The ‘Unsinkable’ Mary Kate

The Murfreesboro Post, May 29, 2011

Mary Kate Patterson

Confederate Spy ‘Kate’ Weaved In and Out of Mid-Tenn Union Camps

“The Unsinkable Mary Kate” was not a Civil War battle ship.

La Vergne resident Mary Kate Patterson, who had the audacity and courage to take on multiple personalities and appearances, is credited with being an effective espionage agent on dangerous missions for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Her under-cover efforts came at a crucial time as North and South armies fought to occupy Middle Tennessee, considered a vital farming “bread basket” region of the South.

Although not widely known outside of the South, information shows this prominent physicians’ daughter helped provide information used by Southern legends such as Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Coleman Scout Sam Davis.

Mary Kate performed “astonishingly brave deeds” that “greatly benefited” the legendary Confederate Coleman Scouts, according to a family descendant.

Recently retired Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce Ambassador Carrie Smith, also of La Vergne, disclosed deeds of her “Lady Spy” ancestor who weaved and charmed her way in and out of Union Army lines in and around Nashville leading up to the deadly Battle of Stones River where Southern valor fell to Yankee steel and lead.

“My Aunt Kate had quite a reputation, you know, by making friends through enemy lines on her way in and out of Nashville,” Smith shared. “She was very spunky, especially for a young teen-aged girl…”

Having prior details of Yankee movements helped determine Confederate maneuvers throughout Middle Tennessee, from Tullahoma, Shelbyville, Woodbury, Shelbyville, Wartrace on down to Pulaski.

Espionage information was secreted to Coleman Scouts, who forwarded them to Confederate officers.

Although Mary Kate’s brother, Everard, was a Coleman Scout, Sam and John Davis, of Smyrna, are credited with being her closest allies and confidants.

Kate Married Fellow Spy

Despite the war, wedding bells could be heard ringing over the hills.

“Aunt Kate and the legendary Sam Davis were like brothers and sisters, and that was before she married John, Sam’s half-brother, during a festive wartime ceremony at the family home here in La Vergne that still stands on Fergus Road,” Smith traced her family legacy back in time.

Mary Kate’s friendship with the Davis family goes back before the 1860s.

“Their friendship was nurtured and formed before the advent of war,” Smith details.

“For example, Sam was wearing a pair of boots Aunt Kate gave him at the time of his capture while carrying important wartime papers near Pulaski where he hung rather than disclose his compatriots’ identities,” shared Smith, a descended niece of Kate Patterson.

Sam’s bravery and dying words – “I’d die a thousand deaths rather than betray a friend” – helped make him into a legendary figure that scholars still study and write about.

“Since Sam was not buried in those boots at the Davis Plantation in Smyrna, Aunt Kate kept one of them until her own death,” Smith added while describing how Coleman Scouts contacted Mary Kate.

“There would be a pebble on a window, or sometimes, they would warble bird sounds, indicating it was safe to make contact,” Smith shared. “It was a dangerous, exciting life for a teenaged girl. To the Union soldiers, she was a Yankee sympathizer. At home, she lit lamps in specified windows, signaling to Confederates it was safe to come in.”

Someone constructed a false-bottomed buggy for Mary Kate’s use in smuggling medicines, food, information and clothing out of Nashville to the Coleman Scouts. Her status as a physicians’ daughter helped her in and out of Union Army camps.

“She and her mother also fashioned over-sized dresses where Aunt Kate could conceal wartime papers and medications,” Smith chronicled. “Newspapers containing war maneuvers out of Nashville were crucially important, and Aunt Kate would oftentimes conceal those in her clothing.”

Kate’s charm is legend.

“Her dark eyes, and exquisite petite figure helped her charm Northern officers, no doubt,” added Smith. “She could always get a pass to go in and out of Nashville.”

Spies Spied on Spies

A stranger caught the attention of Mary Kate and others involved in secretive Coleman Scout operations.

“He came to the area on pretext of being a cattle dealer,” Smith noted. “But Aunt Kate nor anyone else ever saw him with a cow.”

This scenario led up to one of the closest, most dangerous harrowing episodes in Mary Kate’s spy activities.

“Two Coleman Scouts named Adams and McCain were hiding at the Patterson house here in La Vergne, when the alleged cattle trader was seen walking to the home,” Smith continued. “Aunt Kate and her mother hustled the Scouts to an upstairs hiding place as the stranger entered the dwelling, asking if they’d seen anyone acting suspicious.

“After eating a big meal, and wanting to impress the pretty girls, the ‘cattle trader’ let it slip he was a Union spy,” Smith shared from newspaper accounts of the war.

Loose lips caused the Union spy’s capture and he was ultimately turned over to a Confederate general.

Hard Post-War Years

But Kate’s post-war life may have been harder than the war years.

“And after the war, she began befriending aging and ailing Confederate soldiers, giving her resources to causes, to the point, that in later life, she resorted to sleeping under houses due to poverty and in fear of Union sympathizers coming after her,” Smith added. “She reportedly always carried a pistol. Children in La Vergne were often afraid of Aunt Kate because of the rumor that she always packed a pistol.”

“Aunt Kate was feisty, and she would have had to be to do what she did in the war as a young girl,” Smith accounted. “Until her death, at age 93 in 1931, she remained proud, but in poverty, and walked ramrod straight in posture, always carrying herself with dignity.

“Yes, she fell on hard times later in life, to the point of sleeping under various houses in La Vergne,” Smith added. “But when walking into church, in time-worn tattered clothes, she walked erect up to the front of the church on the mourner’s bench…”

“As long as she could, she visited veterans’ hospitals, as she had learned from her physician father,” Smith described. “According to stories handed down in our family, she did not hesitate to spend her resources to benefit post-Civil War Confederate veterans…”

Mary Kate Patterson is credited with being “unsinkable” in devotion to Confederate veterans…long after the last shot had been fired.

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