In 1860 Tennessee’s Hickman County was a quiet, sleepy backwater, where, according to one resident, ‘patient old farmers were drowsily plodding along, eating ‘possom and pumpkin pie.’ Little disturbed the monotony, as residents ‘lost nothing nor made much, and the most fruitful crops were of children and dogs.’ The only semblance of discord among county residents was exhibited by zealous Baptist and Methodist preachers who fought over the souls of their neighbors.
At first, the secession crisis confused folks in Hickman County. Very few residents owned slaves, so they did not understand the frenzied rhetoric of hotheaded Southern politicians. There seemed to be no reason to dismantle the country that their forefathers had fought so hard to establish. But when Tennessee seceded from the Union, most county residents actively supported the Confederate States of America. Hundreds of young men formed military companies and marched off to protect their homes from Yankees, much like Colonials had defended their homes during the Revolutionary War.
Federal troops invaded the state and occupied Nashville early in 1862 and controlled the city for the duration of the war. The establishment of that Yankee stronghold only 40 miles northeast of Hickman County encouraged some loyal Tennessee citizens to join Federal regiments and to oppose the Southern war effort.
Patriotism may not have been the prime motivation for some of the Yankee sympathizers, however. At least one Confederate soldier was frank enough to point out that the war offered ‘a glorious opportunity to ride off their neighbor’s horse, or burn down his house, or gather up what few things about the houses they could use and carry them off.’
It did not take long for neighbors to turn against one another with a vengeance. Caleb McGraw had been suspected of spying on his fellow citizens and informing Federal authorities when Confederate soldiers came home on furlough in 1862. One night some neighbors came by and took McGraw to Duck River, opposite the mouth of Short Creek, where he was told to choose between taking the oath of allegiance to the Confederate States of America or drowning.
When McGraw refused to take the oath, his captors tied a large rock around his neck, rowed out into the river and again asked him to swear his allegiance. Upon his second refusal, his neighbors promptly pitched the suspected spy into a watery grave.
By 1863, Yankee raiding parties often overran middle Tennessee. To counter the invaders, citizens joined two companies of ‘independent Southern scouts’ that patrolled Hickman County. Captain David Miller commanded a company that generally operated north of Duck River, while Captain Albert Henon Cross led a similar band of scouts, or ‘bushwhackers,’ in the southern portion of the county. Albert was the son of Nathaniel Cross, a teacher from Nashville whose wealth allowed the family to employ two Irish servants. When Nashville fell into Union hands, Albert and his older brother, Brownlee, left their affluent home, settled in Hickman County and started to skirmish with roving Federal patrols.
Captain Cross quickly organized some local residents and refugees from other regions into a ragtag company of bushwhackers. The men were described as ‘good, bad, and indifferent.’ Cross’ officers included Dr. James W. McLaughlin of Maryland, first lieutenant; brother Brownlee, second lieutenant; and Duval McNairy of Davidson County, third lieutenant. Federal cavalry patrols often scouted through Hickman County searching for those four elusive ringleaders, who always managed to escape, often after performing some audacious act. The daring deeds made the people almost forget the questionable acts of some of the bushwhackers.
By 1864 Federal troops occupied Centerville, using the town as a Union outpost and base of operations in Hickman County, the scene of considerable conflict that year. The courthouse had been converted to a fortress, impervious to small arms, so Captain Cross and his band burned the building to prevent its further use by the Federals. Captain John W. Taylor, Company F, 2nd (Union) Tennessee Mounted Infantry (‘Perry County Jayhawkers’), responded by burning the business portion of the village, along with many private homes. According to one resident, ‘They left the town in ruins, a smoking mass of coals and ashes over which Desolation reigned supreme.’ Federals duplicated that outrage at Vernon, leaving nothing to rebuild.
In July 1864 the Perry County Jayhawkers scouted toward Pinewood, insulting and abusing citizens along the way. At one point, they encountered Lafayette Turbeville, one of Cross’ men, stole his knife, hat and tobacco, beat him severely and forced him to take the oath of allegiance to the United States. Captain Cross promptly assembled a squad that night and ambushed the Yankees on their way back from Pinewood, killing and wounding 11 without loss to the guerrillas. During another scout that year, the Jayhawkers captured two soldiers from the 1st (Confederate) Tennessee Cavalry and murdered the pair. They later crashed a dancing party on Cane Creek and killed another man there. Riding down the creek, the Federals clubbed a man to death with their pistols and rode off toward Linden, killing one more prisoner along the way.
