McNairy County’s Boogeyman

Halloween is less than a week away–fear the ghost of Fielding Hurst!

BOO!

The front page of yesterday’s McNairy County Independent Appeal had an article by Russell Ingle entitled “Ghosts of Purdy.” It’s a seasonal piece that ties Halloween with stories of ghosts supposedly haunting the home of Fielding Hurst and the Purdy Cemetery a short distance across the road.

Unfortunately, it’s also another example of sensationalizing history for the sake of an entertaining story and not getting the facts straight.

I don’t blame Mr. Ingle. I’m sure he just wanted to write an interesting story and share with readers what he had learned about one of McNairy County’s most notorious figures. I’ve had close to 15 years to learn what I know about Hurst and the Sixth Tennessee Cavalry, so I can’t fault someone who may have only had a few days or weeks to research the subject.

There’s a lot of exaggerated and downright false information when it comes to Fielding Hurst and the Sixth Tennessee. One must trudge through period and modern-day partisan or erroneous writings to discover what is actually true. Much of them can be attributed to former Confederate soldiers, but some are more contemporary and simply expound and exaggerate from a one-sided (i.e. Confederate) point of view.

One hundred twenty-six years after his death, Fielding Hurst remains a despised man among descendants of the Confederacy in southwest Tennessee. It’s a hatred that’s been passed down from their great-great granddaddies who fought against him or felt his wrath or that of his men. I’ve heard stories of family members who were never seen again, their disappearances blamed on Hurst and his command. There are many people who have genuine reasons for their feelings against him.

Fielding Hurst has become the Boogeyman of McNairy County, Tennessee. He is a “monster” and a “demon”and his insidious reputation grows more brutal and bloodier with the passage of time. His evil deeds are magnified and sensationalized for dramatic effect to the point of absurdity. I’ve often thought someone should write a novel with Hurst as a central character because the stories that are considered truth already border on imaginative fiction.

I was contacted this week by someone who asked if it was true that Hurst “murdered and dismembered people and was possibly murdered himself. He cut off people’s heads and lined them up in his yard.” I repeat this not to make fun because the person only wanted to know if the accusations were true. Yet it shows how ridiculous the crimes attributed to Hurst have become. Such lies make Hurst sound like the Civil War’s answer to Vlad the Impailer, a.k.a. Dracula.

Probably the most common source used by writers is an article published in the Confederate Veteran (March-April 1992, p. 20-23) entitled “Hurst!” by W.Clay Crook. It’s available online and pops up on most every search for Fielding Hurst. Mr. Crook writes a well-worded story and turns prose with the best of them. It reads as an authoritative account of Hurst and many writers rely on its accuracy. Unfortunately, it suffers from a few factual errors and Mr. Crook gives no documentation to back up some of his assertions.

Mr. Crook writes:

“When the price of human misery and destruction is subtracted from war, little is actually left of the glory we so often admire in battle. It is true, however, that there are some who have tarnished the art of warfare more thoroughly than others. The Romans had Attila the Hun. Northwestern Europe, the Vikings … but old families in West Tennessee spit forth one invective — like acid from a shattered battery — Hurst!”

Hurst’s legend grows more with each writer’s take on his dastardly misdoings. Crook thought him worse than Atilla the Hunn, the Vikings, and Wiliam Tecumseh Sherman. Now Russell Ingle elevates his sinister stature to that of Adolf Hitler!

Mr. Ingle writes:

According to legend, Hurst said he was driven by divine mandate to cleanse the land of Rebels. Just like Hitler slaughtered the Jews, Hurst spread a bloody trail and left mutilated bodies wherever he traveled. The story is told how, on a patrol to LaGrange, Hurst carried with him a band of Confederate prisoners and, at every mile post, killed one, cut their head off and hung it on a post.

Granted, Hurst was guilty of many things from extortion and arson to executing Confederate soldiers and guerrillas. Murders of soldiers and civilians off the battlefield and on the home front, though committed by men under his command, were still his responsibility.

But in no way did his actions compare to the Holocaust and the death of approximately six million Jews in concentration camps, innocent victims who were persecuted because of Hitler’s prejudice against their people. They were not at war with Hitler and his armies, yet they were systematically killed because of their race.

Hurst’s so-called “mandate to cleanse the land of Rebels” makes him out to be a twisted and demented evangelist with an unquenchable thirst for Rebel blood, male, female, and child alike. This line was taken from Crook, who dramatically evoked the Bible with this verse: “Hurst himself felt driven by divine mandate to slay the Philistines (meaning “neighbors who tended to disagree” with him), cleanse the land of rebels and like Joshua before him, to spare not even the ox nor its manger.”

There’s no question Hurst detested those he and other Unionists labeled as “Secesh,” or the proponents of secession. He sought to avenge the persecution against he and his family from his rebel neighbors and the Confederacy as a whole. But to say he gave himself a “mandate” is unfounded and undocumented. It makes for good reading, but it’s simply not true.

