Esther Frogg knew well the 20-year-old man standing at her front door on November 1, 1861, asking to see her husband, William. The visitor’s name was Champ Ferguson, and he was, like the Froggs, a native of Clinton County, Kentucky. Unlike the Froggs, however, Ferguson supported the Confederacy.
‘How do you do,’ she said and offered him a seat.
‘I don’t have time,’ he replied.
‘Have some apples,’ she said, gesturing toward the fruit she had just been peeling.
‘I have been eating apples,’ he said.
Ferguson did not want to sit. He did not want to eat. He did not want to talk. He wanted only to see William Frogg.
Esther told Ferguson her husband was sick and could not take visitors. But Ferguson was not to be deterred. He walked inside the house, leaving the two men who had come with him outside.
Ferguson approached Frogg’s bed, perhaps noticing the crib nearby where the couple’s five-month-old baby lay. Frogg told his visitor he had the measles. Indeed, he was on sick leave from his regiment, the 12th Kentucky Infantry (Union), though he no doubt withheld that bit of information from Ferguson.
‘I reckon you caught the measles at Camp Dick Robinson,’ Ferguson said. Camp Robinson was a sore point for Kentuckians who sided with the Confederacy. They believed that men recruited there into the Home Guard went on to fight for the Union.
Ferguson was through talking. He shot Frogg dead where he lay.
Frogg was not the first or last person to die at Ferguson’s hands during the war. There were dozens of others. Some of the killings were legitimate acts of combat, but others were nothing more than cold-blooded murder. Many of the victims were Union supporters whom Ferguson sought out more for personal reasons than political ones. In Frogg’s case, Ferguson said he had heard rumors that the pro-Union man was planning to kill him. Ferguson decided on a preemptive strike. ‘I told the boys that I would settle the matter by going direct to Frogg’s house and killing him,’ he later said.
Before the Civil War, Ferguson was known throughout the upper Cumberland Mountains on both sides of the Kentucky-Tennessee border as a ‘gambling, rowdyish, drinking, fighting, quarrelsome man.’ He ranged throughout the region as a hunter and a horse trader, becoming familiar with the whole region.
When the war began, Ferguson immediately sided with the Confederacy. The oldest of 10 children, born on November 29, 1821, he was now starkly at odds with his 9 brothers and sisters and his mother, all of whom supported the Union. The tension only grew when in late 1861 or early 1862, Ferguson moved his family to Sparta, Tennessee, and joined a pro-Southern guerrilla band headed by a local man named Scott Bledsoe. Soon Ferguson was captain of his own band.
Many legends that attempt to explain Ferguson’s ruthless animosity toward his enemies persevere through the efforts of his many admirers in Sparta and White County, Tennessee. In one account, Ferguson hated Yankees and their supporters because Union soldiers had shot his young son dead while the boy played innocently on the front porch, waving a Confederate flag. In reality, Ferguson’s only son died several years before the war began. An even more widely accepted explanation is that 11 Union men had come to his home while Ferguson was out and dishonored his wife and young daughter. The men forced the woman and girl to disrobe and march down the street, the story continued. Even Ferguson called this tale ‘absurd.’
Ferguson himself provided the most feasible explanation for why he entered the war, though it is less romantic than the others. Shortly before the war, he had been arrested for stabbing a constable in a brawl at a camp meeting in Fentress County, Tennessee. ‘When the War broke out,’ he later said, ‘I was induced to join the army on the promise that all prosecution in that case would be abandoned. This is how I came to take up arms.’
Ferguson claimed that all his killings were in self-defense, while admitting that some, like the Frogg shooting, were preemptive attacks. One of them occurred about a month after Frogg’s death. Ferguson and his men went to the home of Reuben Wood, who also lived in Clinton County. Wood met the guerrillas in the road in front of his house. ‘Don’t you beg,’ Ferguson told the older man, ‘and don’t you dodge.’ Wood’s children later testified that their father reminded Ferguson of their past friendship and the fact that he had cared for Ferguson when he was a child. ‘You have always treated me like a gentleman,’ Ferguson said, ‘but you have been to Camp Robinson, and I intend to kill you.’ Reuben Wood did not die easily. Even fatally wounded he managed to knock Ferguson’s gun away with a hatchet and escape. Wood died two days later.
