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The Unsinkable Mary Kate

by: Marion Herndon Dunn

The feet of uncounted women have trod across Rutherford County, Tennessee, but none have left a deeper imprint than Mary Kate Patterson Davis Hill Kyle. Mary Kate, daughter of Dr. Hugh and Ellen T. Patterson, was born in Warren County, Kentucky, October 15, 1838.  In about 1850, her parents moved to Tennessee and lived on Nolensville Road, not far from the Rutherford County line, in a community called Rashboro. The Post Office at LaVergne, established in 1857 or earlier, served Rashboro, so LaVergne may rightfully claim Mary Kate as its own.

mary kateMary Kate's brother, Everard Meade Patterson, served with the famous Coleman's Scouts during the Civil War. Her other brothers were Robert, James, Hugh, and Charlie, who was to become a well-known physician; she had one sister, Margaret.

Vivacious Mary Kate, with flashing brown eyes and bouncy dark brown curls, attended old Elliott School in Nashville, Tennessee. Her education was interrupted by the declaration of war between the North and South. The contacts made by Mary Kate while in school were to be invaluable to her in her activities as a Confederate Spy during the War. Until her death, Mary Kate was dedicated to the Cause of the Confederacy.

The Patterson home was used as the underground Quarters for Confederate Scouts. Dr. Patterson, being a high ranking Mason, had an entree to places denied less prestigious men. Since he was a doctor, he was able to secure quinine and morphine so crucial to the cause of the Confederacy.

The haunting call of the Bob White was one of the signals used by Confederate Scouts approaching the Patterson home. A raised or lowered shutter could mean all clear or danger to Rebels watching from afar. A lighted lamp placed in a designated window at night delivered its mute message.

Mary Kate, often in company with her cousin Mistress Robbie Woodruff, made frequent trips into Nashville. Wearing voluminous riding habits, Mary Kate concealed substantial quantities of quinine and morphine around her waist. She openly admitted after the war, when it was too late for reprisal, that she had carried as much as five or six hundred dollars worth of medicine destined for Confederate soldiers in one trip. She believed that the secret of her success in passing through the Yankee lines was to always keep on the good side of the Commanding officer. If she could manage to keep that important man kindly disposed toward her, she was assured of obtaining passes into Nashville at any time. "I went to Nashville very often," Mary Kate once remarked, "so I always kept posted."

Who could be so callous as to suspect two lovely young ladies of espionage? Not the Yankee soldiers who frankly admired the comely Mary Kate and Robbie! What secrets the girls gleaned from the unsuspecting Northerners are lost in the mists of time. Mary Kate and Robbie were certainly not above encouraging the Yankees if they were of the opinion that the soldiers might be persuaded to divulge some classified information to them.

The intrepid Mary Kate also had a false bottom built into her buggy. That bottom was sufficiently spacious for her to smuggle cavalry blankets, boots, bridles, spurs, and other bulky supplies to the Confederates. However, if the need was particularly urgent, Mary Kate would ride the seven to nine miles to Nashville on horseback.

Stumps and hollow trees provided hiding places in which to leave and receive messages. These spots were changed periodically in order not to arouse the suspicions of the enemy. Another "post office" was boldly located on the comer of Union and Cherry Streets (now Fifth Avenue) in the heart of Nashville. Relay stations were established by the Southerners from the Cumberland River to Elizabethtown, Kentucky. What important messages passed through these letter drops or how the course of the conflict was affected by these clandestine actions we will never know. The lips that might have told are forever sealed.

On occasion a “certain individual”, who posed as a cattle buyer, turned up in the vicinity of the Patterson home far more frequently than a bona-fide livestock dealer should. Mary Kate and Robbie concluded that there was something pretty fishy about a cattle buyer who never had a cow.

A livestock dealer had easy access to the in the area as he went about in quest of cattle. Possibly, too, it was a mere coincidence that be always appeared just before or during Federal troop movements. But Mary Kate and Robbie doubted it. He did ask the Misses Patterson and Woodruff many pertinent questions, to which the young spies always replied with apparent candor. They reported the comings and goings of the mysterious livestock dealer to the Southern Army, along with the other information they gathered.

Private Richard H. Adams said of the way the girls handled the fellow, "The best strategist could hardly have shaped answers more calculated to mislead."

The Rebels tried repeatedly to find evidence that the livestock dealer was in truth a Yankee spy, but the wily Northerner always covered his tracks completely. Then on December 24, 1862, at around four o'clock in the afternoon, Private Richard H. Adams, Jr., of an Alabama cavalry unit, Private Jake McCain, a Texas soldier and a third Confederate soldier whose identity is unknown, approached the Patterson home, "the signal being all right." Private Adams took the precaution of entering through the back door, leaving McCain outside to stand guard while the third soldier moved to a secluded spot with the three horses. Kate and Robbie met Adams at the door with the disquieting news that the livestock dealer had been out “the evening before and that morning.”

