Champ Ferguson, Guerilla

The Battle of Saltville

Champ Ferguson at Saltville became one of the controversial figures of the Civil War. Chronicled in the biography Champ Ferguson, Confederate Guerilla by Thurman Sensing, Champ’s role in the execution of black prisoners of war after the Battle of Saltville has fueled debate since October 1864.

Champ was born to William R. and Zilpha Ferguson in Clinton County, Kentucky on November 29, 1821, christened Samuel. His forebears hailed from Scotland, and that area was known as the Kentucky Highlands due to the concentration of Scots. Clinton is on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, near the center of the state.

Champ Ferguson

Eastern Tennessee was a Union territory, western counties supported the Confederacy. Being near the middle, Clinton was well split into warring factions. Champ’s brother fought for the Union in the 1st Kentucky regiment, and the rest of his family sided with the Union as well.

“I never recollect havin’ much schoolin’ but I recollect of goin’ to school about three months, during which time I learned to read, write and cipher right smart.”

Champ Ferguson: An American Civil War Rebel

In 1843, Champ married Ann Eliza Smith, and they had a son together. Both Ann and the child died after only three years of marriage. In 1848, he married Martha Owens, and together they had a daughter the year later.

Martha Owens Ferguson

Before the war, Champ acquired a reputation as a drinker, a fighter, and a troublemaker. His mother tried to rein him in, but her eldest wasn’t listening. In 1858, he was in a bar fight with the constable of Fentress County, Tn. The magistrate agreed not to press charges if Champ joined the army.

The tension in the family grew, and Champ moved out, to Sparta, Tennessee. He joined John Bedsloe’s guerilla band and began terrorizing Union families. He reportedly stormed into the house of William Frogg, a Union family that had known him for many years, and shot William in the head before his wife and children. Champ had heard a rumor that William intended to kill him, and delivered “a pre-emptive blow”. William and others that Champ attacked had been at Camp Dick Robinson, a Union training camp for the Kentucky Home Guard.

Another of Champ’s victims was Reuben Wood, an older man who had cared for Champ in his childhood. Champ’s band confronted him on the road, and despite pleas for mercy, Reuben was slaughtered. Champ said of the incident:

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 on 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 regret for committing the act, and never will. He was in open war against me.’

Champ’s opposite number on the Union side was a guerilla named Dave Beaty. They hated each other passionately and wounded each other several times. Champ bore Beaty grudging respect as well as hatred, recognizing a spirit similar to his own. Beaty claimed that Champ was  ‘conscripting, killing, and shooting at Union men in general, including myself.’ Beaty raised his own band of guerillas on the Union side. 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.

Champ killed a sixteen-year-old walking down the road for carrying a shotgun, claiming he had orders to kill all armed men. In April 1862, he joined forces with John Hunt Morgan and scouted for Morgan’s cavalry in battles at Lebanon, Tennessee, Cynthia, and Gallatin (chronicled in my book The Clouds of War). Champ’s reign of terror attracted the attention of Union General Rosencranz, who gave orders to General Thomas and Frank Wolford’s 1st Union Kentucky Cavalry to destroy him. Wolford tried but narrowly escaped ambush himself. Despite his personal vendettas and murders, the citizenry of Sparta, TN spoke of Chance as one of their own and continued to aid him. In frustration, Union Major Thomas Reed and the 4th Tennessee took the town, declared martial law, and ransacked it. Then the Union burned Champ’s home.

Battle of Saltville

All this led up to Champ’s actions at the Battle of Saltville, in Emory, Virginia, October 2, 1864. Salt was extremely important in the South, both as a food preservative and in the process of curing leather. Emory had one of the largest salt works in the Confederacy. General Phil Sheridan and General Stephen Burbridge decided to destroy it. Anything that would deprive the Confederates of needed food was helpful in ending the conflict.

Confederate General John Breckinridge moved to the defense of the salt works. Trimble and Giltner were the first to come under attack. Trimble tried to reinforce Giltner but was beaten back. General Robertson with the 8th and 11th Texas marched to reinforce the small Confederate group, coming in behind McClung’s battery from the Chestnut Hill region – Champ Ferguson was with Robertson at the time of the battle.

The three Union columns then moved to attack Trimble’s position at the ford. One column went directly down Sanders’ hill, another moved along the river, and one swept across the wide bottom of the hill. The Federal forces crossed the ford, scaled the opposite cliff and attacked Trimble’s position. In response, the 10th Kentucky Mounted rifles and the 64th Virginia were sent to support Trimble. 