‘Reuben Wood and I were always good friends before the War,’ Ferguson said, ‘but after that he was connected with the same company in which my brother, Jim, was operating. I knew that he intended killing me if he ever got a chance. They both hunted me down, and drove me fairly to desperation.
‘On the day that he was killed, we met him in the road and he commenced on me, and I believe he intended to shoot me. The touching story about his piteous appeals to me — that he had nursed me when a babe, and tossed me on his knee — are false, and were gotten up expressly to create sympathy, and set me forth as a heartless wretch. If I had not shot Reuben Wood, I would not likely have been here, for he would have shot me. I never expressed a regret for committing the act, and never will. He was in open war against me.’
In 1862, Ferguson began his long-running war with a man named David Beaty, who would become his greatest enemy. The Nashville Dispatch noted that Beaty ‘fought Champ Ferguson from the beginning to the end of his career…. They have shot at each other innumerable times, and each has received ugly wounds. They were deadly enemies, and hunted each other down with savage ferocity.’
Known to his neighbors in Fentress County, Tennessee, as Tinker Dave, Beaty (also spelled Beatty) was as ruthless and vicious in his defense of the Union as Ferguson was of the Confederacy. Local legend tells of the time he shot a man and then directed his horse to step on the unfortunate victim’s face.
Beaty became a guerrilla in early 1862. About February 1, Bledsoe’s men warned Beaty to take sides or leave the country. At this point in the war, Bledsoe and Ferguson were, according to Beaty, ‘conscripting, killing, and shooting at Union men in general, including myself.’ Beaty responded to the threat by choosing the other side and raising his own band of guerrillas. His men lived in the woods like Ferguson’s and practiced the same tactics. These enemies skirmished often.
Given the opportunity, Ferguson and Beaty would no doubt have eagerly cut each other’s throat, but they did share a mutual respect. Perhaps they sensed they were kindred spirits who had more in common with each other than with polite society or the military establishment.
By the spring of 1862, relatively few major military engagements had taken place in Tennessee, but the Cumberland Mountains were filled with violence. Roaming bands of outlaws took advantage of the war to steal whatever they wanted with no regard for their victims’ politics. It was not uncommon for these outlaws simply to declare a man an enemy sympathizer and then take his possessions or even kill him. Families, friends, and neighbors were so passionately divided that even idle rumors questioning a man’s alignment could soon lead to his death. Many prudent people avoided their own homes.
In the middle of all this chaos stood Champ Ferguson. Many of the Union men he took prisoner — some in the army, some not — were found shot and often stabbed through the heart. Ferguson favored the Bowie knife and often finished his victims off with one. There were rumors of decapitations.
On April 1, 1862, Ferguson encountered 16-year-old Fount Zachery in Fentress County. Zachery was carrying a shotgun. He surrendered the weapon, but Ferguson shot him anyway. Almost as soon as Zachery hit the ground, Ferguson was on him with his Bowie knife, and Fount Zachery became the first of four Zachery males to fall to Ferguson. Ferguson justified his actions by claiming he had official orders to kill any armed man in the area.
Over the next few weeks, Ferguson’s men killed their leader’s cousin Alexander Huff in Fentress County; Union guerrilla Elijah Kogier in Clinton County, whom they shot down as his young daughter clung to him; and Fount Zachery’s grandfather James. James Zachery’s daughter Esther would testify that she saw Ferguson chasing her father through the family orchard, yelling to his men, ‘Shoot him, damn him, shoot him!’
Toward the end of April, Colonel John Hunt Morgan’s Kentucky cavalry passed through Sparta, Tennessee, and Ferguson and some of his men joined the force to serve as scouts. Morgan’s men crowded around Ferguson, eager to get a glimpse of the notorious outlaw whose exploits were already becoming legend in the region. Ferguson and several of his guerrillas rode with Morgan on some raids, fighting at Tomkinsville, Lebanon, and Cynthiana, Kentucky, and on June 21 at Gallatin, Tennessee.
