Civil War Terrorist

Historical Marker #780 marks the birthplace of Champ Ferguson, a Civil War guerrilla who was hanged by Union authorities after the Civil War.

Ferguson was born in Clinton County, Kentucky, in 1821. By the time the Civil War erupted, he had already earned a reputation for being a violent man. Ferguson's notorious nature grew during the war years. In this region along the Kentucky and Tennessee border, the Civil War was more about personal grievances than politics. For Champ Ferguson, this was particularly true.

Clinton County was strongly Unionist during the war, but its neighbors to the south, Fentress and Overton counties in Tennessee, probably leaned toward the Confederacy. Just as this region was divided, so, too, was Ferguson's family. While Champ ultimately became pro-Confederate, most of his family supported the Union during the war. Several reasons have been posited why Ferguson ultimately chose to support the Confederacy. However, as Champ later explained, it was largely due to an 1858 murder conviction in Tennessee and its delayed trial. Ferguson reasoned that if the Confederacy won the war the charges would be forgotten. Unable to live in Clinton County due to his Confederate sentiments, Ferguson, his wife, and daughter moved to White County, Tennessee, in the fall of 1861.

Due to his knowledge of the area, Ferguson often returned to Clinton County for his wartime exploits. He soon began killing men who favored the Union. Several of his victims had been his close friends before the war. Ferguson's excuse for the killings was that these men would have killed him if given the opportunity. He seemingly delighted in catching his perceived enemies when they least expected it. He killed at least two men in their sick beds. He once told one of his victims, "don't you beg and don't you dodge," before killing him.

After the Battle of Saltville, fought in southwest Virginia in October 1864, Ferguson killed a number of wounded Union soldiers, both white and black. Arrested by the Confederate command for these acts, he was quickly released. The testimonies of his actions after Saltville are particularly gruesome and cold-blooded.

Ferguson continued his rampages in the Cumberland region in April and May of 1865, after most of the principal Confederate armies had already surrendered. He was finally caught at his farm in White County, Tennessee, and was taken to Nashville. There, he was charged, tried, and found guilty of killing at least fifty-three men, although the number was probably much higher. Ferguson always claimed innocence and said that he killed his enemies out of self-preservation, and that those men would have killed him if given the chance.

Ferguson was hanged on October 20, 1865, at the state penitentiary in Nashville. His final wish was granted. He had asked, "When I am dead I want my body placed in this box, delivered to my wife and carried to Sparta in White County and buried in pure, Rebel soil. I don't want to be buried in soil such as this."

Images

Champ Ferguson

Champ Ferguson

Born in Kentucky, guerrilla fighter Champ Ferguson was executed in Nashville by Union authorities after the Civil War. Image courtesy Frazier History Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. View File Details Page

Martha Ferguson, Champ Ferguson's wife

Martha Ferguson, Champ Ferguson's wife

An ambrotype of Martha Ferguson, the wife of Civil War guerrilla Champ Ferguson. Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, Champ, Martha, and their daughter moved from Kentucky to Tennessee. As Confederate sympathizers, they assumed they would be safer in the Volunteer State. Image courtesy Frazier History Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. View File Details Page

Champ Ferguson and his prison guards

Champ Ferguson and his prison guards

Shortly after the Civil War, pro-Confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson was arrested at his Tennessee farm. Taken to Nashville, Tennessee, Ferguson was convicted of killing fifty-three men. He was executed by Union authorities. Ferguson is pictured here with some of his prison guards in Nashville. Image courtesy Frazier History Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. View File Details Page

Tintype of Champ Ferguson

Tintype of Champ Ferguson

A tintype of pro-Confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson. Image courtesy Frazier History Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. View File Details Page

Champ Ferguson

Champ Ferguson

An ambrotype of pro-Confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson. Image courtesy Frazier History Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Tim Talbott, “Civil War Terrorist,” ExploreKYHistory, accessed March 29, 2017, http://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/164.

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