The deaths of two young men named Pointer and Buford illustrate how the opposing factions reacted to events during the internecine madness. Lieutenant Jordan W. Creasy, Company E, 12th (Union) Tennessee Cavalry, was described as being proficient in ‘the burning of houses, the robbing of defenseless homes, and the insulting of unprotected women.’ He was also responsible for what was termed by one local authority as ‘the most cowardly and brutal murder in the history of the county.’ According to the Southern account, Pointer and Buford had stopped for breakfast at a residence near the mouth of Lick Creek, when the house was surrounded by 50 troops under Lieutenant Creasy. Trapped inside a bedroom that offered no escape, the cornered fugitives gave the Masonic sign of distress and cried out, ‘We surrender!’ Ignoring their pleas, Creasy stepped into the doorway and fired away until both men lay dead on the floor.
The Federal version of this affair differed greatly. According to Captain Russ B. Davis, 10th (Union) Tennessee Cavalry, Creasy and 25 soldiers pursued the two men ‘o’er hill and dale until finally he was upon them.’ Pointer and Buford were concealed ‘in a house of ill-fame, situated in a most secluded spot’ when the lieutenant arrived. Fearing they might escape, Creasy ‘dashed upon them alone and shot them both before any of his party were on the spot.’ A search disclosed four army pistols. Captain Davis praised his subordinate in the official report of this incident, writing, ‘Much credit is due Lieutenant Creasy for his gallantry in this single contest.’ Davis concluded his report with the remark, ‘Perfect order was kept throughout the entire march, and the rights of law-abiding citizens respected by my entire party.’
Murder and midnight justice became so commonplace in Hickman County that normally heinous crimes went virtually unnoticed. In 1864, about two miles west of Vernon, David Seymour and Howell Luten were killed in their beds by an assailant wielding an ax. The murderer was never caught, and amid the stirring events of that year, the crime was soon almost forgotten.
By this stage of the war, Hickman County was a desolate place. Blackened chimneys marked where homes had once stood. Stables, barns and smokehouses were empty. Farm implements had vanished. Fertile land grew only thorns and briers. Menfolk lay buried in graves on battlefields across the South. Hickman’s Confederate residents hated the Federal invaders who had brought this desolation into their quiet community, and looked to their guerrilla neighbors to protect them from any further depredations.
Unaware of Hickman County residents’ intense hatred of the Yankees, Brig. Gen. Joseph A. Cooper’s brigade of Union infantry left Johnsonville on November 24 and marched toward Centerville on the Reynoldsburg road. Rainy weather quickly turned the roads into what were described as ‘lines of mud, without a bottom.’ Despite the mire, Cooper’s men marched about 16 miles on the 25th and 20 miles on the 26th. They forded several streams along the route, including Piney Creek, near which the soldiers camped that night.
Captain Cross hastily called his company together to counter this threat. He crossed to the north bank of Duck River and probed General Cooper’s picket line in the early morning of November 27. After exchanging a few shots, Cross withdrew his men and waited for daylight. In the morning Cooper advanced another seven miles to Centerville, where he detached the 130th Indiana and 99th Ohio to guard the fords on Duck River, then marched on another 15 miles with the balance of his brigade. Cooper reported, ‘I found the country infested with guerrillas, who hung upon my flanks and advance and rear guard.’ Cross wisely waited until the Federal column had left the open valley and moved onto the wooded ridges. Then he would fire and retreat, only to appear a few minutes later in an attack on the flank or the rear. Brownlee Cross was wounded during one of those hit-and-run attacks.
