Monday, May 16, 2011

McKnight: "CONFEDERATE OUTLAW: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia"

[Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia by Brian D. McKnight (Louisiana State University Press, 2011). Cloth, 2 maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:192/252. ISBN:978-0-8071-3769-7  $34.95]

Equally comfortable cooperating with regular Confederate forces as killing unarmed former friends in their beds, Kentucky farmer Champ Ferguson may very well be responsible for more face to face killings than any other Civil War figure. In bands ranging in size from a handful of men to well over a hundred, Ferguson built an infamous reputation across a swath of adjoining border counties in south central Kentucky and north central Tennessee. Brian McKnight's Confederate Outlaw is the second Ferguson biography to appear within the last three years, the other being Thomas Mays's Cumberland Blood: Champ Ferguson's Civil War (SIU Press, 2008).

In his informative introduction to Confederate Outlaw, McKnight addresses critically the Ferguson literature up to the present day. Much space is devoted to highlighting differences between the work of Mays and his own. He rejects as lacking evidence Mays's contention that multigenerational motivations were at work in Ferguson's mind, but much of the interpretive conflicts between the two works appear to be matters of degree. McKnight offers an answer to Mays's perplexity over just why a successful farmer would elect to become an ultra violent guerrilla. He roots Ferguson's actions in the concept of social status anxiety, a pragmatic response to societal upheaval with heavy currents of paranoia. Indeed, Ferguson consistently defended his wartime actions as self defense, claiming his victims were hunting him and would have acted the same if they had caught him. There is an element of truth in this, but many of his killings were completely unjustifiable even when viewed in the context created by Ferguson. One problem with this thesis seems to be that participation in Civil War guerrilla activities tended to increase chaos and direct it in unpredictable often negative ways [a concept brilliantly presented in various works by historian Daniel Sutherland], the opposite result of what a status quo preserving individual would seek. On the other hand, participants at the time did not know how this would turn out, even though many prominent Confederate military and civilian leaders had such reservations in mind when opposing the Partisan Ranger Act of 1862.

In addition to analyzing issues of motivation, the book also examines Ferguson's killings in great detail. Much of the information comes from newspaper interviews with Ferguson himself (which were often contradictory) and fiercely partisan unionist writings such as J.A. Brents's The Patriots and Guerrillas of East Tennessee and Kentucky, but McKnight diligently combed archives, government records, newspapers, and published primary source materials as well as a multitude of secondary works in order to construct the most balanced and full picture of these events currently available in print.

McKnight also highlights the dual nature of Ferguson's participation in the war. Adept at fighting on his own hook, the guerrilla was also able to attach himself usefully to regular Confederate mounted forces led by men such as John Hunt Morgan, Basil Duke, and George Dibrell. One of his most notorious acts, the killing of wounded Union prisoners after the October 1864 Battle of Saltville, occurred during one of these interludes. In this section of the book, the author strongly disagrees with William Marvel's interpretation of the facts surrounding the "Saltville Massacre".

When the subject of guerrilla warfare in Tennessee is raised, the eastern section of the state is the geographical region most often discussed. McKnight deserves credit for bringing  the northern and more centrally located part of the Volunteer State in focus. The actions of other pro-Southern irregulars in those counties are described in the book as well as those of unionist guerrillas like Ferguson nemesis David "Tinker Dave" Beatty.  Counterguerrilla operations conducted by regular union formations are also summarized. Indeed, one hopes for a scholarly Beatty monograph to appear someday in the future, as the sustained attention paid to Ferguson reinforces the popular perception that bushwhacking was the domain of Confederate sympathizers.
Ferguson's trial and execution are treated fully in Confederate Outlaw. The trial result was never really in doubt, but Ferguson's own statements often made him his own worst enemy. The political aspects of the trial are also delved into.

All the major Ferguson biographies rely heavily on the many newspaper interviews conducted with the guerrilla during his imprisonment and trial, but McKnight's research and investigation is clearly the most thorough yet. The actions of Ferguson before and during the Civil War, and the details of his trial, are presented in far greater depth in Confederate Outlaw than both Cumberland Blood and the first and most sympathetic of the three toward its subject, Champ Ferguson, Confederate Guerrilla by Thurman Sensing (Vanderbilt U. Press, 1942). Confederate Outlaw is highly recommended reading for those seeking the best modern biographical treatment of Champ Ferguson's life and bloody Civil War career. The book's characterization of the guerrilla conflict along the middle Tennessee-Kentucky border is also particularly insightful.

Other CWBA reviews of LSU Press titles:
* Lincoln and Citizens' Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security
* War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914
* Isham G. Harris of Tennessee: Confederate Governor and United States Senator
* Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community 1861-1865
* Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War
* Homegrown Yankees: Tennessee's Union Cavalry in the Civil War
* John Bankhead Magruder: A Military Reappraisal
* A Wisconsin Yankee in the Confederate Bayou Country: The Civil War Reminiscences of a Union General
* Bleeding Borders: Race, Gender, and Violence in Pre-Civil War Kansas
* Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era
* Where Men Only Dare to Go Or the Story of a Boy Company, C.S.A.
* Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks
* Walker’s Texas Division, C.S.A.: Greyhounds of the Trans-Mississippi
* The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles
* A Crisis In Confederate Command: Edmund Kirby Smith, Richard Taylor, And The Army Of The Trans-Mississippi
* The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock

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