Thursday, May 28, 2009

Walter G. Ferguson: Martyr for Kentucky

By Sam Flora

Winter came early, and in a most cruel fashion, to the South in November of 1864. A cold mid-November rain turned to ice that hampered Hood’s plans to invade Tenn
essee, and on the 15th Sherman burned Atlanta. In Lexington the afternoon of the 15th, it was more than just the miserable weather which chilled the soul, though, as Walter Ferguson and William McGhee were taken from the Water Street Prison which had held them, to the Fairgrounds (a Union encampment near where the University of Kentucky Administration building now stands). There they were to be hanged by order of Gen. Burbridge (see Terror in the Bluegrass, Summer ’04 issue),  McGhee for “murder” and Ferguson as a “spy”. George Ranck in “A History of Lexington” wrote of the macabre march:
   “Many a door and window was tightly closed that dismal day to shut out the horrible sights and sounds of that funeral march, and it was not without the sacred tribute of tears and prayers of the deepest sorrow that the soldiers died.”

   After their sentences were read there was a brief service by the Union post chaplain. Ferguson was “bold and composed” as he spoke, and protested again his innocence of the spying charge. An eyewitness recorded that he met his death bravely that bitter day, even as another victim of the Burbridge occupation and “justice”. The path which led to this horrid fate was not one which could have been easily guessed early in Ferguson’s life.

   Walter Garth Ferguson was born in Galena, Illinois on Feb. 20, 1841. He came to Lexington as a boy to live with his older sister Emily, wife of dry goods businessman William. E. Bell whose store was located on Main Street across from the courthouse. In 1860, he joined the local state guard unit, the Lexington Chasseuers. The Bell family was Unionist in sympathy, as were the majority of the Chasseuers (as opposed to Morgan’s Lexington Rifles who were mostly Confederate). Nothing is left to us to indicate what were Ferguson’s thoughts in going against family and military sympathy, but like so many Kentuckians caught in similar dilemmas, his decision to join the new Confederacy had to have been bittersweet.

   Ferguson enlisted at Camp Boone, Tennessee (the site, just across the state line, where so many Kentuckians went to enlist), on July 5, 1861 in Company B of the 2nd Kentucky Infantry. Company B was made up primarily of men from Fayette County (Lexington), commanded by Captain Robert J. Breckinridge (cousin to John C. Breckinridge). The 2nd Kentucky stayed at Camp Boone in training until ordered to take Bowling Green, Kentucky in September of 1861.

   On February 8th, 1862, the regiment was ordered as reinforcements to Fort Donelson. From February 10th through 16th the regiment fought in the trenches, in bitter cold and snow. The 2nd Kentucky was in the heaviest fighting of the battle and acquitted itself well despite being armed with inferior converted flintlock rifles.

   Ferguson was captured along with the rest of the 2nd Kentucky on the 16th when Fort Donelson was surrendered. Shortly after they were shipped by steamboat and train to Camp Morton in Indianapolis. Ferguson escaped “by walking past the guards” in March or April; likely in disguise, but how he was able to “borrow” the disguise isn’t known. He made his way back to Confederate lines where he joined Morgan’s command in Company A of the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry. Later he was selected for Quirk’s Scouts under Captain Tom Quirk. This was Morgan’s select company of scouts for his command; only the most daring and capable men were chosen for these “special forces”. Indeed, a comrade described Ferguson as “one of the most daring and fearless men I ever knew.”

   Ferguson served with Morgan in all his raids and campaigns in 1862 and ‘63. He was wounded while scouting near Crab Orchard, Kentucky on July 21st, 1862 on Morgan’s first Kentucky raid.

   During Morgan’s great Indiana-Ohio raid on July 5, 1863 at Lebanon, Kentucky, Ferguson performed an act of heroism that today would earn the Congressional Medal of Honor. General Basil Duke witnessed the feat and recorded it in his History of Morgan’s Cavalry. Morgan’s command had attacked Federal forces lodged in a strong position in the railroad depot from where they poured a heavy and sustained fire on the attackers of the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry. Duke reported:

“A gallant deed was performed, on that day, by private Walter Ferguson, one of the bravest men I ever knew; … His friend and messmate Logwood lay helpless and wounded not far from the depot, and Ferguson approached him and under the galling fire from the windows, lifted and bore him off.”

