WHITTLE: Civil War sniper rifle dealt death to Yankees

As published in the Murfreesboro Post, Dan Whittle, Post Columnist, April 3, 2011

Judge Ben Hall McFarlin

Judge Ben Hall McFarlin

It’s a rifle with a record.

A deadly record with a long trail of blood-letting by a civilian Confederate-sympathizing West Tennessee sniper who waged “vengeance kills” on Yankee soldiers stemming from the decapitated heads of two of his sons left hanging grotesquely on gateposts at their prosperous Benton County farm.

An estimated 150 years later, the rifle with a blastingly loud past rests silently in the hands of prominent Murfreesboro Judge Ben Hall McFarlin, thanks to legendary Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest after the Civil War’s conclusion.

The instrument of death is credited with slaying more than 80 Yankee soldiers and officers, likely making “Old” Jack Hinson the most deadly one-man civilian killing force in Tennessee Civil War history. Although in his late 50s when he began his one-man rifle assault, focused on Union officers when possible, the Federals never captured him, despite designated special forces assigned to bring Hinson in.

Leading up to war, Hinson had remained “mostly neutral” until Union soldiers “bushwhacked” two of his sons and cut off their heads to display in the neighborhood. Hinson was against “succession” and had even befriended Union Gen. U.S. Grant and his forces before this wartime atrocity, according to Judge McFarlin.

Before her death, Virginia Woodfin, an aunt to McFarlin and mother of well-known area undertaker John “Bubba” Woodfin, described how the rifle came to permanently rest in Murfreesboro.

“Nathan Bedford Forrest gave it to his adjutant general – Charles Anderson – who was my mother’s great uncle,” Mrs. Woodfin described in an early 1990s interview. “They gave it to my grandfather, who lived on Manson Pike and we kept it there.”

Fire in the 1920s nearly accomplished what the Union Army could never achieve: Destruction of the rifle.

“When our Manson Pike house burned in 1929, we managed to save the gun and two or three other pieces,” Woodfin said at age 83.

McFarlin has never fired the rifle.

“But Nashville Judge Roy Miles (deceased relative to the McFarlins) told me, when I was a small lad, that they played with and fired the old rifle when he was a youth…they used enough black powder to propel a bullet through a solid 20-inch wall of a school building. I don’t plan to have the weapon restored to firing condition,” McFarlin confirmed. “Restoring it to firing condition would require new pieces of metal and workmanship, and we don’t want its authenticity altered.”

Weighing 17-pounds-plus, the rifle was never meant for casual game hunting in the woods, the judge ruled.

“Old Jack Hinson’s sniper rifle was never meant for firing from the shoulder,” McFarlin added. “It was always mounted on an iron tripod or rested on the limb of a tree for long-range firing. But I don’t have the tripod or iron metal ring that Old Jack Hinson used to target his victims.”

The rifle has two triggers, one for cocking, and a delicate hair-trigger for pinpoint long-distance accuracy, McFarlin described.

Although the weapon is notched with 36 “kills,” it’s been estimated the rifle and it’s huge-bore .50-caliber flesh-tearing bullets  ended the lives of more than 80 Yankee blue-uniformed soldiers, mariners and officers from ambush, mostly along the Tennessee River in Benton and Stewart counties during the War Between the States.

The weapon’s legend grows today with a well-done biographical account – “Jack Hinson’s One-Man War” – by author/retired military Col. Tom C. McKenney, that’s available at most book stores and area public libraries. Here-to-fore, it’s a history of the North-South conflict in Tennessee that’s remained largely untold. To his credit, the author’s meticulous in-depth research shares viewpoints from above and below the Mason-Dixon Line.

“It’s a book that should be read by everyone interested in Tennessee history,” noted 15-year-old Daniel Amick student of history and son of La Vergne businessman Karey Amick. “I go to Civil War re-enactments throughout Middle Tennessee, I can only imagine the interest that rifle would draw if it was ever displayed publicly.

“Can you imagine the powerful eyesight that elderly sniper had when he’d fire and hit Yankee soldiers as far away as one and two football fields away,” young Amick added.

“We congratulate Col. McKenney on the long years of pain-staking research in putting the chronicles of Old Jack Hinson’s life and recording some of the history of this rifle,” the judge degreed.

McKenney’s book dramatically describes one of the kills as a Northern Army gunboat was an easy target at a narrow chute of the river: “The gunboat would be in the chute at least 45 minutes. Old Jack (was) waiting patiently, smoking his pipe, cocking his heavy rifle with the Tennessee River below. Before the crack of 100 grains of black powder was heard on the boat below, a .50-caliber projectile slammed the officer to his knees…”

How many Yankees perished in his gun-site? Hinson may have lost count of his kills, for he quit notching his rifle after 36 small “rings of kills” were notched at the base of the rifle barrel. Those kill rings remain clearly visible today.

What triggered Old Jack’s hatred of Yankees?

“Jack Hinson’s neutrality was shattered the day Union patrols moved in on his land, captured two of his sons, accused them of being ‘bushwhackers,’ and executed them on the roadside,” McKenney verified through multiple years of meticulous pain-staking research among war records, family descendants and descendants of people whose families experienced the war. “The soldiers furthered the abuse by decapitating the Hinson boys, and placing their heads on the gateposts of the family estate,” known as Bubbling Hills.

In his 1906 book, “Battles and Sketches of the Army of Tennessee,” author Brumfield Ridley (deceased) shares other details of this largely-obscure, but significant Tennessee Civil War history.

“When the lifeless bodies of his two boys were placed beneath the sod, the old father (age 57) took down his trusty rifle and swore that as long as he lived, he intended to kill every man that wore a blue uniform that came within range of his gun,” Ridley recorded.

But, there was a “social” and “personal” price to pay by the sniper.

“Living as he did between the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, he became an outcast from home and neighbors,” Ridley reported. “But (he was) an avenging nemesis on the trail of those held responsible for the murders of his sons.

“Acquainted with every road and bridle path, he would lie in ambush, pick off his man from Federal foraging and scouting parties, and disappear as completely as though the earth had swallowed him,” Ridley traced the one-man trail of death and destruction.

Hinson, when the rivers were would rise in depth enough for Yankee gunboats to navigate, would fashion temporary “blinds” overlooking the streams.

“Behind these, he waited,” Ridley accounted.

“Transport after transport could safely pass him, but if a man in blue appeared upon the guards or on deck then, his un-erring rifle was brought into play,” Ridley added. “Officers and mariners on gunboats were the targets he always sought, and judging from the 36 distinct and uniform marks (notched ringlets) upon the barrel of his gun, he lived to reap a terrible vengeance for the execution of his two boys…”

Author McKenney accounts for the custom-made rifle on page 164 of his biographical sketch of largely untold Tennessee history.

“He would need a .50-caliber for long-range accuracy,” McKenney details. “The rifle he would need would have a caplock mechanism, not a flintlock, for ease and efficiency in loading and reliability in wet weather.”

Today, the rifle’s legacy lives, with its echoes of death still talked about as 150th anniversary of the Civil War is observed this year.

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