The Civil War Guerrilla: Unfolding the Black Flag in History, Memory, and Myth ed. by Joseph M. Beilein Jr. and Matthew C. Hulbert (review)
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The Civil War Guerrilla: Unfolding the Black Flag in History, Memory, and Myth. Edited by Joseph M. Beilein Jr. and Matthew C. Hulbert. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015. Pp. x, 258. $50.00 cloth)

Amid the outpouring of Civil War literature since the end of the fighting in 1865, the guerrilla war has only recently received significant scholarly attention. Daniel Sutherland, in his masterful study of irregular warfare (2009), argues that guerrillas played a “decisive” role in determining the outcome of the nation’s largest and bloodiest war. Sutherland, however, takes a broad view and analyzes guerrilla activities across much of the Confederacy and, even, in a few locations, the Union. Joseph Beilein and Matthew Hulbert, the editors of this volume, point out that although Sutherland drew important notice to the guerrilla war, much regional, state, and local detail remains to be completed.

The Civil War Guerrilla hopes to fill in some of the nuances of the violence that occurred away from the main Union and Confederate armies. Arguing that their volume consists of the “next phase of guerrilla studies,” Beilein and Hulbert attempt to harness the “importance granted irregulars by Sutherland” but wield “it in more pragmatic scopes of study.” They charged the contributors—a mix of “rising and eminent scholars”—with “exploring, dissecting, and reassessing the Civil War guerrilla’s place in American culture and history” (p. 7).

The volume more than achieves its aims because of the diverse range of the essays. The guerrilla war is explored in Missouri and Kansas, the piedmont region in the Carolinas, and the desert Southwest. Other essays analyze the ideological origins of guerrilla fighters, and the marketing and portrayal of their experiences during and after the war. “The essays here take us onto the lands and into the homes of citizens and noncitizens alike,” Victoria Bynum writes in the afterword, “enabling us to perceive more fully the sweep of the war” (p. 235).

That the guerrilla fighter was generally no better or worse in his [End Page 99] motivation and behavior than a soldier in the Union Army of the Tennessee or the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia is a common theme to the volume. The point is a needed corrective to the popular imagination of the small-scale fighting that occurred away from Shiloh, Gettysburg, and the war’s most well-known battles. Even today, among Civil War fans, the guerrilla is often “marked as a . . . veritable freak” (p. 5). The contributors highlight that irregular fighters took up arms to, among other motives, preserve their vision of the nation’s future. Guerrillas also displayed a range of behaviors, from the heroic to the savage.

The range of behaviors narrowed as the fighting continued, however, with bloodlust gaining the upper hand. In a particularly gruesome episode, Confederate “bushwackers” under the command of William “Bloody Bill” Anderson stripped, murdered, and mutilated Union soldiers captured on a train while riding home on furlough. That the episode is known at all is because the lone Union survivor later published an account of the massacre. In addition to remembering his fallen comrades, the veteran hoped to counter an increasing portrayal in the border states of Confederate guerrillas as “freedom fighters.” Beilein and Hulbert remind readers that in the irregular war, just as in the main war, the shaping of memory was important, and hotly contested.

The eight essays in the volume are based in solid and, sometimes, innovative research. For readers interested in understanding why guerrillas fought, how they influenced the course of the war, and, during the postwar period, how they remembered their role in the fighting, this is a solid read. [End Page 100]

Lawrence Kreiser

LAWRENCE KREISER JR. teaches history at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of Defeating Lee: A History of the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac (2011) and the co-editor of The Civil War in Popular Culture: Memory and Meaning (2014).

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