History of Ferguson's Independent Kentucky
and Tennessee Cavalry, CSA
I first became interested in Champ Ferguson a number of years ago when I
started reenacting with the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry. Because of my interest in
guerrilla warfare, it seemed only natural to adopt the persona of Champ
Ferguson, and in an attempt to present an authentic living history
presentation, I have (& continue) to research the life & exploits of Captain
The result is the following brief history of Champ Ferguson and his
Independent Cavalry Company. This is by no means a complete history, for
though a constant and bitter aspect of the War Between the States, little has
been recorded of the guerrilla warfare in the Upper Cumberland's, beyond a
few reports in the Official Records and oral tradition. We have endeavored to
provide a chronology of sorts, of Champ Ferguson's activities here.
It is my hope that the reader will keep an open mind as they read this
history, and though in the end you may or maynot agree with Champ Ferguson's
actions, I sincerely hope you will gain a better understanding of the times
that he lived in, & what motivated the man's actions.
Please bear in mind that while I maynot condone everything Champ did, as a
living historian seeking the complete story, I try & put myself within the
scope of the times & circumstances, and ask myself "what would I have done if
I had been in Champ's place"?
Champ Ferguson was a recognized leader among the ranks of cavalrymen in the area of his home during the War Between the States; Clinton Co., and Wayne Co., Ky.; Fentress Co., Overton Co., and White Co.,Tenn.
Albany, Ky. is a small town within the Cumberland Mountains, where Champ was born and lived growing up. The beautiful area sits within a very small valley in these mountains, and the farm land is very productive.
Champ Ferguson had been swindled in a business transaction by some men who lived in Fentress Co., Tenn. Ferguson received a judgement to reacquire his property, and he traveled to a camp meeting near the Lick River, and was attacked there by the Fentress Co. "gang".
After fighting them off, and turning himself into the local law, Ferguson was induced to join the Confederacy on the promise that the case would be dropped.
Most of Ferguson's neighbors in Clinton Co., Ky., including his own family, were Union advocates and had deeply resented his taking up the Southern cause. A more elemental code prevailed in the mountains than in the Blue Grass country. When a man took sides in the mountains, all ties were cut, and all on the other side became enemies.
In the Blue Grass, a father might send two son's to fight in the war, one to ride with the Blue, the other with the Gray, and welcome them both home again afterward equally.
But the code was different in the mountains. If one be against you, how can he be for you was a question answered with violence and death, at least pending the conclusion of the war.
Thus, a group of eleven Unionist "Home Guardsmen" from Champ's neighborhood, and led by Lieutenant Elzy C. Smith, seeking vengeance for what they considered his betrayal, and possibly taking advantage of the cloak of warfare to avenge themselves of other wrongs, real or fancied, at his hands; forced their way into Champ's home while he was away, shortly after the war began. They forced his wife and teenaged daughter to undress and cook a meal before them in this manner, and then whipping them, they drove the women down the public road thus unclad! (note: some local histories contend that the women were molested/raped, a tradition that has also been handed down by various members of the Ferguson family and related to this author).
Upon his return, Champ's anger knew no bounds, and it is said that he not only swore to track down and kill all eleven
involved, but it is reported that he swore to personally kill a 100 Yankees for this crime against his family (most authorities on the subject agree that Champ came close to this mark).
Thus an avenging angel was set loose upon the Unionist of the Cumberlands!
In January of 1862, the Battle of Mill Springs was fought in an area outside of Somerset, Ky. in what is now Nancy, Ky.; not far from Albany, Ky. Ferguson was noted to have been attached to Captain William S. Bledsoe's Cavalry, CSA, as a private. Bledsoe's Cavalry was mentioned as being at this battle. Though it is unknown if Champ was directly involved in the Battle of Mill Springs, he was probably doing some scouting, as he is
later noted. It should also be noted that later Capt. Bledsoe was considered a guerrilla commander.
About three weeks after the Battle of Mill Springs, Ferguson and about 20 other men showed up at the home of Union Homeguardsman & guerrilla leader, "Tinker Dave" Beatty. Some had on the Union uniform, some wore civilian clothing, and others wore the Confederate uniform. They were looking for, but did not catch
Beatty who was hiding in the hills above his home.
Though there had been some skirmishing prior to this, the partisan war between Union and Confederate forces began in earnest at this point, and would grow in intensity until the end of the war.
