American Civil War Guerrillas: Changing the Rules of Warfare

By Daniel E. Sutherland, Praeger, 2013, $37

Celebrated historian Bruce Catton characterized guerrilla activities during the Civil War as “a colorful, annoying, but largely unimportant side issue.” Daniel Sutherland has spent a career refuting Catton’s conclusion by bringing the extent and ferocity of guerrilla warfare to the forefront of Civil War studies. He has distilled much of his extensive research into a tidy 162 pages for the Praeger series “Reflections on  the Civil War Era.” Readers familiar with his previous work will find new  insights; for newcomers, this monograph is a primer unsurpassed both in scope and clarity of presentation.

Guerrilla warfare in the border states, especially Missouri and Kansas, has been extensively studied by other writers. Sutherland asserts, however, “the guerrilla war raged from Iowa to Florida, from the Ohio River Valley to Texas.” Truly a war within a war, it was fought mainly in the South by secessionist and pro-slavery forces. Guerrillas came from all walks of life and practiced irregular warfare for all sorts of reasons. Some, like Champ Ferguson and his marauding brigands, were basically sociopaths who used unsettled wartime conditions to plunder and exact personal revenge; others like John Singleton Mosby and his Virginia partisan rangers fought mainly to support the political and social ideals of the Confederacy.

Irregular warfare began even before organized armies met on the battlefield  and by the end of 1862, Sutherland maintains, “military and political leaders on both sides found themselves entangled in a war they had not anticipated.” Rebel ambushes, raids, and sabotage forced invading Union armies to expend large numbers of men and vast quantities of material in often fruitless efforts to suppress them. Policies against guerrillas and the civilian population supporting them spawned ever more harsh reprisals from Federal forces. Even Lincoln, Sutherland notes, “endorsed the punitive measures already employed by local commanders against guerrilla-infested communities.”

Sutherland concludes that by the final years of the war, “even the  majority of staunch Confederates had turned against their irregulars…so unpredictable had they become, and so indiscriminate the violence and suffering they produced.” Even though most Confederate commanders eschewed a prolonged guerrilla war after the field  armies surrendered, irregular tactics and violence continued against emancipated African Americans and their white supporters under the banners of the Ku Klux Klan, Knights of the White Magnolia, and other night-riding terror groups. Others, like Bloody Bill Anderson Cole Younger, and the James brothers used their guerrilla expertise to become some of the Old West’s baddest badmen. Ex-guerrillas rarely held reunions and, except for a granite monolith in Virginia to honor Mosby’s men, there are no monuments to commemorate their bloody deeds.


Originally published in the March 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.