Esther Frogg knew well the 20-year-old man standing at her front door on November 1, 1861, asking to see her husband, William. The visitor’s name was Champ Ferguson, and he was, like the Froggs, a native of Clinton County, Kentucky. Unlike the Froggs, however, Ferguson supported the Confederacy.
‘How do you do,’ she said and offered him a seat.
‘I don’t have time,’ he replied.
‘Have some apples,’ she said, gesturing toward the fruit she had just been peeling.
‘I have been eating apples,’ he said.
Ferguson did not want to sit. He did not want to eat. He did not want to talk. He wanted only to see William Frogg.
Esther told Ferguson her husband was sick and could not take visitors. But Ferguson was not to be deterred. He walked inside the house, leaving the two men who had come with him outside.
Ferguson approached Frogg’s bed, perhaps noticing the crib nearby where the couple’s five-month-old baby lay. Frogg told his visitor he had the measles. Indeed, he was on sick leave from his regiment, the 12th Kentucky Infantry (Union), though he no doubt withheld that bit of information from Ferguson.
‘I reckon you caught the measles at Camp Dick Robinson,’ Ferguson said. Camp Robinson was a sore point for Kentuckians who sided with the Confederacy. They believed that men recruited there into the Home Guard went on to fight for the Union.
Ferguson was through talking. He shot Frogg dead where he lay.
Frogg was not the first or last person to die at Ferguson’s hands during the war. There were dozens of others. Some of the killings were legitimate acts of combat, but others were nothing more than cold-blooded murder. Many of the victims were Union supporters whom Ferguson sought out more for personal reasons than political ones. In Frogg’s case, Ferguson said he had heard rumors that the pro-Union man was planning to kill him. Ferguson decided on a preemptive strike. ‘I told the boys that I would settle the matter by going direct to Frogg’s house and killing him,’ he later said.
Before the Civil War, Ferguson was known throughout the upper Cumberland Mountains on both sides of the Kentucky-Tennessee border as a ‘gambling, rowdyish, drinking, fighting, quarrelsome man.’ He ranged throughout the region as a hunter and a horse trader, becoming familiar with the whole region.
When the war began, Ferguson immediately sided with the Confederacy. The oldest of 10 children, born on November 29, 1821, he was now starkly at odds with his 9 brothers and sisters and his mother, all of whom supported the Union. The tension only grew when in late 1861 or early 1862, Ferguson moved his family to Sparta, Tennessee, and joined a pro-Southern guerrilla band headed by a local man named Scott Bledsoe. Soon Ferguson was captain of his own band.
Many legends that attempt to explain Ferguson’s ruthless animosity toward his enemies persevere through the efforts of his many admirers in Sparta and White County, Tennessee. In one account, Ferguson hated Yankees and their supporters because Union soldiers had shot his young son dead while the boy played innocently on the front porch, waving a Confederate flag. In reality, Ferguson’s only son died several years before the war began. An even more widely accepted explanation is that 11 Union men had come to his home while Ferguson was out and dishonored his wife and young daughter. The men forced the woman and girl to disrobe and march down the street, the story continued. Even Ferguson called this tale ‘absurd.’
Ferguson himself provided the most feasible explanation for why he entered the war, though it is less romantic than the others. Shortly before the war, he had been arrested for stabbing a constable in a brawl at a camp meeting in Fentress County, Tennessee. ‘When the War broke out,’ he later said, ‘I was induced to join the army on the promise that all prosecution in that case would be abandoned. This is how I came to take up arms.’