Of the Confederate guerrilla leaders of the Upper Cumberland, the best known were Champ Ferguson, Tom Yates of White Co.,
Campbell Morgan of the Jackson - Overton - Fentress Co. area,
George Bates of Wayne Co.,and Beanie Short of the Cumberland River country in Monroe and Cumberland counties.
In addition, on the Union side were the likes of Boney Pruitt of Cumberland Co., Rufus Dowdy and "Tinker Dave" Beatty of Fentress Co. "Tinker Dave" would be Champ's arch-nemesis for the next four years.
Champ Ferguson was commissioned in April of 1862, as a Captain in the Confederate service, and authorized by General Kirby-Smith to raise a company of cavalry for service on the Kentucky border, (his commission would be stolen from his home later in 1862 by Federal soldiers).
As early as March of 1862, small elements of John Hunt Morgan's Cavalry were acting in concert with Champ Ferguson in Fentress Co., seeking out Unionist guerrillas and Homeguardsmen there.
When General John Hunt Morgan made his entry into Ky., at the time of the Battle of Perryville, Ky., which were Generals Kirby-Smith and Braxton Bragg's attempt to throw off the yolk of Northern Aggression in Ky., Morgan's Men crowded around a campfire one evening prior to the battle to meet the man they
had heard so much about, namely "Captain Champ Ferguson"!
Ferguson was already famous for his tools of war, which were a Colt revolver and a Bowie knife.
Morgan's Cavalry certaintly had an interest in Ferguson, known to be a brave man, who controlled the Cumberland region.
Champ was associated with General Morgan's units many times as Morgan entered Ky. for one of his daring raids. Ferguson laid the route for both of Morgan's "First and Second Kentucky Raids",and he laid the return route for the "Christmas Raid", as well as his primary responsibility each time Morgan entered Kentucky in keeping
Union bushwackers and local Union Home Guards at bay while Morgan's command reached each destination, there-by contributing to John Hunt Morgan's success in Kentucky.
By this time Champ had killed a good many Unionist and Federal soldiers, some were of the eleven he hunted relentlessly for the assault upon his family, the others as a matter of course in battle.
He had a reputation for not taking prisoners (though this is not entirely true), and these rumors so concerned Colonel Basil W. Duke (Morgan's Brother-in-law and second-in-command) that Duke admonished Ferguson not to kill any prisoners taken by Morgan's command. Ferguson replied, "Why, Colonel Duke, I've got sense. I know it aint looked on as right to treat regular soldiers tuk in battle in that way. Besides I dont want to do it. I havent got no feeling ag'in these Yankee soldiers, except that they are wrong, and oughtn't to come down here and fight our
people. I wont tech them; but when I catches any of them hounds I got good cause to kill, I'm goin' to kill 'em".
Ferguson's command numbered anywhere from 4 to a couple hundred on occassion(usually a combined force of guerrilla commands, or with elements of Morgan's Cavalry, most usually with Champ in overall command); as evidenced in a Nov.12, 1862 telegram from Union Brig.-General J.T. Boyle in Louisville, Ky. to Major-Gen. Wright in Cincinnati, Ohio:
"Ferguson and Boles in Cumberland County with 200 or 300 men, devastating it. Can any cavalry be sent there?"
By the middle of December, 1862, Champ Ferguson was recognized by the Federals as a dangerous adversary.
By 1863, Ferguson was ranging further afield. Working in close liason with the forces of John Hunt Morgan, though probably not actually submitting to his command, Champ and his men were effectively aiding the Confederate causein the Cumberlands and proving themselves of more than an ordinary annoyance to the Federals in that region.
It was during one of these associations in 1863, that formal rolls were prepared for Captain Champ Ferguson's Cavalry Command, associated with Morgan's Command, but were delinquent in proper filing with the Confederate government,(this failure would come back to haunt Ferguson at war's end)...
A considerable detachment of Morgan's Men had raided Central Kentucky in March, and some of his men remained in the Cumberlands throughout April, May, and June, keeping Federal forces ten times their number on the qui vive. With the help of the Confederate guerrillas, the Federals throughout that whole section were being kept in a constant state of uncertainty. It will be noted that a good percentage of Federal Kentucky soldiers were being included in the detachments being sent out to hunt down the mountain guerrillas, but even so, they were finding Champ Ferguson and his men vertiable will-o'-the-whisps and their method of fighting confusing in the extreme.
