Champ Ferguson

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Champ Ferguson
Champ Ferguson sitting.jpg
Champ Ferguson in 1865
Born (1821-11-29)November 29, 1821
Clinton County, Kentucky
Died October 20, 1865(1865-10-20) (aged 43)
Tennessee
Resting place
France Cemetery
White County, Tennessee
Criminal penalty
Death by hanging
Criminal status
Deceased
Conviction(s) Murder, 53 counts {Suspect claimed over 100 victims}

Champ Ferguson (November 29, 1821 – October 20, 1865) was a notorious Confederate guerrilla during the American Civil War. He claimed to have killed over 100 Union soldiers and pro-Union civilians.

Early life and origins of Confederate stance[edit]

Ferguson circa 1850s

Ferguson was born in Clinton County, Kentucky, on the Tennessee border, the oldest of ten children. Like his father, he became a farmer. However, Ferguson earned a reputation for violence. Reportedly, in 1858, he led a group of men who tied Sheriff James Read of Fentress County, Tennessee to a tree. Ferguson then rode his horse around the tree, hacking at Read repeatedly with a sword until he was dead. He is also claimed to have stabbed a man named Evans at a camp meeting. Evans survived.[1] In the 1850s, Ferguson moved with his wife and family to the Calfkiller River Valley in White County, Tennessee.

For reasons not clear, Ferguson developed a passionate hatred for the Union cause. One tradition says that Union soldiers raped his wife and daughter. Another version is that he held grudges against a number of local men who supported the Union. Ferguson himself claimed that Confederate officers promised him they would overlook his previous behavior if he supported the southern war effort in the area.

Guerrilla activities[edit]

During the Civil War, East Tennessee, a mostly mountainous region, was almost evenly divided over secession from the Union. The terrain and lack of law enforcement during the war gave guerrillas and other irregular military groups significant freedom of action. There are substantial numbers of recorded incidents of guerrilla and revenge attacks, especially on the Cumberland Plateau. Even families were often divided, and one of Champ Ferguson's brothers was killed as a member of the Union's 1st Kentucky Cavalry.[2]

Early in the war, Ferguson organized a guerrilla company and began attacking any civilians he believed supported the Union. His men did cooperate with Confederate military units led by Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan and Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler when they were in the area, and some evidence indicates that Morgan commissioned him as a captain of partisan rangers. Nevertheless, Ferguson's men were seldom subject to military discipline and often violated the normal rules of warfare.

There are stories of Ferguson's alleged sadism, including tales that he on occasion would decapitate his prisoners and roll their heads down hillsides and was willing to kill elderly and bedridden men. He was once arrested by the Confederate authorities and charged with murdering a government official and was imprisoned for two months in Wytheville, Virginia, but it could not be proven and he was finally released.

Trial and hanging[edit]

Ferguson surrounded by his guards.

At the war's end, Ferguson disbanded his men and returned home to his farm. As soon as the Union troops knew he was back, they arrested him and took him to Nashville, where he was tried for 53 murders. Ferguson's trial attracted national attention and soon became a major media event. One of Ferguson's main adversaries on the Union side, "Tinker Dave" Beaty,[3] testified against him. Just as Ferguson had led a band of guerrillas against any real/or suspected unionists, Beaty had led his own band of guerrillas against any real/or suspected confederates. Not surprisingly each had done his best to kill the other. Ferguson acknowledged his band had killed many of the victims named and said he had killed over 100 men himself. Nevertheless, he insisted it was only part of his duty as a soldier.

Ferguson's grave

The number of wounded men and prisoners his guerrillas killed after the Battle of Saltville is a matter of dispute. The victims were members of the all-black 5th United States Colored Cavalry and their white officers. Ferguson and his men were charged with murdering the wounded in their hospital beds, and only the arrival of Thomas' Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders had prevented their complete slaughter. As soon as he learned that regular Confederates had arrived, Ferguson had led his men away.

On October 10, 1865, Champ was found guilty and sentenced to hang. He made a statement in response to 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."

—Johnson, James, Execution of Champ Ferguson, James K. Polk Papers, Box 1, Folder 9. (Tennessee State Library and Archives; Nashville Dispatch, 22 October 1865).

He was hanged on October 20, 1865, and was one of only two men to be tried, convicted and executed for war crimes during the Civil War (the other being Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of the infamous Andersonville prison in Georgia). His body was buried in the France Cemetery on Highway 84 (Monterey Highway) north of Sparta, White County, Tennessee.

After his execution, Ferguson's statements to the Nashville Dispatch were published; the New York Times called his letter a confession. He admitted to killing at least ten people. Champ claimed nine of these men were killed in self defense. One, Champ believed, was committing murders and robbing private houses. Ferguson also stated that he had been convicted of the murders of several men who were actually killed by other members of his group. He denied some of the charges, including the killing of 12 soldiers at Saltville, saying that many of the men he was accused of killing had died in battle or been killed by bands other than his own. Champ felt that his trial had been neither just nor fair; he knew he would be sentenced to death, and questioned the reliability of all but two of the witnesses.[4]

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ "Notorious Characters – The Fergusons – Atrocious Murders, Etc." The Patriots and Guerillas – Chapter II. WebRoots.org.
  2. ^ North & South – The Official Magazine of the Civil War Society, Volume 11, Number 1, Page 16, "I took time by the Forelock" Champ Ferguson's war, accessed April 16, 2010.
  3. ^ Bryant, Lloyd D. "David "Tinker Dave" Beaty – (L2)." History of Fentress County, Tennessee. The Fentress County Historical Society.
  4. ^ Anonymous (October 29, 1865). "CHAMP FERGUSON.; Confession of the Culprit. (abbreviated title)". New York Times. Retrieved 20 February 2014. 

References[edit]

  • Johnson, James. "Execution of Champ Ferguson." James K. Polk Papers, Box 1, Folder 9. (Tennessee State Library and Archives; Nashville Dispatch, 22 October 1865).
  • 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.
  • Mays, Thomas D. Cumberland Blood: Champ Ferguson's Civil War. Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.

External links[edit]