Fielding Hurst, a staunch southern Unionist during the Civil War, led the Sixth Tennessee Cavalry (USA) and proved to be one of the war’s most polarizing figures. An East Tennessee native, Hurst and his wife, Melocky, moved to McNairy County in West Tennessee about 1834 and gradually increased their land holdings while he worked as a surveyor. By the 1850s, the close-knit, extended Hurst family also had relocated to McNairy County, and the Hurst family became the county’s largest landholders. Locals would later refer to the Hurst-held territory in northern McNairy and present-day southern Chester County as the “Hurst Nation” and recognized Fielding as its leader. Hurst himself owned a separate plantation north of his actual home near Purdy with several families of slaves.
Hurst remained committed to the Union throughout the secession crisis despite the intimidation and violence directed at Unionists by pro-secessionist forces. He courageously advocated his Unionist sentiments in a strongly worded speech before the voters in Purdy at the June 8, 1861, secession referendum. Hurst was quickly arrested and imprisoned at the state penitentiary in Nashville with other vocal Union sympathizers from across the state. The “Hurst Nation,” with the exception of Hurst’s brother, David, was a Unionist bastion during the war in a predominantly Confederate region. The Federal occupation of Nashville eventually liberated Fielding from his confinement, and he returned home to McNairy County.
Perhaps seeking vengeance for his arduous imprisonment, Hurst, at age fifty-one, formed a unit of mounted scouts from the “Hurst Nation” to serve with the Union Army. The Hurst scouts, although at times derided for their unsoldierly appearance by Federal officers, provided a better degree of mobility and garnered invaluable intelligence about the surrounding countryside to the Union Army as they patrolled for bands of guerillas, bushwhackers, and thieves along the Federal logistical routes. Because of their unofficial status as soldiers, it proved nearly impossible for the Union Army to properly pay or equip Hurst’s men and similar units across the state. Tennessee’s military governor, Andrew Johnson, throughout the spring of 1862 ignored frequent requests to organize these local Unionist bands formally as state regiments. A frustrated Fielding Hurst traveled to Nashville, personally confronted Johnson, and demanded a commission. Soon thereafter, Johnson named Hurst head of the First West Tennessee Cavalry (USA). With the bureaucratic logjam cleared, Hurst and other Tennessee Unionists immediately began organizing regiments, too. Confidence ran high that these local Unionists working in conjunction with Federal regiments would bring peace and order back to Tennessee.
But for months after receiving his commission, Fielding Hurst and his new regiment languished in camp awaiting arms, rations, and other supplies from the Federal Army. More importantly, they failed to be paid for their service. Hurst’s men had to use their own money and equipment to stay in camp and risk being away from their families, who were constantly under the threat of guerilla attack. Fielding complained that the ill treatment he had received from Federal authorities had impaired his effectiveness and his recruitment of more men. Without Federal support, Hurst took matters in his own hands and began operating on his own without the sanction of the area’s commanders. He quickly earned the ire of many high-ranking officers, such as Major General Stephen Hurlbut and Major General U. S. Grant, who threatened to court-martial Hurst or disband his unit if he continued to operate independent of Federal authority.
Hurst’s soldiers, however, were becoming extremely valuable to the Union effort in West Tennessee due to the rising guerilla attacks and Federal manpower shortage plaguing the advance on Vicksburg. Efforts were made to acquiesce to Hurst’s demands, and by November 1862, his newly designated Sixth Tennessee Cavalry (USA) scoured the vicinity of Bolivar for guerillas with notable success. Hurst’s “hard war” tactics utilized in these victories increased the level of animosity between the region’s Unionists and secessionists. For example, Hurst raided his hometown of Purdy in April 1863 and reportedly ordered the burning of the courthouse, church, and several homes. Federal officials briefly arrested Hurst for his acts at Purdy, further straining the relationship between the West Tennessee Unionists and Federal commanders.
In July 1863, Hurst’s regiment accompanied Federal units into Jackson, Tennessee, to break up pockets of Confederate troops returning to the area. After a brief but intense battle, portions of the city lay almost completely in ruins. Criticized for their actions, the Federal units involved shifted the blame for the destruction to Hurst’s men. Fielding futilely protested the charges, and Federal commanders fined the Sixth Tennessee Cavalry (USA) over five thousand dollars from its payroll to reimburse the citizens of Jackson, many of whom were avowed secessionists.
Hurst swore to get even with the town before the war’s end. Confederates responded by personally targeting Hurst and his family for alleged depredations against civilians and soldiers, and he once barely escaped capture by Confederate forces. Confederate guerillas tortured and executed one of Hurst’s nephews and injured Fielding’s aged sister during a night raid on her home. Hurst retaliated by capturing those believed responsible and executed five prisoners, burying them as mile markers along the Old Stage Road leading to Purdy. Such acts drew the attention of the Confederate government to Hurst’s actions in West Tennessee, and Confederate Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest swore revenge on what he considered the renegade Hurst’s wartime atrocities.
As conditions in West Tennessee deteriorated with the amplified internecine warfare, Hurst battled not only with Forrest and other guerillas but with Federal commanders who threatened to court-martial him for a growing number of complaints about his regiment’s conduct while conducting counterinsurgency operations. Nevertheless, they ordered Hurst to “grub up” West Tennessee and destroy Forrest who had returned in late 1863 to disrupt Union supply lines. As promised, Hurst subsequently returned to Jackson, set it ablaze, and proceeded to Brownsville, where he burned a sizeable number of suspected Confederate sympathizers’ homes and businesses. Forrest pursued Hurst throughout the spring of 1864 and forced the Sixth Tennessee Cavalry (USA) ignominiously back into Memphis.
In the aftermath of Forrest’s Second West Tennessee Raid, Federal officials used Hurst and his regiment as a scapegoat for their failure to eliminate the guerilla threat and restore order in the region. Hurst, in turn, railed against the ineptitude and corruption of Federal officers, whose prejudices against Hurst’s men had impeded their effectiveness. In a stinging rebuke of his treatment by Federal authorities, Hurst told federal commander Alvin C. Gillem on June 29, 1864: “No favors have been Shown to us and no encouragement whatsoever has been extended towards us, all the Success we [have] had being attributable alone to the genuine patriotism and Self Sacrifice of the [Sixth Tennessee Cavalry]. [W]e are placed here [e]xclusively under Yankee Officers, who have no Sympathy, for a loyal Tennessean.”
Hurst’s regiment was transferred to Middle Tennessee. On December 10, 1864, just outside of Nashville, Hurst resigned his command due to poor health. He served briefly in the Tennessee General Assembly after the war, became a circuit court judge in the Brownlow administration, and served as the local Grand Army of the Republic post.
After the war, Hurst and his men remained a target for his mostly Confederate neighbors. Legends and stories of the Sixth Tennessee’s alleged atrocities against West Tennesseans grew over the decades, and Hurst’s name in particular was associated with nearly anything derogatory or evil. Hurst died destitute in 1882 and without any heirs, save his wife, Melocky. Even after his death, Hurst was not immune to the scorn of his detractors. They often rode over his grave on horseback and spat upon it.
Derek Frisby, “Homemade Yankees: West Tennessee in the Civil War Era,” Ph.D. diss., Alabama, 2004; Kevin McCann, “Hurst’s Wurst: Colonel Fielding Hurst and the Sixth Tennessee (U.S.) Cavalry (1995)