This year is the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the beginning of the U.S. Civil War. A book like this one is a good reminder of what that conflict was often like: brutal, ruthless and cruel.
The subject of this scholarly biography was a resident of the border region of Tennessee/Kentucky. His grandpa was said to have been named “Champion,” and that’s how Champ Ferguson got his name. He was born in Clinton County, Ky., and became a small time farmer there, married twice and had a son who died and a daughter who survived him, each by a different wife.
Champ owned a couple of slaves, and that may have made a difference to him in the area of Kentucky where he lived. It bordered Tennessee near the Cumberland River and the mountains of the Cumberland Plateau. Clinton County didn’t have many slaves and when the Civil War broke out, its citizens were overwhelmingly Unionist in sentiment.
Just south of the state line, in Overton County, Tenn., things were different. Livingston, the county seat, was a hotbed of secessionism. Two counties further south, the town of Sparta was also decidedly pro-Confederacy. Just about everywhere else in the surrounding hills, feelings were strongly divided.
When the war actually began, Ferguson didn’t join the regular Confederate Army, choosing instead to form a guerilla unit which operated in the area as bushwhackers. The company preyed on local Unionist families, robbing and stealing and killing. Ferguson’s tactics are legendary for their brutality.
“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,” McKnight writes. By the end of the war, Ferguson had personally wiped out some 53 lives he considered threats. Although he had raided throughout the region, he had moved to Sparta, Tenn., at the beginning of the hostilities, seeking a more welcoming climate for his home base. He surrendered in Sparta after the war, hoping for parole as was granted other Confederate soldiers, but the Federal officials in Tennessee denied it. He was tried as a war criminal and hanged in Nashville in 1865, one of only two Confederates tried and executed as war criminals after the war (the other was the commandant of the Andersonville Prison Camp, Henry Wirz). Ferguson was unrepentant to the end.
“He freely admitted killing more than forty men, and not only did Ferguson confess his culpability, he seemingly reveled in it. Only moments before his execution, while he stood on 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.’”
McKnight spends much of the book examining what might have motivated Ferguson to become such a cold blooded killer. Ferguson often referred to his victims as “Lincolnites” and developed a signature style of dispatch: he used his knife to cut and stab his victims, many of whom were unarmed.
McKnight finds that Ferguson had old scores with many of the men he killed and often said that if he hadn’t killed them, they would have killed him. His own brother, who served in the Union Army, hunted Ferguson for a while.
When Ferguson was brought to trial, even many Unionists were a bit hesitant. After all, Union bushwhackers had done the same things Ferguson had. Yet the only one who was tried was Champ Ferguson.
Why? The answer probably lies in his brief service with the regular Confederate Army. Riding with Gen. Joseph Wheeler out of Georgia, Ferguson and his men were detached and went with Gen. John S. Williams to support the Confederate troops at Saltville, Va., where a Union force from Kentucky was threatening the valuable salt works. There, Ferguson and his men were placed under the command of Tennessee Gen. George Dibrell. A battle ensued. Among the Union troops was a unit of black cavalry troops.
“William C. Davis described Dibrell’s 8th Tennessee as becoming ?exasperated’ at the sight of the black soldiers climbing the hill toward them ... “ Soon the battle was over, and the Confederate troops controlled the field.
“At Saltville, the real crisis occurred the following morning when Confederates roaming the battlefield reportedly began executing wounded enemy soldiers, most of whom were black troops.” At Ferguson’s 1865 trial, an Ohio solider who was at Saltville testified that Ferguson was on the field dispatching wounded black soldiers that day.
In 1865, that probably would not have been enough to get you hung. At least not by itself. But after the battle, Ferguson also came to a hospital established at nearby Emory and Henry College and sought out a wounded Union officer named Smith who was from Kentucky and a relative of Ferguson’s first wife. He shot the wounded man to death in his bed.
Word of Ferguson’s evil actions filtered up the chain of command. Even Gen. Robert E. Lee was appalled by what had happened on the battlefield and hospital at Saltville. Eventually, Confederate authorities took action and had Ferguson arrested. He was being held in Virginia when the end of the war became apparent, and Ferguson was released.
McKnight acknowledges that some “Lost Cause” adherents have tried to rehabilitate Ferguson’s image, but McKnight makes clear with overwhelming scholarship, that Ferguson was indeed a murderer, thief and never an actual member of the regular army. McKnight’s is a cautionary tale that reminds readers who might thrill at stirring cavalry charges and noble sacrifices to save the flag, that soldiers from both sides sometimes did awful things like shooting children and old men begging for their lives.