Dr. Daniel E. Sutherland is currently a professor in the history department of the University of Arkansas. He has written or edited twelve Civil War-related books*, and has graciously agreed to discuss with me his latest work, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (UNC Press, 2009).
DW: Prof. Sutherland, you have published widely on various aspects of the guerrilla conflict, what got you interested in the subject?
DES: Pure chance. Around 1992, the editor of the Arkansas Historical Quarterly asked me to write an article about guerrillas in Arkansas for a special Civil War issue of the journal. At the time, I had published an edited edition of the reminiscences of a Confederate soldier from Arkansas [ed. note: Reminiscences of a Private: William E. Bevins of the First Arkansas Infantry (University of Arkansas Press, 1992)] , but, having just moved to the state a couple of years earlier, I still knew little about the war in Arkansas, and virtually nothing about the guerrilla war. But the editor cajoled me, I complied, and the seed was sown. I then began to take notice of the guerrilla war in other parts of the Confederacy and to compare what had happened in those places to what had happened in Arkansas. I discovered enormous gaps in our historical knowledge of the guerrilla war, and soon realized that it had been treated, as Bruce Catton once wrote, as a mere “side show.” That was when I decided to take a crack at telling the whole story.
DW: I gather that you’ve been at the University of Arkansas for some time now. Have you noticed any trends – good or bad – in student interest in the study of the Civil War (in Arkansas or as a whole)?
DES: I have been at the U. of A. since 1989, but I cannot say that I have seen any shift in student interest in the war. Interest has remained consistently high, and I certainly have never had a problem filling my course on the war, which I teach every fall term. I think that may be due to my efforts to include all dimensions of the war. I devote about half the course to military history, but also address important political, diplomatic, economic, and social issues. Nor do I play favorites by presenting either a “northern” or “southern” view of the war. I think that is not always the case in college courses, and I know there is a trend in some places to slight the military side altogether.
DW: The best work on the guerrilla war remains the many local and regional studies published over the past few decades, covering nearly all the border and Confederate states. Do you view your own work in “A Savage Conflict” as a signal of sorts that we can now begin to synthesize all of this great foundational work?
DES: My intention was to write as much of a synthesis as possible, as well as to place the guerrilla war in the context of the broader conflict. Indeed, I wrote the book as a narrative of the Civil War, though told from the perspective of the guerrilla war. In order to do that, I relied heavily on existing local and regional studies, but I also filled in significant gaps with my own original research. Altogether, it took me about fifteen years to research and write the book. I think, though, that before the next synthesis of the guerrilla war is written, even more work should be done at the local and regional level. As I said, I tried to fill some of the gaps, but that is not to say much more might yet be done. I must say, too, that I am struck by the startling implications of this question: Who, fifteen years or twenty ago, would have suggested the need for a synthesis of the guerrilla war?! That old “side show” has finally been recognized for the important subject it is, and one worthy of continuing investigation. Bruce Catton would be pleased.
DW: Would you briefly outline for the readers what you feel to be the main point(s) you wished to get across to readers of “A Savage Conflict”?
DES: I tried to summarize those main points in a recent article for North & South magazine (the June issue). I listed ten issues in the article, but I suppose that number could be boiled down to four main points. First, I would stress the enormous geographical scope of the guerrilla war, which has been sorely underestimated. Most students of the war are aware of important pockets of guerrilla activity, such as Missouri and Virginia, but the fact is that fierce guerrilla conflicts could be found in every southern state plus Kansas and parts of the lower Midwest, from Iowa to Ohio. Second, it must be remembered that the guerrilla war was not a one-sided affair, waged only by the Confederates. Plenty of southern unionists also organized guerrilla bands to wage war against rebel neighbors. Third, and leading from this second point, the guerrilla war was not an entirely military affair, in the sense of Confederate guerrillas doing battle with the Union army. The majority of guerrilla violence came from conflicts between neighboring bands of rebel and unionists guerrillas, which struggled to protect their families and maintain control of their communities. Fourth, the response of the Union army to rebel guerrillas and to the civilian populations that supported them changed the entire nature of the war. This is where the war became a savage conflict. The Union army retaliated against everyone associated with rebel guerrilla resistance, thus spreading the violence of the war to parts of the South that never witnessed a conventional battle or dealt with an army of occupation. Add to this the bitter neighborhood wars between rival guerrilla bands and the tendency of the guerrilla war to dissolve into mere brigandage, and much of the South had fallen into utter chaos by the spring of 1865. These circumstances demoralized Confederate civilians, made them think their government could no longer protect them, and, if not turning them actively against the war, led them at least to prefer peace. So, far from being a “side show,” the guerrilla war was a decisive element in Confederate defeat.
