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From HGE  - Vol. III No. IX

The Family Hurst;  An Absorbing History - The Jackson Sun, Jackson, Tenn., Feb. 20, 1983

The Hurst Family tree looks more like a family forest.  The descendants of Elijah Hurst, who settled in McNairy Co., TN. in the mid-1830's, are scattered throughout southwest Tennessee.  Even if you're not blood kin or on that family forest through marriage, you've probably heard about the Hursts, particularly if you've lived here a while.
But what you've heard probably isn't all good, because five of Elijah's six sons committed an abominable act about 1860.  In that bitter war between the states, the war that pitted neighbor against neighbor, they sided with - the Yankees.
Many of the Hursts actually fought in the Union Army during the Civil War.  And the most famous of them all, Col. Fielding Hurst, led the Sixth Tennessee Cavalry, a Union regiment.
On top of that, the Hursts owned a block of land that served as an enclave for Union sympathizers in a Rebel state; it became known as the Hurst Nation.  The land was about five miles wide and stretched 15 miles down the west side of what was then McNairy County, and included Mount Gilead, Woodville, Masseyville, and Montezuma.  The Hursts controlled the numerous east-west routes from the Tennessee River to Memphis that traversed their holdings.
Siding with the Yankees didn't sit well with most of the Hursts' neighbors.  In the West Tennessee Historical Society Papers, researcher Gary Blankinship says many considered people like the Hursts  worse than the Yankees.  One citizen wrote: "Tories, as we called them, were our worst enemies.  These were the men of our own and adjoining counties who had gone over to the Yankees.  Those were the meanest and cruelest class we had to deal with.  They scrupled less at murder and all sorts of outrages, most of them being the very scum of the country."
In West Tennessee - the site of much guerrilla fighting - Civil War scars run deep.  Hostility toward the Hursts has taken generations to undo.  That animosity has stoked stories - even legends - through the years.  [Nearly 100 years after the war, the residents of Purdy, Fielding's home for many years, refused to have an historical marker about him and the Hurst Nation erected in their town. - Today, the marker is at nearby Bethel Springs.]
How you feel about these stories may have a lot to do with the side of the fence on which your ancestors sat during the Civil War.  You could call the Hursts patriots, people who didn't believe in dividing their country.  Or you could call them traitors.
Much of the family history has been compiled by Julius Hurst, a Selmer real estate agent and former state representative who has spent a good portion of his leisure time researching, talking to old-timers and collecting letters and documents.
The Hursts came to America about 1730 by way of England.  Before that, they were the Horsts in Germany. (NB - this has now been proved incorrect) They moved into upper East Tennessee in 1817.  Fielding, the second of Elijah's six sons, moved to McNairy County with his wife, Melocky, in 1833 when he was 23.  He became a respected farmer, slaveowner and county surveyor, says researcher Blankinship.
By that time, much of the better farm land in east McNairy County already was settled, but Fielding - by way of his surveying occupation - probably found big chunks of land for sale in west McNairy County, Julius says.
It was there the rest of the family settled several years later when they followed Fielding from East Tennessee.  Besides Fielding and his father Elijah, there were brothers Thomas Jefferson, Arthur, Elza, David, and Elijah, Jr., and sisters Martha, Millie and Lauretta.  [About the same time, another branch of the Hurst family moved from East Tennessee to Hardin County.].
Harold Hurst, regional manager of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, describes the region as wooded and hilly, and says the family eked out a living farming its small creek bottoms.
Coffee Landing, just north of Savannah, was the closest point of disembarkation to Memphis on the Tennessee River.  Many of the roads west went through Hurst property.  The close-knit, independent-minded Hursts, with Fielding somewhat of a family leader, became dominant in that part of what was then northwest McNairy County.
Some say travelers - fearing for their safety - would avoid spending nights in the Hurst Nation.  But Horace Greely Hurst, the 84-year-old grandson of Elijah Hurst's "staunch Confederate" son, David, reckons today that its dangerous reputation wasn't deserved.
In the voice vote that decided whether Tennessee should secede from the Union, all of Elijah's sons but David voted not to secede.  Fielding spent time in jail for his vote.  David said he wasn't against emancipation, but he believed the government should have reimbursed people for the slaves they were told to set free. [David may have been a Rebel sympathizer, but he was still family.  Later, one story has it that Fielding saved one of his sons - a Confederate soldier - from death.]
Andrew Johnson, military governor of Tennessee, commissioned Fielding to organize troops in West Tennessee.  Hurst and his men, who knew how to disappear quickly into the area's backwoods, were used as scouts, spies and guides - a hazardous service, writes Blankenship.
When the Union army controlled much of West Tennessee after the April 1862 Battle of Shiloh, Fielding was given the mission of maintaining law and order.
