Thursday, January 16, 2020

Review - "William Gregg's Civil War: The Battle to Shape the History of Guerrilla Warfare" by Joseph Beilein, ed.

[William Gregg's Civil War: The Battle to Shape the History of Guerrilla Warfare edited by Joseph M. Beilein, Jr. (University of Georgia Press, 2019). Softcover, 3 maps, photos, footnotes, addenda, bibliography, index. Pages:xi,133. ISBN:978-0-8203-5577-1. $26.95]

Unlike their Revolutionary War forebears, Civil War guerrilla leaders as a whole have not been the recipients of enduring popular adulation. While some individuals such as Virginia partisan ranger officer John S. Mosby did achieve lasting acclaim, it's the Missouri bushwhackers and their much more desperate mode of fighting that have come to be most closely associated with Civil War guerrilla warfare. Fair or not, the actions of the most infamous practitioners, among them William Clarke Quantrill and William "Bloody Bill" Anderson, blackened the reputation of the Civil War's irregular warfare movement as a whole. Indeed, at the time it well suited the purposes of Union authorities struggling to pacify the southern home front to ascribe outlaw status as widely as possible. The fact that many of these brush men turned to criminal careers after the war also failed to burnish the modern image of the Civil War guerrilla. Early books had an important impact as well. In the context of the Missouri conflict, William E. Connelley's Quantrill and the Border Wars (1910) provided readers with a powerful counterpoint to contemporary hagiographical treatments, in particular John Newman Edwards's celebratory Noted Guerrillas, or the Warfare of the Border (1879). It is Connelley's relationship with Quantrill associate William H. Gregg that is at the center of Joseph Beilein's William Gregg's Civil War: The Battle to Shape the History of Guerrilla Warfare.

Wanting to set the record straight regarding what he viewed as the truth behind Quantrill's life and the actions of his command during the Civil War, Kansas resident and avocational historian William Connelley needed a prominent guerrilla participant source to add authority and authenticity to his study. To that end, Connelley engaged in a cynically-inspired friendship with an aging William Gregg, who was one of Quantrill's principal lieutenants and arguably his right arm during the first half of the war. In exchange for promising to help Gregg get his own memoir published, Connelley pumped the ex-guerrilla for information to include in Quantrill and the Border Wars. He succeeded in his scheme, but the relationship inevitably soured after Connelley blocked the publication of Gregg's memoir (likely because, according to Beilein, it contradicted key parts of Quantrill and the Border Wars that the author claimed to have been based on Gregg's writing). The entire truth behind Connelley's motivations will never be known, but Beilein offers a reasonable suggestion that ideological imperative (Connelley was intensely partisan in defense of the twin causes of Union and abolition) led Connelley to bypass any kind of scruples he may have had in betraying Gregg's friendship and trust.

In addition to detailing the complexities of the Connelley-Gregg relationship, Beilein's introduction also informatively surveys the early guerrilla historiography. With Noted Guerrillas and Quantrill and the Border Wars offering two very different sides of the same coin (and both written by untrained historians), Richard Brownlee's Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy (which also used Gregg's unpublished manuscript as a primary source) finally arrived in 1958 to provide the first scholarly history. It would surpass Connelley's book as the standard treatment of the topic. This was followed in 1962 by Albert Castel's William Clarke Quantrill: His Life and Times. While praising the overall quality of Castel's research, Beilein appropriately condemns as impossible Castel's self-proclaimed objective approach and criticizes his fellow historian for basing entire chapters on some of the most distorted sections of Connelley's deeply-slanted book. As pathbreaking as Michael Fellman's Inside War was in 1990 (and continues to be influential today), it is Beilein's view that the study falls into a similar trap of being too broadly dismissive of Missouri guerrilla sources. Fortunately, the current body of scholarship, to which Beilein himself is an important contributor, is offering a deeper and far more nuanced picture of the guerrilla war (and of guerrillas themselves and their supporters) than the nihilistic landscape of Fellman's imagination.

Also published (probably for the first time in its entirety) in the book is the author's transcription of Gregg's handwritten manuscript, which is currently held in the collection of the State Historical Society of Missouri. In addition to editing and annotating Gregg's memoir (self-titled "A Dab of History Without Embellishment"), Beilein includes copies of the Connelley-Gregg correspondence along with some additional Gregg documents not integrated into the main manuscript. These materials are also annotated. As a final remark on the volume's editing, while the Gregg memoir and other documents provided in the book are only lightly footnoted it should be mentioned that much additional scholarly commentary of the kind normally relegated to note sections can instead be found within the author's extensive introduction.

The Gregg memoir itself is fairly brief, only running 32 octavo-sized pages in the book, but it summarizes the major activities of Quantrill and his men pretty thoroughly. In it, Gregg also provides a brief account of what he knew of Quantrill's oft-disputed origins and motivations, but not his own. Beilein reasonably conjectures that Gregg's slaveholding family background, the unique situation of western Missouri, and the lure of independent military service near one's own home were all factors that contributed heavily to Gregg's decision to go to the brush rather than join the Confederate Army. The manuscript does offer an insider perspective on some persistent questions regarding Quantrill's outfit. Gregg's own explanation of the reasons behind the launching of the infamous Lawrence Raid, which center on guerrilla rage over the prison deaths of female relatives and accumulated feelings of revenge produced by years of Jayhawker incursions into western Missouri, will not surprise any reader familiar with the topic. He does assign a major factor behind the ultimate breakup of Quantrill's command to Quantrill's decision to forego a final assault on the Baxter Springs fort. This order was designed to spare guerrilla blood, but it deeply angered some of his more reckless sub-chieftains (Dave Pool and Bill Anderson in particular). Even though Gregg left Quantrill and joined Jo Shelby's cavalry before the guerrilla war in western Missouri took an even more grim turn in 1864, his manuscript does offer descriptions (albeit graphically muted ones) of the many acts of lethal violence he and his fellow bushwhackers committed before that time.

An important new editing and interpretation of a valuable primary source, William Gregg's Civil War is a decidedly useful contribution to the burgeoning historiography of the guerrilla conflict in Missouri and elsewhere. Highly recommended.


  1. Glad you reviewed this book and I agree it should be recommended for Beilein's introduction and for the transcription of Gregg's manuscript--great to have that finally in printed form. But I was pretty disappointed with Beilein's failure to use a wide range of sources to annotate the manuscript for accuracy and veracity--essential if we are supposed to take the Guerrilla's views more seriously. I'm thinking of what Kirby Ross did for Hildebrand's autobiography--a thorough job. This one is disappointing but still worth purchasing.

    Also, I always thought Edward Leslie's "The Devil Knows How to Ride" was highly regarded--maybe I'm wrong--and found it interesting that Beilein didn't mention it in his intro.

    Tom Jones

    1. That's fair. I would've liked that, too. Clearly, Beilein was more interested in the story behind the manuscript and its place in the historiography than scrutinizing all of its details.


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