While the girls were delivering that message McCain, watching outside, alerted them that a strange man was coming across a field “to the right and somewhat to the fear of the house". While the Confederate soldiers kept undercover, the girls peered through the curtains. To their horror they saw that approaching man was none other than the bogus cattle trader! They were quite certain that he was coming directly to the Patterson home, for he had been there frequently of late on the pretext of trying to buy a fat cow belonging to Mrs. Patterson.

Adams and McCain lost no time climbing into the loft of the log kitchen adjoining the Patterson dining room. The soldier with the horses was already concealed.

No sooner were the soldiers safely in the loft than the trader reached the Patterson door. He told Mrs. Patterson and the girls that be was hungry. Tennesseans of that era were not offended by even strangers inviting themselves to lunch; hospitality really recognized no bounds all those years ago. Mrs. Patterson bustled to the kitchen to prepare a dinner for the trader while the girls entertained the man with chit chat.

Adams and McCain listened from their vantage point to the cow dealer, as emboldened by his repeated successes, he began to boast to the seemingly admiring Southern women that his mission was, in fact, observing the activities of the Confederates and reporting to the North. He even went so far as to ask the ladies if they had seen any suspicious characters about.

How gratified the Yankee spy must have been when Mary Kate's mother readily informed her guest that she had indeed seen Private Richard Adams and three other Confederates just that morning. She further embroidered her story by adding that the four had “seemed well informed." Mrs. Patterson, giving every indication of undefiled innocence, told the Federal Agent that the foursome were traveling from the direction of Nashville toward LaVergne.

While the women kept the Northern spy occupied with interesting conversation and good food, the boys climbed down from the loft. Adams descended quietly but McCain, either because he was nervous or because he was unduly clumsy, made a slight noise. One of the girls ~ probably Kate ~ dropped a large dish. As if the sound of the deliberately dropped dish was not sufficient to divert the attention of the erstwhile cattleman from odd sounds made by McCain, Mrs. Patterson began to berate the girls ~ loudly ~ that now "her last dish was done." Mrs. Patterson became so greatly agitated over her dish being broken that she somehow overturned a chair, which crashed to the floor.

Probably all the ingenuity employed by the valiant women to create bedlam was not really necessary for the Yankee was more concerned at the moment with the excellent Southern cooking than with anything else. He was eating ravenously because he had had no food since the previous night. The hapless braggart was never destined to finish his meal, however. He suddenly felt the cold steel of two muzzles against his head. A Southern voice commanded him to unbuckle his own belt and to let his arms fall to his side. Possibly because he was still hungry, the Yankee protested that he was nothing more than a farmer and that he did not wish to be disturbed during his meal. He did choose not to resist a second stern command from Private Adams. Without further protest be threw "two beautiful Colt army pistols" to the floor. A search of his person revealed a sheaf of papers that at first glance looked like the innocuous jottings that a real livestock dealer would carry. Upon closer inspection, the papers proved to be a clever code of the movements and position of the Southern Army.

The young soldiers hustled their captive off to headquarters, probably General Bragg's. Although we do know what fate he met, we can safely assume that the Yankee was severely dealt with, for in the words of Doctor H. M. Hamill "There is no mawkish sentiment in war, and small mercy is shown one who seeks to discover the secrets of the army." Dr. Hamill was an active member of Coleman's Scouts. as were Sam and John Davis.

While the spy was being captured, Kate, her mother, and Robbie Woodruff were protesting vigorously that a guest in their home should receive such ignominious treatment. It was such inspired tactics as these that prevented Mary Kate and her family from ever once being suspected of espionage.

At a Confederate scout rendezvous at her home Mary Kate met and fell in love with John Davis, elder half-brother of Sam Davis. They were married February 25, 1864, at the home of Mary Kate's parents with only a few friends witnessing the quiet ceremony.

During her courtship with John Davis, Mary Kate developed a warm friendship with Sam Davis. If, in his pathetically short life, Sam Davis was ever seriously interested in a young lady, it was Mary Kate's cousin, Robbie Woodruff.

Kate had a pair of fine boots made for Sam in Nashville, for which she paid twenty-one dollars. Young Sam wore them throughout his service in the Confederate army. When he forfeited his life for his country, he still wore the boots that Mary Kate had given him. After his death, she regained possession of them, storing them in her attic. Years after the war, she rediscovered one of them and kept it among her treasured possessions for the rest of her life. (This boot, cut open by Sam's Federal captors in a search for documents he was carrying, can be seen today in the Tennessee State Museum.)

