Civil War Guerrillas and the Burning of Hale's Mill

Fearing for their lives, Unionist Jonathan Hale and his family fled across the Tennessee state line to Albany, Kentucky in July 1861, leaving behind a substantial settlement in Fentress County, Tennessee. A little more than a year later, Hale’s abandoned property was put to the torch by Confederate guerrillas.

Everything Hale owned was incinerated. His home and his livelihood went up in flames. The main buildings, including the house and the mill, as well as the out-buildings, burned as the sun set on a crowd of Confederate sympathizers. Virtually nothing survived the inferno. Hale’s dwelling and its furnishings and a large library, destroyed. The mill, used as both a grist mill and a sawmill, and the machinery within the mill. The barn, the stable, the cabin for Hale’s slaves, a blacksmith shop. Two acres of ground covered by at least two hundred thousand board-feet of seasoned lumber, a dryhouse and sheds full of lumber. And a hundred bushels of corn, some oats, hay, and rye. By the time the flames had died to embers and the smoke began to clear, only the corn crib and the schoolhouse had escaped the conflagration.

As soon as Union troops began to establish a more or less permanent presence in the Upper Cumberland, Hale sought the help of the nearest Union provost marshal in seeking redress for his losses. Over the next three years, the accuser and the accused exchanged facts and fancy like gunfire. What led up to the destruction? Who exactly was responsible? Who should pay for damages?

Not surprisingly, most of the explanations proffered led back to the infamous Confederate guerrilla, Champ Ferguson. The instigating factor in the burning of Hale’s Mill, it was said, was the death of young “Fate” Allen, a member of Champ Ferguson’s band. One version of the story maintained that Allen was killed by a sniper firing from Hale’s abandoned home. This was denied by Hale and his Unionist friends. Another version claimed that Champ Ferguson’s band was in the Three Forks area of northeastern Overton County, allegedly driving stolen cattle. Rufus Dowdy and his men lay in wait near Hale’s Mill, hoping when Ferguson came along they could scatter the stolen cattle. As Ferguson passed by Hale’s abandoned settlement, Dowdy’s men opened fire and scattered both the cattle and the Confederate guerrillas. When the Confederates regrouped, they discovered that Fate Allen was dead.

Enraged at Allen’s murder, Ferguson’s men and many Confederate sympathizers gathered, plotting retaliation and destruction. Jonathan Hale was hated by the secessionists. It was bad enough that he had recruited Union scouts, but for Union guerrillas to use his property as a base of operations could not be allowed. And so the fires were set.

Once Hale began to press his case with the Union provost marshal, authorities took statements from him, Dowdy, and others who provided a list of dozens of local citizens who allegedly participated in starting the fires or watching and shouting their support. The list included Champ Ferguson, Ferdinand Daugherty, Alvan Cullom, James McHenry, and McHenry’s father. Hale and his friends also documented the value of what was destroyed. Virtually no documentation was gathered from the men accused of this arson. Each of the accused was held liable for an amount of damages proportional to his net worth.

Samuel Matheny was one of those present who was assessed for damages. Samuel was the uncle of my great-great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Lacy, who disappeared during the Civil War. When the Federal government began rewarding veterans of the War of 1812, Samuel received a bounty warrant and a pension for his service. But in the early 1870s he was faced with having to defend his loyalty to the Union during the Civil War. This was a new requirement for continuing to receive a pension. Someone – likely Jonathan Hale or his wife – informed the U.S. government of Samuel’s alleged participation in the burning of Hale’s property. Federal review resulted in Samuel being dropped from the pension rolls. Matheny claimed that his loyalty to the Union was sufficient to give him voting rights immediately after the war. That information was ignored by the pension bureau. In the process of attempting to renew Samuel’s pension, several friends provided affidavits of his loyalty. Staunch Unionists and Union officers like Maj. John A. Brents and Col. Abraham Garrett claimed that Matheny was always a Union man and had aided the Union cause on many occasions, including providing Federal officers with information on the whereabouts of Confederate troops and guerrillas. But other Unionists claimed Samuel was a loyal Confederate, and that he had taken pains to support the Southern cause.

The truth of Matheny’s culpability was never settled. But in March 1878 the loyalty requirement for a War of 1812 pension was removed. Matheny’s pension was then restored.

For more on Jonathan Hale and Confederate guerrillas, see MISSING IN ACTION, 1863: Andrew Jackson Lacy and Tennessee’s Confederate Cavalry.


J. D. Hale and John D. Hale files, in NARA. Papers Relating to Citizens, compiled 1861-1865. Microfilm M345, Record Group 109 (Washington, DC: National Archives Microfilm Publications, 1967. Online version, Union Provost Marshals’ File of Papers Relating to Individual Citizens,, 2011).

Samuel Matheny, in NARA, War of 1812 Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files, compiled ca. 1871- ca. 1900, documenting the period 1812 - ca. 1900, Record Group 15, Roll RG15-1812PB-Bx2355 (Washington, DC: National Archives Microfilm Publications, n.d.; Online edition, War of 1812 Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files,, 2011).