Why you should care
Because some men fight for personal reasons … politics be damned.
As the Union gunboat captain waited to surrender to a detachment of Confederate troops — perhaps guerrillas — he and his men grew restless. They’d just suffered a battering from the bluff above as they wended along the Tennessee River, which forced them to capitulate.
No one came, and they eventually continued on — oblivious to the fact that they’d been beaten into near submission by a solitary sniper. The American Civil War, which in many ways was the first modern war — think Gatling guns, railroads and submarines — was a bloody affair, and its ripple effects, from flags to the brutal legacy of slavery, are still felt today. But in this unique case, the story of Jack Hinson illustrates more elemental reasons why someone would choose to take up arms: love and vengeance.
Their decapitated heads were delivered to Bubbling Springs, the Hinson plantation, and mounted on gateposts, and that was the day that 57-year-old Hinson’s neutrality came to an end.
Tom McKenney, author of Jack Hinson’s One-Man War: A Civil War Sniper, spent more than a decade researching the man. It was hard going at first, as little apart from a few paragraphs in a 1906 book, Battles and Sketches of the Army of Tennessee, had been written about Hinson. Through numerous visits to county libraries, insights gained from interviews with Hinson’s descendants and more than a month in the National Archives combing through “microfilm and box after box of original records,” McKenney tells OZY how he pieced Hinson’s story together. When confronted with contradictory records, he relied on multiple sources to distill as much fact as he could from the fading legend.
“Old Man” Hinson was a businessman and plantation owner living in the Between the Rivers (now the Land Between the Lakes) region of Kentucky and Tennessee when the Civil War broke out. While a Southerner at heart, he was firmly against secession and war. But because his land was located on a strategic peninsula bordered by the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, war came to him. In 1861, Tennessee joined the Confederacy, and Union forces, led by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, soon entered the territory. During the battle for Fort Donelson in 1862, a fairly neutral Hinson ferried information between the skirmishing armies, delivering firsthand intelligence to Confederate Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow, and when he realized the Confederates were about to surrender, to Grant himself.
With bluecoats entrenched, bushwhackers (aka Southern guerrillas) began targeting Union troops. When two of Hinson’s sons were caught with rifles by a Union patrol while hunting squirrels, they were executed on suspicion of guerrilla activity, their decapitated heads delivered to Bubbling Springs, the Hinson plantation, and mounted on gateposts. That was the day that 57-year-old Hinson’s neutrality came to an end.
“Almost everyone in Between the Rivers was descended from Highland Scots,” McKenney says, pointing to the fact that many back then had retained Highland values and customs, like the “law of vengeance.” Hinson bided his time, freed his slaves, had a special .50-caliber, 18-pound Kentucky rifle made and then launched his campaign. He started with the lieutenant responsible for killing his sons. A few months later, he dispatched the soldier who’d planted their heads on his gateposts. Eventually, word of Hinson’s exploits reached the Union Army, and they set Bubbling Springs ablaze — the unintended consequence being an even more enraged Hinson was unleashed to wage his war.
Hinson targeted Union cavalrymen, officers, gunboats, transports and river pilots. While he only carved 36 notches in his rifle for confirmed kills — cadavers he could walk up to and kick — McKenney reckons Hinson really slayed over a hundred, based on newspaper accounts and other records, not to mention the fact that the Union Army devoted hundreds of men to hunting Hinson down.
Daniel E. Sutherland, author of A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War, believes Hinson would’ve been viewed in differing ways. “Such men could be a source of pride in a Confederate community, but that depended on whether their neighbors saw them as a help or hindrance to the security of the community,” he says. While the Confederate government tolerated freelance guerrillas, by the spring of 1862, “the government discouraged their actions by forming the Partisan Rangers, government-sanctioned irregulars who were to work in conjunction with the conventional army,” Sutherland says.
From his perch and blind above the Tennessee River, Hinson exacted a murderous toll on the military that had harmed him so. Although he eluded capture, Jack paid a heavy price: He lost seven children during the conflict and had to maintain a low profile after it ended because he remained a wanted man. His story serves as a reminder that while world leaders often rely on propaganda and big ideas to serve as fuel for war, sometimes a man simply fights because of personal loss — and the need for bloodstained revenge.