During Morgan's "Great Raid" into Indiana and Ohio, (July 1863), Captain Ferguson, himself raided correlatively all the way to Bardstown, Ky. near Louisville, Ky. where he obtained supplies, arms and horses for his continued operations in Tenn.
In August of 1863, Champ and his command joined with the 8th Tennessee Cavalry (CSA)in an action against a brigade of Federals near Sparta, Tenn.
Historians fail constantly to ascertain the importance of controlling a region, especially in N.E. Tennessee and S.E. Kentucky. Champ Ferguson in 1864 actually did this in a very rough region of N.E. Tennessee and S.E. Kentucky which was full of Union bushwackers, Union Home Guards, and Federal Army.
Champ Ferguson actually even maintained equal footing with the Federal Army in 1864 after General Braxton Bragg's Army was driven from Tennessee into Georgia, leaving independent cavalry units alone in Tennessee to defend for themselves. Capt.Ferguson's command grew at this time to about 600 men per recorded comments within the Official Records. This was a great, but not well documented and recognized accomplishment of Captain Ferguson. To Ferguson's credit, the Official Records are full of remarks by Federal
Officers, who would later hold Champ in legal quarter in
Nashville, Tenn. They simply could not out-wit him or breakup his operations. In this period of history during the War Between the States, Capt. Ferguson was winning his war in his region, while the Confederacy was falling throughout the South.
The frustration of Federal officers in dealing with guerrilla warfare in the Upper Cumberland led to Brig.-General Hobson sending a dispatch to Louisville on Dec. 22nd, that read in part:
"My orders to scouting parties sent over the river to take no prisoners has had good effect..."
And in February of 1864, Federal Colonel William B. Stokes sent word to all known "bushwackers" that he would give no quarter! As a matter of recourse and survival, numerous confederate guerrilla leaders banded together with Champ Ferguson. These commands included:
~ Capt. George Carter, late of Co. A - 8th Tennessee Cavalry;
~ Col. John M. Hughes, formerly of S.S. Stanton's Regt.- 25th Tennessee Inf.
~ W.S. Bledsoe, who as of late had also been with Stanton
~ Col. Oliver Hamilton
On Feb. 22, 1864, Ferguson, with 40 men ambushed 80 Federals from Col. Stokes command (5th Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry, U.S.); in what is known as the Dug Hill Road Fight (or the Battle of the Calfkiller). Col. Stokes had sent out a scouting party to "scour the woods" along the Calfkiller for guerrillas. Champ, well informed as usual, of the Federals movements, gathered 40 men and planned an ambush where Dug Hill Road led out of Dry Valley, and waited for the Federals to pass on their way to Sparta. A decoy of two guerrillas lured the Federals into the trap, and in the ensuing ambush the Federals lost half
Champ Ferguson is mentioned again in the Official Records on July 15th, as leading a party of guerrillas who drove off 500 U.S. horses near Kingston,Tenn.
In August of 1864, Champ Ferguson linked up with the cavalry command of General Joseph Wheeler. Champ was not with General Wheeler more than a month before he and his men were ordered to report to General Breckenridge in southwest Virginia.
In October, 1864, Ferguson and his command took part in the controversial Battle of Saltville, in SW Virginia. The battle, a major success for General Breckenridge, has had to suffer the taint of accusations of "atrocities" committed against troops of the 5th US Colored Cavalry (U.S.C.C.), a claim made by embarrassed Federal officials, and in dispute to this day. Champ Ferguson was caught in the middle of this controversy, accused of the
killing of wounded white and black Federal soldiers. These charges would be a part of those made against him at the end of the war.
It was at the Emory and Henry Hospital that Champ caught up with the eleventh man of his vendetta, Lt. Elzy C. Smith, who, serving with Co. F - 13th Kentucky Cavalry (U.S.), was wounded at the Battle of Saltville. Champ found Smith lying upon a hospital cot, and after asking him where he wanted it, shot Smith once in the head.
His family avenged, Champ Ferguson and his command then rejoined General Wheeler, who was dogging Sherman's footsteps through Georgia and South Carolina.
