Champ Fergunson (1 Viewer)


Champ Fergunson

Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Legendary Confederate partisan ranger and guerrilla fighter
Number of victims: 53 - 100 +
Date of murders: 1861 - 1865
Date of arrest: May 23, 1865
Date of birth: November 29, 1821
Victims profile: Men (soldiers and civilians)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Kentucky/Tennessee, USA
Status: Executed by hanging in Tennessee on October 20, 1865

Champ Ferguson (November 29, 1821 - October 20, 1865) was a Kentucky and Tennessee Confederate guerrilla in the American Civil War who is claimed to have killed dozens of soldiers and civilians.

Early life and origins of Confederate stance

Born in Clinton County, Kentucky, near the Tennessee border, the oldest of ten children, he worked as a farmer. Ferguson had a reputation for fighting and violence his entire life. In his thirties, he moved with his wife and family from southern Kentucky into the Calfkiller River Valley in White County, Tennessee.

For reasons that are debated, Ferguson developed a fierce hatred for the Union cause. Local tradition says that Federal soldiers may have raped his wife and daughter. Another theory claims that he maintained grudges against individuals in the area who supported the Union. Ferguson himself would later claim that Confederate officials had promised him they would ignore a previous murder charge if he agreed to support the southern effort.

Guerrilla activities

During the Civil War, East Tennessee, a mostly mountainous region, was divided about secessionism. The terrain and the dislocation of military units and law enforcement due to the war gave various guerrilla fighters and irregular military groups significant reign in the region.

Especially on the Cumberland Plateau, there are substantial numbers of recorded incidents of guerrilla and revenge attacks. The nature of terrority meant that even family was often divided. Champ's own brother was killed as a member of the Union 1st Kentucky Cavalry.

At the start of the war, he organized a unit of men and started to attack civilians in the region believed to support the Union. At various times, his group had contact with Confederate military units led by Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan and Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler.

Some documentary evidence indicates that he was authorized to be an official military captain by Morgan. However, in any case, they were not always subject to the military discipline and often engaged in clear violations of normal military rules.

They are many legends about Ferguson's sadism, including that he decapitated prisoners and rolled the heads down the hillsides and was willing to kill elderly and bedridden men. Even before the end of the war, he was arrested for the murder of a government officer by Confederate officials and detained for two months in Wytheville, Virginia, but then released.

Trial and hanging

At the end of the war, he was arrested and tried in Nashville for 53 murders, and there was an attempt to document his activities. His trial was a major media event.

One of Ferguson's main adversaries during the conflict "Tinker Dave" Beaty testified against him. Ferguson accepted that he killed many of the victims named and admitted killing over 100 men personally, but maintained that this was part of his military activities.

The number of wounded and prisoners he (and his men) killed from the Battle of Saltville is and was a matter of dispute. These individuals were primarily members of the black 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry and their white officers.

On October 10, 1865, he was found guilty and sentenced to hanging.

Ferguson made the following statement after the verdict: "I am yet and will die a Rebel ... I killed a good many men, of course, but I never killed a man who I did not know was seeking my life. ... I had always heard that the Federals would not take me prisoner, but would shoot me down wherever they found me. That is what made me kill more than I otherwise would have done. I repeat that I die a Rebel out and out, and my last request is that my body be removed to White County, Tennessee, and be buried in good Rebel soil."

He was hanged on October 20. He is buried in the France Cemetery on Highway 84 (Monterey Highway) north of Sparta, Tennessee.

Still today, Ferguson is remembered very differently in different parts of the region as evident in these historical markers.


McDade, Arthur, "Tennessee Guerrilla Champ Ferguson Killed More Than 100 Men Before Facing The Hangman's Noose" America's Civil War, March 2001, Vol. 14, No. 1.

Champ Ferguson: Confederate Martyr

Champ Ferguson, a legendary Confederate partisan ranger and guerrilla fighter, was easily the most notorious among the many such men who fought to control the Upper Cumberland Plateau region along the Tennessee and Kentucky borders.

Nominally holding the rank of Captain in the Confederate Army, Ferguson led his own company of independent cavalry. When not making the most of every opportunity to harass and intimidate Unionists in the area, Ferguson acted as a scout for Genl. John Hunt Morgan, and was for a time attached to the command of Genl. Joseph Wheeler. His company was under Wheeler's command when they took part in the Battle of Saltville (Virginia).

