- Memories of a Rooted SorrowThe Legacy of the Guerrilla War
Historical memory and the role of memory in writing history have become popular themes in recent years. In Civil War studies, they have become a veritable subfield and used in a variety of ways. Some scholars compare postwar recollections to wartime accounts in order to clarify or correct the historical record. Other people try to show how faulty memories have caused misunderstandings about the purpose, conduct, or outcome of the war. Still others reveal how and why memories have been constructed for specific purposes, with events and motives selected and interpreted to satisfy the needs of particular people, groups, or communities. Sometimes these gaps between fact and memory originate with elderly people whose recollections have simply faded, or who never knew with certainty the where, when, or how of the events they described. Then again, some public figures publish reminiscences and memoirs intended to protect or embellish their own reputations, regardless of the facts. Sometimes these attempts to shape the past are successful. Later generations believe them, even in the face of contradictory evidence. As the editor of the Shinbone Star famously proclaimed in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.”1
The efforts of former Confederate guerrillas to create legends, and so to influence how we remember their role in the war, have, until quite recently, [End Page 8] largely escaped historical inquiry. Even when writing about the guerrilla legacy, scholars have tended to rely on what other people said about it, rather than allowing the guerrillas to speak for themselves. This approach is understandable if one believes that ex-guerrillas were insincere in recounting their wartime deeds, but that leaves open the question of why they wrote and the ways in which they told their stories. No one writes without purpose, and so it behooves us to take their postwar testimonies seriously. This essay suggests that the postwar writings and actions of Confederate guerrillas were intended to rehabilitate an image that had been soiled by the type of war they fought and the bitter memories they had sown.2
Considering the broader historiography of the war, this seems an appropriate time to ask how Confederate guerrillas viewed themselves, for despite an impressive, and still growing, body of scholarly literature on the guerrilla conflict, some historians have been slow to acknowledge the scope and significance of its role. This is especially true of historians who promote the dominance of military history—by which is meant the role of conventional armies—in the Civil War narrative. None can gainsay the importance of [End Page 9] armies to the outcome of any war, but this narrow and somewhat defensive perspective misjudges the extent to which the guerrilla conflict dominated the lives of countless people, soldiers and civilians alike. For them, the real war was waged not on conventional battlefields but in their backyards, and it was a decisive force in both the conduct and outcome of the larger war.3
Equally discouraging is the failure of specialists in historical memory to consider the reminiscences of guerrillas in their accounts of the war. Traditionally, these scholars have explained how memories were fashioned to foster personal and sectional harmony between northern and southern whites. The postwar years, they say, witnessed a conscience program of reconciliation, a process of healing, of burying the ugliness and unwelcomed consequences of war for the sake of national unity and white racial solidarity. More recently, in a direct challenge to this positive view of postwar America, some historians have insisted that deep sectional animosities continued to fester, especially among Union and Confederate veterans.4 [End Page 10]
Either way, former guerrillas have gotten the short end of the historio-graphical stick, mainly because they do not fit neatly into the orthodox Civil War narrative. And no wonder. The fact is, they fought a different kind of war, and they knew it. By war’s end, “guerrillas” and “bushwhackers” had become synonymous in North and South with unwarranted cruelty and violence. The Federals had accused them of ignoring the rules of “civilized warfare,” and they had...