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Champ Ferguson: Notorious killer or slain Confederate war hero?

Updated on August 29, 2014
Champ Ferguson, center, surrounded by Union guards.
Champ Ferguson, center, surrounded by Union guards. | Source
Champ Ferguson, right, with Federal soldier in 1865.
Champ Ferguson, right, with Federal soldier in 1865. | Source

One of the enjoyable aspects of genealogy is learning obscure American history. I have been asked multiple times if I am related to someone famous (no, as far as I know), but one interesting saga of American history did impact my family. My maternal family survived the Civil War even though they owned land in one of the most contentious parts of the country -- the Cumberland Plateau in south central Kentucky and north central Tennessee.

What pulled me into the research about the region and its land was an off-the-cuff comment from my grandfather. I was talking with him trying to learn more family history when he was told me how as a teen he helped cut logs on his grandfather's 600-acre property.

Knowing my grandfather never owned more than a couple acres of land in his life, I asked, "What happened to it?"

"They took it from us," he said, further explaining how the family went to court but lost.

Apparently they no longer held the deed to the land.

I presumed the two most logical explanations were his grandfather was possibly tricked into signing away his land if he sold the mineral rights. Or, the land was considered abandoned during the Civil War and the family lost ownership of the property. Several courthouses in the area were destroyed during the Civil War so I knew tracking down the actual deeds may prove difficult.

As I started my research, though, I stumbled across a story of guerrilla warfare, lawlessness and anarchy that soon took over my efforts. I soon learned that one of the most powerful Civil War guerillas, Champ Ferguson, was born in Clinton County, Ky. -- where my grandparents lived most of their adult life. Ferguson was one of the few Confederate men not given an unconditional pardon -- and after the War he was tried for the murder of 53 men. The trial was covered by the local and national papers, including the New York Times.

Captain Henry Wirz.
Captain Henry Wirz. | Source

Confederate Captain Henry Wirz

Captain Henry Wirz, who was in charge of the Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia, was arrested in May 1865 for war crimes. According to the Library of Congress he is the only Confederate soldier charged with war crimes during the Civil War.

His trial, like Ferguson's was conducted by a military tribunal, and the trial ended just eight days after Ferguson's execution.

At least one of person from my family line -- Thomas C. Beaty -- son of Alexander Beaty, was held as a prisoner of war at Andersonville. Thomas and his brother Andrew J. Beaty were captured at the Battle of Rogersville on November 6, 1863. Thomas died in prison about six months later. He was 25.

Andrew, who was detained at Belle Isle only survived 3 months as a POW. He died in February, 1864. He was 31.

Wirz, found guilty on all counts was sentenced to death. He was hanged on November 10, 1865, at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C.

A Little Background
Directly south of Clinton County is Fentress County, TN where my maternal grandfather's ancestors had lived for more than 100 years. But in 1861, the county was in a very unique situation. Although, Tennessee had succeeded from the Union -- the Fentress County population had voted 651 to 128 to remain in the Union -- opening the doors for the impending personal conflicts between Rebels and Unionists.

Since Fentress County is an isolated region with nearly impassable trails and paths throughout much of the mountainous area, the ruggedness of the land made it an ideal location for guerrilla warfare. The bloodshed in the region would be significant. Even though only one significant battle was ever fought in the region -- about 80 miles away in Mills Springs -- a battle lost by the Confederacy -- families were uprooted and murder throughout the area during the entire War. The murders were committed by men on both sides of the conflict,

How the Anarchy Unfolded
Depending on which book you read, you will hear slightly different versions of what turned this farmer -- who would later be accused of shooting down a family friend sick in bed with the measles -- into a killer. In each of the books written about Ferguson, they give the background of Ferguson who was definitely no saint when the War started.

Near the beginning of the conflict, Ferguson was being held in the Jamestown (TN) jail charged with the murder of Constable James Reed, however the case was far from a cut-and-dried situation due to the circumstances of the event. Some claim the Confederacy offered Ferguson a pardon in exchange for loyalty -- a claim that is hard to prove -- but Ferguson did end up serving with his former defense attorney.

In Champ Ferguson, Confederate Guerrilla by Thurman Sensing, Sensing relayes the common folklore that Ferguson's call of duty and subsequent killings may have actually started due to a code of honor.

According to this version, Ferguson was away from his home when members of a Union gang associated with his nemesis, Tinker Dave Beatty, forced Ferguson's wife and daughter to remove all their clothing and cook a meal for the gang. The men then proceeded to force the women to walk around nude to further embarrass and harass them. When Ferguson learned of the incident he vowed to kill every man involved -- which -- according to the story -- was eleven. Several times near the end of his life, though, Ferguson dismissed the story as untrue.

