KINGS MOUNTAIN, N.C. -- Halloween is a time for skeletons and stories. But just off of Interstate 85 near the border shared by North and South Carolina lies a real skeleton -- two in fact -- in the same grave.
Every October hundreds of visitors troop by the grave, part of an annual pilgrimage, a tribute to history. These dutiful visitors make note of the headstone that pays honor to one set of remains, and gives little thought to the second.
This is the story of the second skeleton. The unknown one. The unmarked one.
The night of October 6, 1780, it rained on Kings Mountain. Horses hooves were muffled. The night of October 6, 2012, it rained on Kings Mountain. Human steps were muffled. Each year on this same night, visitors to the Kings Mountain National Battlefield light candles and shuffle along the path past campfires and tents and reenactors and hear the story of the battle again.
Some called it America's first civil war, because it pitted neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother. But the Battle of Kings Mountain turned the tide against the British and changed the course of history.
Toward the end of the annual tour, one of the last stops is a real grave. None of the cartoon stuff to spook the kids on the front lawn. Instead, a mound of stones tucked away in the woods marked with a headstone. It wasn't placed at the grave until 150 years after the battle. It is the grave of a young man named Patrick Ferguson, a Scotsman, the British Commander. Much is written of his design of a rifle that bears his name, and of his bravery in battle.
Little is written of the woman who shares his grave.
She was called Virginia Sal, not a first and last name but more likely because she may have hailed from the state of Virginia. We know through multiple accounts of the battle that Patrick Ferguson was cut down in a hail of rifle fire. We have mere speculation about how Virginia Sal died but no firm reports.
For years, kids tossed rocks on the grave to keep the redcoat down. But few knew a second skeleton occupied the same spot.
About a decade ago the chief ranger says ground penetrating radar confirmed accounts of a second grave. But she has yet to get her own marker.
"Dare I say it's the discrimination of history," says Bob Sweeney, who has made the pilgrimage to mark the anniversary of the battle more times than not over the last 30 years. "If in fact she's an honorable working woman -- I'm not saying anybody's done anything wrong -- it is a curious fact she's not mentioned."
Ferguson never married. So who was Virginia Sal? And why did loyalists bury her remains next to his? That is a historical mystery. But some think the fact that the loyalists buried her with him accords her a certain respect. She would have to be special, the theory goes, to warrant such a burial.
Years after the battle there were written references to Virginia Sal. Some called her a cook. Some a "camp follower." Was she a mistress? It was not unheard of. Some romanticize her, referring to accounts of a buxom young redhead who braided the commander's hair, a nudge-and-wink view from soldiers long after the fact.
"Most of our accounts were written so long after the battle, who knows what may have been embellished and what was left out," says Sweeney.
History records the details of commanders more than foot soldiers, of men more than women. Ferguson's story is engraved in stone at Kings Mountain. Virginia Sal's is the stuff of mystery, but worthy of some thought if you're up for a hike in the Carolina woods by candlelight on a rainy October night.