- The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865
One of the ongoing debates among Civil War historians revolves around the question of whether Confederates could have effectively waged guerrilla warfare after their conventional forces surrendered in the spring of 1865. Some contend that if Southerners heeded President Jefferson Davis's call for guerrilla war, the Confederacy would have triumphed. Others insist that this plan was doomed to failure. Robert E. Lee himself rejected the idea, believing surrender was the only honorable option. Robert R. Mackey's fascinating new study examines this controversial issue and comes to some surprising conclusions.
Mackey is particularly concerned with accurately defining the term "guerrilla warfare." He notes that the term had a different meaning in the mid-nineteenth century than it has today. Citing the writings of influential nineteenth-century European military theorists Antoine Henri Jomini and Carl von Clausowitz, Mackey contends that Civil War commanders did not conceive of guerrilla warfare as a pure, ideologically driven "people's war." He explains that guerrilla fighters in Civil War terms best match Francis Lieber's definition of disorganized, unpaid, undisciplined marauders who fought sporadically in the most brutal manner. Such men had no formal designation in the organized Confederate [End Page 214] army and preyed mercilessly on civilians. Partisans, however, were formally organized units within the Confederate army. Partisans fought with unconventional tactics, including ambushes and raids, but they were legitimate soldiers with a clear organization and purpose. Mackey's final type of irregular fighters, cavalry raiders, were also legitimate soldiers, but with a generally closer alliance to and tighter restraint from the rebel high command.
Mackey contends that the Confederacy tried all three forms of this "irregular warfare" throughout the conflict (6). He draws the most dramatic examples from the upper Southern states of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Arkansas, Mackey argues, came the closest to an all-out guerrilla fight. Geographically and politically remote from the rest of the Confederacy, Arkansas was ideally suited for this kind of irregular warfare. When conventional forces abandoned Arkansas in 1862, district commander Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Hindman called for fighters to organize themselves into independent companies and operate against the Union army without any formal orders. By 1863, the Confederacy had lost complete control of these guerrillas and attempted to force them into regular service. Federals also sought to disband the roving marauders by developing an innovative counter-insurgency plan that created "fortified colonies"—essentially safe havens for Unionists, guarded by the residents themselves (66). These colonies also provided supplies and base stations for Federal troops. Eventually, the Union army isolated and weakened the guerrillas, turning Arkansans against the Confederacy, convincing them that the Federal government ensured law and order rather than the rebels.
In Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the story differed. In Virginia, the Confederate government sanctioned John Mosby as a partisan fighter to harass Northern troops, destroy property, and gather intelligence. Mackey insists that Mosby and his men were not guerrillas, despite the fact that the Union reacted to them as if they were. Instead, as disciplined and specially selected volunteers, Mosby and his men practiced unconventional warfare in a very controlled, deliberate manner. Federals overreacted, seeking revenge for Mosby's exploits. Phil Sheridan developed his 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign partly as a response to Mosby. This destructive campaign only cemented Mosby's mythic stature. Nonetheless, Mackey judges Mosby's strategic effect on the war limited. The Virginian's operations were just too small, and the Federal forces he faced were too large.
The remainder of Mackey's book concentrates on famed Confederate cavalry commanders John Hunt Morgan, Joe Wheeler, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Conducting mounted raids in Tennessee and Kentucky, these three men wreaked havoc on Union operations. Unlike Mosby, though, these were regular cavalry officers, operating in an acceptable manner against the enemy. Morgan and Forrest, whom Mackey names "two of the greatest cavalry leaders of the Civil War," [End Page 215] had dramatic success as raiders in 1862 (125...