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Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia

Brian D. McKnight; LSU Press, 2011, $34.95

Champ Ferguson, part-time soldier and full-time killer, was a very bad man and possibly a paranoid sociopath. That’s clear from Brian McKnight’s meticulously documented biography of the Confederacy’s most notorious guerrilla fighter. Whether he was anything else requires looking beyond Ferguson’s impressive list of wartime killings, something McKnight has done with authority and style.

Civil War fighting on the rugged Cumberland Plateau of Kentucky and Tennessee was brutish, up close and intensely personal, often originating in long-simmering clan or class-based feuds. The region abounded with bands of blue and gray irregulars who used anarchic wartime conditions to settle personal scores while also performing military activities like scouting, spying and disrupting enemy supply routes.

No one knows the war in these contested borderlands better than McKnight. He mostly succeeds in separating Ferguson from the legends that grew up around him, although reading the detailed accounts of so many grisly murders can become tedious. McKnight argues that serving under Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan on most of his raids helped Ferguson evolve from full-time guerrilla into at least a part-time soldier. By early 1863, Ferguson’s “broader military experience likely impacted him by forcing him to reckon with the Civil War as a national conflict in addition to the localized, community, and kinship oriented fight he had been participating in up to that point.”

Ironically, it was Ferguson’s service with regular Confederate forces that precipitated the most serious charges brought against him—the killing of wounded black soldiers at the Battle of Saltville in Virginia. He was acquitted of those charges at his trial by a Federal military commission but found guilty of being a guerrilla and 21 of 23 counts of murder. He was hanged on October 20, 1865, in Nashville, but the legend surrounding Champ Ferguson lived well into the 20th century.


Originally published in the January 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.