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Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia by Brian McKnight (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 1, March 2013
pp. 114-115 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0002

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Although it is commonly thought that Henry Wirz, the officer held responsible for the conditions at Andersonville Prison, was the only Confederate put to death for war crimes, there was at least one other, Champ Ferguson, who was hung in September 1865 after having been found guilty of being a guerrilla and for having murdered fifty-three men in the process. In his compelling book, Brian McKnight explores who Champ Ferguson was and what can best explain his wartime behavior. He concludes that Ferguson was not a cold-blooded killer, but at the same time he suggests that his behavior cannot be explained away as his being a product of a violent southern mountain culture stressed to the breaking point by the Civil War. Instead McKnight proposes that the key to Champ Ferguson’s bloody guerrilla war lies in three factors: paranoia, loyalty, and pragmatism. The Confederate border along the Kentucky-Tennessee line was unstable throughout the war; neither the Union nor the Confederacy was able to securely control it. Never knowing who would be raiding next created a sort of paranoia among the citizens of this region. Intensely loyal to their family and kin, men like Champ took a pragmatic approach to this; they did what they thought they needed to do to survive. At its most extreme, this combination of paranoia, loyalty, and pragmatism generated a Champ Ferguson, who killed his enemies before they killed him and saw his behavior as a matter of self-defense.

The book is a gripping read, and historians interested in the nature of guerrilla war will find it significant for a number of reasons. Perhaps most important is that even in this extreme case (Ferguson is alleged to have killed as many as a hundred men), the violence was apparently never random, as many historians of Civil War guerrilla behavior have suggested. Champ Ferguson killed men he knew to be unionists, what he referred to as, “God damned Lincolnites,” just as the unionist guerrillas who fought him killed men they knew to be Confederate sympathizers. McKnight refers to this guerrilla war as a result of anarchy, and certainly that is the case if we are referring to the shattering of one civil authority or even one military authority able to maintain secure order in the region during the war, but that does not mean that the guerrilla war itself was without any order or logic. As McKnight makes clear, guerrillas like Champ Ferguson fought out of a local cultural and kin-based social order, not unlike the guerrilla war as it was fought in Missouri, perhaps the most intense scene of guerrilla fighting during the war.

Another important contribution of this book to the burgeoning field of Civil War guerrilla studies lies in McKnight’s close exploration of the nature of the relationship between a notorious Confederate guerrilla and formal military operations in the region. Ferguson and his men appear to have blended into formal military operations when the Confederate military was present in sufficient strength to conduct them. While with the regular Confederate military forces, Ferguson generally adopted their practices, but on his own time as a guerrilla he fought as the guerrillas fought, taking no prisoners and shooting on sight. As McKnight concludes, Ferguson fought as a guerrilla when it was convenient for him and as a regular soldier when that served his purposes, pragmatism apparently being the bottom line. Although Ferguson did leave the area and accompany Wheeler and his men south into Georgia in 1864, McKnight notes repeatedly that Ferguson otherwise chose to remain in the Kentucky-Tennessee border area and to defend his home ground.

Given the obvious significance of the local, especially kin and personal relationships to this study, this reader would have liked to learn more about the role of civilians in Champ Ferguson’s guerrilla war. McKnight suggests that after the war, those who wanted to exonerate or even lionize Ferguson claimed that he became a guerrilla because his wife and daughter were outraged at the war’s outset or his son was killed. According to McKnight, neither of these claims are true, but that does not mean that these men’s households were...

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