Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Champ Ferguson: The Vengeful Confederate in Civil War and Western Fiction

Troy D. Smith

It should come as a surprise to no one that the Civil War was a pretty violent affair. This was especially true in the border states, where loyalties were often divided, and where “brother against brother” was a literal description. Even when large military actions were not being undertaken, in such areas neighbor often turned against neighbor, sometimes in small guerrilla bands, and things became –well, very uncivil.

You already knew all this. However, I’m betting that when you think of such situations your first –and possibly only –thoughts run to the border states of Kansas and Missouri. There were plenty of candidates for infamy there- Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson, and on the other side the Jayhawkers of Senator Jim Lane. Martial law was declared, and the whole thing was a training ground for the James-Younger Gang.

It was just as bad, though, in a different region: the border of Tennessee and Kentucky. Very roughly speaking, Tennessee was about two-thirds pro-Confederate, and Kentucky was about two-thirds pro-Union- which provided plenty of opportunities for partisans on both sides to raid one another, and non-combatants stuck in the middle, often pursuing private vendettas along the way.

And no one was better at it than Champ Ferguson. Champ was born and raised in Albany, KY, across the state line from Jamestown, TN. This region –part of the Cumberland Plateau, the westernmost portion of the southern Appalachian Mountains –would later be the birthplace of the WWI hero Sgt. Alvin York, and was chosen by Louis L’Amour to be the home of his Sackett clan. When civil war came, eastern Tennessee and Kentucky –like northern Georgia, West Virginia, and western North Carolina –were strongly pro-Union. This is no coincidence, by the way; all those pro-Union strongholds were in Appalachia, a region where cotton could not be grown and therefore plantation slavery was not a basis for citizens’ lifestyles or self-identity.
Ferguson’s whole family was pro-Union… but Champ was a rebel, whether the ‘R’ is capitalized or not. There is also evidence that some pro-Confederate local officials offered to drop charges against Champ –who, in a brawl that started at a church camp meeting, had stabbed a Jamestown constable –if Champ agreed to fight for the Confederacy. If this is true, it goes without saying that those officials knew they would much rather have Champ with them than against them. Ferguson did just that, leading a large band of Confederate guerrillas throughout the war- harassing federal forces, scouting for Generals Joseph Wheeler and John Hunt Morgan, and terrorizing Unionists. One of his chief opponents on the other side was a Union guerrilla leader from Jamestown called Tinker Dave Beatty. Unless you were riding with them, you probably didn’t want to see either of these men coming down the road; often, whether they interpreted you as friend or foe depended more on any personal history they had with you or your family (and sometimes whether you had something they wanted) than your political beliefs. Things got too hot for Champ in the pro-Union Albany/Jamestown area, so early in the war he moved his family a few miles away to the strongly pro-Confederate White County, Tennessee, not far from Sparta. The Fergusons’ new adopted hometown welcomed them with open arms.

Champ’s career was a colorful one, attracting much attention during his lifetime. Rather than go into detail here, I will give you a link to an article I wrote about him a few years ago for Civil War Times Illustrated (but I must point out that, to my eternal consternation, the editors introduced a typo in the very first paragraph, calling Champ 20 years old when he was actually 40):

At the end of the Civil War, a general amnesty was declared by the United States- anyone who had taken up arms against the Union was free to surrender without consequence. Champ did so- not realizing that the amnesty singled out two specific people who were not to receive it: Jefferson Davis and Champ Ferguson. Champ’s case was not helped by the fact that during the war he had once threatened to assassinate the governor of Tennessee, Andrew Johnson, who was now the new President. Ferguson was brought before a military tribunal in Nashville. Because he had never actually filled out any roster reports, or any other paperwork, and there was no record of his enlistment papers, he was not a soldier but an outlaw. All his killings, therefore, were murders. (It’s hard to argue with a lot of them- he was known to kill men who were his personal enemies while they were wounded or in their sickbeds, or after they had surrendered.) General Wheeler attested that, to his knowledge, Champ Ferguson was captain of a Confederate cavalry company –but to no avail. Champ was found guilty of 53 counts of murder –he had actually killed over a hundred men-and sentenced to hang.

The hanging was a national event, with journalists from around the country on hand. It occurred on October 10, 1865. Here is part of Ferguson’s final statement:
"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."

