14 February 2009

Jack Hinson's One Man War

Jack Hinson never planned to become a deadly sniper. A prosperous and influential plantation owner in the 1850s, Hinson was devoted to raising his growing family and working his land. Though a slaveowner, Hinson was opposed to secession. But after a unit of Union occupation troops moved in on his land and summarily captured, executed, and placed the decapitated heads of his sons on his gateposts, Hinson abandoned his quiet life for one of revenge.

Equipped with a rifle he had specially made for long-range accuracy, Hinson became a dreaded enemy to the occupying army. By 1865, Hinson had likely killed more than one hundred men and had single-handedly taken down an armed Union transport in his one-man war against Grant's army and navy. By the end of the War Between the States, the Union had committed infantry and cavalry from nine regiments and a specially equipped amphibious task force of marines to capture Hinson, who was by that time nearly sixty years old. They never caught him. Since then, the story of Jack Hinson has evaded astute historians, and until now, he has remained invisible in the history of sniper warfare.

In this new biography, Jack Hinson's One Man War (Pelican Publishing, 2009), Lt. Col. Tom C. McKenney masterfully recounts Hinson's extraordinary feats as a lone Confederate sniper.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Mr. McKenney . . .

RW: First of all Colonel, tell us a little bit about yourself, where are you from, family, schooling, etc.

TM: I was born and reared in Lexington, Ky. Graduated from the University of Kentucky and the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill). My ancestors came to KY in the late 18th century from Virginia and South Carolina. I am a retired Marine, Korea, Vietnam, infantry, parachutist, and special operations. I'm retired for a disability incurred in Vietnam.

RW: What drew you to the story about Jack Hinson and how did you first become aware of it?

TM: I love history and read all historical markers. About 1965 I stopped to read a marker at the site of Golden Pond in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area (on the TN & KY border & depopulated by the United States Government in the 1940s). It spoke of a Confederate sniper whose sons were murdered by Union troops, causing him to seek vengeance. I never forgot that, and never lost the desire to pursue the story, but was unable to do so until about 15 years ago.

RW: What was the most intriguing thing about Jack Hinson?

TM: Jack Hinson was an amazing man. Perhaps the most interesting thing about him is the combination of his unique neutrality as a peace-maker before the murder and mutilation of his sons, and the relentless, expert, killing machine that he became after that. My original title for the book was "Reluctant Warrior, One Man's War against Grant's Army and Navy."

RW: What were your primary sources?

TM: At first, my only resource was that historical marker at Golden Pond. I went back there and noted the serial number. Then I drove to Frankfort, KY the State Archives, and read the file on that marker. It was a huge disappointment--there was almost nothing in that folder but some correspondence. Eventually I attended reunions of vanished communities in the LBLNRA, ran ads in county newspapers asking for information, and made the rounds of county libraries, combing their collections. Informal, privately published county histories had little about Hinson. One 19th Century history of the Army of Tennessee had a paragraph with a physical description of Hinson and the only quotation of a statement known to exist. The rest came from digging, travelling and asking a lot of questions. I found the [sniper] rifle and developed a chain of possession. Then I spent hundreds of hours in rare book and document collections at Duke, Chapel Hill, the Filson collection, the TN and KY archives and the National Archives. I would have to say that there were no "primary sources"; my primary sources were all of the above. It was rather like sorting through document fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls; all I had were fragments, from dozens of sources--mostly obscure--and it took a long time to put them together. One important thing I have learned about sources: Everywhere I went in the rural counties throughout the area I found zealous, local, unknown, amateur historians, who go about in obscurity, doing tireless research, people without a lot off education, who usually self-publish their work in fold-and-staple booklets or spiral binding at Office Depot. These people, and their publications, are priceless, largely unknown, treasures. There is not one of the five rural counties where most of the story took place that doesn't have an active, vital, county historical society.

RW: Are there any descendants still living?

TM: When I first began the research there were 4 living great grandchildren of Jack Hinson. Dduring the research and writing the two great grandsons have died; the two great grandaughters are living, one in Montana and one in Tennessee.

RW: What do they think of your book?