At war's end, Ferguson and his men returned to their homes and, on 23 May, 1865, they were induced by promise of the same parole given to the officers and men of Lee's and Johnston's Confederate Armies to surrender themselves to federal military authorities. All except Ferguson were indeed released on Oath.

Champ Ferguson himself was summarily arrested, and charged with over 50 counts of murder. Some of his purported victims remained nameless, and many of the other charges were wholly unsupported by either witnesses or documentation.

In a trial at Nashville, lasting from 11 July through 26 September, 1865, a military tribunal called witness after unreliable witness against Ferguson, all the while denying his counsel every opportunity to present a competent case in his defense.

On 10 October, General Orders affirming his conviction and sentencing him to death by hanging were issued.

On Friday, 20 October, 1865, the Order of Execution was carried out while Ferguson's wife Martha and sixteen year old daughter Ann watched. Thus it came to be that Champ Ferguson joined Henry Wirz, Commandant of the Confederate prison at Camp Sumter (Andersonville) as the only two former Confederate's of any rank or position to be executed for supposed "war crimes."

The following text is from an "Afterword" to the Ferguson biography mentioned below, and was writen by the son of the author:

"I thought I'd found Champ back in 1941 when my father and I went looking for him in that old graveyard on the Calfkiller River. Maybe I was wrong. According to a story I read in the Cookeville Herald-Citizen, there was a conspiracy between Champ and the military. The theory is that the military felt that Champ should not be hanged because many others as guilty as he had been paroled. The story is that the military enclosed the undersection of the scaffold and that a ring of soldiers completely encircled it. When the hangman cut the rope and Champ dropped through the trap door, they quickly untied the loose knot and placed Champ in the casket alive. The casket was then placed on a waiting wagon which Champ's wife and daughter drove out of town. When they were out of Nashville, Champ climbed out of the casket and the three rode all the way to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, where they took new names and took up farming and ranching for a living."

"It's an interesting story. But if it's true, who is buried in the grave I found marked "Capt. C. Furguson"? Are we to assume that his wife Martha didn't know how to spell his name? Or that someone else in on the conspiracy misspelled it and put up a stab of limestone at a fake grave so that everybody would think Champ had really been hanged? What did Colonel Shafter whisper to Champ in a low undertone that made Champ's face light up noticeably? Did he tell him about the conspiracy and that he would be saved by the military?"

We'll never know, and the legend lives on...

The photographs reproduced above, both believed to be previously unpublished, were taken at the same sitting by Nashville photographer C. C. Hughes, whose studios were on Church Street. It is unknown whether these images were taken there, or whether Hughes came to the prison where Ferguson was held. At least four images from this session have survived in the form of Cartes de Vistes (CDVs).

One of the three was reproduced in the book Champ Ferguson, Confederate Guerilla by Thurman Sensing, originally published in 1942 and currently in print from Vanderbilt University Press, to which reference is here made for a complete biography of Ferguson and accounts of war time activities and subsequent trial.

The Yankee Propaganda Machine

Even though the war had been essentially over for five months, the Yankee press still felt the need to propagandize, and to slander the defeated Confederacy and the men who fought for her. This was especially true when it came to Confederate partisan fighters. The following quotes, full of distortions, half truths, and outright lies about Champ Ferguson, are taken from Harper's Weekly.

September 23, 1865:

"Among the guerillas who infested Kentucky during the war Champ Ferguson and his men were the most notorious. Their outrages were chiefly confined to Wayne and Clinton Counties. Champ Ferguson himself is quite a character, though the bloodiest of rascals and murderers. His religious notions are, to say the least, rather queer. Whether he takes a hint from Theodore Parker, who used to call God "Our Father and Mother" is uncertain, but Champ is in the habit of speaking of the Father of All as "the Old Man." He, in a recent interview with the editor of a Western paper, expressed his opinion that "the Old Man" had been on his side thus far in life, and he believed he would stay with him and bring him out of his present trouble all right. He thought the Campbellites were about as good as any of the religious denominations, and a little better."

