Ferguson’s private feuds were suspended for a while after the Huddleston fight, because he was too busy tangling with the regular Federal army. Over the next two years, his guerrilla band, which now numbered in the dozens and sometimes in the hundreds, would harry Union forces and sometimes augment Confederate cavalry regiments.
By the second half of the war, the Federals were clamping down on guerrilla strongholds, especially Sparta, Tennessee. Colonel Thomas J. Harrison’s 8th Indiana Cavalry and Colonel William B. Stokes’s 5th Tennessee Cavalry scoured the area, skirmishing with partisans and raiding Ferguson’s farm twice. Ferguson was not home either time, having left to join forces with George Carter of Spencer, Tennessee, to raid Fentress County. The raid resulted in the death of Beaty’s son Dallas, among others.
On February 18, 1864, Stokes took possession of Sparta. The Union soldiers and the local Confederate partisans clashed often from then on. Ferguson fought at Calfkiller in White County on February 22 and was wounded in another engagement on March 11. No details are available about his wound. Soldiers of the 5th Tennessee Cavalry killed Scott Bledsoe, Ferguson’s old comrade, that March.
The Confederate guerrillas continued to destroy property and steal Federal stock. Major Thomas H. Reeves of the 4th Tennessee Infantry (Union), angry that the citizens of Sparta continued to secretly aid the Rebel guerrillas, took his command into town on July 15. He declared martial law and had every man he found arrested. The anguished denizens expected their town to be destroyed, but the 4th left the next day with only nine prisoners. According to Reeves, his men could boast of ‘unparalleled plunder.’
Within weeks, Union guerrillas had burned Ferguson’s home to the ground. Ferguson and his comrades headed south and joined themselves to Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry. They were then detached from Wheeler’s command and ordered to report to Major General John C. Breckinridge in southwest Virginia.
It was in Emory, Virginia, that Ferguson committed his most infamous murder. Ferguson and his men were with a small Confederate force at Saltville, Virginia, on October 2, 1864, when a Federal cavalry attacked. The Confederates put up a spirited resistance, and after a sharp fight, the Federals withdrew. The next morning at Emory, Ferguson and his lieutenant Rains Philpot entered the Confederate hospital where Federal wounded and prisoners had been taken. Some of those same soldiers later testified they had seen Ferguson coldly killing prisoners on the battlefield, especially black men and white men in their vicinity.
At the hospital, Ferguson shot Lieutenant Elza C. Smith of the 13th Kentucky Cavalry while he lay a helpless prisoner. Ferguson may have suspected that Smith had killed his comrade Oliver P. Hamilton while Hamilton was trying to surrender. ‘I have a begrudge against Smith,’ Ferguson was heard saying as he searched for Smith’s bed. ‘We’ll find him.’ The killing of wounded men and prisoners that Ferguson and his men did that day would go down in history as the Saltville Massacre.
The four-year quasi-military career of Champ Ferguson came to an end on May 26, 1865, when he was taken into Federal custody in Sparta. Ferguson claimed he had surrendered, while Colonel Joseph Blackburn of the 5th Tennessee Mounted Infantry claimed to have captured him.
Ferguson thought he would be paroled, as were other guerrillas who surrendered. What he did not realize was that the Federal government had singled him out, specifying that any attempt by him to surrender should be refused. He was taken to prison in Nashville and soon became the focus of a sensational military trial. He was charged with being a guerrilla and a murderer.
A long line of witnesses appeared against him. One was his archnemesis, Beaty. Afterward, a reporter asked Ferguson what he thought of Beaty. ‘Well, there are meaner men than Tinker Dave,’ Ferguson responded. ‘He fought me bravely and gave me some heavy licks, but I always gave him as good as he sent. I have nothing against Tinker Dave…. We both tried to get each other during the War, but we always proved too cunning for each other.’ He noted that he was a skilled shooter who always hit his mark, except when the mark was Beaty.