Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Review of McKnight & Myers, eds. - "THE GUERRILLA HUNTERS: Irregular Conflicts during the Civil War"

[The Guerrilla Hunters: Irregular Conflicts during the Civil War edited by Brian D. McKnight & Barton A. Myers (Louisiana State University Press, 2017). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, reading list, index. Pages main/total:384/419. ISBN:978-0-8071-6497-6. $49.95]

Simply from the title, readers of The Guerrilla Hunters might justifiably expect an anthology specializing in those individuals and units engaged in Civil War counterguerrilla operations1, perhaps accompanied by discussions of the complex wartime milieu within which they operated, but that isn't really the case with the sixteen essays presented by contributing editors Brian McKnight and Barton Myers. Instead, chapters address a very diverse range of topics under the general umbrella of the irregular Civil War.

One of the healthy debates among Civil War guerrilla scholars revolves around categorizing the various irregular actors. Some, like Robert Mackey2, have taken their cue from Francis Lieber to closely define and stratify irregulars, while others, including Daniel Sutherland3, argue for much more flexible definitions. Among other more general observations, Brian McKnight's Guerrilla Hunters chapter explores the connections between the conventional and unconventional wars in Appalachia, with many individuals and groups freely moving back and forth between both worlds. Brian Steel Wills investigates the scholarship's continuing mischaracterization of Nathan Bedford Forrest (who consistently deprecated guerrillas as a whole throughout the war) as a guerrilla leader himself, while also noting that Forrest's contemporary enemies often intentionally mislabeled him as a guerrilla in an attempt to impugn the controversial cavalryman's conventional service. In his article studying the irregular war in Loudoun County (Va.), Scott Thompson examines the motivations (which combined both ideological and localist motives) and operations of three units [the Federal Independent Loudoun Rangers, the Confederate Army's 35th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, and John Mobberly's offshoot pro-Confederate guerrilla band] representative of Mackey's irregular categories. As with many other groups considered in the volume, the nature of their service encompassed both irregular and counterirregular warfare capacities. Another contributor, Adam Domby, finds the need for new definitions to describe individuals for whom existing categories seem unsuited. Domby argues powerfully that Confederate deserter John Gatewood, who often killed and plundered indiscriminately and never attempted to cooperate with or aid Confederate forces in any way, was the kind of pathological criminal for whom even bushwhacker status cannot apply. According to Domby, Gatewood's attempt to leverage the complete breakdown of social order and public institutions in late-1864 North Georgia into the expansion of his own personal dominion over the populace makes him most akin to the modern "warlord."

An emerging aspect of guerrilla scholarship has been the growing use of digital technology in various forms, including the mass digitization of manuscripts and genealogical databases along with the development of community and geographical mapping software for interpreting the information. Aaron Astor's chapter cites the importance of recently created digital resources of all types in his project to identify "Tinker Dave" Beaty's pro-Union guerrilla band and study the group's 'social network.' In other publications, Joseph Beilein has used quantitative tools to study guerrilla logistics networks in Missouri, and Andrew Fialka has plotted guerrilla incidents using "spatiotemporal" mapping in order to discover recognizable patterns amidst presumed chaos4. Here, Fialka continues his work in a chapter titled "A Spatial Approach to Civil War Missouri's Domestic Supply Line." Using conventional sources and digital technology, this essay maps guerrilla attacks, Confederate households, and Union occupation(s) in space and time as a tool for exploring their interrelationships (in particular, for the period before and after the issuance of the infamous Order No. 11). The project gathered valuable insights into the cause and effect nature of the irregular war itself, while also offering a more systematic analysis of the vast body of available anecdotal evidence.

Some good faith attempts to utilize guerrilla warfare for positive military results backfired badly for both sides during the war. Most scholars agree that the Partisan Ranger Act of 1862 rebounded to terrible effect on the Confederate home front and broadly undermined their war effort. Barton Myers offers support for this view, while also looking specifically at a number of petitions sent to the Confederate government by those seeking to join partisan service. In addition to tracing efforts by Union authorities to combat the uptick in guerrilla violence in northern Kentucky that occurred after emancipation and other hard war measures were implemented in the state, Stephen Rockenbach discusses the consequences of President Lincoln's generous amnesty program, a policy that allowed large numbers of enemy combatants to resettle behind Union lines and destabilize the Border State home front.

Lisa Tendrich Frank is critical of the moral restraint model of the relationship between Union soldiers and southern civilians popularized by Mark Neely and especially Mark Grimsley in his highly influential study The Hard Hand of War (1995), instead arguing that perhaps the Union war on enemy households, in particular those headed by adult females, was to a large extent fought outside accepted historical boundaries of conventional conflict and should be more generally regarded as part of the irregular sphere of warfare. It's an interesting criticism of the current consensus, but it's too bad Frank didn't go more into what this alternate view could or should mean to Civil War guerrilla studies or the wider scholarship going forward.

In an extension of his earlier work in Extreme Civil War5 (2016), Matthew Stith places the natural environment at the forefront of his look at guerrilla and counterguerrilla warfare in the Trans-Mississippi. The most underdeveloped theater's unique diversity of terrain, weather, and natural cover made the environment a guerrilla ally and a guerrilla hunter's foe (at least until the latter learned to similarly exploit the surroundings). Stith also appropriately notes the result of this brutal unconventional warfare on the built environment, with property improvements reverting back to wilderness and transforming prosperous citizens into starving refugees on a mass scale.

The Civil War's guerrilla conflict also extended to the country's inland waterways, and Laura June Davis's chapter recounts the actions of pro-Confederate 'boat burners' with ties to St. Louis and who operating up and down the Lower Mississippi destroying enemy shipping. She also profiles the historiographically elusive river guerrillas themselves, and her upcoming book on the shadowy topic is much anticipated.