"Champ Ferguson is now being tried at Nashville by a court-martial on the charge of committing murders and other acts in violation of the laws of war. The verdict has not yet been given, but there is no doubt that he will be punished with death for his many atrocities. Before the war he was arrested for the murder of Read, the constable, and confined in jail. At the outbreak of the rebellion he was released on his pledge to join the rebels. He claims that he had been previously a Union man. He then commenced his career of murder and robbery which made his name a terror in Kentucky. He acted under the orders of John Morgan in most of his raids in Kentucky and Tennessee. He surrendered at the close of the war, supposing that he would be let off with the oath of allegiance. Champ owns a considerable amount of land in Clinton County, Kentucky, estimated by the hundreds of acres. He has good reason for the wish, which he now expresses, "that there had never been any war."

As a companion to above quoted text, this issue of Harper's also reproduced and engraving taken after the Hughes photograph of Ferguson and his guards.

November 11, 1865:

Champ Ferguson, the notorious guerilla, suffered the death penalty on the 20th of October. The emotions excited by the career and final fate of this man are those of mingled pity and horror -- pity for the brutal wretch himself, and horror on account of the revelation which his life affords as to the possibilites of human cruelty. The wounded, the sick, the aged, and even helpless childhood, were not spared from his brutal murders.

Up to within a short period before his execution he was as profane and reckless as ever before. "He appeared," says a Western paper, "as braced against every feeling of humanity, as when, with his own hand, he murdered the venerable old man who had cradled him on his knee, and to whom he was indebted for a thousand favors."

Efforts were made, and with some success, to extract from Ferguson the details of his career. He claims to have been a Union man up to the battle of Bull Run. His brother James then joined the Federals, and he the Confederates. The former was killed in battle. He thought, he says, that he was engaged in legitimate warfare. "We were having a sort of miscellaneous war up there, through Fentress County, Tennessee, and Clinton County, Kentucky, and all through that region. Every man was in danger of his life; if I hadn't killed my neighbor he would have killed me. Each of us had from twnety to fifty proscribed enemies, and it was regarded as legitimate to kill them at any time, at any place, under any circumstances, even if they were wounded or on a sick-bed."

Ferguson admitted the truth of nearly all the specific charges made against him. In most cases he claimed that those murdered would have killed him at sight if he had not disposed of them. He looked upon his approaching and violent end with great coolness. He was nearly fourty-four years old. His wife and daughter were with him the day before his execution. They were very much affected at parting with him, but he preserved his usual coolness up to the last moment.

Champ was very anxious that his body should not be given to the doctors to be cut up; in fact, this was the burden of his speech on the scaffold."

Champ Ferguson

Champ Ferguson was born November 29, 1821 on a branch of Spring Creek about one and a half miles from Elliott's Cross Roads. He was named after his grandfather, Champion Ferguson, the pioneer Spring Creek settler. His father, William R. Ferguson, married Zilphia Huff and raised a family of ten children, of which Champ was the oldest.

On May 12, 1844, Champ married Eliza Smith, daughter of Jesse Bowen Smith, who bore him one child, a boy. Both his wife and child died about three years after the marriage.

On July 23, 1848, he married Martha Owen, daughter of Samuel Owen, who lived about a half mile from where Spring Creek emptied into Wolf River. To this union, one child, a girl, Ann Elizabeth, was born.

Champ's education was extremely limited. He said, "I never had much schooling, but I recollect of going to school about three months, during which time I learned to read, write, and cipher right smart." He grew up on a farm, and this was his vocation before the war. He was apparently an enterprising trader because at the beginning of the war he owned several small tracts of land in Clinton County, Ky.

He liked to hunt; hunting not only enabled him to get out into the mountains that he loved, but it was also a means of putting food on the table for his family. He made long hunting trips through the Cumberlands, in the process gaining an intimate knowledge of the foothills and mountains, a knowledge that was to prove invaluable during the war years in enabling him to elude the Union Guerillas and Federal soldiers who hunted him relentlessly. He was an expert shot, according to his own statement the only thing he ever shot at and missed was "Tinker Dave" Beatty!

At least four different contemporaries have left us with physical descriptions of Champ Ferguson during the War of Northern Aggression. The first was by Major John A. Brents, who fought with the Federal Army against him. According to Brents, he "is between thirty five and forty years old, about six feet high, and weighs one hundred and eighty pounds without any surplus flesh. He has a large foot, and gives his legs a loose sling in walking, with his toes turned out -- is a little stooped, with his head down. He has long arms and large hands, broad round shoulders, skin rather dark, black hair a little curled, a broad face, a large mouth, and a tremendous voice, which can be heard at a long distance when in a rage."

