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Wars Among the People: Rethinking Civil War Guerrillas

Posted on Friday, January 1, 2016 at 8:28 am

When the Society of Civil War Historians awarded its inaugural Tom Watson Brown Award to Dan Sutherland, Professor of History at the University of Arkansas, for “A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War,” it marked a “decisive” moment for historians of the conflict. At long last, historians intrigued by colorful guerrillas like William Clarke Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson, Champ Ferguson, John S. Mosby and the James Gang had earned a place of respectability in the study of the Civil War.  Long relegated to a sideshow with little meaningful impact on the war, guerrillas had finally emerged as an essential theme for academic and popular historians alike.

What explains this sudden respectability for guerrilla war study? And how has this new emphasis changed the way we interpret the Civil War today?  There are a few reasons for the emergence of the guerrilla that have to do with contemporary events, newly available resources, and newer approaches to military history generally.

While there have been isolated biographies of famous Civil War guerrillas going back to the late 19th century – many of them written by admirers of guerrillas or by those victimized by their methods – a watershed moment arrived with the 1989 publication of the late Michael Fellman’s “Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War.”  More of a psychological and sociological study of guerrilla warfare than a military history, “Inside War” was actually researched and written during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s.  As American soldiers fought a long counterinsurgency operation against Viet Cong fighters who disguised themselves as ordinary civilians, Fellman saw parallels between this experience and what Civil War guerrillas and civilians faced in Missouri.  Fellman examined the fluidity of loyalties, the calculated “survival lies” civilians told to endure attacks from both sides, the multiple stimuli to guerrilla action, and the descent into an amoral abyss that could engulf even the most upright citizens.  Later guerrilla-oriented conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq would revive and sustain popular interest in Civil War guerrillas as Americans sought historical parallels through which to understand complex wars halfway around the world.   Needless to say, the Civil War guerrilla story was not the glorious story of Gettysburg or Manassas.  It was something much more troubling. And it was close to home.

Just as important as the contemporary context of the Vietnam War was Fellman’s discovery of a vast new set of records at the National Archives that had never before been accessed.  Still under literal red tape, the records of the Provost Marshal General office would prove to be a gold mine for Fellman and for later scholars of guerrilla war.  They told of the countless police actions, skirmishes, drum martial executions, civilian atrocities, loyalty oaths (broken and kept), and general anarchy enveloping the Missouri countryside.   In subsequent years the National Archives microfilmed these records, most of which have now been digitized and, in many cases, indexed.  With these and other newly consolidated and digitized records of the Army Continental Command, the guerrilla war story is available to historians as never before.

Another contributing factor to the rise of guerrilla war studies is the integration of three schools of Civil War history – traditional military history that emphasizes command, strategy and battle tactics; social and cultural history of civilians in wartime; and a newer military history of the lives, experiences and values of Civil War soldiers themselves.  This is where Dan Sutherland’s book comes in. Not only does it discuss the tactics employed by guerrillas and the leaders and organization of guerrilla bands. It also reintegrates guerrillas into the traditional military history by showing how critical guerrilla tactics were for the struggle over supply lines, civil order, soldier morale, Constitutional principles and political settlement of the war.  He also assessed the changing official policy positions regarding guerrilla warfare, including the Confederacy’s passage of the Partisan Ranger Act and the Union army’s development of the famous “Lieber Code” that addressed civilians who harbor guerrillas.

When General Robert E. Lee turned down a request from many to keep up a guerrilla struggle after April 1865, he rightly pointed out that the Confederacy had deployed guerrilla warfare to a large degree already. And without a conventional force in the field, a newer guerrilla war would only bring more hardship to the people of the South without likely producing Confederate independence.  As theorists of guerrilla war have long noted, a successful guerrilla struggle depends on linkage with some kind of conventional military and political movement in order to secure its aims.  It can harass an enemy, even to the point of withdrawing from the field. But when it comes to establishing a new order it must turn to some kind of conventional force to defend the new regime.   At the same time, counterinsurgent operations must carefully calibrate its priorities: to annihilate guerrillas in a ruthless campaign or to win over the loyalties of the occupied and terrified public. This proved to be just as vexing during the American Civil War as it is around the world today.

What follows is a list of some excellent books to introduce readers to the study of guerrilla war during the American Civil War.  As the field is growing by leaps and bounds, this list will need to be expanded in coming years. But here is a good start:

• Michael Fellman, Inside War the Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri during the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
• Daniel E. Sutherland, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
• Stephen V. Ash, When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South, 1861-1865 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999).
• James Alex Baggett, Homegrown Yankees: Tennessee’s Union Cavalry in the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ Pr, 2009).
• Victoria Bynum et al., The Civil War Guerrilla: Unfolding the Black Flag in History, Memory, and Myth, ed. Joseph Beilein Jr and Matthew Hulbert (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2015).
• Richard S. Brownlee, Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy: Guerrilla Warfare in the West, 1861–1865, Reprint edition (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1983).
• Victoria Bynum, Victoria Bynum, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (The University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
• Albert E. Castel and Thomas Goodrich, Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla (Lawrence: Univ Pr of Kansas, 2006).
• Jonathan Earle and Diane Mutti Burke, eds., Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border, First edition (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2013).
• James W. Erwin, Guerrillas in Civil War Missouri (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012).
• Noel C. Fisher, War at Every Door: Partisan Politics and Guerrilla Violence in East Tennessee, 1860-1869 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001).
• Mark W. Geiger, Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri’s Civil War, 1861-1865 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
• Thomas Goodrich, Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare Western Border 1861-1865, First Edition edition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995)
• Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War (Cambridge University Press, 1997).
• Robert Russell Mackey, The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865, First Edition edition (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004).
• Brian McKnight, Confederate Outlaw Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011).
• Clay Mountcastle, Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals, 1st edition (Lawrence, Kan: Univ Pr of Kansas, 2009).
• Barton Myers, Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community, 1861-1865, 1 edition (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2011).
• Paul Christopher Anderson, Blood Image: Turner Ashby in the Civil War and the Southern Mind, 1 edition (LSU Press, 2006).
• Aaron Astor, The Civil War along Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2015).
• Sean O’Brien, Mountain Partisans: Guerrilla Warfare in the Southern Appalachians, 1861-1865 (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 1999).
• Jeremy Neely, The Border between Them: Violence and Reconciliation on the Kansas-Missouri Line, Reprint edition (Columbia: University of Missouri, 2011).
• Philip Paludan, Victims: A True Story Of The Civil War, 1 edition (Knoxville Tenn.: Univ Tennessee Press, 2004).
• James Ramage, Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2009).
• Kirby Ross and Daniel E. Sutherland, eds., Autobiography of Samuel S. Hildebrand: The Renowned Missouri Bushwhacker, 1st edition (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2005).
• T. J. Stiles, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2003).
• Margaret M. Storey, Loyalty and Loss: Alabama’s Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2004).

-By Aaron Astor

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