All around, the American Civil War is raging, and a man called Jack Hinson has just cocked his long muzzle-loading rifle. He has drawn a bead on a Unionist soldier – something he’s done various times before. And in a moment he’ll pull the trigger and send the unlucky trooper to his maker. This is the shocking story of how Hinson turned into a stone-cold killer.
Before we dive into the details of Hinson’s story, let’s set the scene of the Civil War as it was fought across the U.S. The conflict proper had started in April 1861 when the secessionist forces from the south attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina. This key event occurred not long after Abraham Lincoln had become U.S. president.
But the war’s roots went back to well before that outbreak of violence. At the heart of the quarrel between the North and the South that eventually led to such horrific bloodshed and destruction was one central issue: slavery. And this matter was entangled with the idea of states’ rights.
In the lead-up to the Civil War, America consisted of just 34 states. And of those, seven of the southern states were adamant that they would not follow the northern states in abolishing slavery. The first state to bring an end to slavery was Pennsylvania, which did so as early as 1780. Many other northern states then followed suit over the coming decades.
But for the South, slavery was strongly connected with plantation agriculture, which was the main economic engine of the region. In 1860 the slave population in America had in fact reached four million. And most of those slaves were in the southern states.
The southern states argued that the Union was just an agreement and that it could not be enforced. In other words, went the argument, any state could choose to leave the Union at will. But the northern states saw things quite differently. As far as they were concerned, the Founding Fathers had intended that the Union should be a binding and permanent institution. Membership was not voluntary, they said.
Things then came to a head with the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in November 1860. Since Lincoln had made no secret of his opposition to slavery, his appointment was anathema to the southern states. So, South Carolina, which had been a leader in the secessionist movement for some time, called a state convention.
This convention met in December 1860 and made a unanimous declaration that South Carolina would be leaving the Union. Then over the course of the first two months of 1861, six other states – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas – joined South Carolina in seceding from the Union.
The die was cast, and on February 4, 1861, the seven secessionist states formed the Confederate States of America. Southern states now took possession of military forts. And one quarter of the whole Federal army went over to the Confederacy, including the whole of the Texas garrison.
As the new president of the Union, Lincoln rejected requests from the southern states for a negotiated settlement. Conflict was now inevitable. And, as mentioned, Confederate troops struck the first blow when they attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.
The attack on Fort Sumter actually polarized positions on both the Confederate and Unionist sides. But either way, the Unionist force at the fort surrendered to the Confederates on April 13, 1861. And although no one had died, the attack outraged the northern states. Meanwhile, in the south, four more states joined the Confederacy: Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
The scene was thus set for a long and bloody war – one that was to include no fewer than 237 battles large enough to each be given their own names. On top of that, there were countless smaller actions. But as the war got underway, Southern plantation owner Jack Hinson was not a man to take sides.
Born in 1807, John W. Hinson, or Jack, was of Scottish-Irish stock. And at the beginning of the Civil War, he was a well-to-do plantation owner in Stewart County, Tennessee, near the Kentucky border. This location put him firmly in a state that had declared for the Confederacy. Yet in spite of this, he had opposed secession.
Hinson’s first instinct, though, was to remain neutral in the war that had started around him. But he would not be able to escape the conflict – because the fighting soon arrived on his patch. His plantation, called Bubbling Springs, was in an area known as Between the Rivers.
The Between the Rivers spot was bounded on one side by the Cumberland River and on the other by the Tennessee River. And this lie of the land made a kind of peninsula that had strategic military significance – with major repercussions. You see, things got downright hot in Hinson’s neighborhood in 1862 when the Unionists appeared in Between the Rivers.
The Unionist troops were under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant. Born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, in 1822, and the son of a tanner, Grant had from the age of 16 spent four years at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. He then saw active service in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.
Then, after a murky incident apparently involving alcohol, Grant resigned his commission and left the service in 1854. Now part of civilian life, Grant found it hard to pin down a regular career. But when The Civil War started, he applied to rejoin the Federal Army, keen to fight for the Unionist cause.
Grant set about his task of fighting the Confederates with distinct relish, even if at first a lack of men hampered his efforts. And despite this hindrance, Lincoln noticed the general’s merit and marked him down as a man with an appetite for battle. Grant was certainly anxious to push south into Confederate territory.
And so on February 12, 1862, Grant moved his troops towards Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River – not far from Hinson’s plantation. Now the neutral southerner had the Civil War well and truly on his doorstep. Grant probed the defenses of Fort Donelson, while gunboats bombarded it from the river. Fierce return fire from the fort then forced the gunboats into retreat.
However, even in the face of this fierce fighting, Hinson stayed neutral and did not join the battle on either side. And yet his neutrality was not so strict that he would not pass on information to the Confederates who were holed up in Fort Donelson.
Hinson in fact passed on intelligence to Gideon J. Pillow – the Confederate officer in command of Fort Donelson until February 9, when the more senior Brigadier General John B. Floyd arrived. The Confederate force at Fort Donelson was considerable, too, with three divisions, garrison troops and a cavalry detachment. Forces there amounted to a total of 17,000 men.
As for the fort itself, it was in a well-defended spot of around 100 acres, looming 100 feet above the course of the Cumberland River. The artillery defenses, meanwhile, included ten 32-pounder pieces and various other smaller cannons. And three miles of trenches further protected the fort’s perimeter.
