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ARTICLES Guerilla Warfare in Kentucky

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 Read more about “Louisville and the Civil War: A History & Guide” 

Louisville and the Civil War: A History & Guide.  This book traces the Civil War in Louisville and gives the reader a sense of how the city looked towards the Union and the Confederacy.  This includes discussion of how Louisville turned from a very pro-Union city towards supporting the Confederacy, or at least the Lost Cause.

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In 1863, 1864, and 1865 guerilla warfare plagued Kentucky.  Some of the most notorious, bloody thirsty men roamed Kentucky pillaging, looting, and killing.  Men like Sue Mundy, Champ Ferguson, Henry Magruder, William Quantrell, and Sam “One Arm” Berry, committed atrocious crimes on not only Union forces but also the general population.  Who were these men and how did Kentucky become the center stage for guerilla warfare?  This article will focus on the causes behind guerilla warfare, on some of the most notorious guerillas in Kentucky, and their demise.

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Some of the earliest beginnings of guerilla warfare can be traced to 1861 when Kentucky organized local pro-Union Home Guards to combat the pro-Confederate Kentucky State Guard.  The Home Guards were not state militia, nor a part of the Federal army.  They volunteered to join the Home Guard and received no pay for their services.  When the Union Central Committee disbanded the State Guard, the Home Guard obtained the State Guard’s weapons.  Without military restraints, the Home Guard took matters into their own hands and regulated the state to their own rules.  The Home Guard robbed, plundered, and harassed the citizens of Kentucky.  The Home Guard’s outrages on Kentucky citizens forced many into an atmosphere of hate and revenge.  The rise of guerillas partly came from the conditions created by the Home Guards, Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin’s lack of positive action to stop the atrocities committed by the Home Guard, and the excitement of citizens groups.  The division of families in their loyalties also created tension in the state.1  Historian Champ Clark described Kentucky as a land swarmed with “cutthroats, robbers, thieves, firebugs, and malefactors of every degree and kind, who preyed upon the old, the infirm, the helpless, and committed thousands of brutal and heinous crimes-in the name of the Union or the Southern Confederacy.”2

Champ Ferguson

Guerillas stole, plundered, and burned.  Many of Kentucky’s courthouses fell to the guerilla’s torch.  Their hatred and revenge could not be quenched.  These men had no connection or organization and roamed the countryside.  Some of the guerillas were deserters from both sides, others became guerillas who joined the outlaw gangs out of revenge or greed.  Many of the guerillas avenged real or fancied wrongs.  Kentucky became a refuge for the guerillas.  Word reached the guerillas in other states that neutral Kentucky was a fair hunting ground for thieves.

One of the notorious guerillas was Champ Ferguson.  Born on November 29, 1821, he came from a family of ten children.  His nine brothers and sisters and his mother supported the Union, but Ferguson supported the Confederacy.  In late 1861 or early 1862, Ferguson moved his family to Sparta, Tennessee and joined a pro-Southern guerilla band, led by Scott Bledsoe.  Eventually Ferguson became a leader of his own band of men.  The reason why Ferguson joined the war was because authorities arrested him for stabbing a constable in a brawl at a camp meeting in Fentress County, Tennessee.  He joined the army because authorities promised to drop all charges in the case he enlisted in the army.3

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During 1862, guerilla warfare plagued the Cumberland Mountains in Kentucky.  Lawless bands of men roamed the countryside stealing, and killing men simply because he was an enemy sympathizer.  The war drove family, friends, and neighbors apart over the issue of allegiance to the Confederacy or Union.  Rumors questioning a person’s allegiance could lead to death.  Champ Ferguson entered into the fiery, hostile atmosphere.  The Union prisoners he captured were shot or stabbed through the heart.  Rumors circulated that he may have decapitated some of his victims with his trusty bowie knife.  On April 1, 1862, Champ Ferguson shot sixteen year old Fount Zachery and stabbed him with his Bowie knife, because Ferguson claimed he had orders to kill any armed man.

Toward the end of April, Ferguson joined Colonel John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry and served as a scout.  Ferguson fought with Morgan at the Battle of Tompkinsville, Lebanon, and Cynthiana, Kentucky and Gallatin, Tennessee.  By the fall of 1862, Ferguson carried out only personal vendettas.  Several of the men he killed belonged to the 7th Tennessee Infantry (Union).  Major General William Rosecrcans ordered Colonel Frank Wolford of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry to hunt down Ferguson, but Wolford could never catch his elusive prey.

On December 31, 1863, Ferguson decided to wipe out his enemies in Kentucky.  He shot Union guerilla Elam Huddleston.  He killed Peter and Allen Zachery, sons of James Zachery.  Over the next two years, Colonel Thomas J. Harrison’s 8th Indiana Cavalry and Colonel William B. Stokes 5th Tennessee Cavalry searched for Ferguson and his band, but Ferguson continued to destroy and steal Federal property.

On October 2, 1864, Ferguson fought in the Battle of Saltville, Virginia where he created probably one of the worst massacres in Civil War history.  Union forces under Union General Stephen Gano Burbridge fought Confederate General John. C. Breckinridge’s Confederate forces.  Burbridge pulled back leaving his wounded on the battlefield.  Unfortunately many of the wounded were black Union soldiers from the 4th and 5th United States Colored Cavalry.  Ferguson scoured the battlefield looking for wounded black soldiers and cold-heartedly shot them to death.  He also killed Lieutenant Elza C. Smith, of the 13th Kentucky Cavalry, a wounded Federal officer in the Emory Hospital.

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Hanging of Champ Ferguson in Nashville on Oct. 10, 1865, Harper's Weekly

Like many of the guerillas, Champ Ferguson’s career came to an end.  Ferguson surrendered to Federal authorities when the war ended, but the Federal government decided to take him prisoner in Nashville and put him on trial for war crimes.  The military charged him with being a guerilla and murderer.  On October 10, 1865, the military court found Ferguson guilty and on October 10, 1865, he was hung, while his daughter and wife watched while his body dropped and the rope broke his neck.

Another infamous guerilla was Henry Magruder.  When the war broke out nineteen-year old Henry Magruder was living the quiet life as a country boy.  At first he stated that he did not know which side to join, but he claimed that the woman of the South called young boys who did not join the South as cowards or “Lincolnites.”  Major Jack Allen recruited for the Confederate army in Nelson County, Kentucky.  Allen set up “Camp Charity” near the Bardstown and Chaplin turnpike.  Magruder decided to join as a Confederate soldier at Camp Charity and after enlisting, the Confederate army sent him to Bowling Green, where he became part of the Buckner Guards, who acted as an escort for General Simon Bolivar Buckner, but later transferred as a guard for General Albert Sidney Johnston.  In April of 1862, a bullet killed General Johnston and Magruder found himself without a command.  Magruder joined Colonel John Hunt Morgan’s command.  Morgan attacked Pulaski, and burned a railroad bridge six miles from Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Magruder followed Morgan into Glasgow, Cave City, and Horse Cave, Kentucky.  Morgan left Kentucky and crossed the Cumberland Mountains and his command reached Chattanooga.4

In July 1862, Morgan rode to Richmond, Kentucky and reported to Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith.  Smith gave Morgan permission to raid the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and his men burned the Bacon Creek Bridge and captured the 40th Illinois Infantry.  They attacked Nolin and destroyed the track at Elizabethtown and burned the trestle at Muldraugh Hill.  After his raid, Morgan crossed the Cumberland.

On Morgan’s Great Raid in 1863, Morgan rode back into Kentucky and while he crossed his men on two captured steamboats at Brandenburg, he sent a diversionary force under Captain Davis to Twelve Mile Island near Louisville, Kentucky.  Magruder was a part of the diversionary force.  Union forces captured most of Captain Scott’s force, but Magruder managed to escape and rode back to Tennessee.  Magurder had no commander.  At Sparta, Tennessee, he joined Colonel Dibben of the 8th Tennessee, and later a Colonel Hamilton.  Magruder continually made raids between Kentucky and Tennessee harassing Federal troops.

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General John Hunt Morgan's raiders, Harper's Weekly, 1865.

By 1864, Magruder decided to join Jerome Clarke’s command. Jerome Clarke was also known as Sue Munday.  Magruder, Sam “One Arm” Berry, and Sue Munday rode together and committed a reign of terror in Kentucky.  While at Boston, Kentucky Magurder claimed that his men robbed the stores and took watches and money from the local citizens.  While at Springfield, Kentucky the citizens decided to fight back and fired at Sue Munday, Marguder and the rest of the party.  The guerillas jumped from their horses, kicked open the doors, rushed in, and killed three of the citizens.  After the firing ceased, the guerillas robbed the stores and citizens.  They took $300 from the bank safe and some silverware.  At New Haven, the guerillas robbed the stores and citizens of watches and money.  At Bardstown, the men robbed stagecoaches.

During the cold months of 1864, the men wanted adventure and rode into Bardstown.  Magruder stated that “nothing short of some blood from us, to deplete us, and bring our ardour into some correspondence with the weather, or some blood from our Federal friends to gorge and satisfy us-nothing short of this would answer that day.”  The guerillas attacked the courthouse in Bardstown, where thirty Federal soldiers took refuge.  During Marguder’s charge, the Federals wounded Berry.  Marguder and the rest of the guerillas retreated from Bardstown.

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By late 1864, Sue Munday, Magruder, and the rest of the guerillas continued in their burning of bridges and prowling the roads for victims to rob.  Magruder heard that William Clarke Quantrill arrived in Kentucky from Missouri.  Born on July 31, 1837, Quantrill was the oldest of twelve children.  As a child, he was twisted and cruel and reports claimed he nailed snakes to trees, shoot pigs through the ears to hear them squeal, and tied cats together by their tails and watched them claw each other to death.  At the age of sixteen, he followed his father’s profession and became a teacher, but by 1857, he moved to Kansas to seek his fortune.  While in Kansas, he linked up with thieves, murderers, and brigands.  By 1861, Quantrill committed several murders while fighting with the Confederate army at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington, Missouri.  By December of 1861, Quantrill organized a small band of pro-Confederate guerillas to fight and kill Union soldiers.5

By 1864, Union forces defeated most of the Confederate army in Missouri and Quantrill decided to leave the state before Union soldiers caught and executed him.  Quantrill and his men wore captured Union uniforms and he adopted to rank of captain and pretended to be Captain George Clark of the 4th Missouri Cavalry who was on detached duty to hunt guerillas in Kentucky.  His real mission was to take his guerillas to Washington, D.C. and assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, which he hoped would demoralize the Federal army and help the Confederacy win the war.  On New Year’s Day, 1865, Quantrill along with forty guerillas, including Frank James and Jim Younger, crossed the Mississippi River at Pacific, fifteen miles above Memphis, and entered Kentucky.

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On January 22, 1865, Quantrill arrived at Hartford, Ohio County.  According to Magruder, Quantrill told him that he was going on a long raid and asked Sue Munday and the rest of his gang to take his men and join him.  Sue Munday and his men decided to join Quantrill.  On January 29, 1865, Quantrill arrived in Danville and plundered a store, robbed some citizens and destroyed the telegraph office.  Union Captain J. H. Bridgewater pursued the guerillas from Danville and caught up with them at Harrodsburg, but Quantrill managed to escape.  On February 2, Quantrill burned the depot at Midway, Kentucky.  Several days later, on February 8, he captured a wagon train at New Market and killed three guards and captured four men.  Quantrill took the prisoners to Bradfordsville and murdered them.  Captain Bridgewater caught up with Quantrill’s men on the Little South Fork and killed four of Quantrill’s men.  Bridgewater surrounded Quantrill and charged, but Quantrill, Henry Magruder and about twenty men managed to escape.  Sue Munday ordered Magruder to lead what was left of the command and lead the men out of harms way.  Magruder and twelve men rode towards the Bardstown road to Pitt’s Point and to Lebanon Junction.  At Lebanon Junction, Magruder and his men caught four cars and an engine.  He burned the cars, the telegraph office, robbed the stores, and killed two soldiers.  Magruder left Lebanon Junction and rode onto Wilson’s Creek.

By March 12, 1865, fifty Federal forces, under Union Major Cyrus Wilson of the 30th Wisconsin, approached a barn ten miles south of Brandenburg and opened fire on Sue Munday.  Munday managed to wound four Federal soldiers.  Inside the barn were Henry Medkiff, Jerome Clark, and Henry Magruder, who had been wounded during the Howard’s Mill skirmish on May 9, 1865.  Clark surrendered and all three men were taken to Louisville.  On March 15, 1865, Federal authorities hung Sue Munday on 18th and Broadway in Louisville.  On October 29, 1865, Federal authorities hung Henry Magruder.

On April 14, 1865 John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater and when word arrived to Quantrill, his men got drunk at the house of Jonathan Davis and said: “Excuse us, ladies.  We are a little in our cups today.  The grand daddy of all the greenbacks, Abraham Lincoln, was shot in a theater at Washington last night.”  He called for the glasses to be raised and Sam “One Arm” Berry said: “Here’s to the death of Abraham Lincoln, hoping that his bones may serve in hell as a gridiron to fry Yankees on.”6

By late April, Quantrill and his men traveled up the Salt River and arrived at the house of James W. Wakefield in Spencer County.  Quantrill recruited some men to replace those he lost after battling Captain Bridgewater.  Captain Edwin Terrill, a Union guerilla, pursued Quantrill.  On May 10, 1865, Captain Terrill followed a fresh cavalry trail running north from Bloomfield to Taylorsville.  Stopping at a blacksmith shop, a black man told Terrill told him that a body of horsemen just entered and gone toward Wakefield’s barn.  Captain Terrill and his men charged down the lane towards the barn and took out their carbines and pistols.  Once in range, Terrill opened fire on Qunatrill’s men.  He caught Quantrill’s men by surprise.  Some of Quantrill’s men tied the horses to the barn and the rest of the horses ate hay in the stalls.  Some of Quantrill’s men were relaxing and having a sham battle with corncobs.  While Wakefield spoke with guerilla Dick Glasscock, guerilla Hockensmith was the first to see the Federal guerillas storming down the lane.  Shouts arose and firing began.  Terror and confusion reigned among Quantrill’s men.  His men scrambled for their horses and made for a retreat.  When Terrill began his charge, Quantrill was asleep in the loft of the barn.  He rushed to his horse, but the horse bucked and rode away.  He fled on foot and yelled at Hockensmith and Glasscock to wait for him.  As Quantrill ran alongside Glasscock trying to mount behind, Glasscock’s horse was hit by a bullet and became unmanageable.  Quantrill fired back at the pursing Federal guerillas, while trying to mount Hockensmith’s horse.  While running by Hockensmith, he was hit in the back by a ball, which entered at the end of the left shoulder blade, headed downward, and struck his spine, paralyzing him below his arms.  Federal guerillas shot him one more time, cutting off his index finger of his right hand.  Federal guerillas shot Glasscock and Hockensmith managed to get within four hundred yards of Glasscock when he was shot and killed.

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After the battle, Captain Terrill spoke with Quantrill.  Quantrill insisted that he was Captain Clark of the 4th Missouri Cavalry.  He gave Terrill his gold watch and five hundred dollars to allow him to remain at Wakefield’s house.  By military orders, the life and property of Wakefield became government property because he harbored guerillas.  Captain Terrill plundered Wakefield’s house.  After Wakefield paid off Captain Terrill, he rode off with his men and Wakefield summoned for Doctor McClasky.  The doctor told Quantrill his wound was fatal.  Some of Quantrill’s men rode back to see him and he stated that he could not be moved from the house.

On May 12, 1865, Captain Terrill appeared at the Wakefield house with an old Conestoga wagon drawn by two mules.  He placed a straw bed in the wagon and placed Quantrill into the wagon and headed for Louisville.  The next day, Captain Terrill with his prisoner, arrived in Louisville at the headquarters of General John Palmer.  Taken to a military prison, Quantrill lived until June 6, 1865, where he died from his wounds at the age of twenty-seven.

Champ Ferguson, Jerome Clarke, Henry Magruder, William Quantrill all met the same fate: death.  What made these men pursue a life of murder, plunder, and burnings?  Some of these men were psychopathic killers who found an outlet for their behavior in the turmoil of the Civil War, others avenged what they said were wrongdoings against them by the Federal government or Federal guerillas, others got caught up in the pleasure of plunder, but whatever their reasons, they all died at a young age, and their exploits will forever fill the pages of history with horror which brought fear to anyone who unfortunately came across the paths of the guerillas.


1Thomas Clark, Kentucky: Land of Contrast, (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 138.
2E. Merton Coulter, The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky, (The University of North Carolina Press, 1926), 228-229.
3Troy Smith, "Champ Ferguson: An American Civil War Rebel Guerilla," Civil War Times, Dec. 2001.
4Henry Magruder, Three Years In The Saddle: The Life and Confession of Henry Magruder: The Original Sue Munday, The Scourge of Kentucky, (Published by his captor Major Cyrus J. Wilson, Louisville, Kentucky, 1865).
5Stuart Saunders, "America?s Civil War: Guerilla Leader William Clarke Quantrill?s Last Raid in Kentucky," America?s Civil War, March 1999.
6Connelly, William, Quantrill & the Border Wars, (1909, reprinted New York: Smithmark, 1996), 465.

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