Vengeance is Mine


Champ Ferguson with his prison guards, 1865
Champ Ferguson with his prison guards, 1865

The Union officially executed only two Confederates as war criminals, though there were probably over 1000 military tribunals for other crimes. These two were Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville prison, and Champ Ferguson, a partisan and very possibly the meanest Scotch-Irish SOB ever.

Wirz was Swiss, coming to America after the failed European revolutions in 1848. A university man, he opened up a medical practice and was a successful doctor when he entered the Confederate army as a private in 1861. He was wounded in the Seven Days battles in 1862, losing the use of his right arm, but promoted captain for his valor. Reliable and intelligent, he advanced to become a general’s aide and was later entrusted with Confederate dispatches to Confederate envoys in Europe.

Upon his return, Wirz was assigned to a prison in Richmond, where his talents as an administrator were recognized. In April of 1864, Captain Wirz was assigned to the newly-opened Andersonville POW camp in Georgia. Andersonville was awful – makeshift tents, men sleeping on the ground, short rations, no firewood or cooking utensils, lice, scurvy and other diseases, bad water full of human waste, and ultimately predatory gangs testing Darwinian Theory. Andersonville received about 45,000 POWs, of which about 13,000 perished – about the same as its Yankee counterpart at Point Lookout, actually.

For which Dr. Wirz receives unfair condemnation. Wirz did not choose the site or the water supply. If the prisoners were on short rations, so were the guards, all of which had something to do with Sherman “making Georgia howl” in 1864.

Wirz was neither a dummy nor a sadist. Recognizing that feeding and caring for the Yankee POWs was beyond his resources, in July of 1864 Wirz released five prisoners with a petition signed by thousands of the POWs seeking reinstatement of the prisoner exchanges cancelled by the Federal government the previous summer. The Yankees rejected the petition; the emissaries, bound by their word, returned to captivity. Later in the year, all of the prisoners who were well enough to be moved were marched to better locations in the hope of saving their lives. Wirz permitted the POWs to try, punish and even hang the gang members who were preying on their weaker fellows. Wirz tried several of his own men for mistreating prisoners and gave them balls and chains to wear alongside the POWs. Bottom line, he was actually trying very hard not to run a death camp – a real challenge where one has no food, no shelter, no medicine, and one’s charges are drinking from the sewer.

In the end, Wirz’s efforts did him little good. Captured in May of 1865, he was transported to Washington and charged with murdering Yankee POWs. He was tried in the Capitol building by Yankee officers headed by Ben Hur author Lew Wallace, a show-trial of a scapegoat with a predictable outcome. He was accused of thirteen murders, some whereby he beat men to death with his revolver or stomped them to death, or set dogs on them – not really something one visualizes a physician doing. He responded with documentation demonstrating that he had in fact done all in his power to care for his charges. No less than Lee himself vouched for his efforts, corroborated by a Catholic priest tending the prisoners. Hearsay to the contrary was admitted. Some of the witnesses were not even there at the same time as Wirz. The most effective Yankee prisoners received rewards for their testimony. After he was hung, someone noticed that the prosecution’s star witness had most likely perjured himself.

Wirz begged clemency from President Johnson, who let it be known that his life could be spared if he linked Jefferson Davis to atrocities at the camp. Major Wirz chose an honorable death rather than implicate Davis with lies. He was hung at the Old Capitol Prison on November 10, 1865. As a final indignity, the drop was too short – no doubt by design since hanging was an established science by this time. His neck did not break, so he squirmed a long time before choking to death. He is buried at Mount Olivet cemetery in D.C. He was hung where the Supreme Court building is today – think about him when you pass.

