The murder of Captain John Thornhill on 24 June 1865 provides a view into activities off the battlefield during the Civil War. In East Tennessee, the sides were not always clearly described as Union or Rebel. As covered previously in this blog, Thornhill, the nephew of my 4th-great-grandmother, died from bullet wounds fired by men of his own company, the 9th Tennessee Cavalry. The subsequent court martial and state court actions were well documented, and went into great detail into the facts of the case. This post is an attempt to bring the case into focus, given the contentious scene in East Tennessee at the end of the Civil War.
Timeline of Events
- About 1841, John A. Thornhill born in Jefferson County. Son of Joseph Thornhill and Mary Polly Gass.
- 6 May 1863, John A. Thornhill joins the 9th Tennessee Cavalry, age 22.
- 15 May 1863, Thornhill came with a squad of recruits to Camp Nelson, Kentucky. He was given authority by Colonel Parsons to raise a company in the 9th Tennessee Cavalry, and would be Captain of the company if he could raise enough recruits. Testimony states that Thornhill brought 15-20 recruits into the company.
- 20 June 1863, Thornhill had a squad of men at Lexington, Kentucky
- July 1863, Thornhill left Kentucky for Tennessee to recruit
- 15 Aug 1863, Thornhill musters at Camp Nelson, Kentucky
- 9 October 1863, Thornhill was in Knoxville, Tennessee. The regiment arrived in Knoxville on 9 October and remained through 15 December 1863. Witness states that Thornhill was insubordinate in Knoxville. Thornhill ordered by Parsons to remain behind, Thornhill returns to Jefferson County afterward.
- 5 January 1864, Thornhill was at the household of Frances Rankin in Jefferson County, per testimony of Frances and Sarah J. F. Rankin
- 20 January 1864, Parsons orders Thornhill back to the regiment or his name is to be dropped from the company.
- February-March 1864, witness claims Thornhill and 3-4 associates were trading horses in Union County, Tennessee
- 28-29 March 1864 - Incident involving Captain Thornhill and Colonel Parsons, Thornhill has an argument with Parsons that he should command the company of men he recruited. Parsons orders Thornhill to be arrested, Thornhill shoots at Parsons but misses. One witness states that Parsons fired back and hit Thornhill in the throat. Thornhill taken into custody.
- April 1864, Thornhill released from military prison in Nashville by Colonel Parsons.
- Spring 1864, Thornhill was in the saloon of A.C. Carter in Nashville, Tennessee. Witness testified that Thornhill made statements he intended to kill Colonel Parsons, Captain Rutherford, Lieutenant Bell, and others
- May 1864, Thornhill was in Nashville, Tennessee, spoke with Lieutenant Nothem and C.B. Phillips about raising his concerns with Colonel Parsons at his earliest opportunity.
- June-July 1864, Thornhill seen in Nashville. Argument between Thornhill and Col. Rutherford, and Captain Bell and R.E. Newman (associate of Thornhill). Witnesses state that after the altercation, Thornhill & Newman threaten to kill Parsons, Rutherford, Bell and Armstrong (Armstrong had prevented Thornhill from hitting Parsons with his bullet in March 1864).
- August 1864, Samuel Rankin & John Thornhill met on horseback, Thornhill said they had been friends but until his difficulty with Parsons was resolved he had no further use for Rankin.
- December 1864, Joseph Jones and his Thornhill cousins returned to Panther Springs, Tennessee after hearing about the troubles involving John Thornhill. Joseph Jones claimed to be detailed to John Thornhill's command between 26 June 1864 and 28 February 1865.
- February-March 1865 - witness claims that Thornhill attacked Sergeant Joseph Carman, Company D, 9th Tennessee Cavalry while he was traveling through Jefferson County.
- 24 June 1865, Thornhill shot and killed in Jefferson County, Tennessee. On that day, Colonel Parsons had ordered Captain Bell to apprehend Thornhill. Bell delegated that authority to Job Powell of the 9th Tennessee Cavalry. The specific order was if Thornhill resisted arrest in anyway, he was to be shot.