General Basil W. Duke first encountered Champ Ferguson when he reported at Sparta, Tenn., in July of 1862, as a guide for Morgan's Cavalry, on its first raid into Kentucky. In his "Reminiscences", General Duke described Ferguson;" He was a rough-looking man but of striking and rather prepossessing appearance, more than six feet in height and powerfully built. His complexion was florid, and his hair jet black, crowning his head with thick curls. He had one peculiarity of feature which I remember to have seen in only two or three other men, and each of these was, like himself, a man of despotic will and fearless, ferocious temper. The pupil and iris of the eye was of nearly the same color and, except to the closest inspection, seemed perfectly blended. His personal adventures, combats, and encounters were innumerable. Some of his escapes, when assailed by great odds, were almost incredible and could be explained only by his great bodily strength, activities, adroitness in the use of his weapons, and savage energy."

Orange Sells, of the 12th Ohio Cavalry, present at the Battle of Saltville, saw Ferguson on October 07, 1864. He testified at Ferguson's post-war trial that Champ Ferguson," had on a dark lindsey frock coat, buttoned up in front, and tolerably short waisted. He had on a black plug hat. His hair and beard were both longer than now. His beard was full and made his face look full. He also had a moustache. I cant say how long his hair was, but it was much longer than now and was straight around the back of his neck. I dont think it came down to his shoulders.... He was a large man, a great deal fleshier than he is now. I know him by his mouth and by his features generally."

Also at Champ's post-war trial, and a witness to the Battle of Saltville, was Harry Shocker, also of the 12th Ohio Cavalry, described Champ Ferguson thusly; " the man I saw on the hill and who shot my partner, had on a butternut suit. I had never seen him before that time. His beard was long and dark. I didnt notice whether his moustache was trimmed. He had the appearance of not shaving at all."

Champ Ferguson enlisted after the "Camp Meeting Fight" and just prior to the Battle of Mill Springs (exact date unknown) in 1861. Around the time of the Battle of Mill Springs, Ferguson was a private in the independent cavalry command of Captain Scott Bledsoe. According to testimony by A.J. Capps, of Capt. J.W. McHenry's command, Ferguson was raising an independent company in April of 1862, and was commissioned by the Secretary of War as Captain (some sources give Champ being commissioned by then East Tennessee commander, General Kirby-Smith).

In June of 1862, Ferguson & some of his command attached themselves to John Hunt Morgan's cavalry command as scouts, and acted in that capacity on Morgan's Kentucky raids. Ferguson was also attached at times to the commands of General's John C. Breckenridge & Joseph Wheeler in late 1864 & 1865. Most times, however, Champ Ferguson operated as an independent cavalry command. Champ Ferguson surrendered under verbal promise of parole on May 23, 1865; whereby Federal cavalry captured him at home on May 26, 1865; and Ferguson was taken to Nashville, Tennessee for trial.

Denied the opportunity to mount an adequate defense on his behalf, Champ Ferguson was found guilty of "war crimes", and was hung on October 20, 1865 (his wife, Martha Owen Ferguson, telling her husband to "Die like a man, Champ". By all accounts he did just that).

Martha Owen Ferguson buried Champ on the Calfkiller, near Sparta, in White County Tennessee, as per his request. Ann Elizabeth Ferguson married George Metcalf in Sparta, Tenn. on May 08, 1867. All three of them left around 1872 and eventually settled near Independence, Kansas. All three are buried in Oak Hill Cemetery. Martha never remarried. Ann Elizabeth had children, and it is reported that somewhere near Chicago, gg grandchildren exist.

Champ Ferguson: An American Civil War Rebel Guerrilla

Esther Frogg knew well the 40-year-old man standing at her front door on November 1, 1861, asking to see her husband, William. The visitor’s name was Champ Ferguson, and he was, like the Froggs, a native of Clinton County, Kentucky. Unlike the Froggs, however, Ferguson supported the Confederacy.

‘How do you do,’ she said and offered him a seat.

‘I don’t have time,’ he replied.

‘Have some apples,’ she said, gesturing toward the fruit she had just been peeling.