Joseph Beilein, one of the newest authorities on guerrilla culture (see note 3), highlights the permissive insobriety of bushwhacker society, and how it affected behavior in the field as well as the relationship between leaders and their men. Beilein marks the winter of 1863-64 (a time during which large numbers of Missouri bushwhackers raised hell for an extended off-season in Texas), as a transition period after which the twin pursuits of violence and alcohol became almost completely unrestrained when the bands returned to Missouri.

Larkin Skaggs, the lone guerrilla that got separated from his comrades during the 1863 Lawrence Raid and who was killed by the angered townspeople and his corpse mutilated, is most often treated as a historical footnote, but he is front and center to Matthew Hulbert's fascinating essay, which looks at the life and legacy of Skaggs in the context of competing historical guerrilla memories of the raid. It's interesting that the writer chooses to characterize Lawrence as a series of massacres, including single-person events like the death of Skaggs, which leads to a more intimate interpretation that he feels makes the Lawrence mass killings fit better into the accepted guerrilla warfare narrative.

Of course, those Union soldiers with the most sustained exposure to irregular warfare were those serving on occupation duty. According to Andrew Lang, occupation was the primary experience of one-third of all men that served in the federal army during the war, and this shattered their romantic ideal of the American citizen-soldier who fights a well-defined enemy with honorable restraint, defeats the opposition without harming civilians, and goes home. Instead, Union soldiers found themselves watching over a hostile population for years on end and engaging in a devolving household war of punishment and revenge. Out of all the essays in the book, this one perhaps most closely aligns itself with the book's title theme, as it focuses on the behaviors, attitudes, language, and tactics of the Union's counterguerrilla war and how all these factors drastically reshaped the early volunteer's naive views on how the conflict would and should be fought.

In the final essay, Earl Hess compares and contrasts the Civil War's guerrilla conflict with nineteenth and twentieth century guerrilla wars in other parts of the world. In it, he maintains the debatable view expressed in prior works that the irregular war was a strategically insignificant sideshow6, the domain of harried local commanders for whom guerrilla fighters were only one of many concerns. Citing the influential recent work of Charles Esdaile7, perhaps the chapter's most interesting aspect is its discussion of the many parallels drawn between the 1861-65 irregular war in the South and the 1808-14 Spanish Uprising of the Napoleonic Wars.

The volume also provides a wealth of reading suggestions for those wishing to dive deeper into the topic of irregular warfare. One can find helpful recommendations both in the chapter notes and in the "reader's bibliography," which compiles a large selection (new and old) of books and articles.

With their variety of themes, topics, research methodologies, and expanded geography, the essays collected in The Guerrilla Hunters comprise a very revealing snapshot of the increasingly impressive current state of the scholarly literature pertaining to the unconventional Civil War. Contributors also identify clear areas for improvement [ex. just the fact that the 'Confederate guerrilla vs. Union counterguerrilla' paradigm so deeply pervades the volume shows us that much more work needs to be done on the other guerrilla war, the Union one]. As Daniel Sutherland notes in the afterword, these essays represent a step in the right direction toward a better synthesis of guerrilla studies into general histories of the Civil War, but we still have some distance to go.

1 - Some examples of successful Union counterguerrilla units (including those pulling double duty with the conventional war) are Blazer's Scouts, the 2nd Colorado Cavalry, and a number of Missouri State Militia regiments.
2 - The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865 (2004). Worthy of notice is how very recent the phenomenon of the serious academic study of Civil War irregular warfare has been.
3 - A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (2009).
4 - See Bushwhackers: Guerrilla Warfare, Manhood, and the Household in Civil War Missouri (2016) and The Civil War Guerrilla: Unfolding the Black Flag in History, Memory, and Myth (2015), the last co-edited with fellow Hunters contributor Matthew Hulbert.
5 - Extreme Civil War: Guerrilla Warfare, Environment, and Race on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier (2016).
6 - Hess develops his contrasting view of the strategic impact of the guerrilla conflict in The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi (2012). One wonders whether Daniel Sutherland regrets using the term "decisive" when describing the guerrilla war's role in Confederate defeat. Some critics still seem needlessly stuck on that perhaps ill-chosen adjective. Taken as a whole, the much more nuanced arguments contained in A Savage Conflict suggest fruitful areas of common ground in the 'sideshow' vs. 'decisive' debate.
7 - Fighting Napoleon: Guerrillas, Bandits and Adventurers in Spain, 1808-1814 (2004).

  • Foreword NOE
  • Guerrilla Warfare's Place in the History of the American Civil War MCKNIGHT & MYERS
  • Partisan Ranger Petitions and the Confederacy's Authorized Petite Guerre Service MYERS
  • The Power of Shadow and Perception in the Appalachian Theater MCKNIGHT
  • Nathan Bedford Forrest and Guerrilla War WILLS
  • Home Rebels Amnesty and Anti-guerrilla Operations in Kentucky in 1864 ROCKENBACH
  • Hunting Guerrilla Social Networks ASTOR
  • The Irregular War in Loudoun County Virginia THOMPSON
  • Reconsidering Guerrilla Leader John Gatewood DOMBY
  • The Union War on Women FRANK
  • Guerrilla Warfare and the Environment in the Trans-Mississippi Theater STITH
  • Irregular Naval Warfare along the Lower Mississippi DAVIS
  • Whiskey Wild Men and Missouri's Guerrilla War BEILEIN
  • Larkin M. Skaggs and the Massacres at Lawrence HULBERT
  • A Spatial Approach to Civil War Missouri's Domestic Supply Line FIALKA
  • Challenging the Union Citizen-Soldier Ideal LANG
  • Civil War Guerrillas in a Global Comparative Context HESS
  • Afterword SUTHERLAND

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