The Medal of Honor, as we know it today, came into being during the Civil War, so I didn’t think any Tennesseans would have been awarded one from that time, what with the state being part of the Confederacy.
But, the Union soldiers from East Tennessee proved themselves equal to any in the Federal army, winning six Medals of Honor. And two of those medals, including the first one, were won by soldiers from Hawkins County.
Hawkins County native Harrison Collins, born 1834, joined the 1st Tennessee Cavalry, U.S.A. (also known as the 1st East Tennessee Cavalry) which was organized at Camp Garber in Flat Lick, Kentucky, in April of 1862.
Collins, a corporal in Company A, saw lots of action in the fall and winter of 1864. The 1st Tenn. Cavalry clashed with Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s Cavalry, ending the Rebel’s raid in early September and followed them until they crossed the Tennessee River.
In November the 1st Tenn. Cavalry was part of the action near Douglas Church against the cavalry of Nathan Bedford Forrest during the Battle of Franklin.
But it was in December that Collins’ heroic actions would win him honors.
The 1st Tenn. Cavalry took part in the first day’s action of the Battle of Nashville, charging and capturing a Rebel battery. But they were held in reserve during the second days fighting only to be sent in pursuit of Gen. John Bell Hood’s retreating Army of Tennessee after the Confederate lines collapsed.
Cpl. Collins and the rest of Company A caught-up with Gen. James R. Chalmers’ Division at Richland Creek. Seeing a color bearer, under the direction of a major, trying to rally the troops, Collins sprang into action and charged.
Collins rode into the middle of the Confederate soldiers, taking the flag away from the color bearer and killing the major. Then, joined by the rest of Company A, scattered the Rebel soldiers and chased them all the way to the Tennessee River before returning to Nashville.
For his actions at Richland Creek, Collins became the first Tennessean awarded the Medal of Honor.
In cases of who’s first there’s always the question of what is truly first, the date being awarded or the date of the action resulting the award.
Either way Hawkins County is still the first.
Gaines Lawson, born 1841, joined others from Hawkins County who signed-up the 4th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry Regiment, U.S.A., in the spring of 1863, becoming the 1st Sergeant of Company D.
On Oct. 3, 1863, 320 men of the 4th Tenn. (270 men plus 50 armed convalescents) became caught-up in a battle with Wheeler’s Cavalry at McMinnville, Tennessee.
With the 4th Tenn. being pushed back and then surrounded, some men wounded at the start of the battle found themselves between the lines, unable to move.
1st Sgt. Lawson, with no thought of his own safety, braved the bullets and went to the aid of the wounded between the lines, carrying them back to a place of safety.
By the end of the day 1st Sgt. Lawson would be a prisoner of war and later paroled.
For his actions on that day Lawson would be awarded the Medal of Honor. He received it on a later date than Collins so by date of award, Collins is the first Tennessean to win the Medal of Honor. But based on the date of the action resulting in the award Lawson is the first.
Lawson remained in the army after the Civil War, becoming an officer and commanded the 25th Infantry Regiment of the “Buffalo Soldiers,” fighting against Sitting Bull following the Battle of Little Big Horn. He later served as the commanding officer of Fort Gibson.
Lawson died on Sept. 12, 1906, with the brevet rank of lieutenant colonel. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
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 [email protected]