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Who Were the Bushwackers? Age, Class, Kin, and Western Virginia's Confederate Guerrillas, 1861-1862

From: Civil War History
Volume 49, Number 1, March 2003
pp. 5-31 | 10.1353/cwh.2003.0019

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Civil War History 49.1 (2003) 5-31


On March 23, 1862, a detachment of the 23rd Ohio Infantry located and captured a band of fifteen pro-Confederate guerrilla fighters in Fayette County, Virginia, the mountainous section of the state destined to become the future West Virginia. Federal officers identified one of the prisoners, twenty-two-year-old E. D. Thomison, as the guerrillas's "lieutenant." Six more prisoners, ranging in age from twenty-one to forty-three, went down on the rolls as "militia organizers" as well as guerrillas. Among the eight additional men jailed was Samuel Fox, at fifty-two years old a substantial Greenbrier County landowner. Allen Gartner and James H. Ridle of Raleigh County, both in their thirties, were not youths; neither was Fox the sole landowner. Indeed, four of the fifteen prisoners were landowners, and five more were the dependents of landed men. That is to say, a majority of E. D. Thomison's guerrilla band came from landed rather than landless families.

For modern historians of the Civil War, the demographics of Thomison's band—the presence of older and propertied men and their sons—presents both an interpretive and historiographical challenge. Such men, according to conventional wisdom and familiar sources, were not supposed to be there. Mountain guerrillas are supposed to be young and landless outlaws on the fringes of society, "native ruffians, banditti, deserters, guerrillas, and desperate people generally . . . when authority collapses, those most willing to resort to violence." So writes the dean of Appalachian history, Richard Drake, who adds a familiar aphorism, "when the pot boils, the scum rises." Such a description does not include stable landowners like Fox, however. Thus, this essay examines Thomison's band and other western Virginia guerrillas within the context of sources unused in the study of Civil War guerrilla warfare. Those sources suggest that Fox was not an anomaly, but rather a fairly representative example of western Virginia's Confederate guerrillas, at least during what Daniel Sutherland calls the spontaneous "original guerrilla war" and the initial transition of that war into a conflict for local control.

This reconsideration of the background of guerrillas must begin on the Ohio River, almost a year before the capture of the Thomison band. On May 26, 1861, Federal troops under the overall command of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan crossed the Ohio and entered western Virginia. By the middle of July McClellan's victorious troops controlled all of northwestern Virginia from the river south to Charleston. Their southern advance continued successfully until the end of the year, at which point the Union military controlled a line centered on Raleigh County, in what is now southern West Virginia. During the following spring, Federal columns pushed past what would become later the Virginia-West Virginia border before falling back to Raleigh. Future American president Rutherford B. Hayes, serving at the front with the 23rd Ohio, wrote his wife in June 1862: "Flat Top Mountain, twenty miles south of Raleigh [Court House], is the boundary line between America and Dixie—between western Virginia, either loyal or subdued, and western Virginia, rebellious and unconquered."

Often prone to enthusiasm and inconsistency, Hayes well knew that all of western Virginia north of Flat Top Mountain was not "either loyal or subdued," as other letters and his diary regularly attest. As early as three days following the initial Federal foray across the Ohio, pro-Confederate guerrillas working behind Federal lines burned two Baltimore and Ohio Railroad bridges near the Marion County town of Farmington, not far from the Pennsylvania border. Those bridge burnings inaugurated an increasingly brutal guerrilla war that usually (but not always) followed the front, reached an initial climax in the few weeks before Hayes wrote his letter home, and would then endure for almost another three years. "Bushwhackers," as pro-Confederate guerrillas came to be called in the hills of western Virginia, emerged from the local civilian population. While some no doubt used the beginning of the war as an opportunity to steal or seek revenge for old slights, most initially fought for a cause. Encouraged by the partisan heritage of the American Revolution and ideals of democracy, individualism, and independence...

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