Sideshow No Longer: A Historiographical Review of the Guerrilla War
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Sideshow No Longer: a hlstoriographical review of the Guerrilla War Daniel E. Sutherland In 1956, Bruce Catton lamented that historians had treated the Civil War's guerrilla conflict as a "colorful, annoying, but largely unimportant side issue." No one seemed to hear him. Some twenty years later, Emory M. Thomas described the exploits of even the best known and most effective Confederate guerrillas as "more or less side shows," which led a frustrated Phillip Shaw Paludan, writing a decade after Thomas, to repeat Carton's concern more forcefully : "A systematic study of this irregular war is needed." In truth, that would have been difficult in the late 1980s, but a torrent of books, articles, and dissertations about irregular operations during the Civil War has poured out since then. Using this body of work as a foundation, it may now be possible to tackle Paludan's daunting assignment. Recent research has suggested that the guerrilla war, far from being a sideshow, was a crucial part of the larger war. It influenced strategic thinking among both soldiers and politicians. It touched the lives ofuntold numbers of southern civilians and their communities. In much ofthe South, it was more than just part ofthe larger war; it was the war itself, a war with its own rules, its own chronology, its own policies, its own turning points, its own heroes, villains, and victims. In the end, it altered the nature of the entire conflict to a startling degree.1 Historical treatment ofthe guerrilla war has passed through three phases during the past half century. In the 1940s and 1950s, writers focused on the exploits —mostly heroic and romantic—of famous guerrilla leaders, such as John 1 Bruce Catton, forward to Virgil Carrington Jones, Gray Ghosts andRebel Raiders: The Daring Exploits ofthe Confederate Guerillas (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1956), vii; Emory M. Thomas, The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865 (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), 249; Phillip Shaw Paludan, "A People's Contest: The Union and Civil War, 1861-1865 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 452. The author wishes to thank Stephen V. Ash, B. Franklin Cooling, and Michael Fellman for their comments on an earlier draft of this article. Civil War History, Vol. xlvi No. 1 © 2000 by The Kent State University Press 6 CIVIL WAR HISTORY Singleton Mosby and William Clarke Quantrill. Their choice is understandable. The Civil War meant battles and leaders during those decades. Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant defined the limits of popular interest in the war. The same could even be said of most historians, for while politics and diplomacy held some sway in academic circles, few authors explored the complex economic and social dynamics ofwarfare. Nor did scholars have—or at least express—a very realistic conception of war. The story of the Civil War was a tale of liberal democracy triumphant, and the battles that determined its outcome were portrayed as noble contests waged by honorable men inspired by a patriotic muse. Even Bell I. Wiley's books about Johnny Reb and Billy Yank and Dudley T. Cornish's work on African American soldiers, while breaking away from the heroes and leaders and serving as harbingers of a brand of military history soon to become fashionable, presented sanitized versions of the lives of volunteer soldiers in conventional armies.2 Nor did these scholars concern themselves with definitions, a subject that requires comment before proceeding. We call it the guerrilla war, and that expression will do as long as one appreciates the rocks and shoals it disguises. The word guerrilla, as is generally known, dates from the Spanish war ofresistance against Napoleon Bonaparte in the early nineteenth century. It became grounded in American usage during the Mexican War, and while colorful Americanisms like bushwhacker and jayhawker became popular alternate names during the Civil War, all were absorbed by guerrilla. So, too, the more precise partisan, ranger, and raider, designations used by Confederate and Union officials to distinguish between government-sanctioned irregular troops attached to the conventional armies andthe independent and frequently predatory bands that waged war on their own. The distinction between guerrillas and partisans is useful—indeed, essential —at a...