Monday, June 6, 2011

Book Review--Confederate Outlaw

McKnight, Brian D.  Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia.  L.S.U. Press, Baton Rouge, LA. 2011. Index, bibliography, notes, map, b/w photos. 252 pages, 192 text. ISBN 9780807137697, $34.95.
Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia (Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War)Guerrilla fighters during the Civil War were a feared breed and perhaps the most feared of all was the legendary, or maybe infamous is a better word, Champ Ferguson. In his new book Confederate Outlaw, Brian McKnight shows Ferguson for what he was; a ruthless cold blooded killer who could still at rare times show compassion. Ferguson was at times working with small groups while at other times he served under men like John Hunt Morgan, Basil Duke, and George Dibbrell. This service and its ramifications is the subject of part of this book.

McKnight begins his book with an introduction where he discusses the literature of guerrilla warfare and Ferguson's place. Ferguson is portrayed as a product of his time and place. Home front paranoia, questions of loyalty and pragmatism are all related in the attempt to understand not just Ferguson but the Appalachian region during the Civil War period. Throughout, Ferguson claims his acts are in self defense. If he didn't act first his victims would have killed him instead.

Ferguson's murderous spree begins with the murder of Constable Reed in a particularly violent fashion. Ultimately Ferguson is tied to over 50 murders many of which are graphically detailed by McKnight. While graphic, these descriptions are needed to help paint the picture of the type man Ferguson was. Guerrilla war was often kill or be killed and Ferguson was an aggressor who cared little as to who he killed or how he did it.

When finally arrested in May of 1865 and brought to trial later that year there could be little doubt as to the ultimate outcome. Brought up on 23 cases involving 53 murders Ferguson plead not guilty. Ferguson and his attorney attempted to portray the guerrilla fighter as a captain in the Confederate army. As such he would be entitled to be treated as other officers based upon the terms of surrender. The defense was unable to provide proof of any appointment and this defense was denied ultimately leading to a guilty verdict. Champ Ferguson's reign of terror came to an end at the end of a rope on October 20, 1865.

McKnight nicely wraps up his work with a chapter outlining attempts to explain the Champ Ferguson mythology. Often repeated, but false, stories about his family having been assaulted or killed by Union soldiers led to the theory of revenge and family protection being motives for his actions. Other stories revolve around the murder of Ferguson's three year old son. Again this untrue story is given as a reason for Ferguson and his aim of vengeance. Perhaps the biggest claim however is of Ferguson being a Confederate officer. Ferguson however was never able to produce proof of an officer's commission and McKnight's extensive research does not validate the claim. Finally, as with almost all notorious individuals, there was an escape mythology. Stories ranged from Ferguson having "bought" his freedom and another man being hung to a dummy being hung in his place to an empty coffin being buried.

Brian McKnight has written an extremely readable book that should be on the shelves of anybody studying Civil War guerrilla warfare or the Civil War period in the Tennessee and Kentucky Appalachian area. Any future research on Champ Ferguson should go through this work as a starting point.

Thanks to the fine folks at L.S.U. Press for sending a complimentary review copy.

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