Grant, on the other hand, had a force of around 15,000 men at the beginning of what would become known as the Battle of Fort Donelson. However, ultimately he was to have a total of 25,000 in his command during the battle. And eight artillery batteries and a couple of cavalry regiments also buttressed his infantry.
Grant in addition had at his disposal Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s Western Gunboat Flotilla. Four ironclad gunboats and three built of timber made up this force – which, as we’ve seen, retreated after an artillery barrage from Fort Donelson early in the battle.
Unionist troops then continued to make small forays towards the Confederate fort on February 13 but with no conclusive outcome. Indeed, at this point Grant had ordered his troops not to get involved in a full battle. Hence, the only casualties on the Union side came when some artillery explosions caused grass fires, killing a number of men.
On February 14 the weather subsequently turned severely cold, with three inches of snow and temperatures as low as 10 °F. But the battle only heated up. The Unionists brought up 10,000 more men – so that Grant’s full complement of 25,000 now faced the fort. And the strength of the gunboat force was at this stage concentrated on the Confederate defenses too.
Yet while the gunboats mounted an attack, they were on the wrong end of a thorough beating from the Fort Donelson cannons. And although he no doubt didn’t find it at all funny at the time, in an ironic incident, the gunboat flotilla’s commander, Flag Officer Foote, was wounded – yes – in the foot.
Unionist gunboats would, then, clearly not be enough to defeat the Fort Donelson Garrison. And yet, that said, troops had now surrounded the fort. Grant therefore pondered the prospect of a long siege. But the Confederates had other ideas. On the morning of February 15, they launched a ground attack on the Unionists.
This was the last thing Grant had expected – and, indeed, he had left the scene of the battle. At first the Confederate attack enjoyed some success, too, forcing the Unionist troops back two miles. But by shortly after midday, the Unionist line had held firm, and Grant came back not long afterwards. And so, despite their momentum from earlier on in the day, the Confederates now made a retreat back to their trenches – even though they had created a potential escape route from the siege.
Grant subsequently ordered his troops to attack, and as evening fell, they had the upper hand in the struggle. Then on the morning of February 16, the Fort Donelson garrison surrendered to Grant. It was a bitter defeat for the Confederates. They had lost nearly 14,000 men, killed, wounded, captured or missing. The Unionists, meanwhile, had lost about 2,700. Importantly, too, the fall of Fort Donelson meant that the road to Nashville was now open, and so the city was evacuated.
But what of Jack Hinson in all of this? Well, still effectively acting as a neutral – and counterbalancing the intelligence that he’d previously given to the Confederates in Fort Donelson about Grant’s movements – the plantation owner now passed on information to the Unionists. He informed Grant that the Confederates were on the point of surrender.
Meanwhile, having arrived on Hinson’s part of Tennessee so ferociously, the Civil War story moved on. The greater part of Tennessee was now under Union control. But bushwhackers – Confederate guerrillas – continued to attack the Unionists, meaning danger still lurked in the byways and forests of the region.
Despite the occasional skirmishes, though, Hinson may well have hoped to remain neutral and, as far as possible, to live on peacefully at his Bubbling Springs plantation. But then disaster struck. When a pair of his sons were out hunting one day, a patrol of Union troops captured them.
What’s more, as far as the soldiers were concerned, they’d caught two probable Confederate sympathizers – at any rate, certain Southerners who possessed rifles. Yes, the Unionists apparently decided that they had two bushwhackers on their hands. So the soldiers executed the two Hinson boys. And yet their brutality didn’t stop there.
You see, the Unionists then decapitated both of Hinson’s sons and impaled their heads on the gateposts of Bubbling Springs, where their father found them. For Hinson, neutrality was therefore firmly in the past. What he now had in mind was, in fact, a relentless campaign of revenge against Union soldiers.
But Hinson, now well into his 50s, didn’t immediately go on the rampage. His actions were far more considered than that. First, he freed all of his own slaves. And next, he had a rifle specially made to his exacting specifications. Hinson was determined that he would have just the right weapon to fulfill his deadly plan.
The rifle was a .50-caliber muzzleloader – meaning it was in some ways fairly typical of the era. But this gun was also different. For a start, it weighed in at 18 pounds. And on top of that, the weapon had an exceptionally long octagonal-shaped barrel, while it also featured no fancy brasswork. This strictly functional weapon was the ideal sniper’s rifle.
It’s said that the first man Hinson took out with his new gun was the lieutenant of the patrol who had killed his boys. Then he apparently got the man who’d put their heads on the gateposts. Meanwhile, the Unionists got wind of what Hinson was up to and burnt down Bubbling Springs. And yet that just seemed to make Hinson madder and even more dangerous.
Hinson then seems to have picked an ideal sniper’s spot overlooking the Tennessee River. This would have given him a vantage point over the Union troop steamers and gunboats on the river. And as far as he was concerned, any man on deck was apparently fair game. It’s hard to say how many people Hinson killed all told, but his biographer, Tom McKenney, reckons that he disposed of more than 100. Meanwhile, towards the end of the war, he joined up with conventional Confederate troops, acting as a guide.
Whether the taste of revenge was sweet for Jack Hinson – we cannot know. But he certainly suffered during the Civil War, as did millions of other Americans, Unionist and Confederate alike. Hinson is said in the end to have lost seven of his children and his plantation. Yet while a special detachment of Union soldiers hunted him down, they never caught up with him. And so Hinson lived on after the war, dying in 1874.