‘I have been eating apples,’ he said.

Ferguson did not want to sit. He did not want to eat. He did not want to talk. He wanted only to see William Frogg.

Esther told Ferguson her husband was sick and could not take visitors. But Ferguson was not to be deterred. He walked inside the house, leaving the two men who had come with him outside.

Ferguson approached Frogg’s bed, perhaps noticing the crib nearby where the couple’s five-month-old baby lay. Frogg told his visitor he had the measles. Indeed, he was on sick leave from his regiment, the 12th Kentucky Infantry (Union), though he no doubt withheld that bit of information from Ferguson.

‘I reckon you caught the measles at Camp Dick Robinson,’ Ferguson said. Camp Robinson was a sore point for Kentuckians who sided with the Confederacy. They believed that men recruited there into the Home Guard went on to fight for the Union.

Ferguson was through talking. He shot Frogg dead where he lay.

Frogg was not the first or last person to die at Ferguson’s hands during the war. There were dozens of others. Some of the killings were legitimate acts of combat, but others were nothing more than cold-blooded murder. Many of the victims were Union supporters whom Ferguson sought out more for personal reasons than political ones. In Frogg’s case, Ferguson said he had heard rumors that the pro-Union man was planning to kill him. Ferguson decided on a preemptive strike. ‘I told the boys that I would settle the matter by going direct to Frogg’s house and killing him,’ he later said.

Before the Civil War, Ferguson was known throughout the upper Cumberland Mountains on both sides of the Kentucky-Tennessee border as a ‘gambling, rowdyish, drinking, fighting, quarrelsome man.’ He ranged throughout the region as a hunter and a horse trader, becoming familiar with the whole region.

When the war began, Ferguson immediately sided with the Confederacy. The oldest of 10 children, born on November 29, 1821, he was now starkly at odds with his 9 brothers and sisters and his mother, all of whom supported the Union. The tension only grew when in late 1861 or early 1862, Ferguson moved his family to Sparta, Tennessee, and joined a pro-Southern guerrilla band headed by a local man named Scott Bledsoe. Soon Ferguson was captain of his own band.

Many legends that attempt to explain Ferguson’s ruthless animosity toward his enemies persevere through the efforts of his many admirers in Sparta and White County, Tennessee. In one account, Ferguson hated Yankees and their supporters because Union soldiers had shot his young son dead while the boy played innocently on the front porch, waving a Confederate flag. In reality, Ferguson’s only son died several years before the war began. An even more widely accepted explanation is that 11 Union men had come to his home while Ferguson was out and dishonored his wife and young daughter. The men forced the woman and girl to disrobe and march down the street, the story continued. Even Ferguson called this tale ‘absurd.’

Ferguson himself provided the most feasible explanation for why he entered the war, though it is less romantic than the others. Shortly before the war, he had been arrested for stabbing a constable in a brawl at a camp meeting in Fentress County, Tennessee. ‘When the War broke out,’ he later said, ‘I was induced to join the army on the promise that all prosecution in that case would be abandoned. This is how I came to take up arms.’

Ferguson claimed that all his killings were in self-defense, while admitting that some, like the Frogg shooting, were preemptive attacks. One of them occurred about a month after Frogg’s death. Ferguson and his men went to the home of Reuben Wood, who also lived in Clinton County. Wood met the guerrillas in the road in front of his house. ‘Don’t you beg,’ Ferguson told the older man, ‘and don’t you dodge.’ Wood’s children later testified that their father reminded Ferguson of their past friendship and the fact that he had cared for Ferguson when he was a child. ‘You have always treated me like a gentleman,’ Ferguson said, ‘but you have been to Camp Robinson, and I intend to kill you.’ Reuben Wood did not die easily. Even fatally wounded he managed to knock Ferguson’s gun away with a hatchet and escape. Wood died two days later.

‘Reuben Wood and I were always good friends before the War,’ Ferguson said, ‘but after that he was connected with the same company in which my brother, Jim, was operating. I knew that he intended killing me if he ever got a chance. They both hunted me down, and drove me fairly to desperation.

