- A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War
Since the late 1980s, historians have advanced our understanding of the Civil War by shedding light on the unconventional warfare that wracked the war-torn South. Supplementing works by Michael Fellman, Robert Mackey, Kenneth Noe, and Phillip Paludan, Daniel E. Sutherland’s study, A Savage Conflict, is the most comprehensive analysis of Civil War guerrilla warfare to date. Sutherland examines the complex evolution of irregular warfare in the lower Midwest, the Trans-Mississippi, the upper South, and the Deep South to assert that “it is impossible to understand the Civil War without appreciating the scope and impact of the guerrilla conflict” (ix).
Sutherland employs an exhaustive number of primary sources—including correspondence, newspapers, and military records—to contend that fierce guerrilla warfare played a decisive role in the Confederacy’s downfall. [End Page 107] Irregulars were a boon to the Confederacy at the war’s outset by embarking on reconnaissance missions, harassing federal supply lines, and wreaking havoc upon Union morale. However, as the war progressed, unconventional units became liabilities. Southern lawmakers passed the Partisan Ranger Act in 1862 to restrain irregulars, yet the legislation intensified guerrilla warfare, and the Confederate brass failed to integrate it into their conventional campaigns. Southern civilians also grew disenchanted with the administration in Richmond, as they found it could not protect them from the federals’ harsh anti-guerrilla reprisals and roving bands of criminals and deserters.
Organized chronologically and thematically, Sutherland’s study not only distinguishes between various irregulars—bushwhackers, guerrillas, and partisans—but also provides insight into guerrillas’ motivations. Many ordinary southerners romantically associated irregulars with famous Revolutionary War partisans, especially Francis Marion, and preferred unconventional service because it allowed them to remain at home to protect family and fireside. Furthermore, guerrilla units provided an escape from the mundane “regimentation, discipline, and endless drill required in the conventional army,” and allowed individuals to employ superior combat skills including: “marksmanship, familiarity with knives and hatchets, experience as woodsmen . . . and horsemanship” (51, 52).
Sutherland goes on to highlight the guerrillas’ socioeconomic backgrounds and illustrates that many were neither desperate cutthroats nor ne’er-do-wells. Instead, a number of irregulars in the upper South hailed from landowning middle-class families. Sutherland asserts that rebel guerrillas in western Virginia “included prosperous, educated, and respected leaders of their communities,” who may or may not have owned slaves, but “considered guerrilla operations the best means of resisting Union soldiers and combating neighbors” (86, 87). Sutherland also calls attention to the increasing youth of Confederate guerrillas as the war progressed. The average age of members of one Arkansas guerrilla unit in 1864 was nineteen and many had joined “in search of adventure and fun” (211). These findings are intriguing and leave readers wondering whether this was a prevalent trend in both Confederate and Union irregular companies as the war dragged on.
Sutherland concludes by briefly examining the postwar legacy of guerrillas. Outbreaks of violence plagued the South during Reconstruction and many ex-Confederates formed anti-Republican guerrilla bands to influence raging political battles. Although Reconstruction-era irregulars disregarded the wartime guerrilla brand for more “colorful names, such [as] Ku Klux Klan or Knights of the White Camellia,” their methods were identical (277). [End Page 108] Because ex-Confederates purged the brutal legacy of guerrillas from public memory in an attempt to wrap the Lost Cause in a veneer of respectability, greater attention should be placed on Civil War irregulars’ postwar careers and how subsequent generations manipulated the guerrilla fighter image for partisan purposes. Sutherland’s A Savage Conflict thus illustrates the importance of irregular warfare that will surely captivate general readers and seasoned academics alike, as well as undergraduate and graduate students.