Samuel “Champ” Ferguson was one of the most notorious guerilla fighters on either side of the Civil War. His partisan career is a prominent example of how personal revenge, criminal actions, and political allegiance all overlapped to motivate guerilla warfare in Tennessee. It also shows how Tennesseans were sharply divided between Confederate and Union sympathies in the highly contested region of the Cumberland Plateau.
Born near Albany in Clinton County, Kentucky, Ferguson moved to White County, Tennessee, with his family in the 1850s. According to local folklore, he made the move after Unionists in Clinton County drove him out and publicly humiliated his wife and daughter. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Cumberland Plateau was extremely volatile in its divided loyalties. The mountainous terrain that made military control of the area almost impossible also made guerilla operations the preferred tactics of belligerent locals, such as Ferguson for the Confederacy and his nemesis David “Tinker Dave” Beatty for the Union. Largely due to the efforts of Ferguson and his men, the area around Sparta in White County where Ferguson lived remained under the control of Confederate partisans until the end of the war.
Shortly after the beginning of the war in 1861, Ferguson gathered a band of armed men and began attacking Union partisans and sympathizers. Though he was considered, in official military correspondence, a Confederate “Captain” with a “company” of men, he was usually not formally attached to the Confederate Army and conducted his own operations independently. The Confederate Army recognized the usefulness of these partisan ranger bands; Confederate General Edmund Kirby-Smith authorized Ferguson in 1862 to raise a cavalry company for operations around the volatile Kentucky-Tennessee border.
In 1861 and 1862, Ferguson was most associated with Captains Scott Bledsoe and J. W. McHenry, both of whom commanded companies attached to the Confederate Army. In June 1862, Ferguson joined Colonel John Hunt Morgan as a guide during Morgan’s first Kentucky raid. Ferguson was nominally under the distant command of Kirby-Smith until August 1864, when he was transferred to General Joseph Wheeler’s command, which was harassing Major General William Sherman’s march through Georgia and South Carolina. He returned northward to participate in the Battle of Saltville, Virginia, on October 2, 1864, during which he supposedly slaughtered wounded prisoners of war, many of them from the Fifth U.S. Colored Cavalry. One specific murder with which he was later charged was that of a Lieutenant Smith, shot by Ferguson in the Emory & Henry Confederate Hospital after the Saltville battle. For this crime, the Confederate Army jailed Ferguson in February 1865; he was released a few months later.
By war’s end, the federal government had branded Ferguson an outlaw. Ferguson and his supporters responded that his actions were within the boundaries of just warfare and self-defense. He surrendered in May 1865, believing that he would be treated according to Confederate surrender agreements and paroled. Upon arriving in Nashville, his co-partisans were released, but he was arrested and tried as a guerilla. The controversial trial, which took place from July to September 1865, was a sensation among Nashville citizens and newspaper journalists. The defense, led by Judge Jo Conn Guild, maintained that Ferguson was a captain in the Confederate Army and should be paroled as such. The prosecution, led by Judge Advocate A. C. Blackman, claimed that, as a guerilla and outlaw, he acted outside the bounds of the army. Ferguson was charged with fifty-three counts of murder, which rested entirely on the evidence of a long line of eye-witnesses for the prosecution, including Beatty and several of Ferguson’s friends and relatives. Most of the witnesses subpoenaed by the defense failed to present themselves, with the notable exception of General Wheeler, who testified that Ferguson was indeed considered a Confederate officer. The military commission decided that, since Ferguson was not paroled, he was not to be accorded the protection of army status; he was sentenced to be hanged.
The execution took place in Nashville on October 20, 1865, with Ferguson’s wife and child in attendance. Champ Ferguson was one of only two Confederates who were executed by the Union Army, the other being Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville Prison. Ferguson’s last wish was to be taken back to his home beside the Calf Killer River in White County, Tennessee, which was granted. His grave now resides in France Cemetery, north of Sparta.
Noel C. Fisher, War at Every Door: Partisan Politics and Guerrilla Violence in East Tennessee, 1860-1869 (1997); Thurman Sensing, Champ Ferguson: Confederate Guerilla (1942)