John Denton fought for the Confederate Army, but deserted it. Then he joined the Union Army, but deserted it even faster. And that was just the beginning of his troubles.
Denton volunteered for Company B (Monroe County, TN), 3rd Tennessee Regiment of Confederate Volunteers in Knoxville, TN on May 23, 1861 and fought at Manassas. We know he was still present for duty as of February 1862, but on May 7, 1863 he switched sides and enlisted for three years at Lebanon, KY in Company D, 11th Tennessee Cavalry, Union Army Volunteers.
That didn’t last long. By July Denton was listed as a deserter from Camp Nelson, KY. The following month’s muster rolls reported Private John Denton absent from recruiting duty.
“While on leave (from Union Army) in Monroe County he was captured by a band of Confederate guerillas or bushwackers from the area,” begins a letter found in Cocke County, Tennessee’s Stokely Memorial Library.
“They stripped Uncle John, tied a rope around his neck, threw it over a tree limb and pulled him off the ground until he about choked. They’d let him down and then repeat the process. While this amusement was going on word came that a Union patrol was in the area.
“Two men were assigned to take Uncle John deeper into the woods and shoot him. When they arrived at a rail fence Uncle John managed to push one of his guards over the fence and knock the other one down and run away.
“Instead of hiding in the deep woods he managed to get to a lightly wooded section and cover himself with leaves while the search for him went on in the more heavily forested area. Subsequently he managed to get to the cabin of a couple of Union women whose husbands were gone away to serve in the Union Army. They dressed him in women’s clothes, put a bonnet on his head and managed to smuggle him through the lines.
“Some time after the war, knowing some of his captors, they being from the same area, he killed a couple of them and was sent to prison for a few years until pardoned.”
On April 10, 1864, Denton, his brother Charles, their cousin William Click, and another associated family member, Pink Gentry, murdered Patrick T. Trotter. The men hung Trotter by the thumbs and severely beat him, before shooting him in the presence of his elderly mother.
Several months later, on the 4th of July, brothers William Riley and David Burton Curtis had headed home on leave from the Confederate Army. They arrived just in time to discover one of the women in their family being raped by bushwackers. The attackers had the element of surprise in their favor, and they shot and killed the two brothers before they even got past the front porch.
Family members “dressed in women’s clothing” waited across the river for the escaping offenders. Jackson Denton, Grief Ragsdale, and William Hartsell were later charged with this murder, but historians think John Denton also may have been involved.
John & Charles Denton were arrested by Union troops on October 3 in Roane County, but by February 1865 they’d been released at Knoxville. In May 1866 the two brothers, William Click and Pink Gentry were indicted for their role in Trotter’s murder; that September the sheriff was directed to arrest them and bring them to court. The ensuing trial was moved to Blount County, where the two were convicted of 2nd degree murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
However, they filed an appeal with the Supreme Court over the change of venue, the conviction was overturned on a technicality, and the case was sent back to Monroe County for further disposition in 1869.
After numerous delays and postponements, Charles and John Denton were brought to trial in 1872 in Monroe County and found guilty of 1st degree murder. They again filed an appeal, but it never transpired. John Denton went to prison from 1873 till 1880. His brother fled to Missouri and apparently was never apprehended.
John Denton filed for a government pension in late summer of 1890, but was rejected in 1891 because he’d served less than the required 90 days of service, and because he did not have an honorable discharge.
He died on Aug 12, 1912.
Sources: Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Tennessee, by Thomas Harvey Coldwell, Tennessee Supreme Court, publ. S.C. Mercer, 1870