TM: Both great grandsons were enthusiastic about the book and helpful; it is very sad that neither lived to see the final result. One great grandaughter was at times enthusiastic and at times unresponsive. The other great grandaughter has never been interested. My right arm, however, has been the widow of one great grandson, Frances Hinson; she is a zealous amateur historian, and was collecting information before I met her, but had very limited means to pursue it. We have been a team of two. As I say in the acknowledgements, she could qualify as co-author, but must not be held responsible for my mistakes.

RW: How long did it take you to write the book?

TM: The research and writing began with a stroke--not of the pen, but the kind that happens in the brain. **In a very angry conflict with a publisher (over an index), I had a slight stroke. I decided to give myself a month off to recover, but didn't want to be idle. It occurred to me that I could finally begin to search for the Hinson story. In that month I found the rifle and made other progress, then went back to the regular schedule. Three years later I had another little stroke, so I gave myself another month to pursue thde story, and much progress was made. Then about 5 years ago I decided that the project had languished long enough and gave it top priority. Altogether, it too about 15 years.

**I can sympathize with that experience!

RW: Did Jack Hinson teach you anything and is there anything in particular you'd like for readers to learn from the story?

TM: The Jack Hinson story includes at least three important lessons in life: 1. It takes two to make peace, but only one to make a fight; he didn't want the war, but the war came to him. 2. A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city (Prov 18:19). The bitterest enemies are friends whom we have betrayed. 3. Vengeance has a high price. It cost him at least 6 of his children, his plantation, businesses, and life as he had known it before the war. Additionally, in a military sense, guerrilla warfare works. By the end of the war, the Union had committed elements of 9 regiments and an amphibious task force of Marines against that one old man, and they never got him.

RW: Thank you Colonel.

I've just received a copy of the book from the publisher and plan to write a review for the Washington Times soon. I'll post a link here once it's published.


ConfederateColonel said...

What an incredible bit of history. Thank you for making me aware of this. I'm looking forward to reading your review - and then reading the book.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thank you Colonel.

Tripp said...

Yesterday, I was afforded the opportunity to meet LTC McKenney and buy his book at the Stewart County Library, Dover, Tennessee. I was also able to actually handle the rifle that Jack Hinson used during the Civil War. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity I will cherish and I was able to share with my 10 year old son who could not put this 17 pound rifle down. Everyone there at the book signing was so gracious and helpful, making it certainly one of my most memorable experiences.

Thanks to everyone involved in this project!

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Tripp - no doubt a memorable experience!

John Thomas said...

John Thomas said: Fantastic history! Just like William Clarke Quantrell. The best history book I have seen in a long time. The old books about William Clarke Quantrell are good also.

msimons said...

It is the best CW book I have read this past 3 years.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hey Mike, good to hear from you. Yes, it is a good read.

Dwight Belew said...

I have a close friend who spent several years living within 200 yards of where Jack Hinson did most of his shooting. You must climb down with the help of a huge rope in order to get to where he spent most of his time. That place, still in a wooded area is now called "NameRock" and has the names of lots of people from back in the 1860s and later, all scratched into the large flat rock, including one of his son's name. I'm presently president of Hermitage Sportsmans Club and our 'cabin' is less than a mile from where Jack Hinson reigned terror on the Union soldiers. Hurricane creek road, in Houston County, Tn.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Mr. Belew - that's quite interesting. I'd really like to chat with you some time. Can you send me contact info to:



ConfederateColonel said...

Very Cool, Mr. Belew! Thanks for the background info.

Ptricia Gatlin said...

Very interesting. I am still researching my family history. Jack Hinson is my 3rd or 4th great grandfather. I am still putting all the pieces together.
Thank you! Patricia Henson- Gatlin

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

You are welcome Ptricia.

msimons said...

I have read this book 8 times since I last posted and you can feel the fire in Mr. Jacks bones as he seeks justice for his murdered sons.

Ronald Lumsden Mounts said...

With ancestors on both sides during the War of Northern Aggression, I tend to favor the Confederacy. I am a retired American History teacher and my wife and I are long-time reenactors, mainly civilian. I found the book at a mill store on a trip to north GA and was unable to put it down! Unfortunately, I loaned it out and never got it back, so I recently ordered another copy from Barnes & Noble. I would love to see the rifle if anyone has any info on where it will be shown.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hi Ronald - thanks for the comment. I think if you'll google the rifle/name, you should be able to find out more. Thanks for reading!

