Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Just finished reading - Cumberland Blood: Champ Ferguson's Civil War by Thomas D. Mays

My dad's side of the family is from Clinton County, Kentucky. Talbotts have been there since the early 1800s, if not a little sooner. When I got interested in the Civil War as a boy, my grandfather told me a family story that had been passed down from generation to generation. It seems that the infamous guerrilla Champ Ferguson once paid a call to the Talbott farm to raid the corn crib, apparently for some forage for his men's horses. One of my ancestors who was a teenager at the time, snuck out of the house and took aim at one of Ferguson's men, if not Ferguson himself, and was ready to pull the trigger when his father stopped him. If the deed had been performed there is no doubt that Ferguson and or his men would have reaped vengeance against the family. Now, I don't know if this story is true or not. I don't have any reason to believe its not. And from what I have learned from reading this and other accounts about Ferguson, he and his men were frequently in and around Albany and Clinton County during the war and this episode fits the mode of operation.

Cumberland Blood vividly tells the story of man who has been viewed as both murderer and protector...depending upon who was doing the labeling. Champ Ferguson lived a colorful life even before the Civil War, but his exploits during the war brought his name and the Cumberland region into the national spotlight.

Ferguson was born on November 29, 1821 about four miles from Albany, Kentucky. Champ was the oldest of ten children born to William and Zilpha Ferguson. Like many youth during this time and in this region, Ferguson received little education. He once said that he probably only had three months of schooling. He could read and write, but not very well. Ferguson married in 1843 and had a son, but both mother and child died from and unknown cause within three years of the birth. Ferguson married Martha Owens in 1848 and they had one daughter named Ann Elizabeth. She would be a teenager during the Civil War.

Ferguson was a rising middle class farmer who owned a couple of slaves, and in 1860, his property was valued at $2000. Only 13% of the families in Clinton County could say the same. Ferguson was a large man for the time. He was over six feet tall and weighted about 180 pounds. He was known to be a gambler, a drinker, and a brawler. In the late 1850s he got into an altercation where he killed a man and went to trial, but the trial was still not settled when the Civil War began.

Champ did not choose sides immediately when the war started. In fact he was partial to the Union, and went to a number of Union rallies in Clinton County in the opening months of the war. But, when he heard about the stunning Confederate victory at Manassas he chose to go with the Confederates. This was not a popular choice in Clinton County because the county was largely Unionist. Kentucky war governor Thomas Bramlette was a native Clinton Countian and a company of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry was raised in Albany. Over in Frentress and Overton County, Tennessee, however, the sentiment was more mixed; even to the point of leaning more toward the Confederacy.

The Ferguson family, like so many other Kentucky families, was split by the war. Champ decided to go with the South, but his brother James joined the Union army. When the Union soldiers left Albany it quickly became a lawless town, and Champ Ferguson seemed to flourish. Finally, a Home Guard group captured Ferguson near the Tennessee/Kentucky state line and tried to transport him to Union Camp Dick Robinson, but Ferguson escaped. This episode appears to be what triggered the next four years of terror that Ferguson wrought to the Cumberland region...and beyond.

One after another, Ferguson began killing men that he knew favored the Union; many of which had earlier been his close friends. Ferguson's excuse for the killings was that these men would have killed him if they had the chance. Missouri's guerrilla war has been written about more than that of the Cumberland region, but William Quantrill and Bill Anderson had nothing on Champ Ferguson. He delighted in catching his enemies when they least expected it. He killed at least two men in their sick beds. He used pistols and, when possible, was especially keen with the bowie knife. He once told one of his victims "don't you beg and don't you dodge," before killing the man.

Ferguson was also involved in killing a number of wounded soldiers, both black and white, after the Battle of Saltville, Virginia in October 1864. He was even arrested by the Confederate command for these heinous acts, but was shortly released. The stories of his actions after Saltville are particularly gruesome and cold blooded.

Ferguson was finally caught after the war ended. He had been offered the chance to surrender, but refused and continued his rampages in the Cumberland in April and May of 1865. He was caught at his White County, Tennessee farm, where he had moved his family shortly after the war started. He was taken to Nashville and charged, tried, and found guilty of killing at least 53 men, although the number is probably higher. To the end Ferguson claimed innocence, and that the men he killed were killed in self defense, as those men would have surely killed him if given the chance. Ferguson only claiming that he killed proactively (in today's terminology).

His life came to an end when he was hanged on October 20, 1865, at the state penitentiary in Nashville. Ferguson's one 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."

If you are interested in reading about the war that doesn't get discussed much, but that effected so many people's lives on the Kentucky/Tennessee border, then Cumberland Blood is the book for you. I certainly recommend it for a fuller understanding of the divisive nature of the war and how some men waged the war in their own personal way.


  1. dragonflygurl4u@yahoo.comMarch 8, 2012 at 8:56 PM

    I recently discovered that Champ Ferguson was my paternal grandmother's great Uncle. She & her family were all natives of Albany, Clinton Cty KY. I am wondering if the Ferguson wing have a ancestral tie to Scotland but I have not found anything yey or nay....

  2. You might check Jack Ferguson's, Early Times in Clinton County. I believe it has a run of Ferguson genealogy. Good luck!