you were lied to about...

Champ Ferguson

Confederate officer? Guerilla criminal? Both?


hese facts are indisputable:

Champ Ferguson, a Kentucky mountain man attached to Gen. John Hunt Morgan's Confederate cavalry, forced his way into a Confederate hospital near Saltville, Virginia, on Oct. 7, 1864, and killed a wounded Union prisoner, Lt. Elzy C. Smith, a former neighbor. He killed at least 10 others ---- also not in battle. Many were lying wounded after the Battle of Saltville.

Champ Ferguson was the oldest of 10 children, a family man, husband and father. His first wife, Anne, and their son had died in an epidemic in 1845. He married Martha Owens three years later and was devoted to her and their teen--age daughter, Ann. He was a hard-working, hard-riding man whose loyalty to the Confederacy was unquestioned.

The heart and character of Champ Ferguson, who represents the turbulent confusions of a war that scarred lives and memories, came from deep within Appalachia's Cumberland Mountains, where he is buried.

To understand Ferguson, one must know the area where he lived in Kentucky and Tennessee at the time of the war and the attitude of the mountain folk he represented.

Kentucky was divided. Though the state technically was neutral, its people took sides. At least one--third were decidedly pro--Confederacy; the state furnished 39,565 soldiers to the rebellion. Kentuckians came in more than one type. Some were sons of wealthy plantation owners and farmers, young men with education and that nebulous attribute called "breeding". Their fathers frequently saw one son go North and another go South.

Then there were the less favored young men of the mountains. Times were hard, and most mountain men were small farmers and tradesmen. Education was minimal, but sense of duty ran strong. In the mountains, the lines of allegiance were keenly drawn: If the son of one house went North, and the son of a neighboring family went South, sons and families be came enemies. Entire neighborhoods became figurative (and often literal) battlegrounds, where no holds were barred.

Deep in the hills and "hollers" of Kentucky and other areas of Appalachia, men lived and died by strict code, alien to the 20th century, that established the ethics of an individual such as Champ Ferguson. This code demanded that women be protected at all cost. The stern credo dictated that if a woman were violated in some manner, the incident was never again to be mentioned or even acknowledged by the family, but retribution was to be exacted. This was the motive of Chimp Ferguson's killing spree, which would cost him his life.

At the National Archives, a document attached to the transcript of Ferguson's trial indicates that he was enrolled by Gen. John Hunt Morgan in November 1862 with the rank of Captain. A problem that would loom large in his eventual conviction was that the enrollment under Morgan was not authenticated, leaving the gaping question of whether Ferguson was formally a member of the Confederate army or a guerrilla operating on his own authority ---- and motive.

If he was officially a member of the Confederate army, he would be the only Confederate other than Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville prison, to be executed for what were considered war crimes.

Whatever the reality, Champ Ferguson reported to Maj. Scott Bledsoe and ultimately to Gen. Felix Robertson after joining Morgan's command. It was not unusual for guerrillas to attach themselves to whatever unit needed their services as guide or scout, and Ferguson also served with Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Wheeler's cavalry in these capacities.

At Ferguson's trial shortly after the war, Wheeler would testify that his understanding was that "Gen. Kirby Smith had authorized Ferguson to raise a company of cavalry for service on the Kentucky border" and that he was "called and regarded as a captain in the Confederate service."

But that was epilogue. The war would divide the Ferguson family when Champ's younger brother James enlisted in the federal 1st Kentucky Cavalry. The Unionist brother's martial career was brief: He was killed barely a month later.

Shortly after Champ Ferguson left home for Confederate service, a group of 12 Union men -- former neighbors displeased with his decision to cast his lot with the Confederacy -- forced their way into his house. Led by Elzy C. Smith, a relative of Ferguson's late first wife, they ordered Martha and Ann Ferguson to strip naked and prepare them a meal. It is believed the women also were raped. The women then were whipped and driven, naked, out of the house and down the public road, to the amusement of their captors.

Word reached Ferguson, and he swore he would kill all 12 men. For good measure, he vowed he would slay another hundred Yankees. After the assault, Ferguson moved his family across the border to White County, Tennessee where he hoped they would be safe. Sometime later, however, the house he had built there was burned down. His wife and daughter survived.

By New Year's Eve 1863, he had made a good start on his pledge; 11 of the Unionists who had attacked his wife and daughter were dead, a number slain in their homes, after most of the men had signed up with the Union Home Guard or joined the federal army. Champ believed they were out to kill him. A witness at his trial testified that the intent was "to kill Ferguson wherever they found him and give no quarter." It was primitive justice at its best -- or worst.

The killing that rankled Union officials most -- indeed, it was listed first among the charges for which Ferguson would be tried -- was that of Elzy Smith, then with the Union's 13th Kentucky Cavalry. Having been wounded in the Battle of Saltville and captured, Smith was hospitalized in one of the converted college buildings of Emory and Henry College near Abingdon, Virginia.