Despite the menace posed by guerrillas, many Union soldiers failed to keep up with their brigade. The Yankee stragglers were easy targets for mounted bushwhackers. Private Ethelbert Crouse, Company F, 130th Indiana, left the column on the 26th to get a drink of water and could not catch up with the regiment that night. He soon fell in with five other soldiers from his company, Isaac Caston, Lewis Hendry, Joseph King, Adam Hoombaugh and Lemuel Grandstaff, and they all slept together that night in an outbuilding. Crouse later related what happened the following day:
We were out of rations, having eaten the last the day before. We could not forage, for we had been told that there were guerrillas in that locality, and we found it to be so, all too soon. We looked for turnip patches along the road, but did not enter a house.
It must have been about nine or ten o’clock of the forenoon of the second day, Sunday, November 27, 1864, that we found the guerrillas were in pursuit of us. We started to run and ran until about eleven o’clock, and were within a quarter of a mile of our rear guards, when they attacked us. Our guns were loaded, but would not go off, the ammunition being wet. Finding our guns were of no use, we threw them away, and again started to run; but the first thing I knew I was surrounded by nine or ten of the villains. They were dressed in citizen’s clothes and were armed with shot-guns, rifles, carbines, muskets, and revolvers. After giving them my pocket-book (I had no weapons), they told me not to be scared, for they intended to parole me and send me home.
The guerrillas captured all of Crouse’s party except 19-year-old Joseph King, who escaped into a ravine and then ran out into an open field where a planter and several slaves were at work. The planter drew his pistol, halted the fugitive and asked the Yankee who he was and where he was going. King blurted out an answer, whereupon the planter shot him dead as his captive friends watched helplessly.
Stunned by the coldblooded murder of their friend, Crouse, Caston, Hendry, Hoombaugh and Grandstaff were trotted back to the west some 10 miles. They traveled across fields and through woods, their mounted captors evidently avoiding roadways that might contain Union cavalrymen. Cross’ men told the Yankees not to be frightened, as they would soon be paroled and sent home. After fording Piney Creek, the guerrillas herded their captives down into a deep ravine in the midst of a pine forest.
By this time another squad of prisoners had joined the first group. Sergeant Oliver H. Blanchard, Company E, 25th Michigan, described how they had been captured:
November 26, I was unable to keep up with the regiment and in company with several others, fell some distance to the rear. The next day, Sunday, we crossed Piney Creek in the forenoon. I was in company with Moses Buck, Co. B, William Dewey, Co. D, Corp. George Westover, Co. G, Sergt. Otto Boote, Co. I, and a man from the 99th Ohio [William Haney, Company K]. When about a quarter of a mile from the creek, twenty-five or thirty guerrillas suddenly dashed upon us from behind in the road. They fired upon us and demanded our surrender.
No one was hit by the firing. Blanchard had a watch and two pocketbooks, one that contained $3 and one holding $40. When the bushwhackers asked for his valuables, he craftily turned over the watch and the pocketbook with $3 inside, keeping the balance of his money concealed.
Other guerrillas had captured eight more men from the 130th Indiana: Irvin Baker and Christopher Mainess, Company A; Albert Brown, James L. Buchanan, John Welch and Robert Hill, Company D; and William Cates and Leander Reynolds, Company G. This last group brought the total number of Yankee prisoners to 20, now reduced to 19 by the murder of King. Although slightly wounded in the side, Lieutenant Brownlee Cross commanded the Tennesseans, who had assembled their prisoners in the ravine.
The weather had turned dark and stormy by the time two old civilians rode up, chuckled at the collection of blue-coated youngsters (most were still teenagers) and said, ‘You have got some of the Yankee sons of bitches, we see; we suppose you know what to do with them.’ The guerrillas said they did, counted off their captives and divided them into small squads of four men each. The Tennesseans then marched one squad over a hill and into a smaller ravine, where they ordered the prisoners to halt and turn around.
Sergeant Blanchard, who was one of this group, caught the meaning of those orders and cried out, ‘For God’s sake, don’t shoot us so!’ He had scarcely uttered his plea when the killers opened fire. One bullet tore through Blanchard’s memorandum book, entered the right side of his chest, glanced off some ribs and lodged near his spine. A second bullet shattered the top button of his coat and lodged in his left breast. The sergeant collapsed into unconsciousness. His three comrades died instantly.
The remaining prisoners heard these shots and grew alarmed. Caston confessed aloud that he was beginning to feel uneasy, and one Southerner remarked that he had good reason to feel that way. Caston responded, ‘You took those men out to shoot them?’ His captor laughed and said, ‘We did and we intend to serve you the same way.’
