Champ Ferguson’s Appalachian Civil War

Posted by | August 25, 2011

Brian D. McKnight was interviewed on With Good Reason last week about his recent book, ‘Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia,’ released in April 2011. McKnight is Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, where he teaches American military history and courses in the Civil War era. His first book, ‘Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia’ (Kentucky, 2006), won the James I. Robertson Literary Prize in Confederate History. He appeared on NBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ examining Ashley Judd’s Appalachian Civil War history. We’re pleased to present the following excerpt from ‘Confederate Outlaw:’

On August 12, 1858, Kentuckian Champ Ferguson visited a camp meeting in Fentress County, Tennessee, just across the state line. Whether coincidental or by design, several men with whom Ferguson and his Clinton County, Kentucky, neighbors had a financial dispute were also in attendance. When he noticed his adversaries together, Champ saw their angry glares aimed at him and he bolted. Apparently, Ferguson’s fear was justified, as the small band took off in pursuit. After a brief horserace, a close quarters fight broke out during which Champ killed a county constable. That day, at nearly thirty-seven years old, the rough-and-tumble farmer took his first life.

Champ Ferguson in an undated daguerreotype.

Champ Ferguson in an undated daguerreotype.

Seven years later, the United States had been wracked by civil war and Ferguson found himself on trial in Nashville, Tennessee, for the murder of fifty-three persons while rumors swirled that he had killed dozens more during the war. Perhaps no other single participant in the Civil War could claim a bloodier career than Champ Ferguson. For a backwoodsman whom the historical record suggests waited nearly forty years to kill another human being, he grew quite accustomed to the idea during the four years of war.

Complicating the telling of Champ Ferguson’s story is his complete lack of remorse. He freely admitted killing more than forty men; not only did Ferguson confess his culpability, he seemingly reveled in it. Only moments before his execution, while he stood at the gallows and listened as the details of his convictions were read aloud, Ferguson callously commented about the specifics of one of the killings, “I can tell it better than that.” Indeed, he probably could. At a moment when timidity and repentance would be on the minds of most men, the border outlaw maintained an air of righteousness. He stood in front of the court “like a man who was about to make a speech on some leading topic.”

For Champ Ferguson, the Civil War was personal. Just as generals and their armies fought in the great conflict, so did neighbors, brothers, and communities on a more localized level. Along the Kentucky-Tennessee border where Ferguson grew up and lived most of his life, the fight became fluid and partisan, turning men who had spent their lives as friends, neighbors, and even brothers, into mortal enemies.

For Ferguson, the war was not an abstract political contest. It manifested itself into a daily struggle for survival against men who might come as friends, enemies, or neutrals. During his four-year-long personal war, many, including his brother, Jim; his great adversary and partisan in his own right, Tinker Dave Beatty; and the United States Army pursued him.

With such varied and frequently unknown enemies, Champ, like most citizens of the mountain region, grew fearful to the level of outright paranoia. For the average soldier, the rules of warfare frown upon killing sick men in their beds, or unarmed minors, but to Champ Ferguson, those who were not admitted and acknowledged friends were dangerous enemies and subject to extermination at the earliest and most convenient opportunity. Ferguson described such actions as his taking “time by the forelock.”

This very personal brand of warfare, filled with imminent threats and unknown enemies, made Ferguson, along with countless others throughout the border region, very paranoid.

The question of loyalty is of primary importance when studying the Civil War in the Appalachian region. For Champ Ferguson, that loyalty was defined in stark terms. He was a Confederate, and those who were not with him, were against him. While at his prewar home in Kentucky, he was surrounded by enemies; a fact powerfully illustrated by his entire family’s adherence to the Union. In Tennessee, where he lived for most of the war, he enjoyed a marginally safer climate, but felt continually threatened by those whose loyalty to the southern cause was questionable or who chose not to make a statement of loyalty.

In turn, he held those with whom he came into contact to an exceedingly strict interpretation of loyalty or disloyalty to his cause. No example shows this more clearly than Champ Ferguson’s treatment of his longtime friend, William Frogge. When Ferguson learned that Frogge had the measles, he deduced that Frogge had joined the Union army and caught the disease in camp. Visiting the sick man at home, Ferguson was unmoved by Frogge’s contention that he did go to Camp Dick Robinson, a Union recruiting depot, but had not joined the army. Unaffected by Frogge’s explanation, Ferguson pulled his revolver and killed him.

Out of the intense pressures applied by the warring factions emerged men and women who came to view their position within the war as one of simple survival and they often became intensely pragmatic in that pursuit. War turns all men into pragmatists and Ferguson was no exception. For Champ, that pragmatism manifested itself in periodic robbery, and the killing of anyone he considered to be a potential threat. Others were shocked by the war’s power to turn them into self-serving beings. John McCrary wrote, “I never though[t] that I ever could have the conscience to walk up to a man’s house and shoot down a hog and skin it right before his eyes and the owner of them standing by and not allowed to open his mouth.”

Ferguson mounted a scaffold in the yard of Nashville's penitentiary on Church Street on Oct. 20, 1865, spoke a few final words pleading that his body not be "cut up" by medical students in surgical exercises, and was dispatched into history.

Ferguson mounted a scaffold in the yard of Nashville's penitentiary on Church Street on Oct. 20, 1865, spoke a few final words pleading that his body not be "cut up" by medical students in surgical exercises, and was dispatched into history.

Throughout the contested region, theft was commonplace and sometimes grew into social revolt. In 1864, several women arrived in Abingdon, Virginia, where they robbed two stores of cotton. When asked about their motives, the women told one of the storekeepers that they lived in such poverty that they had to resort to robbery in order to make a living. The man gave them the cotton rather than pressing charges. A few days later, another group of women arrived hoping for similar treatment. After stealing two bolts of cloth, they were captured and jailed by the local authorities.

While men like Ferguson were a rarity during the Civil War, the conflict was filled with men who could understand the reasons for Champ’s terrible actions. Fortunately, few took the violence to his extremity, but the war exacted a horrible price from those unfortunate enough to live along Appalachia’s contested borderland. By the time of Ferguson’s execution in late 1865, the healing had just begun.

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