Let’s start the new year off with a profile of a forgotten cavalryman. It’s been too long since I last did one.
Milton Jameson Ferguson was born near Cassville, Wayne County, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1833. Friends and family called him by his middle name, Jameson. He was of Scots-Irish descent. His father, also named Milton J. Ferguson, owned a general store. He was described as “a studious young man, full of vim and vigor.” On September 21, 1854, he married Martha Jane Wellman.
In September 1853, at the young age of 20, he was admitted to the bar of Virginia and began practicing law in Wayne County. He had a busy and flourishing practice, handling litigation, estate, and real property matters. He was still engaged in the practice of law when the Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861, and was considered “the foremost man of the county.” That year, he was elected prosecuting attorney for Wayne County, but he did not get to serve in the position due to the secession of Virginia. The office was declared vacant in 1862 and another man was appointed to fill the term.
In 1859, Milton and his Joseph founded a Masonic Lodge in Wayne County. He also was a member of the Wayne County Militia, and when the colonel of the militia unit retired in 1857, Ferguson succeeded him as colonel of the 167th Virginia Militia Regiment. His unit saw action at the Barboursville, VA on July 13, 1861, when the Union 2nd Kentucky Infantry advanced on the town. The approach of the Confederate infantry caused the Kentuckians to withdraw, and violence was averted.
Ferguson was called “Wayne County’s outstanding contribution to the Confederacy and the Civil War.” Ferguson was 5’11”, had gray eyes, and dark whiskers. He had one of the war’s truly spectacular beards, reaching nearly to his waist. He made quite a presentation, with his long, flowing beard parted in the middle and flying over his shoulder as he led his unit into battle.
Ferguson was captured by Union troops in July 1861 and spent a stint as a prisoner of war at Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio. In January 1862, he and another Confederate officer were exchanged for Union officers of equal rank, and Ferguson returned to duty, and began recruiting a company of cavalry. The company was mustered in on September 16, 1862, and in the coming months, Ferguson recruited five more companies, sufficient to form Ferguson’s Battalion Virginia Cavalry. In January 1863, his battalion merged with another battalion of four companies, forming the 16th Virginia Cavalry, with Ferguson as colonel of the new regiment.
The 16th Virginia Cavalry was assigned to a newly-formed cavalry commanded by Brig. Gen. Albert G. Jenkins, a Harvard-trained lawyer who had just received his general’s star. He led his regiment is several actions, including a long raid intended to disrupt the formation of the new state of West Virginia in the spring of 1863. Jenkins’ command then joined the Army of Northern Virginia, and led the way into Pennsylvania for Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps in June 1863. After advancing all the way to the suburbs of Harrisburg, Jenkins’ men then led Ewell’s Corps to Gettysburg. After leading Ewell’s command to Gettysburg–and probably firing the first shots of the Battle of Gettysburg–Jenkins’ Brigade was split in half. Half, under Ferguson’s command, spent July 2 and 3 doing provost duty on Seminary Ridge, guarding prisoners and protecting the Confederate route of retreat.
Jenkins led the other half out onto the Confederate far left flank on July 2, and while reconnoitering in the area of Blocher’s (Barlow’s) Knoll, was badly wounded by shrapnel from a Union artillery shell. For some reason, word never reached Ferguson that Jenkins was down and that Ferguson now had command of the brigade. Consequently, that portion of Jenkins’ brigade, left leaderless, simply drifted away and failed to picket the roads to the north and east of Gettysburg, forcing two brigades of Confederate infantry to do duty that Jenkins’ horsemen should have done. That portion of Jenkins’ Brigade that failed to picket the roads on July 2 fought on East Cavalry Field on July 3, under command of Lt. Col. Vincent Witcher of the 34th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry.
Ferguson retained command of the brigade until Jenkins returned to duty in the late fall of 1863. During that time, the brigade participated in the November 6, 1863 Battle of Droop Mountain, where Union cavalry under command of Brig. Gen. William Woods Averell defeated a combined force of Confederate infantry and cavalry under command of Brig. Gen. John Echols, and which included Jenkins’ Brigade (with Ferguson in command of the brigade). Droop Mountain was the last large-scale combat in West Virginia during the war. When Jenkins returned, Ferguson reverted to command of the 16th Virginia Cavalry.
On February 15, 1864, Ferguson and 39 of his men were captured on Laurel Creek in Wayne County by Col. George Gallup and the 14th Kentucky Infantry. Ferguson soon found himself back at Camp Chase for a second stint, and was later sent to Fort Delaware and then on to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina before he was finally exchanged in late 1864. He served out the balance of the war, and was paroled at Charleston, West Virginia at war’s end.
After the war, he returned to Wayne County and tried to return to the practice of law. Because he was not permitted to resume his practice in West Virginia as a former Confederate officer, he relocated to Lawrence, Kentucky, and was elected judge there. In 1871, the law was changed, and Ferguson returned to Wayne County and resumed practicing law there. He built one of the larges and most extensive personal libraries in West Virginia, and was active in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Wayne County.
He died on April 22, 1881 at the young age of 48, and was buried in the Fairview Cemetery at Fort Gay in Wayne County, overlooking the Big Sandy River. He left behind his wife Martha Jane and three children, Henry Wise, born in 1855 and also an attorney, Lynn Boyd, and Luta. Another child, Volney Howard, died at the age of 8.
Milton Ferguson did his duty to the best of his ability. He had no formal training as a soldier, and proved to be a capable regimental commander who was clearly out of his depth as a brigade commander. The breakdown in the chain of command on July 2, 1863 was inexcusable, and kept two fine, veteran brigades of Virginia infantry from participating in the attacks on East Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill that night. One can only speculate what might have happened had Ferguson taken command of the cavalry after Jenkins fell and those two veteran brigades had participated in the unsuccessful Confederate assaults that night.
Here’s to Colonel Milton Ferguson, forgotten Confederate cavalryman.Scridb filter