Ferguson became well acquainted with Morgan’s second in command and brother-in-law, Major Basil W. Duke. Duke warned his infamous scout that there would be no abusing of prisoners. Ferguson was indignant. He assured Duke he would never harm regularly commissioned officers captured in combat, because he had nothing personally against them ‘except that they are wrong, and oughtn’t to come down here and fight our people.’ He admitted, though, that if he came across any ‘hounds’ he had just reasons to kill, he would not hesitate to kill them.
By the fall of 1862, Ferguson had focused himself almost exclusively on personal vendettas. In October, he killed a man named Wash Tabor, whom he suspected of ambushing and killing three of his men. Ferguson did not harm others captured along with Tabor. He explained to prisoner George Thrasher, ‘I’m not in favor of killing you, Thrasher, you have never been bushwhacking or stealing horses. I have killed old Wash Tabor, a damned good Christian, and I don’t reckon he minds dying.’ On a later occasion, the mother of one of Ferguson’s prisoners, John Crabtree, begged for her son’s life, but the guerrilla leader told her that her concern was too late in coming. The time to worry was years ago, he suggested, when she still had the chance to raise her son right.
Several of Ferguson’s victims belonged to the 7th Tennessee Infantry (Union). So it is not surprising that the commander of that regiment, Colonel William Clift, was eager to attack the independent Rebel bands trolling the Tennessee-Kentucky border. ‘I deem it highly indispensable to break up these guerrilla companies as speedily as possible, as there can be no safety to the peace of the country while they are permitted to exist,’ he said.
On December 15, Union XIV Corps commander Major General William Rosecrans issued an order allowing Major General George H. Thomas, commander of the center of the XIV Corps, to send Colonel Frank Wolford’s 1st Kentucky Cavalry after Ferguson and another Tennessee guerrilla, Oliver Hamilton of Overton County. ‘Colonel Wolford has permission to pursue and capture Hamilton and Ferguson,’ Rosecrans wrote, ‘but let him be careful not to get caught himself.’ Nothing came of Wolford’s ambitions to snare the guerrilla chief.
On New Year’s Night 1863, Ferguson set out to rid himself of some of his most troublesome enemies in Kentucky. The first to fall was Union guerrilla Elam Huddleston. After an hour-long gunfight between Confederate guerrillas and the Huddleston brothers Elam and Moses, aided by their cousin David Huddleston, Ferguson killed his intended victim at his house. Next to die were the Zachery brothers Peter and Allen, sons of James Zachery. Ferguson killed Peter with his knife after a fierce hand-to-hand struggle.
Ferguson’s private feuds were suspended for a while after the Huddleston fight, because he was too busy tangling with the regular Federal army. Over the next two years, his guerrilla band, which now numbered in the dozens and sometimes in the hundreds, would harry Union forces and sometimes augment Confederate cavalry regiments.
By the second half of the war, the Federals were clamping down on guerrilla strongholds, especially Sparta, Tennessee. Colonel Thomas J. Harrison’s 8th Indiana Cavalry and Colonel William B. Stokes’s 5th Tennessee Cavalry scoured the area, skirmishing with partisans and raiding Ferguson’s farm twice. Ferguson was not home either time, having left to join forces with George Carter of Spencer, Tennessee, to raid Fentress County. The raid resulted in the death of Beaty’s son Dallas, among others.
On February 18, 1864, Stokes took possession of Sparta. The Union soldiers and the local Confederate partisans clashed often from then on. Ferguson fought at Calfkiller in White County on February 22 and was wounded in another engagement on March 11. No details are available about his wound. Soldiers of the 5th Tennessee Cavalry killed Scott Bledsoe, Ferguson’s old comrade, that March.
The Confederate guerrillas continued to destroy property and steal Federal stock. Major Thomas H. Reeves of the 4th Tennessee Infantry (Union), angry that the citizens of Sparta continued to secretly aid the Rebel guerrillas, took his command into town on July 15. He declared martial law and had every man he found arrested. The anguished denizens expected their town to be destroyed, but the 4th left the next day with only nine prisoners. According to Reeves, his men could boast of ‘unparalleled plunder.’
