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
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,
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
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
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."