When the World is Really Out to Get You, Champ Ferguson and the Civil War
My old buddy Bill Carter used to say, “You’re not paranoid if someone really is out to get you.” Bill used to a say a lot of things so this one didn’t strike me as particularly important until I started writing Confederate Outlaw. To be fair, Bill was not a big Civil War fan but he did have a keen historical eye that constantly focused on history’s undercurrents. Bill was also no diplomat so when he got to the pith and marrow of an issue, he usually did so with the deftness of a chainsaw.
It’s hard to go around and give talks about a figure as controversial as Champ Ferguson and open with Bill’s quote without sending the wrong signal. As true as it is that Champ was convicted of fifty-three counts of murder and that he engaged in preemptive killings, it is also true that the Upper Cumberland region of southern Kentucky and Tennessee where he lived his life was a very dangerous place. He spent the full four years of the Civil War moving throughout a terrain ready made for ambushes among a people who had no compunction in behaving as guerrillas. In response to the pressures he felt from his enemies, Champ killed old men and teenagers; he killed old friends and longtime adversaries; and he justified his work by saying that “if I hadn’t killed my neighbor, he would have killed me.” At about the same time, Abraham Lincoln went on record regarding guerrillas by writing, “Each man feels an impulse to kill his neighbor lest he be first killed by him.” Maybe, in a very un-twenty-first-century-way, it does make sense.
In 1945, Cordell Hull won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in establishing the United Nations. Few other men were as well-equipped as Hull for peace-making since he had grown up in Champ Ferguson’s Upper Cumberland in the years after the Civil War hearing stories about his father’s wartime experience. Although he never said anything directly to his son about it, Bill Hull had been shot in the head by an unknown bushwhacker during the war. Surprisingly, he lived through the ordeal and a few years after the conflict ended, he was walking down the street in Tompkinsville, Kentucky, when a man said, “Why hello Bill.” In response, Bill Hull shot him dead and identified him as the wartime assailant.
If the world was out to get Bill Hull, which it was on at least one day of the Civil War, it was out to get Champ Ferguson on every day.
Brian D. McKnight is associate professor of history at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. His book Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia won the James I. Robertson Literary Prize in 2007. His book, Confederate Outlaw, can be purchased at 40% off during LSU Press’s Civil War Sale.