The particulars of the executions of Captain John Ambrose “Dock” Wharton and four other Confederate soldiers have long been embellished. So what really happened?

Here’s the real story: It took place not at LaGrange but on the road between Purdy and Pocahontas, Tennessee. Hurst believed Wharton and his men were guerrillas and not Confederate soldiers and that Wharton had threatened to take his life. After a gun battle during which Wharton was wounded, he was taken to Hurst who vowed to end Wharton’s life instead. They were executed and left beside the road. At least one of the men, Thomas W.S. Morgan, was wounded and left for dead; nearby residents tended to him as best they could before he died.

There is only one authoritative source that I’ve found for the incident, a letter dated July 23, 1863 written by Dew M. Wisdom to Col. Philip D. Roddey. In it, Wisdom relates the incident but makes no mention of the soldiers’ bodies buried as mile posts, much less decapitated and hung on posts.

So where did the decapitation claim come from? Crook attributes it to G. Tillman Stewart, late historian of Henderson County. I’ve not found it in any other source materials. Because there is no evidence to prove it, it must be assumed that the decapitation version is false. The worst part is, when these distorted tales are published in books and newspapers and spread across the Internet, they become facts for those without the inclination to dig deeper. They are often accepted at face value and reprinted over and over again.

*****

I’m sure I sound like I’m defending the actions of Fielding Hurst, but it’s really not the case. All I ask is that anyone who writes about him be objective and not completely believe everything they’ve read about him, particularly what’s available on the Internet. To embellish and exaggerate what he did for the sake of a good story distorts the facts and is dishonest to the reader.

(Parts of this post were written tongue-in-cheek to accentuate the dramatic prose used by some writers to describe Fielding Hurst and what he did.)

A Sense of Accomplishment

I’m sure it’s the same for any author, whether one’s work is published by a traditional publisher or it’s been self-published. After all those months (or years) of dedication to a project and enduring numerous drafts, revisions, and corrections, it’s a special moment when the UPS man pulls into the driveway and brings a box filled with books, books that you’ve created.

My wife Cindy was having a yard sale when the UPS man scaled our driveway (our house is on a steep slope) with my books. Of course she had to be the one who opened it, which I didn’t really mind. Even though it was me who wrote, re-wrote, edited, and published the 160-page masterpiece. But that’s OK. She was thrilled like it was Christmas. She was very proud of me and of them, the first order of 30 paperbacks of Hurst’s Wurst. She showed them to her friend and her mother who were both helping with the yard sale. I love to see her happy with something I’ve written.

I’m not one to promote myself, to gloat or say, “Hey, look at me! Look what I’ve done!” (Which of course is bad if you’re responsible for the marketing and promotion of a self-published work.) But Cindy has always been my biggest supporter in everything I’ve done. She has promoted my books to anyone on any occasion. She is proud of what I’ve done; I couldn’t help but have an inner sense of satisfaction and accomplishment myself.

Writing a book is something everyone says they want to do (writing the “Great American Novel”) but often never do. Anyone who commits themselves to cultivating an idea, building and taking away from it, nurturing it through thought, research, and imagination, and sees it to a published end deserves to feel that sense of accomplishment. The reward is to open that cardboard box and see books with your own name on them. The financial rewards don’t hurt either. Still nothing can quite compare to opening that box.

Exchanges of Opinion

The Civil War still evokes passion from both sides of the conflict after over 140 years. Now add the fact that some Southerners fought for the Union instead of the Confederacy and generously stir into the mix. It certainly makes for some interesting exchanges!

Below is an e-mail sent to me by Mr. Gene Wade, whose ancestors fell victim to the Sixth Tennessee Cavalry:

My thoughts: I recently visited the old graveyard near Purdy where many of the Hurst family is buried. Although I know that Fielding Hurst was not buried here I understand that many of his “troopers” are buried here. I am a combat veteran with over 27 years service in the US Army but I honestly felt evil lurked here; possibly magnified because of the darkness. I felt so threatened by “haints” that I returned to my car to retrieve my 40 Cal Glock and shoved it in my waistband for protection form the evil I honestly sensed lurked there. Seldom have I felt so much evil and so threatened. It was a feeling I never had before or afterward, even in Viet Nam. Perhaps I was unduly affected, but I did feel threatened and felt the presence of what I felt was evil.

I might add that I have several times visited the grave of Fielding Hurst at the church cemetery where he is buried, the name of which I cannot recall, and like my late cousin did on an annual basis, I unashamedly urinated on the grave of Fielding Hurst. I plan to repeat my “performance” every time I return to that area. Perhaps I should not feel the way I do but I just do. Perhaps because so many of my Confederate ancestor relatives simply disappeared in the “Hurst Nation” has something to do with it. And perhaps because I think Fielding Hurst was truly EVIL and caused the mutilation and execution of numerous Confederates, destruction of cities and homes and was never called to answer for his outrages and for his murderous actions. I frankly cannot see how anyone, faced with known documentation, can really defend Fielding Hurst.

