and publications such as Military History Now, Rhode Island Roads, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Learning through History, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Lit Quarterly, Bend of the River and On Patrol.

For five years I was a researcher/writer for Remilon/Study.com.

I am the co-author of Wythe County Virginia during the War Between the States and Clean Cabbage in the Bucket and other Tales from the Irish Music Trenches. I am the author of Frank Tells Tales and Wythe Bane Graham, 8th Virginia Cavalry, C.S.A.: Letters and Narrative of a Son of the Old Dominion.




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