   Ferguson was captured again at the Battle of Buffington Island at the end of the Great Raid on July 19, 1863. He entered Camp Douglas in Chicago as a prisoner. Federal records do not indicate when, but Walter Ferguson had managed to escapedfrom yankee imprisonment once more before the year was over.

   He accompanied Gen. Morgan to Richmond in February and March of 1864, and seems to have been unofficially elevated by Morgan to Lieutenant (informal commissions being a standard operating procedure for Morgan).

   On Morgan’s last raid into Kentucky in June, 1864, Ferguson was cut off from the scattered command following the defeat at Cynthiana. With fellow scout James Elbert, they decided to don civilian clothes and make their way into Louisville where they hoped to garner enough money from friends to make their way North into Canada—believing their chances of successfully rejoining their command were going to be better through that long route rather than trying to pass through the heavily patrolled Union lines in Kentucky and Tennessee.

   Arriving in Louisville they registered at the St. Cloud Hotel under assumed names. However, they fell under the suspicions of under-cover Federal detectives (being travelers with no luggage) and were arrested by U.S. authorities while walking down Jefferson Street on the afternoon of July 5th, 1864.
   Ferguson and Elbert at first denied they were Confederate soldiers, but soon decided to tell the truth and sign statements that they are Confederate soldiers cut off from their command and have dressed as civilians in order to make their escape. To their surprise, instead of being treated as POW’s, they are soon charged as spies and sent to Lexington to await trial.

   Arriving as a prisoner in his hometown in early August Ferguson was lodged in the main Federal prison on Water Street near the Central Kentucky Railroad. The prison was formerly a three-story warehouse with iron shutters. The prison held Confederate regulars, suspected guerrillas, and political prisoners as well as Union deserters. A Confederate Colonel, John D. Morris, who was confined there at that time described it thus:

“A more filthy, loathsome, and uncomfortable place could not be well conceived, full of filth and swarming with vermin.”

   Disease was rampant and many of the prisoners were kept in irons. It was out of this prison that many of the victims of “Butcher” Burbridges’ retaliation executions were chosen.

   Ferguson’s “trial” before a military commission began on August 12th, 1864 and concluded the next day. His defense lawyer, Prewitt Morris, put up a spirited defense against the military prosecutor and officers of the court-martial. The prosecution called only two witnesses; the arresting officer and a William Owens who was either a Union spy or Confederate deserter (perhaps both), who testified that he saw Ferguson with Morgan in Atlanta in February of 1864. The prosecution rested, without having presented any positive evidence to support the spying charge.

   The defense called three witnesses; the first was W. H. Munday, clerk of the District Court. He had been serving on the staff of Gen. Burbridge at the Battle of Cynthiana on June 12, 1864 when he was captured near Cynthiana by two Confederate scouts on horseback—one of whom was Walter Ferguson. Munday stated that they kept him in with them until they heard that Morgan had been defeated and released him on the condition that he remain where he was for two hours. This testimony—from a Union officer—established Ferguson as a Confederate combatant.

   The second witness for the defense was Ferguson’s brother-in-law William Bell who testified that Ferguson was a regular enlisted soldier in Morgan’s command and that he had talked with Fergusoon in Lexington on June 10th, 1864. After this testimony the tribunal adjourned for the day.

   On the next day, the 13th, the third witness for the defense took the stand—another Union officer, Lt. Richard Vance was adjutant of the 26th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry (US), who had taken Ferguson’s sworn statement in Louisville after his arrest. This document stated that Ferguson had confessed to being a Confederate soldier, was cut off from his command after the Battle of Cynthiana and had donned civilian clothes in order to make his escape through Union lines and that he was in Louisville solely to obtain funds to make his way to Canada.

   Defense attorney Morris then produced this document and asked that it be entered as evidence. The prosecution objected and, after a brief discussion, the tribunal ruled the document inadmissible due to a technicality “that it lacked the proper stamps”, even though Lt. Vance had testified it was indeed the same document signed by Ferguson and witnessed by Vance. With this defeat, the defense rested.

   In the prosecution’s final statement, the Judge Advocate claimed that military law was clear that any enemy soldier found within the lines wearing civilian clothes was judged to be a spy and the law stated he should suffer death by hanging.