Around February 1, 1865, Ferguson was ordered back to Wytheville, Va., as Confederate authorities investigated the Saltville charges. Due to a lack of evidence and witnesses, Confederate authorities dropped the investigation.
Five days later, General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
In a telegraph to Union General Thomas on April 28, 1865, General Stoneman wrote: "Champ Ferguson is in command in Southwest Virginia". With some hard riding, Champ and his men were back in Clinton Co., Ky., by May 1st. At this time, Federal authorities were rounding up guerrilla commands in the Cumberland mountains, and though offering paroles to most, these
authorities had a different opinion of Ferguson and his command, who had made life so difficult for them and embarrassed them at every turn, and who had as yet to surrender.
In a dispatch from the Official Records, dated May 16, 1865; Captain H.C.Whittemore, Acting Assistant Adjutant General in Nashville, wrote to Major-General Milroy: "In accordance with orders heretofore published of the Major-General commanding the Department of the Cumberland, Champ Ferguson and his gang of
cut-throats having refused to surrender are denounced as outlaws, and the military forces of this district will deal with and treat him accordingly. By command of Major-General Rousseau."
With this and other dispatches to follow, it was clear that the Federals officials branded Ferguson and his command as outlaws, and would not accept his surrender!
And yet, Col. Joseph Blackburn, commander of the 5th Regt. of Tennessee Mounted Infantry (U.S.), sent a dispatch to Ferguson arranging for his commands surrender.
On May 23rd, 1865, after negotiating with Col. Blackburn, Champ Ferguson and his men surrendered under the same terms given to Generals Lee and Johnston, and were released under "verbal parole" to return to their homes. Three days later (May 26th), Federal soldiers came to Champ's farm in White Co., Tenn., and
arrested him, taking him to Nashville for trial.
From July 11th to October 19th, 1865, Champ Ferguson was held in a small, dark, stone-walled cell, as he stood before a Federal Military Commission for trial of "war crimes". In a very biased and one-sided sham "trial", Champ, denied the opportunity to present a competent case in his defense, was found guilty of 53 "murders" (it is claimed by some that he killed twice that number, and that he himself could not recall the exact number).
The actual "trial" lasted from July 11th until September 26th, 1865, and on October 10th, an order of execution by hanging was announced.
On Friday, October 20th, 1865, after spending the morning with his wife and daughter, Champ, dressed in a new black cloth frock coat, with vest and pants of the same material, and a neat, white shirt, made his way to the excution scaffold, surrounded by a detachment from the 15th U.S. Colored Infantry. With
wrists and elbows tied behind his back, the charges and sentence were once again read. Upon their completion, and without evincing a single emotion, and with iron nerve and countenance firm and determined, Champ replied "I am ready to die."
The prayer was read and a white hood placed upon his head. Asked if he had any last remarks to make, he replied that he had plenty to say if he only knew how to say it. He asked, instead, that his remains be placed in "that box", nodding towards the coffin, and turned over to his wife to be taken to White
County. "I do not want to be buried in such soil as this", said Champ.
The hood was then drawn over his face, and as Col. Shafter motioned for the executioner to take his post, Champ exclaimed in a clear and loud voice, "Lord, have mercy on my soul!" As these words fell from his lips, the executioner, with one blow of the hatchet, severed the rope which held the drop, and the trap fell....
Thus ended the life of the grim chieftain of the Cumberland Highlands, but the legend continues on.........
"The Execution of Champ Ferguson"
(Harpers Weekly ~ 1865)
A very special thanks to my good friend, Howard F. Swarts, Past-Commander of E.F. Arthur Camp #1783, SCV, for use of his program "Champ Ferguson, Ky. & Tenn. Mountain Cavalry, C.S.A."
Thanks also to Jack Ferguson, great-grandnephew of Champ Ferguson, and Ferguson cousins Anne Ferguson & Glen M. Ferguson for family information they provided to me...
Thanks also to Allen Sullivant, Tennessee Division of the SCV, for use of materials he has collected on Champ Ferguson...
PRINTED SOURCES :
"Champ Ferguson; Confederate Guerilla" ~ by Thurman Sensing
"Rebel Raider; the Life of General John Hunt Morgan" ~ by James Ramage
"Dont Go Up Kettle Creek; a Verbal Legacy of the Upper Cumberland" ~ by William L. Montell
"A History of Morgan's Cavalry" ~ by Basil W. Duke