‘On the day that he was killed, we met him in the road and he commenced on me, and I believe he intended to shoot me. The touching story about his piteous appeals to me — that he had nursed me when a babe, and tossed me on his knee — are false, and were gotten up expressly to create sympathy, and set me forth as a heartless wretch. If I had not shot Reuben Wood, I would not likely have been here, for he would have shot me. I never expressed a regret for committing the act, and never will. He was in open war against me.’

In 1862, Ferguson began his long-running war with a man named David Beaty, who would become his greatest enemy. The Nashville Dispatch noted that Beaty ‘fought Champ Ferguson from the beginning to the end of his career…. They have shot at each other innumerable times, and each has received ugly wounds. They were deadly enemies, and hunted each other down with savage ferocity.’

Known to his neighbors in Fentress County, Tennessee, as Tinker Dave, Beaty (also spelled Beatty) was as ruthless and vicious in his defense of the Union as Ferguson was of the Confederacy. Local legend tells of the time he shot a man and then directed his horse to step on the unfortunate victim’s face.

Beaty became a guerrilla in early 1862. About February 1, Bledsoe’s men warned Beaty to take sides or leave the country. At this point in the war, Bledsoe and Ferguson were, according to Beaty, ‘conscripting, killing, and shooting at Union men in general, including myself.’ Beaty responded to the threat by choosing the other side and raising his own band of guerrillas. His men lived in the woods like Ferguson’s and practiced the same tactics. These enemies skirmished often.

Given the opportunity, Ferguson and Beaty would no doubt have eagerly cut each other’s throat, but they did share a mutual respect. Perhaps they sensed they were kindred spirits who had more in common with each other than with polite society or the military establishment.

By the spring of 1862, relatively few major military engagements had taken place in Tennessee, but the Cumberland Mountains were filled with violence. Roaming bands of outlaws took advantage of the war to steal whatever they wanted with no regard for their victims’ politics. It was not uncommon for these outlaws simply to declare a man an enemy sympathizer and then take his possessions or even kill him. Families, friends, and neighbors were so passionately divided that even idle rumors questioning a man’s alignment could soon lead to his death. Many prudent people avoided their own homes.

In the middle of all this chaos stood Champ Ferguson. Many of the Union men he took prisoner — some in the army, some not — were found shot and often stabbed through the heart. Ferguson favored the Bowie knife and often finished his victims off with one. There were rumors of decapitations.

On April 1, 1862, Ferguson encountered 16-year-old Fount Zachery in Fentress County. Zachery was carrying a shotgun. He surrendered the weapon, but Ferguson shot him anyway. Almost as soon as Zachery hit the ground, Ferguson was on him with his Bowie knife, and Fount Zachery became the first of four Zachery males to fall to Ferguson. Ferguson justified his actions by claiming he had official orders to kill any armed man in the area.

Over the next few weeks, Ferguson’s men killed their leader’s cousin Alexander Huff in Fentress County; Union guerrilla Elijah Kogier in Clinton County, whom they shot down as his young daughter clung to him; and Fount Zachery’s grandfather James. James Zachery’s daughter Esther would testify that she saw Ferguson chasing her father through the family orchard, yelling to his men, ‘Shoot him, damn him, shoot him!’

Toward the end of April, Colonel John Hunt Morgan’s Kentucky cavalry passed through Sparta, Tennessee, and Ferguson and some of his men joined the force to serve as scouts. Morgan’s men crowded around Ferguson, eager to get a glimpse of the notorious outlaw whose exploits were already becoming legend in the region. Ferguson and several of his guerrillas rode with Morgan on some raids, fighting at Tomkinsville, Lebanon, and Cynthiana, Kentucky, and on June 21 at Gallatin, Tennessee.

Ferguson became well acquainted with Morgan’s second in command and brother-in-law, Major Basil W. Duke. Duke warned his infamous scout that there would be no abusing of prisoners. Ferguson was indignant. He assured Duke he would never harm regularly commissioned officers captured in combat, because he had nothing personally against them ‘except that they are wrong, and oughtn’t to come down here and fight our people.’ He admitted, though, that if he came across any ‘hounds’ he had just reasons to kill, he would not hesitate to kill them.