   In the defense’s long statement—which covered 22 hand-written pages—Morris looked more closely at the law, and quoted United States military law and Congressional acts:

“in time of war all persons, not citizens of, or owing allegiance to the United States of America who shall be found lurking around as spies in or about the fortifications or encampments of its Armies of the United states shall suffer death by sentence of General Court Martial.”

   Morris argued that the prosecution had not presented a shred of evidence indicating that Ferguson had been “lurking” around or attempting to gain any information on Federal military movements or sites. He argued that every witness had stated essentially the same facts that Ferguson had claimed; that he was a regular enlisted Confederate soldier cut off from his command and was attempting to pass Union lines by dressing as a civilian.

   With the climate of governance by terror instituted by Burbridge, it is not surprising that justice was subverted by the tribunal. Despite the prosecution presenting no evidence of spying, despite the defense presenting testimony from Ferguson’s enemies in the Federal forces proving him to be a regularly enlisted soldier, the court voted after deliberation to find him guilty and sentenced him to death. Perhaps the surprise was that the vote was not unanimous (it was 2-1).

   Ferguson, though, wasn’t through serving the Confederacy. Incredibly, he and Elbert (who was also, not surprisingly, convicted of spying) escaped the Water Street prison before the sentence could be carried out. One has to wonder if they had help; Ferguson was in his hometown, with family of Unionist persuasion vouching for him, and Unionist Kentuckians from many quarters beginning to chafe at the brutality and lack of justice under Burbridge. Ferguson may have had a number of “friends” in positions to help him escape at the prison, but however he did it, Ferguson had escaped for an incredible third time from Federal imprisonment.

   Ferguson found and joined Col. George Jessee’s 6th Battalion of Kentucky Cavalry (see the article on Jesse—an amazing man himself—on page 17) who were operating as partisan rangers at that time in various parts of central and eastern Kentucky. In Col. Jessee, Ferguson found a kindred adventurer renowned for daring. He served as a scout with them until captured again in Henry County in early November.

   This time there was nothing left to chance with Ferguson—already having escaped his yankee captors thrice—kept under close confinement until he met his death on November 15th. Among those who pleaded for his life against the false spying conviction was Miss Kitty Todd, a half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln, and Kitty’s mother Elizabeth (Mary Todd’s step-mother). Another story relates that Ferguson’s sister Emily begged on her knees for his life. However, by this time in the war, Lincoln needed cruel men willing to commit acts of injustice to crush the spirit of the Confederacy, and Burbridge was giving him what he needed. Lincoln later found Burbridge to have gone too far (after Unionist Kentuckians were declaring outrage), but not before his reign of terror had taken the lives of Ferguson and so many others. In November of 1864, though, Lincoln wasn’t about to intervene. 

   Walter Ferguson’s body was taken by his sister and laid to rest in the Bell family plot in section D of the Lexington Cemetery. Around 1904, the Lexington Chapter of the UDC decided to erect a suitable marker over his grave and placed a handsome granite marker there and upon the top were engraved the famous words of Revolutionary hero Nathan Hale: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

   Whether Ferguson spoke these words from the gallows or in a last letter to his family is not known, but they have been associated with his death in several sources.

      While Sam Davis of Tennessee is celebrated as a hero in his home state, Walter G. Ferguson is largely forgotten in Kentucky. Ferguson’s military record would overshadow Davis’s, and Davis was carrying sensitive information when captured, while Ferguson was no doubt innocent. Our failure to remember Walter Ferguson and his sacrifice should be a concern to all Kentuckians.

   When the Kentucky Confederate Soldier’s Home at Pewee Valley was opened, many of the rooms were named by the different UDC chapters for Confederate heroes. The Lexington chapter chose Walter Ferguson. Two men who would be residents there would have felt especially touched by that act of remembrance. One was James Elbert, who after his escape from the Lexington prison with Ferguson, successfully made his way into Canada, ran the blockade back into the South and rejoined his command before the war’s end. The other was Tom Logwood, the messmate whom Ferguson risked his life to save at Lebanon. Logwood recovered from his wound, survived the war, and was a businessman in Lexington and Chicago. He died at the Pewee Valley Home in 1930 at the age of 90.

   Such are the ironies and fortunes of war, where sometimes fate intertwines cruel destinies with the coincidence of later lives touched by fond remembrances of  sacrifices made “when we were soldiers, and young” .



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