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Guerrillas did not play a major role in shaping the military outcome of the Civil War. First to last, conventional armies com- posed of citizen-soldiers waged operations that dictated swings of national morale, determined control over the most important waterways and logistical areas of the Confederacy and, ultimately, decided the fate of slavery. Of the more than 3 million men who served, the overwhelming majority fought in regular units commanded by duly appointed officers. The outcome of the Seven Days’ Battles, which brought Robert E. Lee to the fore and did much to place emancipation on the table for the United States, had more to do with how long the war lasted than all guerrilla activities during the entire conflict combined. The depredations of outliers such as William Clarke Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson, as well as the headline-grabbing but vastly overrated exploits of John Singleton Mosby, scarcely influenced any campaign in a meaningful way. Expanding the definition of guerrilla to include officers such as John Hunt Morgan, as sometimes happens, does not change the picture. (Nathan Bedford Forrest and Earl Van Dorn cannot be termed guerrillas or irregulars by any reasonable definition of the term.)

This is not to say that guerrilla activities should be ignored. The few thousand genuine guerrillas contributed to chaotic social conditions in a number of places, most obviously in parts of Missouri and areas radiating out from the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. Civilians suffered amid an escalating drama of brutality, reprisals and freebooting lawlessness. The Confederacy sought to manage its guerrilla problem with the Partisan Ranger Act of April 1862, only to repeal it less than two years later as irregular groups proved resistant to any type of discipline. Early guerrilla activity in Missouri also helped inspire Francis Lieber’s attempt to codify the rules of war, signed by President Lincoln and issued as General Orders No. 100 in April 1863. “Gen [Henry ] Halleck called upon me, after my correspondence with him, to write a pamphlet on guerrillas,” Lieber wrote to Charles Sumner in May 1863, “which I did….At last I wrote to Halleck that he ought to issue a Code on the Law of Nations so far as it relates to the armies in the field. I was approached, and here is the thing.”

Some historians believe the Confederacy should have pursued a widescale guerrilla resistance. They argue that Confederate manpower within this context would have lasted almost indefinitely; that the Northern public lacked the commitment to suppress dedicated guerrillas; that the Confederacy could have relinquished considerable territory without materially damaging its cause; and that the Revolutionary War demonstrated how a guerrilla conflict for national liberation could succeed.

If subjected to the realities confronting the Confederacy, however, a guerrilla-based “war of liberation” seems an anachronistic pipe dream. Such a policy would have required Confederates to repudiate their obvious military leaders. R.E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard and other West Point–trained soldiers represented an ideal of the gentleman as military officer that held great appeal in the antebellum South. Considering antebellum efforts to replicate West Point at the Virginia Military Institute, the Military College of South Carolina and elsewhere, it is inconceivable that Confederates would have shunned prominent West Pointers in favor of some unknown men who would command small bands of partisans.

Guerrilla war also would have been inappropriate for the kind of nation Confederates hoped to establish. They envisioned taking their place among the roster of recognized Western states, a goal that demanded creation of formal governmental institutions—including a national army and navy. In his inaugural address, Jefferson Davis spoke to his fellow citizens of “the position which we have assumed among the nations of the earth.” European recognition could prove decisive. Would Great Britain and France have recognized a fledgling Confederacy that relied on guerrilla units rather than on a formal army? Would harassment of Federal armies, rather than victories such as the Seven Days’ and Second Bull Run, have persuaded Europeans that the Confederacy seemed destined to achieve independence—as Saratoga had pointed the way toward American independence in 1777?

Supporters of the guerrilla option often cite the American Revolution as a precedent but emphasize the wrong dimension of that earlier struggle. Although partisans such as Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion earned success in the Revolution, Confederates looked for their models to George Washington, who always placed the broad interests of the nascent nation above local needs, and the Continental Army, which loomed large in the memory of Saratoga, Yorktown and other benchmark military events. As Beauregard wrote in the summer of 1861, “Washington and the Revolution should always be present in our minds.”

The threat of social chaos in a slave-based society stood as the most important obstacle to a Confederate policy of guerrilla war. The approach of Union forces understandably provoked alarm among Confederates about the consequences for their slaves. Late-antebellum fears of insurrection and reactions to Union invaders strongly suggest that Confederates would have opposed a guerrilla strategy that accelerated the process by which slaves came into contact with Federal armies. Since the South seceded in large measure to protect their slave-based society, it strains credulity to believe Confederates would select a strategy calculated to undermine their economic and social control over millions of black people.

Ironically, Jefferson Davis supplied the opening for historians to broach the subject of guerrilla war. On April 4, 1865, he addressed the Confederate citizenry: “We have now entered upon a new phase of a struggle,” because the fall of Richmond rendered “our army free to move from point to point, and strike in detail the detachments and garrisons of the enemy; operating in the interior of our own country, where supplies are more accessible, and where the foe will be far removed from his own base, and cut off from all succor in case of reverse.” For many historians, it seemed Davis belatedly recognized the merits of a guerrilla strategy. Often overlooked is his explicit mention of “our army,” by which he meant Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Davis envisioned not a “people’s war” but an unleashed Lee taking the offensive against whatever pieces of the Federal army he could find.


Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.