Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia by Brian D. McKnight. Louisiana State University Press, 2011. Cloth, ISBN: 0807137693. $34.95.
Scholarly interest in Civil War guerrillas has burgeoned over the past decade and, with the sesquicentennial in full swing, more guerrilla-related titles will likely roll off the presses in the next few years. As part of Civil War studies, the guerrilla war has mostly stayed—or been kept—at a distance from the master narrative of armies and battlefields, finding its way into the scene mostly through the harrowing tales of its more prominent participants like John Singleton Mosby, William Quantrill, or William “Bloody Bill” Anderson. Of late, however, scholars have zeroed in on this “irregular war” and those who waged it not to rehash bloody deeds but to understand why this internecine conflict erupted, how it impacted individuals and communities caught in its vortex, why the conflict became so brutal, and the ways in which it influenced the war’s overall outcome. With the publication of A Savage War: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War, Daniel Sutherland provided the first significant scholarly overview of the guerrilla conflict and opened the way for more sophisticated studies seeking answers to these questions.
A fine example of one such work is Brian D. McKnight’s Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia. Having already published one book on the war in Appalachian Kentucky, McKnight is well suited to examine the life of that region’s most notorious and legendary guerrilla, a man accused of committing at least fifty-two murders who was, after a highly publicized trial before a military commission, found guilty and executed in 1865. Since that time, Ferguson has been the subject of several works, most recently Thomas May’s Cumberland Blood: Champ Ferguson’s Civil War (2008), which was the first modern scholarly treatment of the infamous guerrilla. But McKnight’s study is far more sophisticated than previous works because he delves much more deeply into the Appalachian borderland context that shaped Ferguson’s worldview before the war and helped turn him into a killer after it began. As the author shows, Ferguson fit Sutherland’s basic description of the irregular warrior as a “natural man,” a primordial being driven by instinct and emotion in a quest for survival in an environment where life often had little value (17). But how and why Ferguson became that way is where McKnight really contributes. The economic, religious, political, and family context of Clinton County, Kentucky, left indelible imprints on Ferguson. Before the war, however, his life was mostly indistinguishable from his neighbors and, though practiced at violence and law-breaking, he was not a cold blooded killer. But as the war ripped apart his family and divided his community, life in the borderlands took on a more primitive cast. In this chaotic environment where distinguishing between friend and foe became a daily ritual, Ferguson grew increasingly paranoid and obsessed with his own survival. “He was a Confederate,” states McKnight, “and those who were not with him were against him” (10). This became so all-encompassing that he started committing “preemptive murder” to neutralize perceived threats. Add to this his Calvinist religious convictions (an influence Mays rejects but McKnight establishes rather convincingly) that men were either good or bad and that God’s judgment and vengeance were absolute and unconditional and it becomes clear, as McKnight argues, why Ferguson embraced the “radical and illogical actions that internecine war brings about” (16). The influence of a faith that sanctioned retributive justice, an overriding paranoia, complex loyalties, and a cold, calculating pragmatism are what truly transformed Ferguson from a peacetime “rough and tumble farmer” into a “chronic murderer” during the war (11). As McKnight weaves these factors into the narrative of Ferguson’s life and deeds, he reveals in unsettling detail how an “everyman” became a fearsome killing machine and provides a chilling example of the banality of evil.
McKnight also demonstrates how Ferguson’s actions at times meshed with a main issue in the Civil War. For example, after the Confederate victory at Saltville, Virginia, in 1864, Ferguson wandered the battlefield and calmly and methodically executed wounded black Union soldiers because he believed, like many white southerners, that arming blacks posed an unacceptable challenge to the racial order and was thus an unpardonable sin that deserved harsh punishment. But even as he enforced the racial order at Saltville, albeit in his own small way, his personal agenda was never far from his mind. Shortly after the battle, Ferguson also settled a very personal score when he murdered Lt. Elza Smith, a Union officer from Clinton County and a relative of Champ’s first wife, as he lay wounded in a hospital bed. The reason he gave for killing Smith was self-defense, the same rationale he—and other guerrillas—often used to justify their bloody deeds. “He was wounded, and in the hospital,” Ferguson admitted, but “I knew he would get well, and my life wouldn’t be safe, so I killed him” (152). And this was neither the first nor the last time Ferguson would preemptively attack an enemy who was bedridden or in some way defenseless.
McKnight’s description of Ferguson’s trial and execution, as well as how the former guerrilla became a sympathetic figure to some, is judicious and even-handed. He also effectively argues that, despite the claims of his supporters, Ferguson never received an officer’s commission in the Confederate army and was therefore not protected from prosecution for his exploits. This critical distinction helped a military commission convict him of being a guerrilla and for multiple murders, leading to his execution for those crimes. In the final chapter entitled “Quiet Resurrections of an Unlikely Hero” the author attempts to assess the birth and development of Champ Ferguson’s legend. Though his line of argument runs aground at times, particularly in his attempt to link Ferguson to the main character in the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales, McKnight’s discussion shows that both the image of the brutal guerrilla and the less sinister figure of legend remain fixed in the public mind, evolving and transforming with the times but always there. He concludes the book with a wonderful comparison of two historical markers placed in Ferguson’s old stomping grounds several decades ago. One monument calls him a terrorist who preyed upon both sides, implying that he was an unprincipled mass murderer who richly deserved his fate. The other tablet refers to him as “Cap’t. Champ Ferguson” and portrays him as a home-grown freedom fighter who was “the only protection the people of the Cumberland and Hickory Valley area had against the Federal guerrillas” (191-92). Though both monuments contain historical inaccuracies, McKnight believes “the real story—the real truth—probably lies somewhere in between.” What is perhaps most interesting, however, is that these two dueling interpretations—Ferguson the Terrorist and Ferguson the Defender of Hearth and Home—continue to exist side by side in the region in much the same way that the people of the borderlands viewed Champ even as he stalked the land in search of enemies to dispatch.
This book is an excellent, well-written analysis that will become the standard biography of Champ Ferguson and will also be essential reading for those seeking insights into the motivations of borderland guerrillas and how the war affected the inhabitants of Southern Appalachia, a place that experienced a real civil war, though it was hardly ever civil. Champ made sure of that. After the war, Sam Hildebrand, an infamous Missouri guerrilla, felt no need to apologize for the bloody deeds he committed during the war, stating: “I sought revenge and I found it; the key of hell was not suffered to rust in the lock while I was on the warpath.” (Kirby Ross, ed., Autobiography of Samuel S. Hildebrand: The Renowned Missouri Bushwhacker, pg. 29) Champ Ferguson could easily have written those words but with one crucial difference. He did not bother with the key to the door of hell, he just kicked it in.
William Feis is a Professor of History at Buena Vista University. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the Civil War including Grant’s Secret Service.