In Cumberland Blood: Champ Ferguson's Civil War by Thomas D. Mays and Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia by Brian D. McKnight, these two historians say Ferguson's killing spree began shortly after he was captured by the Union's Home Guard. Upon his escape, Ferguson realized if he were captured again it would mean death and so began his 'take no prisoner' approach to warfare.

Take no prisoners

Ferguson probably described the war in the mountains as accurately as anyone, when he told a reporter at his trial.

"We were having a sort of miscellaneous war…. Every man was in danger of his life: if I hadn't kill[ed] my neighbor, he would have killed me. Each of us had from 20 to 30 proscribed enemies, and it was regarded as legitimate to kill them at any time, at any place, under any circumstance."

One of the interesting aspects of Ferguson was, regardless how brutal a slaying was, he always felt justified because he believed if he didn't strike first, his enemies would kill him. The first man Ferguson killed during the conflict was William Frogg. The incident, told in court by Frogg's widow Easter Ann and in a separate interview with Ferguson -- only differ on a couple of minor points.

Both stories confirm that Ferguson arrived at Frogg's house and when he came in, Easter Ann offered him an apple since she was pealing some.

"No thanks, I've been eating apples," Ferguson said.

Ferguson then asked Easter Ann where her husband was -- she told Ferguson her husband was in bed sick.

Their stories vary slightly on what happened next, but regardless of the version, both agree that after Ferguson walked into the bedroom, two shots were fired and William Frogg was dead.

When asked why he killed Frogg, Ferguson said Frogg was a member of the Home Guard and was responsible for his arrest. After his escape, Ferguson said that Frogg laid in wait, trying to ambush and kill him.

Frogg's widow denied the claim.

Between the First and Last Killing

Ferguson's killing spree would last right up until the end of the War. Some of the killings were brutal -- all were without mercy with the victim usually face-to-face with Ferguson. Frogg was killed in November, 1861 and the last two men killed by Ferguson and his gang died in April, 1865.

My maternal grandparents inside their Clinton County, Kentucky home.
My maternal grandparents inside their Clinton County, Kentucky home.
My maternal great-grandfather,  great-grandmother with one of their daughters.
My maternal great-grandfather, great-grandmother with one of their daughters.

My Family Heads North

From everything I can determine my family headed north at the outbreak of the War. As the tension increased leading to Tennesee's succession, a steady flow of families left the region traveling through Albany, Kentucky -- the capital of Clinton County -- and heading to Adair County (KY) to the relative safety of the Union's Camp Boyle.

The exodus of these families was not a sign of abandonment or weakness -- and especially not for my family. Alexander Beaty -- my grandfather's great-grandfather -- had two sons joined the Union to fight against the Confederacy. Their service would be short though -- only about two years -- because they were captured at the battle of Rogersville in November, 1863. Both men died in prison, one was 31 the other was 25. The men died due to the harsh prison conditions at Belle Isle and Andersonville.

Another Man Killed in Bed

One of Ferguson's last killing involved another man lying in bed. This time it was Union Lieutenant Elza C. Smith of the 13th Kentucky Calvary who died shortly after the Battle of Saltville. Smith, who was in a military hospital recovering from wounds -- had a couple connections to Ferguson. First, he was a relative of Ferguson's first wife. His second connection involved the death of one of Ferguson's friends.

Although, Ferguson never said why he killed Smith, some theorize it was because Smith had captured Ferguson's former partner Colonel Oliver P. Hamilton. Union sources said after his capture, Hamilton attempted to escape and was shot and killed. Ferguson, who did not believe the story, felt Smith was responsible for Hamilton's death.

Battle of Saltville

The Battle of Saltville is where some of the most damning charges against Ferguson were levied. The battle between Union and Confederate forces in Saltville, Va. ended in a rout of Union soldiers -- defeated severely enough that wounded soldiers were left on the battlefield. Ferguson and others were accused of walking through the battleground and killing the wounded soldiers -- which included a Black regiment. Ferguson was also accused of gathering up black POWs in pairs and walking them back into the woods where he shot and killed them.

The accusations made it to the top of the command -- Robert E. Lee -- and Ferguson was held prisoner by the Confederacy as officials investigated the claims. The only thing that saved Ferguson from a court martial and trial was the fact the War was ending --- and in April, 1865 he and fellow prisoner Hildreth were released.

As Thomas Mays notes in his book, "Had Ferguson slipped away after the war, he might have been able to change his fate. But Champ Ferguson's civil war was not over."

Champ Ferguson after capture in 1865.
Champ Ferguson after capture in 1865. | Source

Last Acts of Violence

In April and May, 1865 -- after Robert E. Lee had surrendered the troops -- Ferguson and his gang embarked on at least two more acts of violence. The first act was the capture of long-time enemy Tinker Dave Beatty. Ferguson and eight of his men surrounded Beatty when Beatty was eating supper at a friend's house.

