Over the past few decades, our understanding of Civil War irregular warfare has been greatly enhanced by a number of excellent local and regional studies published in essay and book length format. However, until now, no scholar has attempted a broad scope examination of the subject on a national scale. The difficulties are legion. Definitions are murky, and individual motivations numerous as the stars and often confined to local conditions not easily explained or understood. At the time, neither side could agree on the legal state of a range of behaviors, and, consequently, the proper disposition of captured persons variously labeled as, among other terms, recruiting officers, raiders, bushwhackers, partisan rangers, jayhawkers, and guerrillas. At various times, both sides (with misgivings) actively promoted their use while at the same time seeking to deny the enemy the same privilege. One of the best known scholars attempting to make sense of this complex and messy subject is University of Arkansas professor Daniel E. Sutherland. His new book, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War is the first modern study that examines irregular warfare spanning the continent, and how it shaped the character and conduct of the Civil War, the unintended consequences of which hastened Confederate defeat.
Sutherland has long maintained that the guerrilla conflict was far from an irritant sideshow to the clashes of the great armies. It was the war experienced by the vast majority of the southern population. A Savage Conflict effectively supports this observation, one that seems to be gaining steam with every publishing season. Utilizing material gleaned from over 600 manuscript collections, as well as legions of published primary accounts and other books, articles, newspapers, government records, theses, and dissertations [the bibliography alone is a valuable resource], the geographical reach of Sutherland's land and sea narrative stretches from Texas to Florida and from the Gulf coast up to the Great Lakes. Attentive to detail, the work presented is remarkably comprehensive. Even the most dedicated students will find numerous starting places for further research.
The one significant point that the author fails to do is explicitly categorize irregular operations, something along the lines of what Robert Mackey attempted in his book The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865*. While that author effectively differentiated between "partisans", "guerrillas", and "raiders" (all three discussed within the context of the acceptable military practices of the time), Sutherland seems content to use "guerrilla" as a catch-all term for individuals as far apart in character and operational conduct as J.O. Shelby and John Hunt Morgan on one extreme (raiders), and Champ Ferguson and Tinker Dave Beatty (guerrillas/bushwhackers) on the other. Even so, the gray areas surrounding each type can be significant, and distinctions imperfect.
Throughout his book, Sutherland effectively traces the countryside's inexorable descent into civil chaos, a situation that rapidly accelerated in 1862 with Confederate conscription and the Partisan Ranger Act. The U.S. government deplored the Ranger Act from the beginning as sanctioning unlawful warfare, and even the Confederate government and military was deeply conflicted over its propriety, in terms of its exposure of the civilian population to harm and as a serious siphon on recruiting. As the war dragged on into 1863, the worst fears of both sides began to be realized, as ever expanding regions of the South and Border States were given to robbery, property destruction, murder, and other forms of physical violence. Rangers could simply not be controlled, and, while some bands did operate successfully as a kind of civil defense force, their own actions and the harsh retribution meted out in return often left locals with nowhere to turn for protection. The violence spiraled out of control, effectively disbanding courts and government services and wrecking regional economies. Finding that the Confederate government could not protect them (the first obligation of any government) from the enemy or from the depredations of their own "defenders", increasing numbers of southern civilians came to view Union occupation as the lesser of two evils. Thus, guerrilla warfare ended up seriously eroding public support for the Confederacy, a decisive factor [not the decisive factor, as the author is careful to maintain] in southern defeat.
Sutherland also examines the U.S. government's response to the irregular conflict, noting that the severity of countermeasures often depended upon the attitude of the local commander, as policy direction from above was inconsistent and advice nearly always after-the-fact. Union generals like Robert Milroy in Tennessee and Stephen Burbridge in Kentucky shot and hanged large numbers of suspected guerrillas (with or without trial), while others conducted themselves in a more measured manner. Additionally, a comprehensive study of guerrilla warfare such as this leads one to reject the simplistic, and inaccurate, supposition commonly found in the literature, of a linear progression from conciliatory to hard war U.S. policies. In the Trans-Mississippi and western theater border regions, it is abundantly clear that "hard war" existed from day one.
A Savage Conflict is an original work of weighty import to the ongoing study of the conduct and nature of the American Civil War. Successful on its own merits, it should also lead other scholars to delve into previously untouched (or understudied) local conflicts, as well as critically reexamine the role of guerrilla warfare in hastening the demise of the Confederacy. Highly recommended.
* - The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865 (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2004).
Other recent CWBA reviews of UNC Press titles:
* In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat
* The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864
* Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign
* Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession
* Trench Warfare under Grant & Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign
* Plain Folk’s Fight: The Civil War & Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia
* Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign
* Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864