Within weeks, Union guerrillas had burned Ferguson’s home to the ground. Ferguson and his comrades headed south and joined themselves to Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry. They were then detached from Wheeler’s command and ordered to report to Major General John C. Breckinridge in southwest Virginia.
It was in Emory, Virginia, that Ferguson committed his most infamous murder. Ferguson and his men were with a small Confederate force at Saltville, Virginia, on October 2, 1864, when a Federal cavalry attacked. The Confederates put up a spirited resistance, and after a sharp fight, the Federals withdrew. The next morning at Emory, Ferguson and his lieutenant Rains Philpot entered the Confederate hospital where Federal wounded and prisoners had been taken. Some of those same soldiers later testified they had seen Ferguson coldly killing prisoners on the battlefield, especially black men and white men in their vicinity.
At the hospital, Ferguson shot Lieutenant Elza C. Smith of the 13th Kentucky Cavalry while he lay a helpless prisoner. Ferguson may have suspected that Smith had killed his comrade Oliver P. Hamilton while Hamilton was trying to surrender. ‘I have a begrudge against Smith,’ Ferguson was heard saying as he searched for Smith’s bed. ‘We’ll find him.’ The killing of wounded men and prisoners that Ferguson and his men did that day would go down in history as the Saltville Massacre.
The four-year quasi-military career of Champ Ferguson came to an end on May 26, 1865, when he was taken into Federal custody in Sparta. Ferguson claimed he had surrendered, while Colonel Joseph Blackburn of the 5th Tennessee Mounted Infantry claimed to have captured him.
Ferguson thought he would be paroled, as were other guerrillas who surrendered. What he did not realize was that the Federal government had singled him out, specifying that any attempt by him to surrender should be refused. He was taken to prison in Nashville and soon became the focus of a sensational military trial. He was charged with being a guerrilla and a murderer.
A long line of witnesses appeared against him. One was his archnemesis, Beaty. Afterward, a reporter asked Ferguson what he thought of Beaty. ‘Well, there are meaner men than Tinker Dave,’ Ferguson responded. ‘He fought me bravely and gave me some heavy licks, but I always gave him as good as he sent. I have nothing against Tinker Dave…. We both tried to get each other during the War, but we always proved too cunning for each other.’ He noted that he was a skilled shooter who always hit his mark, except when the mark was Beaty.
When the time came for Ferguson’s defense, he could muster only a handful of character witnesses. One was Joseph Wheeler, but support from even this well-respected general was not enough to sway the court. On October 10, Ferguson was found guilty and sentenced to hang.
‘I was a Southern man at the start,’ Ferguson said in his final statement. ‘I am yet, and will die a Rebel. I believe I was right in all I did.’ He reiterated that he had killed only those who had intended to kill him and that he had treated prisoners the way his own men had been treated by the enemy. ‘I repeat that I die a Rebel out and out, and my last request is that my body be removed to White County, Tennessee, and be buried in good Rebel soil.’
Ferguson was hanged on October 20, his wife and tearful 16-year-old daughter watching as his lifeless body dangled at the end of the rope.
Ferguson’s bloody war record reveals him to be a murderer who deserved his fate. Still, many of his contemporaries were no better than he, including some men on the pro-Union side, yet they escaped similar retribution. Beaty admitted he had taken up arms for the Union government without pay, which by definition made him a guerrilla. He could have suffered the same fate as Ferguson. Clearly, a double standard was being applied. Indeed, when pro-Union newspapers in Nashville covered the Ferguson trial, they referred to the defendant as ‘the monstrous criminal’ and Beaty as ‘the celebrated Union scout.’
After Tennessee was readmitted to the Union, Beaty became a respected citizen of the state. He even served as a member of the county court when he returned to Jamestown.
The irony of the similarities between Beaty and Ferguson could not have escaped Ferguson’s defenders. The same deeds that made a man a criminal could make him a hero if his side won.
This article was written by Troy D. Smith and originally published in the December 2001 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.
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