Although Champ Ferguson’s ghost never stopped haunting the Upper Cumberland/Cumberland Plateau region of TN/KY –with formerly Confederate areas continuing to revere him as a Confederate martyr and former Union ones decrying him as a brutal thug –his name was forgotten in the rest of the country. When I wrote that Civil War Times article in 2002, there was only one available biography of Ferguson –written in 1940 by Thurman Sensing. Sensing’s biography was a good place to find primary sources listed, but the narrative itself was very slanted in favor of Ferguson and the Confederacy. Since 2002, Champ has been in the national spotlight a lot more, with cover articles in other history magazines, two new biographies, and prominent mentions in several books about guerrilla warfare and the Civil War in Appalachia. The biographies are CUMBERLAND BLOOD by Thomas Mays and CONFEDERATE OUTLAW by Brian McKnight (I highly recommend the latter, as McKnight has uncovered several previously unknown details.)

There is also a novel, written by yours truly a decade ago and re-released last year by Western Trail Blazer, called GOOD REBEL SOIL. It is one of my favorites from among my works. I chose to approach the story as a Greek tragedy: a likeable hero, with many good qualities, is undone by his fatal flaw (in Champ’s case, his anger) and inexorably drawn to his doom, knowing it approaches but unable to pull away from it. In many ways I consider this novel to be a bookend to my other Civil War epic, BOUND FOR THE PROMISE-LAND. One is about a white Confederate guerrilla, the other a black Union soldier. BOUND is the story of a man who struggles to overcome his own personal demons, and is ultimately redeemed; GOOD REBEL SOIL is about a man unable to overcome his demons, who spirals toward self-destruction.
So far, this blog may seem only tangentially related to the American West. However, there is another element to the Champ Ferguson story that touches very much on our literary genre. You see, when he was alive a lot of dramatic stories were told about Ferguson, and printed around the country. Here’s one of them: the reason Champ was so vengeful was that, at the beginning of the war, a company of Yankees was passing in front of his house when they saw his little five-year-old son innocently waving a Rebel flag. They shot him dead.
There’s one big problem with this story: Champ Ferguson didn’t have a five-year-old son at the beginning of the war. His only son died of fever, at age two or three, more than a decade before the war. People still believed the story, though, and people STILL repeat it in the Upper Cumberland.
Another story has had even more traction: one day, while Champ was away, a dozen or so Union soldiers came to his house. They forced his wife and teen-aged daughter to strip naked and cook them a meal in the nude, then drove them publicly down the road with whips. There was an implication they might have been raped. Thurman Sensing espoused this theory, going a step further and suggesting it was Champ’s older brother Jim who led the group. In this story, Champ is overwhelmed with righteous fury, and tracks down all the members of that party, one by one, and kills them mercilessly (and often horribly.) This explains his extreme brutality toward certain of his enemies, while he spared others. Historians are pretty well agreed that this story is probably as apocryphal as the five-year-old boy tale, and that Champ’s motives were not so righteous after all. Nonetheless –in my novel –I used this version, because it is so dramatic. Which is the difference between history and historical fiction, when you get down to it.
The “family outrage” story has another variant, one that was very widespread during Champ’s lifetime. In  this version, the Union soldiers don’t just humiliate and possibly rape Ferguson’s wife and daughter –they murder them, then burn down their house and barn. Champ, who heretofore has been undecided as to which side he is on, comes home and finds his family’s charred corpses in the ashes of their home. He stumbles away and sits on a log, grief-stricken, and when he gets hold of himself swears to exact vengeance on the killers and on Yankees in general.
This story was accepted as fact by a lot of people during the war, on both sides. It became a little problematic when Champ’s wife and daughter showed up for his trial and execution. Still, it was a powerful story, and one that I believe stayed in the public imagination long after most of the country forgot about Champ Ferguson.

And that brings us to my friend, historian Brian McKnight, and The Outlaw Josey Wales. As you may know, Clint Eastwood’s movie was based on GONE TO TEXAS, a novel by Forrest Carter –who also wrote the heartwarming memoir about growing up Cherokee, THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE.

