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“The only difference between Paul Revere and Molly Tynes was a poet,” is the way a store owner from the area puts it. And whether she rode alone or accompanied through the night to deliver a warning of the coming Union soldiers, she remains an enduring and appealing legend.
In Virginia’s Wythe and Tazewell counties, Molly Tynes is a Civil War heroine, a brave young woman who chased the night over five mountains to warn Wytheville of a Yankee raid. The story that passed down through generations features a lovely young woman riding a gray horse over a moonlit trail, fording streams, dodging cougars and tearing her dress as she raced to Wytheville ahead of Union Col. John Toland’s troops.
Tynes arrived just in time to give Wytheville citizens the advance warning they needed to fend off Union destruction of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, the lead mines and the Saltville salt works, the story goes. The ensuing Battle of Wytheville was a Confederate victory, all because of Molly Tynes.
A lovely story. But probably not true. Or not entirely true. Accounts of Molly Tynes’ Paul Revere-like ride contain gaps, ambiguities and outright mistruths. The Austinville lead mines and Saltville salt works, for instance, weren’t in immediate jeopardy, being 21 miles southeast and 45 miles west, respectively.
Molly’s age has been reported as 19, 20, 22 and 26. She was both blonde and dark-haired. Her name was spelled “Molly” or “Mollie,” but her real name was Mary Elizabeth. We don’t know if she left for her 10-hour ride at night; some stories say it was at daybreak. Whenever Molly left, she didn’t travel by moonlight. On July 17, 1863, the new moon was merely a thin crescent sky decoration.
Nor do we know if this unmarried lady was traveling alone—dangerous and, well, just plain improper in those times. If she was in the company of a man, that would have been even more scandalous, although some say she rode with Samuel Houston Laird, 15-year-old substitute mailman who knew the route.
“We love the legend of Molly Tynes,” says Rosa Lee Jude, director of the Wytheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, “and that’s what we call it, a legend. Someone warned Wytheville, that’s for certain.”
In her 2003 book, “I Like Molly Tynes Whether She Rode or Not,” Wytheville historian and retired attorney Mary B. Kegley noted that Wytheville received several documented warnings of approaching troops and none of them came from Molly Tynes.
Near dawn on the 18th, Confederate General John S. Williams learned from Major A.J. May that Union troops were marching toward Wytheville; he ordered May’s troops to harass the enemy and asked for hourly reports. According to a memoir by James Gibboney, a young man who lived in the thick of the fighting in what is now Wytheville’s Hallery-Gibboney House Museum, reports of the impending raid started coming in on July 17th and that a “refugee from the Kanawha Valley” (now West Virginia), Joseph Smith, spent the entire day of July 18th on the courthouse steps, warning of the approaching Union. The book suggests that if Molly reached Wytheville, she arrived too late to be credited with saving the town. This is what Kegley believes.
“I understand that I’ve killed Mary Tynes,” Kegley says. “The Southwest Enterprise newspaper in Wytheville even referred to me as ‘the assassin.’ I’m afraid folks around here don’t like me very well.”
Kegley, now in her 80s, has published more than 40 historical books. Folks in Wythe County are proud of their historian, but her slim volume about Molly Tynes put them in a hard place. They didn’t want to hear the troublesome truths about their legend; they could have done without a systematic examination of their beloved story. If there were no documented primary sources attesting to the 43-mile ride, some didn’t care.
Especially Ron Kime, who operates Big Walker store and observation tower on Tynes’ probable (well, alleged) route to Wytheville. When the Virginia historical highway marker atop Big Walker Mountain was replaced 10 years ago with Tynes’ name omitted, Kime was irate, to say the least. The new marker bearing “just the facts” was developed after consultation with historians, including Kegley.
Kime doesn’t disagree with Kegley’s findings, but says she’s killed a little of the area’s charm.