That’s just the way I feel. Sorry if I offend, but that’s what I feel………..

Cordially,
Gene Wade
Loganville, GA

Below was my response:

Gene,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Hurst. I disagree with some of your feelings, not so much about Hurst as about the men in the Sixth Tennessee Cavalry. Granted there were some bad men in its ranks who committed terrible crimes outside the boundaries of “civilized” warfare against both soldiers and civilians and Hurst himself deserves his fair share of the blame. But Confederate soldiers and guerrillas committed equally brutal crimes against Unionist soldiers, their families, and civilians as well. Not all were the noble and virtuous men that history has portrayed them. Guerrilla warfare is a nasty way to fight and both sides–Union and Confederate–were guilty of thievery, arson, and murder in West Tennessee and other parts of the South.

The Unionists retaliated against their neighbors, who had persecuted them before and during the war because they sided with the Union rather than embrace the Confederacy. I believe that is where the animosity started and what fueled Hurst and others to do what they did, right or wrong.

I feel that Hurst was a brave man who like many of the men under his command had the courage to stand up for their country when most everyone around them were ready to destroy it. He could have fled north and escaped the persecution, but instead he sought a military commission to raise a cavalry regiment and fight. But he also misused his military authority against all Confederates, soldiers and civilians alike, and extorted money under the threat of arson. War does not bring forth the noblest of traits, to paraphrase John Allan Wyeth.

I’m sure we will agree to disagree, but still I appreciate the dialogue.

Sincerely,

Kevin McCann

We are all entitled to our viewpoints and I welcome the exchange of opinions regarding Fielding Hurst and the Sixth Tennessee Cavalry. Mr. Wade had ancestors who lost their lives to members of the regiment, just as many other descendants in West Tennessee and north Mississippi. I’m sure the resentment he feels toward Hurst and his men is indicative of their sentiments as well and I can certainly understand their feelings.

But I honestly believe not every member of the Sixth Tennessee was “evil.” It’s true there were some bad seeds (Hurst could be numbered among them) who sought vengence for wrongs committed against them and their families. But there were also honest men who had principles and sincerely wanted the Union to remain whole and who opposed slavery. These are the men who deserve to be honored for their courage and their determination to stand up for what they believed. They did not fight for a “Lost Cause.”

Hopefully my book will give at least a glimpse into what Southern Unionists endured before, during, and after the war and provide a more objective view of them that has been given in the past.

Village Inn is No More

Last week I learned that one of my favorite restaurants would be closing its doors.

Village Inn Pizza Parlor has been a fixture at 624 Old Hickory Blvd. in Jackson, Tennessee since it first opened in 1969. In the days before Domino’s and Pizza Hut began delivering pizzas to our doorsteps, kids from my generation in the 1970’s and 80’s went to Village Inn. When I read in the Jackson Sun that it would close on September 30, I knew I had the see the old place one more time.

Village Inn is just a year older than me. I remember how dark it used to be inside. Not scary dark; just dark with only the light from the Tiffany style lamps above the booths and tables illuminating the pizza slices in front of you. It was the place to have a birthday party and I went to lots of them as a kid. The first big screen television I remember was there, one of those front projection types. The pizzas were thin crust and handmade with generous toppings. Sometimes the crust would bubble and create a crispy void that was neat to bit into.

My family drove to Jackson to visit my parents and sisters and see my four-week-old nephew on Sunday. Before we left, we went to Village Inn one last time. The smell of pizza when we walked through the door brought back those memories. We sat in a booth and ordered a large pizza. I looked around the place; structurally it looked the same but the paint colors on the walls were different than I remembered. The darkness from my childhood had been illuminated with recessed lighting, but those distinctive Tiffany stained glass lamps with “Village Inn Pizza Parlor” in red letters were still there. There weren’t as many people there as I thought there would be in its final hour in business. Perhaps they had already been and taken their own memories with them.

The building will still be there and a restaurant–the Old Hickory Steakhouse–will be there in its place. But it won’t be Village Inn.

My wife asked me why I had never taken her there when we were dating in college. We spent many a night studying for exams at Dunkin‘ Donuts, but I never thought to take her next door for a slice of pizza. I suppose at the time it was a place I associated more with my childhood than a place for a date. I wasn’t too much into nostalgia at that point in my life. After I left home and came back to town, I would pass by it, thinking I should stop in sometime. But I never did.

There aren’t too many restaurants around anymore that are distinctively local and not a cookie-cutter franchise and have been around for close to 40 years. Village Inn was that kind of place in Jackson.

Like the three little pigs on the neon sign of The Hut on North Highland, it’s another icon from my childhood that is now gone.