The guerrillas started to march away a second squad of Yankees, this one composed of Crouse, Grandstaff, Hendry and another man they did not know. The stranger made a break for freedom, but he was struck down by seven bullets. There seemed to be no escape from the determined butchers. Caston, a cousin of Hendry, replaced the murdered runaway.Private Crouse explained what happened to his squad when it reached the killing ravine:
Imagine, if you can, how we felt then! We offered to do anything for them; we prayed and begged of them to spare our lives; but all in vain. We might as well have prayed to blocks of wood or stone. They laughed at us and mocked us in our woe and misery, and told us we ought to have thought of the probability of getting into just such trouble before we left our homes. One young man did most of the shooting; he was a young fellow about seventeen years old, and he did his work as cheerfully as a butcher would in shooting a lot of hogs. He used a navy revolver. We stood by a tree, surrounded by the bodies of those already dead, while he loaded the weapon. Night was just falling. The day was rainy and cold. When he was ready, he ordered us to turn our backs. Three of us obeyed, but Caston said he had humbled himself to them all he was going to; then one of the villains behind shot him.
The young executioner shot Hendry. Then came my turn. I had often wondered, when reading of military executions, of hangings, of death by the guillotine, how the condemned felt when they knew that only a moment intervened between them and eternity. How I felt is beyond my power of telling. Suffice it to say, however, that it came to me very forcibly that I had done my utmost duty to my country as a soldier. Yet above all things was the thought of home and mother. I would have prayed, but no time was given for that. I immediately repeated a stanza from an old, familiar song, which all soldiers know. The chorus runs: Farewell, mother, you may never press me to your heart again, But you’ll not forget me, mother, if I’m numbered with the slain.
And yet there was a feeling, a faint hope, that I might escape through some defect in the aim of the executioner. I prepared myself for the fatal shot by leaning slightly forward, crossing my hands upon my breast, and closing my eyes. The weapon snapped five times before it went off. When it did so, the ball passed through my left ear, grazing my skull and rendering me numb and senseless.
Grandstaff stood to Crouse’s left and remembered that his friend never flinched before he pitched forward onto his face. Grandstaff was next. The executioner’s bullet struck his skull above the left ear and passed under the skin until it lodged above his left eye. He fell to the ground but remained conscious long enough to hear the guerrillas shoot everyone in a third squad. He knew none of the last bunch except for Hoombaugh, a mere boy of about 14 or 15, who he later recalled ‘begged pitifully’ until he was killed. The remaining Yankees were brought forward in turn until all 19 defenseless prisoners had been deliberately slaughtered by the bushwackers.
After murdering their captives, Brownlee Cross’ men began to rob the bodies, rifling the pockets for valuables and removing serviceable clothing. Someone began to cut the buttons from Grandstaff’s coat, but another man stopped him because he wanted the garment. They took the coat, then removed his shoes. But when someone tried to take Grandstaff’s suspenders, one of the killers suddenly manifested a surprising sense of moral probity and declared that it would not be right to do so. Another guerrilla pointed out that ‘it was not so bad as they had been doing, as they had been killing them.’ Finishing with Grandstaff, they rolled his body into a gully.
Sergeant Blanchard regained his senses as the murderers searched his body for plunder. He remembered: ‘I soon came to myself and found the guerrillas cutting the buttons from my coat and searching my pockets, but as I laid on my left side, they did not find my pocketbook containing forty dollars. They took my boots, pants and hat, and left an old pair of shoes.’ One of those standing over the sergeant discovered that he was still alive and said, ‘John, this damned rascal aint dead; he’s playing off.’ John was out of ammunition, so he replied, ‘Damn him, he’s shot clean through; he’s dead enough.’ They then walked away, leaving Blanchard to die.