On the night of November 13th or 15th, 1863, Sam Davis tossed a pebble against a window of the Patterson house. That was Sam's special signal. Realizing that it was courting danger for a Confederate agent to be found in a private home, Sam told Miss Kate that would spend the next few days in “Rains Thicket”, or “Rain's Woods”, as it was interchangeably called. Rains Thicket was a densely wooded three hundred acre area close to the Patterson residence.

Kate Patterson made her way through the woodland the next morning with breakfast for Sam and feed for his horse. She kept the coffee hot in an earthen jug to warm the young soldier after his night spent unsheltered in the chill November weather. Thirty-three years and a lifetime of experiences later Mary Kate said of Sam Davis and that occasion, “Oh, he did enjoy his good warm breakfast!'”

Later during his stay in Rains Woods, Robbie Woodruff and Mary Kate shared a merry picnic lunch with Sam. For a little while the three put aside the horrible war and the awesome parts they were playing in it to behave with the gay exuberance that is the rightful heritage of the young. Mercifully, they could not know that in less than two weeks Sam Davis would be a martyr to the country he loved, declaring he “would rather die a thousand deaths, than to betray a friend”.

Was the mirth that he shared with Kate Patterson and Robbie Woodruff the last time Sam Davis ever laughed? Did Mary Kate give him the diagram of Nashville that was found on Davis when he was captured?

We do know that the ever-resourceful Mary Kate somehow procured three "wash balls” of soap, a tooth brush, Louisville and Cincinnati newspapers, and a diary for Sam before he left. He still had the hard-to-get items in his possession when he was apprehended in Pulaski, Tennessee, where he was hanged as a spy on Friday, November 27, I863.

Probably the most heroic of all her courageous acts was when Mary Kate went to Pulaski, to identify Sam's body. When word was received by way of the grapevine that a young soldier answering the description of Sam Davis had been hanged, John Davis was seriously ill with typhoid fever and Sam's, family feared that the youth was their son. Mary Kate, fearless and a friend of the family, was appointed to perform the grim task of making the trip to Pulaski to find out.

With typical ingenuity, the dauntless girl approached Major General L. Harrison Rousseau for a pass to go to Pulaski. Kate pleaded that a dear aunt there was nearing death and that she had to rush to her bedside. Major General Rousseau advised Mary Kate to wait until morning to begin the journey, but she would not be stopped. She and Willie Woodruff, a nine year old cousin, set out immediately for Pulaski in a horse and buggy, hoping against hope that it was not Sam who had been hanged.

Kate's own words best describe the harrowing experience she had when they reached Duck River en route to Pulaski; "The stars were shining then and I found to my distress, that it was too late to be ferried across the river. Without further ado and despite warning, I sought the ford and drove in. Being unfamiliar with the stream, and further handicapped by the fact that the stream was badly swollen from recent rains, my horse was soon out of his depth and began swimming. Willie was badly frightened, but I soothed his fears as best I could and by dint of a firm rein and encouragement to my horse we made the opposite bank".

After reaching Pulaski safely Mary Kate and Willie Woodruff were guests in the home of a Dr. Batts and his family. Ironically, the home of Dr. Batts overlooked the very gallows where Sam Davis was hanged.

There is a difference of opinion among historians as to whether Mary Kate actually succeeded in claiming or identifying the body of Smyrna's boy hero. John Kennedy, a friend of the Davis family, and Sam's younger brother, Oscar, were the ones who brought the body of Sam home to his family. Whether or not Kate was successful in her effort to claim the body of her would-have-been brother-in-law, her expenditure of super-human strength and will power to accomplish her goal was typical of her.

Her life as Mary Kate Davis seemed destined to be fraught with tragedy. Her beloved husband John Davis was killed February 27, 1867 in an explosion of a steamboat on the Mississippi River just below Helena, Arkansas. John had bought the steamboat The David White, valued at $50,000.00, in partnership with Captain Henry B. Shaw and Dr. Patterson, Mary Kate's father. Plans were just completed for Kate to join her husband on The David White when the explosion occurred, killing both John Davis and Captain Shaw. For a time Mary Kate was inconsolable over the loss of her husband.

Later, the young widow married a Mr. Hill about whom history unfortunately tells us little. However, Mary Kate did not enjoy wedded bliss with Mr. Hill for very long. As it was so often with people in the days that predated miracle drugs, Mr. Hill died while still a young man.

Kate married for a third time December 30, 1884, in Rutherford County. It was not surprising that she chose for a mate Colonel Robert Kyle, who had served with the South during the War Between the States. Colonel and Mrs. Kyle made their home approximately a half mile off the old Nashville Highway south
of LaVergne on what is now called Fergus Road.