Bobby McCommon said...

The rifle, Col. Mckenney, Judge Ben Hall Mcfarlin owner of the rifle,and Joe McCormick artist of the dust cover and inside pics will be at Pocahontas, Tn. on OCT. 5 AT 12:00PM AT Taylor Gro.HWY 57 East. Come on out to this very rare occasion with all parties involved will be in one place. Bring your book and have it signed or you will able to buy one on sight. Hope to see yea there.

Anonymous said...

Story, as told, is horseshiite. No one made 500-1000 yd shots with that rifle. Not that its impossible with a BP 50 cal, just not that gun. The author should know better.

A ladder rear sight would have been necessary.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Anon - Hinson's story is well-documented. Frankly, I don't think you know what you're talking about. Can you offer anything besides an anonymous comment to back your claim?

Stephen Clay McGehee said...

Ahh, the esteemed expert on everything, Anonymous, has decided to share his vast wisdom in this little corner of the web. Somehow the anonymous postings of someone who can't write without including foul language, and includes no reasoning or evidence just doesn't carry much weight. Perhaps the copy of the book that Anonymous read (you DID read it before posting didn't you?) was missing pages 349 through 394 - Appendix A - E (including facsimile copies of original documents), the Notes section, and the bibliography. More likely, "Anonymous" is yet another self-proclaimed "expert" whose opinion we are supposed to value more highly than the author, Lt. Colonel Tom McKenney.

Stephen Clay McGehee

Robert Hand said...

The book is a real blessing, and I'm proud to have a copy. I have to suppose that anonymous chooses to disbelieve that it was possible to shoot effectively for such distances in that era. How mistaken he really is! There are records available of much longer successful shots during that war. I freely confess having southern sympathies, although I had family on both sides of this conflict, with my own great-greatgranddad actually being murdered by neighbors for his pro-Union stance. I'm not so proud of that particular ancestor, by the way, as his oldest son joined the Confederate Army of Tennessee in May of 1861, and fought until wounded and captured in November of 1863, at Missionary Ridge, spending the balance of the war in a Federal prison at Rock Island, Illinois. I see Jack Hinson as a hero, definitely a tragic hero, but a genuine hero, anyway. My regards to the author for an excellent Book!

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Yes, I've read several accounts in the 500-1000 yard range.

Anonymous said...

My name is Jeff, apologies for posting as 'Anonymous', it is easier to do so as I don't have a Google account or OpenID options.

I'm a historian on some amateur level and have explored too many Civil and Revolutionary War battlefields to list here along with sites related to the battles with the Native Americans, primarily the Sioux.

I'm currently three years into research for a book about Major General Benedict Arnold. Many only know him as a traitor which is a shame. He was Washington's greatest general, his most consistent warrior who was so successful (Ticonderga, Lake Champlain, and Saratoga to name just a few) that if he hadn't turned, he would be one of our greatest heroes. When you learn his backstory and how he was continually disrespected while becoming a cripple for his country, you gain an understanding of the man and why he did what he did. Not excusing his disloyalty, just saying he took so much abuse among jealous peers, that he broke.

As a Minnesotan, my loyalty is to my state as we talk of the Civil War. The First Minnesota Infantry Regiment were the first troops given to Lincoln. They were in all the major engagements in the east. From Manassas, Gettysburg, Antietam and so on, they became legendary for their valor and toughness as well as their casualty rates on each field. That being said, my favorite General in American history is James Longstreet. I served in the infantry and have spent time in Columbus, GA, Fayetteville, NC and Clarksville, TN. While living in those places, I developed a love of the south and came to respect and agree with the mindset of the Confederacy. Among the early founders, Patrick Henry is my favorite. His opposition to ratification seems to have set the stage for the Civil War several decades later.

I had never heard of Hinson before today and like hearing about Francis Marion for the first time, I'm so incredibly anxious and excited to learn about this man and explore the areas where he operated.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hi Jeff. Thanks for reading and taking time to comment. Hinson is a fascinating character. I wish Clint Eastwood would make a movie about his story.