DW: At this point, what direction would you like to see the study of Civil War guerrilla warfare take?
DES: As I said, we can never have too many studies of local and regional conditions. That is the best way to check and possibly correct the generalizations made in work like my own. Such micro-studies might examine the composition of guerrilla bands, to see exactly who became a guerrilla and why people preferred to fight the war in that way. They might also examine the reasons for those local wars, between rebel and unionist guerrillas. Were they caused by disagreements over political issues, or were economic concerns of great import? Perhaps they were purely personal affairs, family feuds if you will. I know all three of these things to have been important in some places. Personally, I would also like to know more about Union counter-guerrilla operations and the impact of the guerrilla war on the northern public’s perception of the war. I spend some time in my book discussing the response to immediate threats by rebel guerrillas to the security of the lower Midwest, but I think there is much more to learn about the situation north of the Ohio River. Speaking of rivers, I believe more could be done to understand the war between the Union navy and rebel guerrillas. Attacks on Union shipping on the western rivers, especially, was a major headache for the Federals, and retaliation by the Union navy was as fierce as that by the Union army.
DW: There does need to be more work published about the navy's role. In Punitive War, Clay Mountcastle did a good job of summarizing the extent and severity of the Brown Water Navy's retaliatory operations, but, like you say, there is more to be done. What do you think of Mountcastle’s thesis, put forth in Punitive War, that the southern resort to guerrilla warfare was the primary driving force behind the application of hard war/punitive (whatever one wishes to call it) war?
DES: Clay is exactly right, and, as suggested above, that is an important theme in my own book. The difference in our books is that Clay uses selected instances to make his case, whereas Union retaliation is a consistent sub-theme in my work. I would be careful, though, about suggesting that the Confederates “resorted” to guerrilla warfare. Rebel guerrilla bands were organized and engaged in action before any Confederate armies could be mustered, organized, equipped, and trained. Likewise, rebel guerrillas were the last of the Confederates to give up the war. The grand Confederate hope was to integrate the conventional and unconventional wars in a united strategy, but, for a variety of reasons that I discuss in the book, this proved impossible.
DW: Yes, "resorted" was simply sloppy wording on my part! I certainly agree that the irregular and regular 'wars' operated in parallel (with some cross-over) rather than from some sort of progression. In your opinion, what remains the most significant misconception among Civil War historians about the impact and significance of the guerrilla war?
DES: To return once more to my list of ten, I suppose I would say the extent of its impact. Everyone knows that the guerrilla war was a brutal business, but it has been hard to shake that “side show” image. Yet, given the scope of the guerrilla war and significance of its direct and indirect impact on soldiers and civilians alike, I do not see how it can be judged as anything less than a decisive factor in determining the outcome of the war.
DW: Do you agree that much of the scholarly literature continues to understate the scale of physical destruction wrought by the armies on the civilian population, and, if so, what do you attribute it to?
DES: Very much understates it, and I can only attribute this tendency to a lack of balance and historical context. Every historian who has taken this position has viewed the war from a largely northern perspective, usually in an effort to explain (and sometimes to justify) Union military policy. That is all well and good as far as it goes, but when policy is viewed from only one perspective, the practical consequences of its implementation can too easily be underestimated. In trying to understand the Union perspective, too many scholars also accept the justification for Union actions without looking closely enough at the consequences. A Union raiding party that destroyed only the out buildings, crops, and tools on a rebel farm, while leaving the house untouched, might have thought it was showing leniency and practicing conciliation, but the now destitute rebel family, with nothing left to eat and no means of sustaining itself, likely took a very different view. I think it behooves scholars to look beyond the official documents and policy justifications of one side, be it Union or Confederate, to read a few letters and diaries written by the people who become the targets of that policy. I like to think that I have avoided this trap in my book by offering a balanced assessment of both sides.