"Damn you! Show me the way to the Taylor place," Beatty recalled Ferguson saying.

"I knew that he knew the way as well as I did, and I didn't intend to show them if I could help it," Beatty added.

As the gang started down the road, three guerillas on both sides of Beatty -- with Ferguson off to the left -- Beatty made his move by turning his horse around in between Ferguson and his men so they could not fire for a moment without hitting each other. Once the firing started, Beatty, who survived the attack, was shot three times as he made his escape.

Ferguson's last act of violence was in early May, 1865 when Ferguson and his gang killed two men who were members of the Home Guard that had captured him four years earlier at the beginning of the War.

His Surrender

When the call for amnesty was given in the region, Champ and his men responded. At the makeshift Federal camp, though, Champ was informed that he would not be given amnesty. After learning the news, Champ sent two of his men to see if they could persuade the Union commanders to change their minds, but the statement stood: He would not receive a pardon.

So, Ferguson headed back to his farm. A few days later, five men came to Ferguson's home to arrest him. When they arrived, Ferguson who was unarmed did not resist, causing some to speculate that he may have been told he was receiving a pardon afterall. Once the men were far enough away from Ferguson's home, they tied him to his horse -- and delivered him to Nashville to await trial.

Ferguson later admitted that he had been naïve to believe the Federals would not seek him out -- adding he could have stayed hidden from them for "10 years and never left Clinton County."

Trial and Execution

Ferguson was charged with 53 murders which included 14 soldiers killed at Saltville, Va. His trial began on July 11 and only 4 of the 84 subpoenaed witnesses testified on his behalf -- many had already left the region, scratching G.T.T (Gone to Texas) on the doors to their homes.

On October 20, 1865 he was hanged in Nashville while a regiment of black Federal soldiers stood guard.

His last request was to be buried in White County (TN) in "good Rebel soil."

His widow and daughter honored the request.

Death of Tinker Dave Beatty's son - Dallas

[Note: Beaty is spelled a variety of ways in the region with Beaty, Beatty and Beattie being the most common. It was not uncommon for the last name's of family members to be spelled differently. A death certifdicate for an uncle of mine has his name spelled Beatty -- instead of Beaty]

“… Dallas Beaty, Andrew Beaty, and James J. Beaty had come to Dowdy’s camp that morning to volunteer for Union service. In the fighting, Dallas was captured and taken to the nearby home of Isham Richards. Jackson Garner was at the Richards’ house.

Isham Richards testified at Ferguson’s trial.

‘I knew Dallas Beaty but only saw Jackson Garner once. That was at my house in Fentress County, Tennessee, about the 13th of February, 1864. A party of 75-80 men, under Captain (George) Carter, came to my house that morning. He stated that Champ Ferguson was along.'

'Garner was in the house, the rebels disarmed him, and Ferguson ordered him out. As Garner came out on the porch, Ferguson shot him. As he raised his gun to shoot Garner, some one pulled his arm down and said, 'Don’t shoot.' He went ahead and shot Garner and turned to the man who had tried to stop him and warned him never to do so again, saying, 'I would kill the last friend I had for doing that.'

'A little while later Ferguson killed Dallas Beaty in the wood lot; he stuck the gun in Beaty’s face and asked him how he would like to eat powder....”

- excerpt from Early Times in Clinton County

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    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      A very interesting, though disturbing, account. Apparently Ferguson was a man who used the war as an excuse for carrying out vengeance on those he considered his enemies. You wonder at his frame of mind in that even after being denied pardon, he seemed not to think he would be held accountable for his killings.

    • CharlieClaywell profile image
      Author

      Charlie Claywell 3 years ago

      I agree -- the more I read about that region of the country during the Civil War -- it is amazing to me that Ferguson's mindset was not all that unique. Men on both sides of the conflict behaved in much the same way. I just don't understand how a society could break down that much in such a relatively short period of time -- a lot of people died needlessly.

    • Matthew RN profile image

      Matthew Adams 13 months ago from Tennessee

      I live somewhat close to Sparta, TN. I was wondering if you knew where Champ Ferguson's homestead is located in White county? thank you

    • CharlieClaywell profile image
      Author

      Charlie Claywell 13 months ago

      Unfortunately I do not know where his homestead was, but he is buried north of Sparta in France Cemetery. Find-A-Grave has some images.

      http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&a... and this entry (Which may be from the History of Clinton County, Ky) just says north of Sparta.

      http://www.kyphilom.com/www/text/champ.htm

      Good luck!

      - Charlie

    • Matthew RN profile image

      Matthew Adams 13 months ago from Tennessee

      thank you. I have been to his gravesite. As a hobby, I research the history of White county.

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