Champ Ferguson, on the other hand, was not such a gentle soul; by his own admission, he personally killed over 100 men. Some say Clint Eastwood anti-hero Josey Wales is loosely based on Ferguson. But Ferguson was mean in the way Devil Anse Hatfield (also a Confederate partisan) was mean – awesomely mean, mean as performance art, mean way beyond the ken of modern metrosexual sissies. How would one know it was Ferguson ambushing you? Well, who else would be throwing heads taken from the last ambush into the road? Taylor Swift warns all he’s ever gonna be is mean – he’s okay with that, and thanks for noticing.

Before the war, Ferguson was a successful farmer with a wife and daughter, living in eastern Tennessee where it meets Virginia and North Carolina. Ferguson was mean even before the war. In 1858, he and some friends tied the local sheriff to a tree; then he rode around the tree hacking the sheriff to death with a sabre. He also stabbed another man at a religious revival, though the victim lived. When the war broke out, the Confederacy decided it might have use for this sort of man and offered to forgive his priors if he joined the army.

Ferguson did join. His Unionist counterparts then made the mistake of marching his wife and daughter through town naked (and maybe worse) while he was on patrol. He vowed to personally kill every man who participated; the story is he kept his promise. The last was a Union officer who had been wounded at Saltville in October 1864. When Ferguson heard the Union partisan was in hospital at Emory & Henry College, he rode there straightaway, found the guy, and shot him in his hospital bed.

In the mountains of Tennessee and Virginia, there was not much official government control on either side, meaning that atrocities were common-place and personal, as one often had Hatfield-McCoy issues to work out with the neighbors. So Ferguson had no hesitation in killing neighbors he suspected of favoring the Union – he would simply knock on the front door and gun them down when they let him in.

Ferguson is probably most notorious for murdering Colored troopers captured at Saltville. There are three versions of this story. First, that Ferguson was seen on the battlefield personally executing wounded Negroes and their white officers. The second is that he was seen in the hospitals executing Colored cavalrymen and stopped only upon the approach of Confederate regulars in Thomas’ Legion. The third is Ferguson’s own, given at his trial; he was not on the battlefield to execute anyone because he was miles away at Emory & Henry, preoccupied with killing the Union man who had insulted his wife. Executing captured blacks was unofficial policy in 1864, so Ferguson really had no reason to fib. He also readily admitted to personally killing over 100 men – twice the number of killings he was on trial for – and he knew they were going to hang him no matter what he said.

Ferguson was captured when he returned to his farm after the war. The prosecuting witnesses were Unionist partisans – pretty much the Hatfields trying the McCoys – so the outcome was predetermined, though the Unionist guerillas were guilty of plenty of atrocities themselves. Ferguson was hung at age 43 in October of 1865 – maybe. There is a story that sympathizers bribed the hangman to botch the hanging in a good way, permitting his wife and daughter to spirit off his coffin before anyone caught on. Supposedly the family moved to California, where Ferguson had a son. The son visited Saltville in the early 1900s and let on Ferguson had survived – in the end just too mean to kill.

I thought of Ferguson, and people like Ferguson, years ago when I read Pat Buchanan’s editorial titled New Tribe Rising? Read it for yourself at: http://buchanan.org/blog/new-tribe-rising-3930. Recognizing that our nation is as divided as it has ever been, Buchanan argues that a new type of white American, the Tea Party type, is arising as America loses the culture wars. I disagree with Buchanan and subscribe more to Jim Webb’s view of the Scotch-Irish in Born Fighting. These people have never gone away, though they are dismissed as rednecks or hillbillies or “Teabaggers.” Webb argues convincingly that the core values that used to define American culture, and which newcomers assimilated into, arose out of Scotch-Irish values like self-reliance, contempt for authority and a touchy sense of personal honor enforced by personal combat, all burned into the middle class psyche during the nation’s formative years, say 1775-1836.

If Buchanan is right, it should (but probably won’t) give our masters pause that there are still plenty of Fergusons out there, slouching towards Washington to be born. Or, if Webb is right, these rough beasts have always been among us. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” which could be why “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Written by: Doug Coleman
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@coleman-lawyers.com.

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