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Book Review: Guerrillas, Unionists, and Violence on the Confederate Home Front (edited by Daniel E. Sutherland): CWT

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Guerrillas, Unionists, and Violence on the Confederate Home Front, edited by Daniel E. Sutherland, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 800-626-0090, 256 pages, $32 ($20 softcover).

Just as not all Confederates were Southerners (Pennsylvanian Josiah Gorgas, head of the army ordnance bureau, and John Pemberton, ill-starred defender of Vicksburg, come to mind), not all Southerners were Confederates. In eastern Tennessee and the portion of Virginia that became West Virginia, most of the population remained loyal to the Union.

Likewise, the vast majority of Marylanders, Kentuckians, and Missourians either adhered to the Stars and Stripes or else refused to embrace the Stars and Bars. Large pockets of pro-Unionists and/or anti-Confederates existed in North Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas. Even Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi contained significant numbers of "tories." If the slaveholding states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri be regarded as Southern–and they were regarded as such at the time of the Civil War–then quite possibly a majority of white Southerners did not support the Confederacy.

Given this situation, it was inevitable that a civil war within the Civil War should occur to greater or lesser degrees in various parts of the South between 1861 and 1865. Guerrillas, Unionists, and Violence on the Confederate Home Front examines that civil war. It does so by means of 11 essays, each dealing with a different area or aspect of this strife and all written by professional historians, most of whom are experts on the subjects they address.

As with all such collections, the quality of these essays varies when judged by the originality, accuracy, and significance of their contribution to historical knowledge. Happily, most deserve a favorable judgment and several excel–Noel C. Fisher's "Definition of Victory: East Tennessee Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction," Donald S. Frazier's "'Out of Striking Distance': The Guerrilla War in Louisiana," and the best contribution of them all, Robert R. Mackey's "Bushwhackers, Provosts, and Tories: the Guerrilla War in Arkansas."

Unhappily, three essays fall short of adequacy. Two of them, Lesley J. Gordon's "'In time of War': Unionists Hanged in Kinston, North Carolina, February 1864" and Jon Wakelyn's "The Politics of Violence: Unionist Pamphleteers in Virginia's Inner Civil War," do so because, although scholarly and competently written, their subject matter is largely irrelevant to the topics of the book. The 22 men hanged by Confederate authorities at Kinston suffered that fate not because they were guerrillas, Unionists, or had committed acts of violence on the home front, but because they were deserters from the Confederate army who had enlisted in the Federal army. Even the fact that they were North Carolinians had nothing to do with their executions; they could have been Virginians or South Carolinians and still would have been hanged, for desertion to serve in an enemy army was and remains a deed punishable by death under military law.

Wakelyn's essay likewise contains virtually nothing about guerrillas, or violence in the normal sense of that word, and it deals with Unionism in Virginia (mainly West Virginia) primarily through lengthy summaries of pamphlets circulated by some of the state's pro-Union political leaders. Much of value can be learned from these sources, but only by someone who already possesses a good knowledge of the major military and political events of the Civil War in western Virginia, the first area of the Confederacy occupied by Federal forces and hence the first to experience guerrilla warfare. Since Wakelyn neglects to provide so much as rudimentary background information on these subjects, the average reader will probably be unable to profit from his research.

The third inadequate essay, Michael Fellman's "Inside Wars: the Cultural Crisis of Warfare and the Values of Ordinary People," possesses some of the same defects of irrelevancy as the other two. While it presents some excellent examples of the horrors of the guerrilla war in Missouri, horrors that exceeded those in any other state, it makes no attempt to examine the factors that produced these horrors. Instead Fellman uses the space that might have been employed for this purpose to relate his personal attitude toward war, presenting his views on such things as "original sin" and "naive objectivism" in history, and extolling certain psychological concepts that he deems valuable in writing "cultural history." This is the type of history he practices in preference to traditional narrative history, and he has every right to do so. Yet this preference seems to cause him difficulty in writing narrative history, which he sometimes must do. For instance, his account of the 1864 Centralia Massacre is so riddled with egregious errors as to render it ridiculous–and it purports to be supported by a military report dated June 18, 1862! Perfect accuracy in historical writing, like absolute objectivity, is unachievable, yet a professional historian should do better than this regardless of the type of history he or she writes.

This book is a compilation of essays written by scholars for scholars, and as such, it will be useful to them, especially to the ones who should undertake to write what is greatly needed–a comprehensive history of guerrilla warfare and related matters during the Civil War. Whether it will benefit general readers depends on each one's particular interests.

Albert Castel
Hillsdale, Michigan




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