First Battle of Saltville

The Union forces were then repulsed on all sides, and the colored contingent was severely crippled after it made a series of determined charges against the Confederate right. Unlike the white Union units sporting Spencer carbines, capable of firing 7 shots from a tube and enjoying a sustained rate-of-fire of 21 rounds per minute, the black soldiers were given single-shot, muzzle-loading Enfields, which, upon being discharged while on the exposed embankment, were absolutely worthless. 

Confederate defenders, Saltville
Modern picture of Saltville Battlefield – Union troops had to charge up this hill

Chance Ferguson was not part of a regular Confederate army unit, just a militia of volunteers. He scouted and rode interference for John Hunt Morgan and Basil Duke. On October 2, 1864, the Federal cavalry attacked, but not in force due to delaying actions by other units. Chance was on the hill pictured, as the 8th and 11th Texas moved up to reinforce.

Union commander Burbridge was frustrated with the poor showing. The Federals had planned a pincer movement against McClung on the right and Preston on the left, but lacked the troops in the field at the same time that would have made it effective – the Federals had five thousand to the Confederates four hundred, but many of the Federals didn’t arrive until late in the battle. Burbridge decided to risk everything and poured an attack on the Confederate right at McClung (pictured). The Confederates hung on and repulsed the Union forces.

“It was nothing short of a rout with the Federals retreating in confusion and abandoning from carbines to more than 100 wounded left for dead. The murdering of any reportable number of black troops and white officers could only occur if the Union army left them during a hasty retreat. So contrary to Burbridge writing in his official report that it was an orderly and excellent withdrawal, it was every man for himself during the exodus of Saltville. Ammunition was exhausted, the Union army had pressed itself into a grinder, Confederate reinforcements had arrived, and Burbridge left under the cover of darkness to save his weary command from further disaster. While the defeat at Saltville was due to the poor planning and tactics of Burbridge, it was the chaotic retreat that would force the battle of salt into public spotlight. Instead of eyeing Burbridge for the debacle, Northerners would demand vengeance on those who had committed the murders of the defenseless black and white men on that day.
‘We whipped the enemy badly here’, recorded Confederate Brig. Gen. John S. Williams on the activity at Saltville.

‘The Yankees retired in confusion, leaving their dead and wounded in our hands. Their negro troops were also cut up’, continued Williams. “

Saltville Massacre

The next morning, Chance and a small group of his volunteers visited the hospital, where many Union wounded were being treated. Among these were members of the 13th Kentucky and the 5th US Colored Cavalry. Chance murdered fifty of them in their beds. Most of those killed were African Americans, but there were a few whites against whom Chance held a grudge. This event became known as the Saltville Massacre.

Another battle took place at Saltville 20 December – 21 December 1864. This time the Union was successful in destroying the salt works.

Ferguson Capture and Trial

Following the surrender at Appomatox, Ferguson was captured on May 9, 1865, by Colonel Joseph Blackburn. On May 12, the Nashville Daily Press and Times ran an article that stated: “Ferguson is one of the blackest scoundrels in the guerilla calendar, and we hope his career may be speedily brought to an ignominious close.”On May 29, Chance came to the military prison and was charged with war crimes. His trial began July 11.

During the trial, Chance’s lawyer attempted to paint him as a regularly commissioned Confederate officer, following orders. The prosecution said he was a guerilla vigilante carrying out personal vendettas. There was an affidavit in question to support Chance’s defense, but it was disallowed on grounds of the date of the affidavit being unclear. In an effort to allow a fair trial, the judge delayed the case to allow the defense time to muster evidence.

The trial dragged on, until finally on October 10, 1865, Ferguson was found guilty and sentenced to hang. He made a statement in response to the verdict:

I am yet and will die a Rebel … I killed a good many men, of course, but I never killed a man who I did not know was seeking my life. … I had always heard that the Federals would not take me prisoner, but would shoot me down wherever they found me. That is what made me kill more than I otherwise would have done. 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.

Johnson, James, Execution of Champ Ferguson, James K. Polk Papers, Box 1, Folder 9. (Tennessee State Library and Archives; Nashville Dispatch, 22 October 1865).

There seems little doubt about Ferguson’s guilt. His wife and daughter were present at the trial and execution. They mourned him greatly, and many remarked on the love he showed for them.

Asked at the end about his religious believe, Chance reportedly smiled and said, “Well, I believe there is a God, who governs and rules the universe, and that we are all held responsible for our acts in this world. I think in fact the Old Man has been on my side this far in life, and I believe He will stay with me and bring me out of this trouble all right.”

Champ Ferguson: Confederate Guerilla
By Thurman Sensing p. 7

His wife Martha lived until 1901, his daughter Ann Elizabeth until 1922.

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