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John W. Dinsmore: a Union artillery man from Rogersville

Ned Jilton II • Jun 12, 2019 at 5:30 PM

I went back to looking through the Tennessee Civil War veterans questionnaires — there are five volumes — and I noticed that Vol. One said “Federal Soldiers, Acuff — Wood,” so I thought I would see if anyone local was listed.

By page 45, I came across John W. Dinsmore of Rogersville.

Like his father and grandfathers before him, Dinsmore was a farmer.

“I worked on a farm before I went into the army and after I came home out of the army. I was a farmer until I got too old to farm,” Dinsmore said.

Dinsmore remembered his family was poor when he was growing up.

“They never owned any land. They just owned a milk cow,” Dinsmore said of his parents. “They was very poor then, they just lived in a log cabin that only had one room.”

Let me say that as I read these questionnaires I gain a new appreciation of our modern school system. Time and time again I read in these volumes that what schools there were in the 1830s and ’40s tended to be in session only three months out of the year.

This was true in Dinsmore’s case, as he said he went to a school about a mile from his home for two years. But the school was in session for three months a year. This means that Dinsmore’s total formal education was only six months, not counting any homeschooling he received from his parents.

When the issue of slavery was brought up in the questionnaire, Dinsmore, who never owned slaves nor did any of his family, had some interesting things to say about slave owners.

“The slave holders thought themselves a little better than other people. When the Civil War began to come up the nonslave holders wasn’t allowed to say anything.” Dinsmore said. “The slave holder was generally Democrats. A portion of the nonslave holders was Democrat and part was Whigs.”

Like many people in the region, Dinsmore had relatives who had fought in previous U.S. wars.

“My grandfather on my mother’s side was a Revolutionary War soldier,” Dinsmore wrote, “and my grandfather on my father’s side was in the War of 1812.”

Dinsmore enlisted into Company A&F of the First Tennessee Light Artillery of the Union Army on Sept. 20, 1863. This was during a time when Rogersville was occupied by Federal troops.

“I enlisted in the Federal army here at Rogersville,” Dinsmore wrote. “We remained in Rogersville until we had a little fight at Big Creek three miles east about a month after.”

That little fight was known as the Battle of Big Creek or the Battle of Rogersville and was a disaster for the Federal forces. Confederate Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones divided his forces and surprised the Federals by attacking from two sides and captured the bulk of them.

Think about this: Dinsmore had been in the army for barely a month with little training in artillery and found himself in a desperate situation as his battery was surrounded and captured.

Yet the man kept his wits about him and escaped from captivity and returned to the Federal lines. Those in his company who couldn’t escape ended up in Andersonville prison.

After his escape, Dinsmore was assigned to Camp Nelson in Kentucky.

Camp Nelson was a major training center for East Tennessee Unionists, along with Camp Dick Robinson, and trained United States Colored Troops and Colored Cavalry as well. In addition, the camp was a major supply and refugee center with a 700-bed hospital.

Currently, Camp Nelson is in the process of becoming a national park.

After his time at Camp Nelson, Dinsmore was assigned to Nashville and then was moved from fort to fort around Tennessee depending on where his battery was needed until the war ended.

“I was discharged at Nashville on the third day of August, 1865. Then I got a free transportation to Bulls Gap. Then I had to walk home about 28 miles,” Dinsmore said.

After the war, Dinsmore settled down to life in Hawkins County.

“I have been a farmer ever since the Civil War. I have lived several places since the Civil War but not over 16 miles from Rogersville,” Dinsmore recalled. “My church religion is what other people call Dunkard, but we call ourselves Brethren. I went in that church when I was only 26 years old and I have remained there ever since.”

Dinsmore was 75 when he wrote that, meaning he had belonged to that church for almost 50 years.

Dinsmore then added, “We believe in just taking the new testment (sic) and following every precept we read in it. We don’t believe in any organization but the church of Christ and we don’t want any book, only the bible.”

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net .