DW: It is still very common for Civil War authors (scholars and amateurs alike) to divide the war into "conciliatory" and "hard war" periods. Do you find this to be a useful distinction in your own work?
DES: It is useful only to a point, and not nearly as neat and orderly a division as some scholars have suggested. Abraham Lincoln hoped, without question, that a conciliatory approach to the South would pay political dividends early in the war, but it is unwise to think that all commanders in the field, let alone men in the ranks, shared the president’s generous spirit. Instances of “hard war” (little more than a northern euphemism for “total war”) abounded (and on both sides) from the earliest days of the war, the supposed “conciliatory” period. Going beyond my response to the previous question, I would agree that historians who write about the restraint of Union policy are right in identifying the preferred treatment of rebel property and citizens, but the real world of military campaigns and the reaction of soldiers in the field to the perils around them quickly made nonsense of the ideal. For example, some scholars offer the Lieber Code as proof that the Union army waged a restrained and morally justifiable war against rebel citizens. Well, it is nothing of the kind. The code shows only the intentions and hopes of a few men in the Union high command, and even Professor Lieber doubted the practical value of his work in controlling the behavior of soldiers in the field. I have also been struck by how very rarely the code is mentioned in the letters, dairies, and reports of Union soldiers and officers.
DW: A good part of your work is focused on the Trans-Mississippi. I find it a little dismaying that so many people, even in the face of a constant stream of books and articles, still try to maintain that the western theater is overly neglected. It is still overshadowed by the East, but not terribly so. They could make a better argument for the status of Trans-Mississippi theater scholarship, but, even there, the literature is fairly substantial. Do you think we are yet at the point when we can shed labels like ignored, overlooked, neglected, understudied, etc. when it comes to the T-M?
DES: Do you mean shedding such labels as “side show”?! I fear not. Even the guerrilla war now stands a better chance than the Trans-Mississippi of being taken seriously. The fact is that our national narrative of the Civil War still revolves around the big Eastern campaigns, battles, and personalities, especially for the general or casual student of the war. And, in truth, this is not entirely unreasonable. After all, the focus during the war was also on the East. There stood the two national capitals, at Washington and Richmond. The bulk of the population, North and South, resided in the East. Lincoln himself lamented this perception of the East as the place where the war would be won or lost, and, in point of fact, a growing number of scholars now understand that Union victory in the Western Theater, if not the Trans-Mississippi, ultimately decided the contest. But I fear the Trans-Mississippi will never receive as much attention as it deserves. The most we can hope is that people will eventually appreciate its role in the war, and of that, there are, in fact, encouraging signs.
DW: Well, that will do it. Thank you again for joining me for this author Q&A. Can you tell the readers anything about your next project?
DES: I am taking a break from the Civil War in my current project, which is a biography of American artist James McNeill Whistler. I have never written exclusively about the war, or even of the war years, and I have always wanted to write a biography. I have found a fascinating subject in Whistler, who, in his own way, might be considered a guerrilla in the world of nineteenth-century art.
* - Listing of Prof. Sutherland's Civil War books in reverse chronological order, with links to site reviews:
- A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
- From Shiloh to Savannah: The Seventh Illinois Infantry in the Civil War, by Daniel Leib Ambrose; editor (Northern Illinois University Press, 2003).
- This Terrible War: The Civil War and Its Aftermath, editor with Michael Fellman and Lesley Jill Gordon (Longman, 2002).
- Civil War Arkansas: Beyond Battles and Leaders, co-editor with Anne J. Bailey (University of Arkansas Press, 2000).
- Guerrillas, Unionists, and Violence on the Confederate Home Front, editor (University of Arkansas Press, 1999).
- Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville: The Dare Mark Campaign (University of Nebraska Press, 1998).
- A Very Violent Rebel: The Civil War Diary of Ellen Renshaw House. editor (University of Tennesse Press, 1996).
- The Emergence of Total War (Ryan Place, 1996).
- Seasons of War: The Ordeal of a Confederate Community, 1861-1865 (Free Press, 1995).
- Reminiscences of a Private: William E. Bevins of the First Arkansas Infantry. editor (University of Arkansas Press, 1992).
- The Expansion of Everyday Life, 1860-1876 (HarperCollins, 1989).
- The Confederate Carpetbaggers (Louisiana State University Press, 1988).