- Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia
Champ Ferguson went to the gallows in October 1865 with dignity, some might even claim nobility. A few weeks earlier, a military commission in Nashville found the forty-three-year-old Kentuckian guilty of a total of twenty-two murders (and not guilty of numerous others). Initially, Ferguson’s lawyers argued that, as a private citizen, he was not subject to military justice. They smartly reversed themselves when that plea was rejected and throughout the trial presented their client as a man merely following orders, a loyal Confederate officer who had killed out of self-protection, not spite. Unionist guerrillas who committed similar acts of violence, they pointed out, had not been prosecuted. Ferguson failed to help his case when on the final day of his trial he launched into his own account of his actions only to be abruptly silenced by his lawyers, who feared his words could do more harm than good. It made little difference in the end. The five-man tribunal came to a swift decision; ten days later the court reconvened and delivered the ultimate sentence.
Brian McKnight’s new book seeks to understand the man he identifies as “likely the most notorious single Confederate guerrilla of the American Civil War” (177). Based on comprehensive research and informed by deep understanding of the border struggle, Confederate Outlaw provides a definitive account of Champ Ferguson’s life and deeds and adds to a growing body of scholarship exploring the war’s irregular underside. Readers familiar with Daniel Sutherland’s outstanding A Savage Conflict (2009) will profit from McKnight’s more narrowly focused investigation. McKnight tracks Ferguson’s short career with forensic intensity. Subjecting each reported incident to rigorous scrutiny, he strips away the varnish of rumor, counter-rumor, and self-justification and never flinches from admitting that the full extent of Ferguson’s responsibility for the murder and mayhem along the Kentucky-Tennessee border may never be grasped. Ferguson himself muddied the waters with contradictory accounts of his actions, notably in interviews he gave to Nashville newspapers during his incarceration in October 1865. In the decades to follow, Lost Cause chroniclers such as the prolific Basil Duke helped prolong Ferguson’s symbolic life, adding to his legendary status while erecting new barriers to a proper evaluation of this controversial warrior.
Making an accurate record of Champ Ferguson’s wartime activities is only part of Brian McKnight’s job. At the core of his investigation is the issue of the guerrilla’s legitimacy. The “pivotal question concerning Champ [End Page 619] Ferguson, both then and now, regards the nature of his service,” he writes (184). Ferguson himself claimed to hold a Confederate commission and in May 1865 even believed he could surrender under the same lenient terms offered to other combatants. But no documentation exists confirming his regular status, and, as McKnight observes, for most of the war Ferguson operated “outside of conventional military channels” (81). His relationship with the legendary raider John Hunt Morgan invites particular attention; indeed, it was this connection that helped forge Ferguson’s postwar status. For varying periods Ferguson and his men attached themselves to Morgan’s command, but they were fortuitously absent when Morgan made his celebrated final foray across the Ohio River in July 1863. The relationship between the two leaders was unequal and probably uneasy. However, the absence of direct testimony renders it nigh impossible to judge exactly what transpired between them. Theirs was a fluid, pragmatic collaboration that, one suspects, neither man bothered to analyze too closely. Born of necessity, it typified the border conflict, where actions spoke louder than words and where issues of legality and authority were invariably subordinated to the imperatives of partisan survival.
The paucity of firsthand evidence proves more troublesome in judging what motivated Champ Ferguson to pursue his martial career in such a highly personalized, gratuitously violent manner. “Fundamentally, Ferguson was a self-preservationist,” writes McKnight. “He joined the war effort...