By the fall of 1862, Ferguson had focused himself almost exclusively on personal vendettas. In October, he killed a man named Wash Tabor, whom he suspected of ambushing and killing three of his men. Ferguson did not harm others captured along with Tabor. He explained to prisoner George Thrasher, ‘I’m not in favor of killing you, Thrasher, you have never been bushwhacking or stealing horses. I have killed old Wash Tabor, a damned good Christian, and I don’t reckon he minds dying.’ On a later occasion, the mother of one of Ferguson’s prisoners, John Crabtree, begged for her son’s life, but the guerrilla leader told her that her concern was too late in coming. The time to worry was years ago, he suggested, when she still had the chance to raise her son right.

Several of Ferguson’s victims belonged to the 7th Tennessee Infantry (Union). So it is not surprising that the commander of that regiment, Colonel William Clift, was eager to attack the independent Rebel bands trolling the Tennessee-Kentucky border. ‘I deem it highly indispensable to break up these guerrilla companies as speedily as possible, as there can be no safety to the peace of the country while they are permitted to exist,’ he said.

On December 15, Union XIV Corps commander Major General William Rosecrans issued an order allowing Major General George H. Thomas, commander of the center of the XIV Corps, to send Colonel Frank Wolford’s 1st Kentucky Cavalry after Ferguson and another Tennessee guerrilla, Oliver Hamilton of Overton County. ‘Colonel Wolford has permission to pursue and capture Hamilton and Ferguson,’ Rosecrans wrote, ‘but let him be careful not to get caught himself.’ Nothing came of Wolford’s ambitions to snare the guerrilla chief.

On New Year’s Night 1863, Ferguson set out to rid himself of some of his most troublesome enemies in Kentucky. The first to fall was Union guerrilla Elam Huddleston. After an hour-long gunfight between Confederate guerrillas and the Huddleston brothers Elam and Moses, aided by their cousin David Huddleston, Ferguson killed his intended victim at his house. Next to die were the Zachery brothers Peter and Allen, sons of James Zachery. Ferguson killed Peter with his knife after a fierce hand-to-hand struggle.

Ferguson’s private feuds were suspended for a while after the Huddleston fight, because he was too busy tangling with the regular Federal army. Over the next two years, his guerrilla band, which now numbered in the dozens and sometimes in the hundreds, would harry Union forces and sometimes augment Confederate cavalry regiments.

By the second half of the war, the Federals were clamping down on guerrilla strongholds, especially Sparta, Tennessee. Colonel Thomas J. Harrison’s 8th Indiana Cavalry and Colonel William B. Stokes’s 5th Tennessee Cavalry scoured the area, skirmishing with partisans and raiding Ferguson’s farm twice. Ferguson was not home either time, having left to join forces with George Carter of Spencer, Tennessee, to raid Fentress County. The raid resulted in the death of Beaty’s son Dallas, among others.

On February 18, 1864, Stokes took possession of Sparta. The Union soldiers and the local Confederate partisans clashed often from then on. Ferguson fought at Calfkiller in White County on February 22 and was wounded in another engagement on March 11. No details are available about his wound. Soldiers of the 5th Tennessee Cavalry killed Scott Bledsoe, Ferguson’s old comrade, that March.

The Confederate guerrillas continued to destroy property and steal Federal stock. Major Thomas H. Reeves of the 4th Tennessee Infantry (Union), angry that the citizens of Sparta continued to secretly aid the Rebel guerrillas, took his command into town on July 15. He declared martial law and had every man he found arrested. The anguished denizens expected their town to be destroyed, but the 4th left the next day with only nine prisoners. According to Reeves, his men could boast of ‘unparalleled plunder.’

Within weeks, Union guerrillas had burned Ferguson’s home to the ground. Ferguson and his comrades headed south and joined themselves to Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry. They were then detached from Wheeler’s command and ordered to report to Major General John C. Breckinridge in southwest Virginia.

It was in Emory, Virginia, that Ferguson committed his most infamous murder. Ferguson and his men were with a small Confederate force at Saltville, Virginia, on October 2, 1864, when a Federal cavalry attacked. The Confederates put up a spirited resistance, and after a sharp fight, the Federals withdrew. The next morning at Emory, Ferguson and his lieutenant Rains Philpot entered the Confederate hospital where Federal wounded and prisoners had been taken. Some of those same soldiers later testified they had seen Ferguson coldly killing prisoners on the battlefield, especially black men and white men in their vicinity.

