“Good Lord have mercy on my soul,” Champ Ferguson proclaimed seconds before his execution on October 20, 1865 (p. 177). Born in Clinton County, Kentucky, in 1821, Ferguson had alienated most of his neighbors by becoming a Confederate at the outbreak of the Civil War. Forced to flee from the region in 1861, he moved to nearby White County, Tennessee, where he organized an independent guerrilla unit. Over the next four years, Ferguson and his followers terrorized Unionist sympathizers on the Kentucky–Tennessee border. Even the Confederate defeat in April 1865 did not stop Ferguson’s reign of terror. He continued to assault and murder Unionists and other perceived enemies until Federal forces captured him in May. [End Page 117] Tried and convicted for committing fifty-three murders, Ferguson’s life ended on the gallows six months later.
Champ Ferguson’s life has long been shrouded in myth and mystery. During the Civil War, Confederates praised him as a hero who protected them from Yankee bushwhackers and troops, while Unionists declared that he was a cold-blooded murderer without honor. By the turn of the twentieth century, Lost Cause proponents had propelled Ferguson to the ranks of Nathan Bedford Forrest and other celebrated Confederates, declaring that Union brutality had forced the Kentucky native to embrace the southern cause and engage in guerilla warfare. According to Basil Duke, for instance, Ferguson was an honorable man who resorted to extralegal violence only when Unionists had killed his son and “brutally whipped” his wife (p. 180). But, as Brian D. McKnight successfully demonstrates in Confederate Outlaw, the forces that drove Ferguson and other Kentuckians to commit horrific acts of violence were much more complex and less heroic than Lost Cause apologists portrayed them.
McKnight, an associate professor of history at the college of the University of Virginia at Wise, Virginia, argues that Ferguson’s Civil War was a “daily struggle for survival against men who might come as friends, enemies, or neutrals.” It was a personal war fought on “a more localized level” (p. 2). Like other Kentuckians, Ferguson, paranoid that death would come at any moment, resorted to violence in the interest of self-preservation. Pragmatism further encouraged Ferguson to rely on violence as a means of settling old scores and improving his economic status in the event of Confederate victory. Religiosity also escalated the potential for merciless guerrilla warfare. According to McKnight, Ferguson’s Manichean outlook, founded upon his basic understanding of the Old Testament, forced him to view the world in “black or white, right or wrong, good or evil” (p. 3). As such, Ferguson defined loyalty in stark terms: a person was either a friend who could be trusted or a foe who had to be exterminated. Confederate Outlaw is a welcome addition to the growing scholarship on guerrilla violence during the Civil War. Using newspapers, [End Page 118] manuscripts, and court documents, McKnight sheds new light on the nature of irregular warfare in the South. He also helps to further debunk the notion of Appalachian exceptionalism, pointing out that violence was not a product of the supposed “frontier culture” of the region but the result of economic, social, and political tensions that emerged during the Civil War. In short, the forces that sparked violence in Appalachia were not unique to the region. They operated everywhere in the South. Students of the Civil War and Appalachian history should read this lucid and provocative book.
Bruce E. Stewart teaches history at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He is the author of Moonshiners and Prohibitionists: The Battle over Alcohol in Southern Appalachia (2011).