- “Branded by the Lincolnites as Guerrillas”:Adam Rankin Johnson, Guerrilla Identity, and Irregular Warfare in the Lower Green River Valley in 1862
On the night of June 29, 1862, a small band of Confederate forces crept into the sleeping town of Henderson, Kentucky. Their target was a small contingent of Union troops stationed in a two-story hotel in the middle of town. Spying the place from a plank fence opposite the house, the Confederates aimed their weapons at the sentries and three officers standing outside. Gunshots echoed through the streets of Henderson. The Union troops, rather than rushing out to meet the threat, barricaded themselves inside their makeshift barracks and fired wildly into the darkness from the upper-story windows. Although the Confederate raiders had already fled off into the darkness, having wounded the officers and sentries, the spooked Union soldiers continued to fire at any sound, real or imagined, for the remainder of the night. Adding to their confusion was the fact that one of the frightened men had shot a pig, which ran around bellowing for the rest of the night. That only encouraged the Federals to believe that there were a large number of Rebel soldiers still waiting in the darkness. When sunrise revealed that the Confederates had gone, Union troops mistakenly surmised that the large number of blood traces left by the wounded pig were from numerous enemy wounded who had been taken away by their comrades. The Evansville Daily Journal reported that several hundred guerrillas made the attack upon the [End Page 641] Federal troops. In reality, just three men, led by Henderson native Adam Rankin Johnson, carried out the attack. The gunshots shattered several months of relative peace and introduced irregular warfare in the lower Green River region.1
Historians debate how to identify guerrillas, particularly since how they behaved tended to be fluid and frequently changed over time.2 Historian Daniel E. Sutherland has noted, “It would . . . be fascinating to see how guerrillas viewed their own actions [and] how they perceived their wartime roles.”3 Adam Rankin Johnson provides an interesting case study of an irregular fighter who eagerly sought to be viewed as a legitimate Confederate soldier throughout the war. The question is: what sort of irregular fighter was Johnson? For both the Union and the Confederacy, terminology was important in reference to irregular forces, especially to the men fighting as irregulars. There existed during the war an entire “spectrum of unconventional warfare” as historian Robert R Mackey has described it.4 At one end of the spectrum were the partisan rangers. Partisan rangers were essentially regular troops, recognized by the Confederate government as part of the military; they were led by commissioned officers, received [End Page 642] pay from the government, wore proper military uniforms, followed the rules of war, and focused their attacks upon legitimate military targets. Yet they fought in an irregular manner. The most famous of the Confederacy’s partisan rangers was Lieutenant Colonel John S. Mosby and his Forty-third Virginia Cavalry. For much of the war, his force operated in northern Virginia and followed the orders sent by higher military commanders.5 Francis Lieber, an American jurist who wrote a report on irregular warfare for the Union army in 1862, insisted that the partisan’s main “object is to injure the enemy by action separate from that of his own main army,” specifically focusing on supply and communication lines; the partisan was, while operating outside of the main army, clearly a part of it and if captured to be treated as a prisoner of war.6
At the other end of Mackey’s “spectrum of warfare” were the bushwhackers and jayhawkers. These were normally fairly small groups of men operating well outside the control of the government and typically considered criminals by people in both the North and the South. While perhaps claiming some allegiance to one side or another, and on some occasions actually holding some sort of legitimate military commission, they were not soldiers. Bushwhackers typically attacked civilian, as opposed to military, targets. These gangs, who normally operated in areas where both civil and military control was either weak...