One guerrilla turned Crouse over and cut off his coat buttons. While searching the body, he discovered a heartbeat and uttered an oath. Standing over the wounded Yankee, the killer pulled his pistol to finish the job. Hearing the gun cock, Crouse opened his eyes and found himself staring into the muzzle. He recalled: ‘When the revolver went off I closed my eyes, stretched my hands out, and quivered my fingers. He said, with an oath: ‘Now he is dead! See him clench his hands!’ Another said: ‘His brains flew in my face!’ I knew that was not true, but refrained from telling him so, for very prudent reasons.’ The murderers rolled Crouse, now seriously wounded in the throat, into the gully with Grandstaff. After a while, Crouse raised his head, but Grandstaff whispered to lie still, since the killers remained close by. The two friends told one another of their injuries, then waited for total darkness.
After the guerrillas had gone, Crouse and Grandstaff managed to get up and climb out of the gully, grabbing onto bushes and branches for support. Grandstaff later recalled their situation:
We were in a large pine forest in country where we did not know a single landmark and could not tell east from west. Our only thought was to get away from that bloody ground. There was no light of moon or star to guide us. The shadows of the pines were impenetrable. A heavy sleet was falling. My companion thought it unwise to follow the path we had come over, even if we could have done so. All we could do was to choose the general direction in which our command lay, as nearly as we could determine it. That we were guided by a Higher Power than our own I have never doubted.
The two wounded soldiers limped along barefoot for about a mile before Grandstaff weakened and decided he could not go on, saying ‘he had but one death to die.’ Crouse instilled some hope in his friend and they started again, walking in small streambeds to throw off bloodhounds should they be pursued.
Reaching Piney Creek, they trudged along looking for a spot to cross the rain-swollen stream. They finally selected a place and got over, although Crouse had to rescue his partner after the current swept him off his feet. Grandstaff, now completely exhausted, had trouble ascending the steep bank, so Crouse pushed from behind with his head. They rested a few minutes at the top of the slope, then plodded on through the storm until they reached the Reynoldsburg road, near the spot where they had been captured. After following the road for a while, Grandstaff thought he saw lights and heard noises, but Crouse pooh-poohed his comrade and urged him on.
They had not gone more than 15 feet when three shots rang out so close that some of the powder burned Crouse’s face. The two men turned and ran as fast as their bloody feet could carry them. Crouse hurdled a fence, ran down a hill into a field of weeds and burs and hid. After all the noise from a half-hearted pursuit had died away, he fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. He was aroused before daylight by a bugle blowing reveille, and he hobbled toward the sound, picking his way carefully since Union pickets would undoubtedly be jumpy in the darkness. He soon encountered a picket, which prompted the following conversation:
‘Who comes there?’
‘A friend without the countersign.’
‘How did you come there?’
‘I was captured yesterday by guerrillas and have been shot twice.’
‘Where do you belong?’
‘Company F, 130th Regiment, Indiana Volunteers, Colonel C.S. Parish, Third Brigade, Third Division, Twenty-third Army Corps.’
‘We belong to that. Advance, friend, with your hands up.’
Crouse came forward, but could not get over a fence until someone came to help him. After learning that he and Grandstaff had been fired on by nervous pickets from this very post, Crouse asked the pickets to look for his friend and limped a mile to his regiment’s camp. There the surgeon examined him and dressed his wounds, although the physician told Crouse’s captain that he would not live more than a few hours. Robert G. Rogers, a relative of the injured man, attended to Crouse, who looked ‘more like a dead man than a live one,’ he said. He went to a nearby house and got some milk and corn meal, mixed them together into a gruel and fed the desperately wounded soldier.
Meanwhile, grandstaff had gone another direction in the darkness. He dropped to his knees and crawled up a hill where he chanced upon a tree that was hollow at its base. The exhausted soldier curled up inside and went to sleep. He, too, was awakened by the bugle blowing reveille. Waiting until after dawn, Grandstaff walked to the top of a hill and saw the Federal camp, admitting later, ‘I assure you I never saw anything before or since that gave me so much joy.’ He started for his company, but a teamster told him that the 130th Indiana had already marched off. Grandstaff remained with the wagon train for two days, then stayed with his regiment until it reached Clarksville, Tenn., where he and Crouse were admitted to the hospital ship R.C. Wood, reunited. The two friends remained aboard together until March 1865, when Crouse rejoined his regiment. Grandstaff was discharged the following month after a bout of typhoid fever.
