Monday, September 28, 2009

Mountcastle: "PUNITIVE WAR: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals"

[Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals by Clay Mountcastle (University Press of Kansas, 2009). Cloth, 20 photographs, 5 maps. Pages main/total: 158/212. ISBN: 978-0-7006-1668-8 $29.95]

The publication of Mark Grimsley's The Hard Hand of War (Cambridge, 1995) popularized the term 'hard war' to describe the harsher turn in the conduct of Union forces toward southern civilians in the wake of the perceived failure of a policy of conciliation. Major Clay Mountcastle's new book Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals also centers on the focus and degree of destruction wrought by Union armies, but in the specific context of retaliation and collective punishment, both borne out of the frustrations inherent in combating irregulars.

In four lengthy chapters, examining in turn the regions of Missouri, the Mississippi River Valley, the interior of Mississippi and Georgia, and finally the Shenandoah, Mountcastle documents the Union army's punitive war as it swept from west to east. John Pope's tenure guarding railroads in northern Missouri is outlined, emphasizing how his policy of collective responsibility resulted in increasingly indiscriminate destruction of private property in the wake of widespread guerrilla violence. Ineffective and arbitrary, the policy was rescinded by Pope's superior, only to reappear throughout the rest of the country, moving next to the Mississippi River Valley, where numerous towns and swaths of riverfront properties were incinerated in retaliation for firing into supply and transport ships. It mattered not whether the offending fire came from regular or irregular enemies. William T. Sherman's 1864 Meridian Campaign was a further proving ground for punitive war. Mountcastle perceptively notes that the west to east surge in the scale of retaliatory destruction was roughly paralleled by the geographic reassignment of ranking officers [in addition to Pope and Sherman, Henry Halleck, U.S. Grant, David Hunter, and Philip Sheridan all spent significant time in Missouri before heading eastward] that experienced guerrilla warfare from the war's earliest moments. Of course, punitive war was not new to the eastern theater with the arrival of Grant and Sheridan in 1864 (it had raged in the wilds of western Virginia and other places from the beginning), but its scale and earnestness expanded exponentially in roughly the geographic sequence mentioned above.

Mountcastle's convincingly rejects portions of Grimsley's picture of focused material destruction performed by morally sensitive and "politically aware" Union soldiers. But the author's disagreements with Grimsley's work pale in comparison to those he has with Mark Neely's The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction, a deeply flawed work that massively understated the geographic sweep and scale of guerrilla warfare as well as civilian property loss. The author is also critical of historian Robert Mackey's contention that Union forces developed original and successful strategies that ultimately defeated pro-southern irregular insurgents. While the farm colonies of northern Arkansas are conceded as a small victory, Mountcastle finds no real evidence of any coherent and widespread strategy that led to demonstrable success. On the other hand, one might consider that Mountcastle discounts too much the Union army's eventual ability to substantially abate, if not totally eliminate, the scale of the guerrilla menace in certain areas. Much of this may have been due to the disillusionment of a collapsing cause rather than skillful counterinsurgency, but it should be recognized.

Mountcastle's common thread throughout his study is his assertion that guerrilla warfare was the primary force behind the application of hard war to wide areas of the South. While this might strike many readers as a bit too reductive, given all the other possible and likely contributing factors (among them high Union casualties, stubborn Confederate conventional resistance, and emancipation aims), but his argument is persuasive nonetheless. He also points out an important logical inconsistency in the Federal policy of holding area civilians responsible for guerrilla attacks. If the Federals themselves could no control their men within the regimented hierarchy of the military, how could southern civilians be expected to control heavily armed, and often criminal, bands of partisans and guerrillas? The question reminds us yet again of the need for a scholarly examination of discipline in the Union army*.

At less than 160 pages of main text, the author makes full use of the available space in presenting his arguments. While the lack of overwhelming detail inherent to works of this length may fail to impress more intransigent critics, those readers more familiar with the outpouring of local and regional guerrilla studies published in recent decades should find Mountcastle more than persuasive. In the end, while a number of influential scholars have effectively refuted the most strident Lost Cause claims of wholesale murder, rapine, and destruction in recent decades, it also seems that they have gone too far in minimizing the true extent of the material (and perhaps even bodily) destruction inflicted on the southern civilian population. Clay Mountcastle's Punitive War is a much needed corrective to this modern over-correction. Paired with Daniel Sutherland's recent work A Savage Conflict, this book provides an up-to-date and scholarly overview of the role and consequences of guerrilla warfare during the Civil War. It is highly recommended.

* - Hopefully, just such a work is on the way in Steven Ramold's Baring the Iron Hand: Discipline in the Union Army (Univ. of Northern Illinois Press, 2009 forthcoming).

Other recent CWBA reviews of Univ. Press of Kansas titles:
* A Gallant Little Army: The Mexico City Campaign
* The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth
* Guide to the Atlanta Campaign: Rocky Face Ridge to Kennesaw Mountain
* Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla
* Civil War St. Louis
* The War Within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War
* Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era

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