To Rebel sympathizers, that gave Fielding license to steal and retaliate for any actions the Rebels had taken against his family.  In "Historic Madison", Emma Inman Williams says of Hurst:  "There was probably no man who was feared in West Tennessee any more than this 'homemade Yankee'….It was Hurst who played the role of Nero in Purdy, even singing songs and praying while the church was burning.  It was Hurst's men who helped set fire to stores in Jackson when the Federals left in 1863."
Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Fielding's principal antagonist during the war, branded him an outlaw.
On the other hand, Julius Hurst describes Fielding as a man who didn't want to dissolve the Union, a man who gave up as much as anybody in the county by siding with the Yankees because he owned many slaves himself.
Fielding was man often caught between two sides:  hated by his Rebel neighbors, but also suspect with his Yankee superiors because he was a Southerner.  Julius has copies of letters Fielding wrote that complained of his mistreatment by the Union side.  Fielding also wrote letters about how his farm was foraged repeatedly by the Rebels.  Once, he wrote, the Confederates kidnapped and later sold about 20 blacks whom Fielding had liberated and who were working on his farm.
The war's atrocities helped generate stories and embellishments that were passed down the generations.
For one thing, points out Julius as he disagrees with "Historic Madison," another Federal company, and not Hurst's men, burned Jackson.
Julius also tells the story of how Fielding's men killed the Wharton gang, "a bunch of thieves calling themselves Confederate soldiers."  In a time when law and order wasn't all that orderly, the Whartons were stealing and killing in the name of war.  The last straw, according to Julius, was when the Whartons took Fielding's teen-age nephew "from his mother's arms" and shot him between the eyes.  The next day, they yanked Fielding's mother from her sick bed while trying to steal a sheet and broke her hip.
Fielding's men caught the gang, executed its members and buried them a mile apart as markers on the road between Sulphur Springs and Pocahantas. [Of course, the other side to this story describes Hurst and his men as marauders and murderers.]
Another story, as told to Julius, relates how Fielding saved the Rebel son of a neighbor, even after the youth shot at Fielding.  It seems that Fielding and his men came upon some Confederate detachments sitting around a campfire.  Fielding chased after one - a Bill Jacobs, who fried at Fielding.  Jacobs' bullet supposedly entered the barrel of Fielding's rifle.  Julius says he heard this story from several sources, including the widow of Bill Jacobs.
Fielding, in his mid-50's, resigned his post Dec. 10 1864, citing poor health.  After the war, Fielding practiced law and was made a circuit judge.  His home, says Julius, is the only pre-Civil War residence still standing in Purdy.  He was buried in a cemetery at Mount Gilead.  People who wouldn't speak to him  after the Civil War rode horses over his grave, says Julius.
TWRA's Harold Hurst, 43, says much of the old feelings about the Hurst Nation had died away by the time he was born.  He figures that many of the notorious stories are exaggerated products of the intense feelings created by the Civil War.
Cleon Hurst Tucker says she isn't aware of much animosity today toward the Hursts.  Mrs. Tucker, who lives on farm land that once was a part of the Hurst Nation, helps to organize the annual family reunion the first Sunday in June.  The family - now scattered to places like California, Texas, Illinois and Florida - meets at the Little Hatchie Primitive Baptist Church in the southwest corner of Chester County. [Parts of McNairy County became Chester County when the latter was formed.]  A cemetery where many Hursts are buried is about a mile form the church.
Horace, the grandson of David, says that other Hursts have gone on to make a name for themselves, but that Fielding is probably the most well-known.  Horace has stories about how his grandfather was treated by the Union soldiers and how one of David's sons, Chapman, probably fought on both sides of the war.  Horace's father, Elijah Stanton Hurst, born in 1855, could hear the guns from the Battle Shiloh from the family farm.
Horace, a Henderson resident, followed his father's footsteps as a surveyor for a while and used the same compass that Fielding used.  Horace says he gave the compass to Julius, who "retired it in a hardwood case lined with velvet."
Though he is a direct descendent of two of the brothers - David and Thomas Jefferson, it's obvious that Julius has taken a liking to Fielding Hurst.  Politically, the Hursts themselves carry remnants of the Civil War - some are Republicans, others Democrats.  But Julius, unlike his great-grandfather David, is Republican.  In fact, he was the first state chairman of the Republican Party from West Tennessee.
He wanted to name his son after Fielding, but his wife, Mary Louise, who moved to Selmer from Obion County, wouldn't do it after she heard about the man form her friends and neighbors.  But he hasn't given up hope of naming a grandchild after Fielding.
The 63-year-old Julius, who plans some day to write a book about Fielding and the rest of the Hursts, finds the family history absorbing: "it's really a movie in itself."