Unknown to either Crouse or Grandstaff, Sergeant Blanchard had also survived the slaughter. The Michigan man explained how he had managed to get away:
I lay there until the next morning. Before daylight I crawled down where William Dewey, Co. D, was and lay there until daylight. With the help of a stick I got up, but hearing someone talking, I lay down on Dewey’s arm. Two men came along and searched around for some time. I did not dare to speak for fear they would shoot me and they did not discover that I was alive. The persons proved to be Mr. Hammond and his son. After they had gone, I got out of the ravine and crawled into another, then up a sidehill and into the top of a fallen chestnut tree. I was not hungry, but suffered intensely from thirst. The roof of my mouth became dry and parched from thirst and I was in constant pain from my wounds. While I lay there, I saw several citizens come and bury my companions.
That night Blanchard, wearing Moses Buck’s hat with a bloody bullet hole in it, moved into a field overgrown with weeds and stayed there most of the next day, until he was discovered by a man working in a cotton field. The wounded soldier was taken to the home of Joseph Hassell, where he remained until December 6. Everyone seemed very kind, but he soon learned that the bushwhackers ‘intended to wait until Christmas, when they were going to kill me, amid great carnival.’
Unwilling to passively submit to such a fate, Blanchard paid a black man to take him to Centerville, where he met James Carr, who let him ride a horse to within 14 miles of Columbia. He stayed with Andrew Crawford, a Union man, for a week, then moved eight more miles to the home of Daniel McKenon, whose sons finally escorted Blanchard into the Federal lines on December 27.
The sergeant was admitted to a hospital in Columbia, where he was visited by officers who heard his terrible story. Lieutenant B.F. Travis remembered:
He seemed very much elated at his convalescence and thought it a joke that a funeral had been held to his memory at home. This, he concluded, would have to be cancelled when he should return home. But the poor fellow’s expectations were not to be realized. The time for the second and real funeral soon came. Not long afterward, he sickened with the smallpox and died on January 23d.
Blanchard was buried in the Nashville National Cemetery, but fortunately his story of the murders was written down by Lieutenant L.C. Hill, who considered the sergeant’s statement to be ‘a pretty full exposure of the devilish brutality of the guerrilla mode of warfare.’ Blanchard’s narrative, combined with those of Crouse and Grandstaff, now furnishes a damning indictment of Lieutenant Brownlee Cross and the men of Captain Albert Cross’ guerrilla band.
Despite their heinous deeds, a combination of circumstances guaranteed that there would be no justice for the killers. Soldiers from General Cooper’s brigade would undoubtedly have sought retribution, but they marched 15 miles beyond Centerville on the day after the murders, taking them too far from the bloody scene to avenge their comrades. The brigade never returned to Hickman County. Quick burial of the bodies in a desolate ravine ensured that evidence of the murders had been effectively hidden from future investigators. There is no record to indicate that any Federal authorities sought to bring the guilty parties to trial for these barbarous killings. In fact, other than Brownlee Cross and John and Green Hammonds, the other participants were never identified. Unfortunately, the battles of Franklin and Nashville followed so quickly after the murders, that the deaths of 17 victims seemed to pale by comparison and they were quickly forgotten.
Ethelbert Crouse and Lemuel Grandstaff remained devoted friends, and the memory of their experiences on that terrible night in 1864 never faded. Forty years later, they told their story to W. Henry Sheak, who published it in McClure’s magazine under the title ‘Out of the Jaws of Death.’
Sheak concluded his article with the statement, ‘In their declining years they meet and hold a reunion annually on the 27th of November.’ Their last reunion was held in 1913.
Lemuel Grandstaff died on March 21, 1914, and was buried in Maplewood Cemetery in Decatur, Ind. Ethelbert Crouse, who lived until June 15, 1931, was laid to rest in Riverside Cemetery in Antwerp, Ohio.
By some quirk of fate, those two men had lived through what Sheak called ‘one of the most wonderful experiences in all human history.’ Perhaps it was the rainy darkness, perhaps it was carelessness of their executioners, perhaps it was divine intervention, but these two friends survived to tell the world their story of murder in the Tennessee woods.
This article was written by Alan D. Gaff and originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Civil War Times magazine.
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