Throughout history, man has had the responsibility to do two things: protect his family and provide for that family. In this day and age, some have steered away from their manly roots, but many of us still want to do right by our loved ones. Anyone who considers himself a red-blooded protector of his family will feel his blood boil when he hears the saga of Captain John “Jack” Hinson.
I was running a shotgun class in New York for a group of LE officers, one of whom was also a Civil War reenactor named Dan Phelps. It turns out that he portrays a Southern artilleryman when reenacting battles and has a keen understanding of what the South endured during the U.S. Civil War.
Dan was excited to tell me a few stories about the area in Tennessee to which I recently moved. A few weeks after class, he sent me a book by Lt. Col. Tom McKenney, USMC, Ret., titled “Jack Hinson’s One Man War, A Civil War Sniper.” From the moment I read the dustcover, I couldn’t put down the book. I was intrigued that the story had taken place within an hour of where I live, but more than that, the story McKenney weaves is really well written and puts you right in the boots of Hinson as he settles the score.
How it Started
Jack Hinson lived in a region rife with Civil War battles, the area we now call Land Between the Lakes. In his day, it was simply known as ’Tween the Rivers. It was the section of high ground separating the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. This area was especially inviting to the Federal Army, for a variety of reasons. Foremost, Johnsonville was a great place to store supplies that could be quickly shuttled upriver to Union forces fighting in southern Tennessee, as well as Georgia. Another interesting fact is that the river flowed north. This had tactical importance with regard to disabled boats of the gun, troop or supply type, which would float north, back into friendly Union territory.
After several semi-decisive battles in this area, the Union Army set up shop and began patrolling the area to help convince the locals that they might want to stand with the Union rather than fall with the Confederates. Many residents felt the devastation of Union forces on their crops, supplies, servants and homesteads. With supplies running short, Union soldiers and their leaders took what they needed in the name of their cause. This not only included supplies, but labor as well. Many black freedmen, as well as those slaves who had not been granted their freedom, were enslaved by Union forces in this area for cheap labor.
Enter Jack Hinson. Two of his sons joined the Confederate Army, yet he tried to stay cordial to both sides. Understanding his decision is difficult for us looking through the lense of history, but he was a tobacco farmer who had freed his slaves, all of whom stayed on to work with him on his farm, and he obviously felt that he had a need to stay neutral. Perhaps he truly had not picked the Confederate cause to support.
This all changed one day when two of his other sons headed to the woods to hunt near the Hinson family farm, Bubbling Springs. The Hinson property lay near Dover, Tennessee. The sons were arrested by a Union patrol, accused of being bushwhackers and executed on the spot. Their bodies were taken into Dover. Their remains were dragged around the courthouse square, and then, as a further insult, their heads were cut off and placed in a burlap sack. The patrol then rode to Jack’s farm and placed the heads of his executed sons on the gateposts of his fence. The soldiers searched Jack’s home and surrounding barns from top to bottom looking for contraband, which in this case would be guns. Luckily, they were well hidden.
Jack Hinson picked a side. He swore to himself that he would invoke the law of vengeance for the death and mutilation of his two boys.
Captain Jack’s first order of business was to acquire a .50-caliber, heavy-barreled rifle. The gun would be of the percussion-cap variety and completely subdued except for the German silver bead on the front sight that would be overlaid on many a Union target. This Kentucky rifle sported a 41-inch rifled barrel that would help him reach out to nearly a half-mile for his debt settlement with the unsuspecting Union enemy. Jack would be able to load Minie balls for added accuracy, as well as enhanced terminal performance. The Minie ball trumped the round lead ball for performance all the way around. These conical lead bullets became extremely popular during the Civil War, and they continue to dominate today with regard to the blackpowder rifle.
Captain Jack’s revenge began as it should, with the elimination of the Lieutenant and Sergeant who were responsible for his sons’ beheadings. He knew where their patrols would ride and planned the ambush for weeks. The shots were up close and personal, dropping the Lieutenant from his saddle as he rode past Jack’s well-concealed position. Before the smell and smoke from his shot could dissipate into the woods, Jack disappeared like a ghost into his familiar surroundings. Although the Union patrol had the numbers and horses, Jack had surveyed the target area and had a well-planned escape route. On top of this, he was moving in his own backyard. He knew every stone and tree in the woods near his farm. He was able to operate as a true guerilla fighter should. He could hit the enemy at the time and place of his choosing. He took plenty of time to plan his next move.
Shortly after his crusade had started, Old Man Jack became a target himself. It seems he had made the Union Army’s wanted list; they needed to prove a point. The Union hierarchy wanted to show the community what happens when you go against the occupying forces of central Tennessee. In this time and location, many executions took place. Deserters, guerillas, unsupportive locals — no one was immune to the reach of the Union Army. The citizen spies of Dover, Tennessee, launched riders on a wintry night to notify Jack that he would be targeted the next morning by the Union forces. Jack made a decisive move. Disregarding the blizzard that was upon him, he sent his wife and seven of his children west to Sulfur Wells. His two youngest daughters were fighting measles during this chilling trip west to seek safety with relatives. Jack packed up his sniper rifle and headed to the high ground of ’Tween the Rivers. Little did he know that this would be the last time he would see his two little girls, who would succumb to their sickness.
Jack headed to a ridge-top cave that would be his hiding place while he eventually settled the score. From that hiding place, it was an easy climb to a high, angled shooting position that would allow him to prey on Union officers. The Southern Sniper had found the Achilles heel of this Tennessee waterway: Union boats struggling against the rapids, almost coming to a standstill. As though the boats were frozen in place, Jack had plenty of time to steady his rifle and squeeze the trigger after selecting the ranking officer on the Union boat deck.
In the deadly game of sniping, Jack was a master. He not only settled the score, he also continued to cause fear among the Union Army as they braved the woods and waterways of Tennessee. Legend says that the 36 eighth-inch punch marks on his sniper rifle indicate the number of victims who fell to his deadly skill. Others say this was a primitive way of decorating a firearm by local craftsmen. Regardless of which is true, there is no second-guessing his sniping abilities.
Jack was even called to aid Confederate Cavalry leader Nathan Bedford Forrest as a guide for operations in the Land Between the Lakes vicinity.
When all was said and done, this Southern gentleman faded into obscurity. With more than 100 of the enemy eliminated by his sniper expertise, the war had taken a toll on his family as well. Captain Jack Hinson had lost seven children. Two had enlisted as Confederate soldiers, one of whom was wounded, then recovered, only to be killed later in the war, at Petersburg. The other Confederate soldier son made it through the war, surviving Appomattox, then he walked home, was paroled at Fort Donelson, then died soon after, apparently from malnutrition and exhaustion. Remember that Hinson lost two other sons, beheaded in Dover. Another son had fought as a guerilla in the mid-Tennessee area and was later killed in battle. Last, his two young daughters had succumbed to measles.
Captain Hinson’s exploits are the fodder for many fireside sniper stories, but the truth is that he simply did what many of us would do if our family were attacked in such a manner.