Kate survived Colonel Kyle, also. At the age of ninety-three he died at their LaVerne home and his remains were taken back to Texas, Robert Kyle's home state, for interment.
Paul Waldron, a Iife-long resident of LaVergne, recalls often seeing "Miss Kate" making her way to Mason and Owens General Store when he was a small boy. The store stood on the present site of Arnold's Grocery on the old Nashville Highway. The children of LaVergne wove fantasies about what Kate's great muff might contain ~~ secret documents or maybe even a pistol! Although she was no longer young and sorrow had been her unrelenting companion. Mary Kate Kyle held herself severely erect and never permitted time to bend her slender five foot six inch body. She was a member of the LaVergne Christian Church for many years.

Paul Waldron also tells how George Gray Fergus was envied by all of his schoolmates because his father John Fergus had bought Mrs. Kyle's home on August 12, 1919. George Gray lived in the large antebellum house until his death in 1971, and his family still resides there.

Little George Gray used to hold his contemporaries enthralled with his highly imaginative accounts of the dark and mysterious activities of LaVergne's "Lady Spy". When the Fergus family took possession of the house they found innumerable objects that Mrs. Kyle had salvaged and stored against possible need, including pounds of very rancid butter. The habits of a lifetime of hardship were not easily broken.

Although after three marriages Mary Kate still remained childless, she had many relatives living in LaVergne. They all remember with nostalgia when "Aunt Kate” came to visit with them. Mrs. Louise Martin, a great-niece, does not ever recall that Mrs. Kyle ever spoke to the children of the war, nor of her participation in it.

Kate's allegiance to the Confederacy never waned. She was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and never through her own volition missed a single reunion of Confederates. To the end of her life she visited veterans in rest homes and did her best to alleviate their sufferings and to console them in their loneliness.

Miss Kate contributed monetarily to the impoverished Confederates to such an extent that her own financial situation became critical. In fact, it was so desperate that on October 11. 1929, Mary Kate Patterson Davis Hill Kyle made application to the Board of Confederate Pensions for assistance. Her plea was based on the military service of her third husband Colonel Robert Kyle.

These are the words written on the application papers which are now on file in the Tennessee State Archives in Nashville ~~ "Home sold and left homeless, Mrs. Mary Davis Kyle was the sister-in-law of Sam Davis. She went through the Yankee lines alone with a little boy to beg for a permit for Sam Davis' remains to be brought to his mother. She also carried medicine to the wounded. Signed S. B. Marable, Queen Street, East Nashville."

At that time Mrs. Kyle and her brother, Everard Meade Patterson, were making their home with Mrs. J. W. Schleicher, the daughter of Everard Patterson, on
Queen Street in East Nashville.

On a Sunday afternoon, July 6, 1931, at the age of ninety-three, taps sounded for the indomitable Mary Kate. Annie Mary Schleicher (now Mrs. S. B. Marable), daughter of Mrs. Schleicher, held her great-aunt in her arms, when, with a gentle sigh, Mary Kate died. As a befitting tribute to the true heroine that she was, Mary Kate was the first woman to be buried in the Confederate Circle in Mt. Olivet Cemetery. United Confederate Veterans Adjutant General Harry Rene Lee granted that special permission.

Pinned to her Confederate badge when her body was committed to the earth was a square of black and blue plush material which was a portion of a fabric vest worn by Sam Davis at his execution. The material held even greater sentimental worth for Mary Kate since it was also worn by John Davis when he first addressed bet at the beginning of their courtship.

Funeral services for Kate were held at Trinity Methodist Church in Nashville, Tuesday morning, July 9, 1931, at 10:30. The Reverend E. C. Shelton officiated. Confederate veterans served as honorary pall-bearers. The active pall-bearers were J. D. Buchanan, Charlie Kyle Austin, Watt Schleicher, John Schleicher, W. E. Akin, Lee Smith, S. B. Marable, and Dr. H. B. Parrish.

The great and great-great descendants of Mary Kate and her brother Everard Meade still chuckle about how Everard tricked the Yankees during the Civil War. Mr. Patterson, the story goes, had been captured by Northerners and somehow made his escape from Federal prison on the site of the old State Penitentiary (located near the present “railroad gulch”). Mary Kate had smuggled clothing to him. Right after he got out of prison, Meade, bold as brass, walked into a room where the Yankees were discussing the escape of the notorious Coleman Scout, Meade Patterson. After eating his fill of Yankee food, Patterson magnanimously offered to aid the Yankees in their search for the scoundrel, if they would provide him with a horse. Meade explained that he had given his horse to the Federal Calvary. (Actually, it was Meade's horse that Sam Davis rode to his death.) Needing all the help they could get, the Yankees provided him with a good horse to ride in search of himself.

Everard Meade Patterson put the greatest distance possible between himself and his "friends" while the troops spread out to apprehend the fugitive. Scout Patterson never was caught.

No era has been without fortitudinous men and women who have met near insurmountable challenges and played a major part in shaping the destiny of the world. Certainly Mary Kate Patterson and her family were not the least of these.