At the hospital, Ferguson shot Lieutenant Elza C. Smith of the 13th Kentucky Cavalry while he lay a helpless prisoner. Ferguson may have suspected that Smith had killed his comrade Oliver P. Hamilton while Hamilton was trying to surrender. ‘I have a begrudge against Smith,’ Ferguson was heard saying as he searched for Smith’s bed. ‘We’ll find him.’ The killing of wounded men and prisoners that Ferguson and his men did that day would go down in history as the Saltville Massacre.

The four-year quasi-military career of Champ Ferguson came to an end on May 26, 1865, when he was taken into Federal custody in Sparta. Ferguson claimed he had surrendered, while Colonel Joseph Blackburn of the 5th Tennessee Mounted Infantry claimed to have captured him.

Ferguson thought he would be paroled, as were other guerrillas who surrendered. What he did not realize was that the Federal government had singled him out, specifying that any attempt by him to surrender should be refused. He was taken to prison in Nashville and soon became the focus of a sensational military trial. He was charged with being a guerrilla and a murderer.

A long line of witnesses appeared against him. One was his archnemesis, Beaty. Afterward, a reporter asked Ferguson what he thought of Beaty. ‘Well, there are meaner men than Tinker Dave,’ Ferguson responded. ‘He fought me bravely and gave me some heavy licks, but I always gave him as good as he sent. I have nothing against Tinker Dave…. We both tried to get each other during the War, but we always proved too cunning for each other.’ He noted that he was a skilled shooter who always hit his mark, except when the mark was Beaty.

When the time came for Ferguson’s defense, he could muster only a handful of character witnesses. One was Joseph Wheeler, but support from even this well-respected general was not enough to sway the court. On October 10, Ferguson was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

‘I was a Southern man at the start,’ Ferguson said in his final statement. ‘I am yet, and will die a Rebel. I believe I was right in all I did.’ He reiterated that he had killed only those who had intended to kill him and that he had treated prisoners the way his own men had been treated by the enemy. ‘I repeat that I die a Rebel out and out, and my last request is that my body be removed to White County, Tennessee, and be buried in good Rebel soil.’

Ferguson was hanged on October 20, his wife and tearful 16-year-old daughter watching as his lifeless body dangled at the end of the rope.

Ferguson’s bloody war record reveals him to be a murderer who deserved his fate. Still, many of his contemporaries were no better than he, including some men on the pro-Union side, yet they escaped similar retribution. Beaty admitted he had taken up arms for the Union government without pay, which by definition made him a guerrilla. He could have suffered the same fate as Ferguson. Clearly, a double standard was being applied. Indeed, when pro-Union newspapers in Nashville covered the Ferguson trial, they referred to the defendant as ‘the monstrous criminal’ and Beaty as ‘the celebrated Union scout.’

After Tennessee was readmitted to the Union, Beaty became a respected citizen of the state. He even served as a member of the county court when he returned to Jamestown.

The irony of the similarities between Beaty and Ferguson could not have escaped Ferguson’s defenders. The same deeds that made a man a criminal could make him a hero if his side won.

Champ Ferguson

Champ Ferguson ans his guard.

A photograph of Champ Ferguson and his men, perhaps taken while they were in custody in Nashville.

Here's a great carte de visite of Ferguson and one of his Union guards, taken while he was
imprisoned in Nashville while he was awaiting trial.

Written two days before Ferguson was hanged, Ferguson penned this letter to his wife Martha.
It is transcribed here in its entirety, and retaining the original punctuation and spelling :
October the 17 the 1865. Mrs. Martha Ferguson My Dear Wife this is a Long Lomson Day I have ben looking for you now Ever sense Saturday the time Seems Long to mee I wante to see you and my poor child my trouble is mostly a aboute you and my poor Baby Martha Ferguson Ann Elizabeth Ferguson Ann Mis Ann Elizabeth Ferguson 17 Martha if it was note For you and Ann Elizabeth I could take things very Well But to think of the condition thate you are Lefte in the condition that are Lefte in it troubles me very much I now that you have nothing to helpe your self to you and my poor child that we wonste had i good take things Beter I am Riting to Be doing to pass the time offa as easy as posable Martha Ferguson this will Doo for a them paper to Look at to Riccolecte champ. Champ Feruson Martha Martha Ferguson my Dear Wife Ann Elizabeth Ferguson.

"The Execution of Champ Ferguson"


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