It was later discovered that Forrest Carter was actually a pseudonym for Asa Earl Carter, of Alabama (not Cherokee, by the way.) Carter was a speechwriter for Alabama governor George Wallace, famous for standing in a school doorway and saying “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” (Carter wrote that speech.) Carter, a very active KKK member, was eventually fired because his racial views were too radical for Governor Wallace; there is evidence he probably knew Tennessee segregationist Thurman Sensing (Champ’s first biographer), at the very least they both wrote for the same segregationist journal.

Anyhow, McKnight has argued that- being from northern Alabama –Carter would have known the legends about Champ Ferguson. When he transitioned to western fiction, McKnight speculates, Carter combined the stories of Champ Ferguson and Bloody Bill Anderson to create Josey Wales. This is a lot more evident from reading the novel than watching the film. In the movie, we are introduced to Clint Eastwood as a Missouri farmer whose home is attacked by Union Jayhawkers. In the novel, we learn he had only recently moved his family to Missouri, and he was actually a “mountain man” from East Tennessee, who came from a long line of mountain clans who lived by the code of blood revenge. This adds a new dimension to the character, and also makes him a lot more similar to Champ Ferguson.

If you’re familiar with Bloody Bill Anderson of Missouri, you know that he actually did have a very personal, family-related reason to hate Yankees. Union soldiers had arrested his sisters and several other women, mostly relatives of his men, on charges of aiding the guerrillas; the jail they were in mysteriously collapsed, killing several, including one of Anderson’s sisters.
But an innocent farmer, with no dog in the fight, being attacked by Union partisans, who kill and burn his family? That is the wartime legend of Champ Ferguson.
I think McKnight is on to something with this theory- but I think there’s a lot more to it. For one thing, why did these (false) legends grow up around Ferguson to begin with?
Pro-Union Southerners had no reason to glorify Champ Ferguson –but Confederates did. To quote Isaac Hayes, Champ Ferguson was a bad-mother-shut-your-mouth. Some of the people he killed were little more than innocent bystanders –but some were Union guerrillas who were doing terrorizing of their own. Naturally, Champ would be a hero to the Rebel element of the Upper Cumberland. It’s a little hard to justify a hero, though, who goes around cutting people’s throats, shooting unarmed 14-year-old boys and old men, shooting up churches, killing surrendered and/or wounded prisoners, and so on. Unless you can THINK of a justification, and a good one. Why, the people he killed were not random, they were targets of a justifiable revenge vendetta. I also think it is interesting just why all the tales have Champ embarking on his reign of terror- it is to protect, or avenge, home and family, women and children, which is what many of them felt they were doing in resisting the “Yankee invader.” It didn’t matter that none of the facts fit. It was a darn good story, and it stuck. A lot of this is echoed in Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel THE CLANSMAN, adapted to film in 1915 as BIRTH OF A NATION, in which white Southerners form the KKK as a way to protect Southern womanhood from the rapacious Yankees and their black minions. That is an extremely distasteful story for modern audiences, but it was hugely, hugely popular around the country when it came out.
And I think the stories about Champ stuck a lot more than McKnight has suggested. I think that, before long, variations of the burnt-home Champ tale were appearing regularly to give justification for “vengeful Confederate” characters. It is worth noting, by the way, that often (though not always) it is the Rebel veterans who are portrayed as outlaws (noble or ignoble) in traditional westerns, while it is the Union veterans who are the “law-and-order” men.
How many times have you seen the western hero return to find his home destroyed- usually burned –and his wife and child killed, then swear revenge on the Yankees who did it?
Alan Ladd in 1958’s THE PROUD REBEL.
Liam Neeson in SERAPHIM FALLS (2007)
The hero of the TV series HELL ON WHEELS (2011)
JOHN CARTER, based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs Confederate soldier-turned-Martian warlord.
And there’s been some interesting variations:
Mel Gibson’s Revolutionary War-era Southern planter turned guerrilla in THE PATRIOT, in which the bad guys are Brits and Tories.
The classic George Gilman western novel series EDGE, in which it is a UNION officer who returns home and finds his home and family (in this case his little brother) destroyed by rapacious Yankees.

