- Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia
In Confederate Outlaw, Brian D. McKnight unravels enigmatic Confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson and elucidates the ideological underpinning for his guerrilla warfare. Using a deep immersion in archival sources, including letters, newspaper clippings, and trial testimony, McKnight asserts that Ferguson cared little about the political context of the Civil War and instead viewed the war through a stark “Manichean lens” (3). This perspective, an attribute McKnight credits to the influence of the Second Great Awakening, fused with Ferguson’s rudimentary understanding of some basic Old Testament principles, compelled Ferguson to interpret his environment in sharp dichotomies—questions and answers were clearly black and white. The complex and unconventional nature of the war in Appalachia sharpened this outlook. The daily struggle for survival in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee and Kentucky spawned paranoia, fluidity, and anarchy, forces and tensions that pressured partisans like Ferguson to take a radical stand through “very personal and usually violent actions” (3).
As a youth in southern Kentucky during the 1830s, Ferguson experienced the shifting religious landscape of Appalachia. He embraced the “fatalist and predestinarian lines” of a hybrid form of Calvinism that emphasized Old Testament localism and swift retribution, along with the “curious combination of love and vengeance” as a means of interpreting his environment (16). When the war came, Ferguson, a middling farmer and small slaveholder, sided with Tennessee and the Confederacy while his estranged family supported the Union. McKnight contends that Ferguson’s divided family was emblematic of Appalachian families and communities, where residents generally chose sides based “solely on self-preservation” (27). This self-preservation manifested itself through competing secession and union sentiments present throughout Ferguson’s home county of Clinton, Kentucky, a Unionist bastion. Union partisans arrested Ferguson for his suspected disloyalty and sent him to the Union army at Camp Dick Robinson in late August 1861. This experience convinced Ferguson “that he could not escape his fate as a direct participant” and compelled him to target and eliminate Unionists (39).
In late 1861, Ferguson commenced his personal brand of warfare against Union sympathizers. He murdered his lifelong friends William Frogg and Reuben Wood, the former bedridden from the measles and the latter [End Page 106] in his home. Ferguson justified the killings, stating that “if I hadn’t kill[ed] my neighbor, he would have killed me” (45). By early 1862, Ferguson’s method of killing became more personalized. After shooting a sixteen-year-old Union picket, Ferguson drew his knife and stabbed him through the heart. Other victims were disemboweled. Reflecting the diverse regional sentiments in Appalachia, his partisan activities drew the ire of Unionists, while Confederates lauded his exploits.
Ferguson’s partisan acts gained him infamy, but his career as a guerrilla constituted only one part of his service during the Civil War. McKnight notes that he was a “regular soldier when convenient, Confederate partisan when otherwise,” a marker of the ambiguity of Ferguson’s status and the complexity of the war throughout Appalachia (90). Indeed, Ferguson lent his geographic knowledge of southwestern Kentucky to John Hunt Morgan and rode with George Dibrell and Joseph Wheeler. His position as a regular soldier in 1864 brought him to Saltville, Virginia, where he killed wounded black Union soldiers and Elza Smith, a Clinton County native and a relative of his first wife. After Appomattox, a trial sentenced Ferguson to the gallows for his actions at Saltville.
McKnight’s analysis reveals the dynamism of the Civil War in Appalachia, and his contextualization of Ferguson demystifies much of the aura and myths enveloping this inscrutable guerrilla. His application of secondary scholarship on guerrilla warfare, including the works of John Inscoe and Daniel Sutherland, nicely augments his interpretation. However, McKnight’s assertion that Ferguson’s rudimentary grasp of Old Testament teachings shaped his ideology seems tenuous at times, especially considering the author’s admission that the Confederate guerrilla “never offered much evidence of a personal faith” (3). Moreover, the modicum of primary evidence from Ferguson...