Ferguson and a small group of men came quietly to the hospital and made their way to the third floor, where they knew the officer was confined. Ferguson sat down on Smith's cot, patted his gun, and told Smith to prepare to die. He then shot Smith once in the head, and the vendetta was completed.

Two other Yankee officers of the 12th Ohio Cavalry in the same room were not harmed. Smith had been Ferguson's only target. The doctor in charge of the hospital, B.L. Murfree of Murfreesboro, Tenn., testified that he had been told that the killing was in retaliation for Smith's having "made Ferguson's wife undress and marched her before him along the public road in a nude state."

After the killing of Smith, Ferguson and his men rejoined Wheeler's command. However, in mid--February 1865, the Confederates evidently ordered Ferguson's arrest for the slaying of the wounded prisoner and the killings of other prisoners. It appears then that he was released on parole for what may have been insufficient evidence.

The Federals were intent, however, in prosecuting him. In May, after Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Ferguson and the men he apparently was leading were ordered to surrender. All except Ferguson were released. He was jailed, and an indictment against him contained two charges: that he was a guerrilla and that he had committed murder. The second charge contained 53 separate "specifications" for supposed killings -- many of the victims were unidentified, vaguely detailed, and others were false.

Federal authorities knew that to try Ferguson in civil court with a jury of his peers doubtless would result in acquittal. But if he was arguably only a marginal member of the Confederacy, it would be difficult legally to try him by military tribunal. Charging him with Smith's murder ensured a military trial and certain conviction.

The Confederate officer to whom Ferguson was answering at the time of Smith's killing, Gen. Felix Robertson, had been in charge following the Battle at Saltville, and though he did not specifically approve the killing of a number of men of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry troops wounded in the battle, he had permitted it to occur. The blame for those brutal killings would go to Ferguson and several of his men. (Robertson, severely criticized by Lee, ultimately was relieved of duty.)

Ferguson's trial lasted almost four months, and only one witness supplied the real reason for Smith's killing. Orange Sells of the 12th Ohio Cavalry, a patient in Smith's room who also had witnessed the killing of several black soldiers, stated that the Union officer was killed because it was said he had abused Ferguson's wife and daughter. Apparently a prosecution witness could speak the unspeakable; Ferguson could prevent anyone else from saying it, even in his own defense, to maintain the mountain code. He raised no defense, questioning only the number of killings.

The trial evoked great interest in the Nashville area. Local women provided fresh shirts for Ferguson as well as other items to make him comfortable. Sympathy definitely lay with the accused. The Tennessee papers carried daily reports on the trial, including verbatim testimony. The witnesses against Ferguson were many; the defense presented by his attorneys was minimal.

Wheeler and others testified to their belief that Ferguson was a bona fide member of the Confederate army. A muster roll and payroll record on standard CSA forms -- unauthenticated, like the enrollment form -- did nothing to alleviate the consensus that he was a guerrilla.

Testimony regarding the murders came from the friends and family members of the dead as well as from eyewitnesses. Though allegiance to the Union often was stated, many claimed the dead were not Union soldiers but in fact were operating on their own on the federal side. In time of war, the rules became murky. Few defense motions were granted.

During the trial, Ferguson willingly admitted to those deaths for which he knew he was responsible and offered extenuating circumstances for each. He showed no remorse; each of the victims, he said, "deserved to die." He vehemently denied responsibility for some of the deaths in the indictment, though with comments such as, "He should have died, but I didn't do it."

His stoicism failed him only once. During the final plea by his defense, he bowed his head and wept when the plight of his helpless family was mentioned.

On Oct. 10, 1865, Ferguson stood straight on the gallows at Nashville. His wife and daughter, now 16, had been with him for several hours before the sentence was carried out. His last request was that his remains be returned to his home on Calfkiller River in the Cumberland Mountains, White County, Tenn. -- to lie "in good Rebel soil."

So it was done.

A local newspaper later claimed that sympathetic Union soldiers had surrounded the area beneath the covered platform of the gallows, caught the body and quickly removed the noose, placed Ferguson alive in the casket and spirited him out of town. It was said that the soldiers respected Ferguson as a soldier who had done no more and no less than many others in the bloody war. It was rumored that he and his family eventually made their way West, where he lived out his life.

A marker stands in the small family cemetery on the Calfkiller River not far from Sparta, Tenn., but the stories persist. There were numerous supposed sightings of Ferguson and his family, both in Fentress County, Tenn., and in Missouri and Oklahoma. However, because the Union soldiers surrounding the gallows were from the U.S. Colored Troops, the tale of his escape seems unlikely.

Whether Champ Ferguson was a Confederate martyr or an un-principled killer, a man on a mission or a calculating murderer remains in the shadows of the past.

Martha Boltz

[Originally published in the January 29, 2000 edition of The Washington Times]