I’m sure there are a lot more. With many of them, the argument can be made that it was the influence of JOSEY WALES that contributed to their vengeful Confederate character. But even if that’s the case, I believe it was the legends built around Champ Ferguson while the war was still underway that endured and influenced Forrest Carter, whose work served to broadcast the trope even wider and deeper into American pop culture in general and the western genre in particular.

Whether you buy that argument or not, learn more about Champ Ferguson and his nemesis Tinker Dave Beatty- they’re fascinating. (I had an ancestor who rode with Beatty, and another who rode with a Confederate guerrilla band that often operated in conjunction with Champ’s.) And check out GOOD REBEL SOIL, I’m very pleased with how it turned out.
I’m going to close by quoting the text of two different historical markers.
Near Ferguson’s birthplace in Albany, Kentucky, one finds this marker erected in the town square in 1964:
Champ Ferguson born here in 1821. Guerrilla leader with Confederate leaning, but attacked supporters of both sides throughout the war in southern Ky., Tenn. Over 100 murders ascribed to Ferguson alone. Hunted by both CSA and USA. Taken after end of war, convicted by US Army Court, Nashville, and hanged Oct. 20, 1865. Buried at home in White County, Tennessee.

Meanwhile, at Ferguson’s burial place in a quiet cemetery near the Calfkiller River in White County, a few miles from Sparta, Tennessee, this marker was erected in 1975 by the Sons of Confederate Veterans:
(Confederate Guerilla)
Gen’l Morgan’s Cavalry was joined at Sparta, June 1862, by Champ Ferguson, as guide for Morgan’s invasion into Kentucky. Cap’t Ferguson, and his co-fighters, were the only protection the people of the Cumberland and Hickory Valley area had against the Federal guerillas during the Civil War.

Ferguson was hanged by the Federals, in Nashville, but by his request, buried here in White County.



  1. A very good article, my compliments.

  2. Good stuff, professor. I'd not mind taking a history class from you. Do you plan to go online anytime soon?

  3. I like to be able to see who's snoozin'!

  4. Troy, as always, a wonderful blog post from you -- I especially love these historical posts you do, and with good reason! I feel like I'm listening in on one of your classes. I remember using The Education of Little Tree in one of my fiction writing classes and how incensed the students were to find out who the "REAL" Forrest Carter was. I didn't know anything about Champ Ferguson until I met you. His is a fascinating piece of history.

  5. These pieces of history are so precious and I am glad you bring them to light. My mother's family was from Kentucky, Wheeler by name, but haven't followed the history back enough to know what side they took in the war. Now I think I shall. Thank you so much for this great piece. Now to the library. Doris

  6. Not many people snoozin' with that kind of teaching, sir. Great writing. Smooth and easy to digest. I'm with Charlie. I'd love to sit in on some of your lectures.

  7. What a wealth of info!
    My TBR list is growing.

  8. There was a wonderful elderly lady in my hometown of Cookeville, Callie Melton, who was kind of an informal local historian. She knew a lot of lore from the Civil War era, and wrote at least one self-published book, titled, if memory serves, "'Pon My Honor." In her version of Middle Tennessee history, Champ was a good guy reacting to being dreadfully wronged, and Tinker Dave was a villain. I don't know the strengths of Miss Callie as a historian, but she was a wonderful storyteller and a kind lady. Good piece of work here, Troy. I've visited Champ's grave many times from boyhood on up and am looking forward to the day some good moviemaker produces a good commercial picture about Champ.

  9. A fascinating post, Troy. It was both erudite and entertaining. I learned a lot from it and liked the way you drew it all together. I'm with everyone else and would take your history classes. Thanks.

  10. I'm always fascinated with the fact + myth = trope analysis, which you did so well here. Champ Ferguson certainly did spawn a powerful trope, even if the facts are on the controversial side. A great premise makes for a great story.

  11. What an amazing post, Troy. I had to come back several times to read all of it. History is just fascinating, especially with the personal details you add. A terrific post.

  12. Thank you all for this information, " Good Rebel Soil" I find it fascinating!... My Mother was up in "Cumberland Lake" somewhere between 1994 and 1996 attending a family reunion, and I got interested on Champ Ferguson story Now, I understand why Grandpa that I never meet in person (because he died before I was created)never went back to his home land. "Beans is Beans"...I maybe far generation from him but I can feel some blood of his running trough my veins...