- 1 & 3 July 1865, request for an investigation into the murder of John Thornhill filed
- 27 July 1865, general court martial of Colonel Joseph Parsons convened in Chattanooga, Tennessee
- 16 August 1865, testimony taken in court martial of Colonel Parsons
- 15 September 1865, testimony from a family member of Thornhill published in the Knoxville Whig
- 10 October 1865, Colonel Parsons found not guilty of murder in the 1st degree, but found guilty of ordering Thornhill to be killed. Major General Stoneman ordered Parsons to be released, as Parsons had "a sincere though mistaken idea that the fatal act was necessary for the safety of himself and his friends and also upon the recommendations of his reviewing authorities."
- 11 October 1865, testimony from John Wilson, that he rode a train with Thornhill from Russellville to Knoxville and during the train ride Thornhill appeared vindictive toward Colonel Parsons. Wilson indicated that Thornhill felt that he had been wronged by Parsons and intended to kill him.
- 16 October 1865, testimony from Henry Paine that Thornhill brought horses to sell in Knoxville, and he heard Thornhill say he intended to kill Captain Bell, Lieutenant Rankin and Colonel Parsons.
- 9 November 1865, Major General Gillem orders the release of James Berry and P.M. Riggs, privates in the 9th Tennessee Cavalry, for their roles in the killing of John Thornhill. Gillem stated that Berry and Riggs were acting under orders of their superior officers while in U.S. military service.
- 3 January 1866, the Thornhill case and civil conflict in Dandridge, Tennessee made it to the desk of President Andrew Johnson
- 12 to 30 March 1866, report developed for President Johnson describing the case, sent to the Secretary of War.
- 11 June 1866, letter from Major General Thomas describing how Job Powell had been arrested a second time by civil authorities in Dandridge for the murder of John Thornhill. Thomas ordered the release of Powell
- 29 August 1866, news clipping from the Knoxville Whig describing the indictment of Colonel Parsons. Judge Swan sustained the plea to dismiss the case against Parsons and dismissed the indictment.
- I am still working on the timeline between 1866 and the Supreme Court decision in 1870.
It is clear from the testimony in the case that Colonel Parsons and Captain Thornhill had an altercation in Nashville. Parsons removed Thornhill from command of Company B. Thornhill fired on Parsons, and missed. Thornhill was taken into custody and sent to prison in 1864. Various witnesses claimed Thornhill was a desperado and an outlaw. Many of the officers of the 9th Cavalry claimed to fear for their lives that Thornhill might kill them because they supported Colonel Parsons. Several of these officers also testified that they did not feel safe traveling through Jefferson County, Tennessee, for what Thornhill (or his supporters) might do.
Thornhill was known for a hot temper, and that "he had the character of a man who would revenge an injury that he had received to the fullest extent" (testimony of David R.N. Blackburn). Another witness said "I think he was a brave man, but not an efficient officer." Others noted he was reckless and "resorted to a system of plunder with the aid of ready associates." Counsel on behalf of Colonel Parsons set out the case of Thornhill as a desperado who would not stop until he had taken revenge against Parsons.
Testimony of Richard Thornhill
The record of the case included testimony from Richard Thornhill, uncle of Captain Thornhill and brother of my 4th-great-grandmother Elizabeth Thornhill Jones. I include a copy below from the 11 October 1865 issue of the Knoxville Whig:
The 1 November 1865 issue of the Knoxville Whig contained a copy of the testimony of J. T. Rankin. This testimony noted that my third-great-grandfather, Joseph Jones, and his brothers, Marion and Martin Jones, were associates of John Thornhill. I knew this before, but it is helpful to see it in the witness testimony, as well as some detail on Joseph Jones' involvement in horse trading during the Civil War.
More on the Supreme Court Case
I sent an inquiry to the Law Library of Congress for information on Rankin v State of Tennessee, 78 US 380 (1870), in the hopes that some material on the case still exists. This week I received a reply, and the Archives has on file a transcript of the case with some documents from the lower court. There is also a copy of the brief submitted by the State of Tennessee. I have to be physically present at the Archives to access this information, and I hope to do so in the coming weeks.