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  • Guerrilla Warfare, Slavery, and the Hopes of the Confederacy
  • Mark E. Neely Jr. (bio)

In 1861, on the very eve of the Civil War, Edmund Ruffin published a speculative novel titled Anticipations of the Future: To Serve as Lessons for the Present Time, in the Form of Extracts of Letters from an English Resident of the United States, to the London Times, from 1864 to 1870.1 It has never quite enjoyed the attention from historians that it deserves. Ruffin did fairly well in anticipating the future. He foresaw urban riots in the North during a civil war with the South, though he thought they would arise from class consciousness rather than objections to conscription. He predicted that the states of the Old Northwest would eventually cleave to the southern confederacy, and indeed anxieties about that possibility were often expressed during the actual Civil War of 1861–65. On his most important point, namely, that guerrilla warfare would lead to southern independence, he was proved wrong, but he looked hopefully to see its embrace by Confederate society throughout the war.2

What is most significant about the book is simply that Ruffin was thinking about the future in 1861, about what might happen if the South really seceded, trying to figure out how the slave states might gain independence despite the North’s great military advantages. It is difficult to find any substantial consideration of those questions in books or pamphlets published in the South on the eve of secession; arguments over the constitutionality of the act of secession itself dominated the polemical literature of the day. Emory M. Thomas, after writing many works on the Confederacy, still wonders at the lack of foresight displayed in the immediate origins of the Civil War and raises the question, “Both sides, it seems, decided to go to war because they could not—or would not—calculate the cost of their decisions.”3 Thus Ruffin stands out. Say what one will about his amateurish exercise in futurist fiction, he was thinking about the apparently unthinkable: what would happen if the South really did secede from the Union and faced a war with the North, which was obviously greatly superior in population, transportation, and manufacturing. The dangerous resort to [End Page 376] secession needed some plausible strategy for success, and Ruffin had at last figured out what it was: guerrilla warfare.

To read the confident prose Ruffin dreamed up to show how guerrilla warfare would work for southern independence is doubly surprising, coming as it did from the pen of an ardent proslavery apologist. Current wisdom on the subject suggests something altogether different, that the Confederacy did not dare consider a self-conscious adoption of guerrilla warfare as a strategy for military victory from fear for the security of slavery amid the disorder of irregular war. The most forthright statement of that view comes from Gary W. Gallagher, but other historians agree, and all who have considered the idea have at the very least taken it seriously. “The threat of such chaos in a slave-based society,” Gallagher argued, “stood as the most important obstacle to a Confederate policy of guerrilla war.” “Both late antebellum fears of insurrection,” he added, “and behavior when confronting Union invaders during the war strongly suggest that white southerners would not have countenanced a national guerrilla strategy in 1861.” Guerrilla warfare defied “the models of earlier wars to which white Southerners looked for guidance.” