Our Back Pages: This Week in Print Over the Years


This week in 1865, across Church Street and down a bit from Tribe and Play, Confederate raider Champ Ferguson pulled hemp without foothold.
  • This week in 1865, across Church Street and down a bit from Tribe and Play, Confederate raider Champ Ferguson pulled hemp without foothold.
Our Back Pages brings you tidbits of Nashville history from near and far, chronologically speaking. This inaugural weekly edition features the 1930 travelogue of a Nashville rabbi in the heart of soon-to-be-Nazi Germany, one of Willy Stern's fine investigative reports for the Scene from the 1990s, and the execution in Nashville of a Confederate hero, months after Appomattox.

79 years ago: Encountering an ancient hatred

Rabbi Julius Mark of Nashville's Congregation Ohabai Sholom -- then better known as the Vine Street Temple and now simply as The Temple -- recalled his recent visit to Germany in the Nashville Banner of Oct. 19, 1930.

Mark had attended the Oberammergau Passion Play, held every 10 years in a Bavarian town. There, three years before Hitler's rise to power, he observed the modern population's enthusiasm for a narrative based on a medieval image of the Jew as Christ-killer.
The experience no doubt chilled Mark, but he responded by sounding an ecumenical note, saying he remained "incurably optimistic" about the future of relations between Jews and Christians. Non-Jews just needed to improve their understanding, he seemed to say:
People who view the spectacle seem to forget that all the figures before them are Jews. To them Judas is the typical Jew and the rabble thirsting for the blood are typical Jews, while Jesus is not considered a Jew at all. For one thing he is not represented to look like a Jew, as are Judas, Caiphas and others. As a matter of fact, Jesus was the typical Jew. He was born a Jew, lived a Jew and died a Jew. He observed Jewish forms and prayed in a Jewish synagogue on the seventh day Sabbath. His teachings are all Jewish teachings, in line with the teachings of the prophets who preceded and the rabbis who succeeded him.
As detailed in a 2007 NashvillePost.com story, Mark was on his way to an illustrious career by the time he published these observations. During World War II, he would serve on the staff of Admiral Charles W. Nimitz as Jewish chaplain to the Pacific fleet.

Leaving Nashville in 1948, he would become senior rabbi of Manhattan's Temple Emanu-El, which was said to be the largest Jewish congregation in the world by the 1960s. Upon his retirement from that post in 1968, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller hailed Mark as a "tireless champion of interracial peace and justice."

10 years ago: Unguarded moments

In a series launched in the Scene's Oct. 21, 1999 issue, investigative reporter Willy Stern trained his sights on the thuggery of guards from a local private-security firm called Detection Services. Stern documented the guards' mistreatment of immigrant residents at the apartment complexes they were supposed to be securing from crime, as well as the complicity of Metro Police officers in the abuse:
It was a Saturday night in January 1999, and the clock had just struck midnight. Seated around a table at a Denny's Restaurant, eight private security guards smoked cigarettes, sipped coffee, munched on chicken strips, and passed the time.

The guards worked for the company named Detection Services, and their job was to act as night patrolmen for apartment buildings across Nashville. But none felt like working, and the company's owner, Larry Lawson, didn't care. He was seated at the table too. As long as the men fudged their time sheets, the owners of the apartment buildings would never know the difference.

But suddenly, Lawson declared: "I'm bored. Let's go down to taco city and fuck with the Mexicans."
Stern's series continued the following week.

144 years ago: At the end of his rope

Arguments over what to call Champ Ferguson rage online to this day. Was he a guerilla? An officer? A murderer? A martyr? A terrorist?

In the yard of Nashville's penitentiary (on Church Street, a little past where the Hustler Hollywood sits now), on Oct. 20, 1865, the United States government had its final say. Ferguson mounted a scaffold, spoke a few final words pleading that his body not be "cut up" by medical students in surgical exercises, and was dispatched into history.

The Tennessee Encyclopedia evenhandedly lays out the details of Ferguson's remarkable career. After initially forming a band of Rebel-sympathizing raiders in the wilds of White County, Tenn., he became at least formally attached to a series of Confederate military units while ranging across the Confederacy and into Union territory to carry out attacks on troops and supply lines.

Ferguson was accused of crossing the line from irregular warfare to cold-blooded murder several times, most notably after the Battle of Saltville, Va., in October 1864. Confederate authorities arrested him for slaughtering wounded African-American prisoners of war, though he was later released.

He turned himself in to Union forces at war's end, expecting to be covered by the general amnesty afforded to those who took an oath of loyalty to the U.S.A. Instead, the feds put him on trial before a military tribunal in Nashville. After three months of proceedings, he was sentenced to hang.

On the scaffold, as the presiding officer read a list of the charges on which he had been convicted -- 53 murders -- Ferguson spoke:
I don't know some things in those specifications. But I don't deny anything I ever done.
Ferguson's wife and 16-year-old daughter watched as the hanging was carried out, then took his body back to the family farm near Sparta.

Champ Ferguson was one of a very few Confederate officers ever tried and executed by the U.S. government. Henry Wirz, the notorious commandant of the Confederate prison at Andersonville, was hanged a few weeks later for war crimes.

One of the others was John Yates Beall -- the beau of Nashville belle Martha O'Bryan (yes, that Martha O'Bryan) -- who went to the gallows in February 1865 after he was caught trying to derail a civilian train in upstate New York.

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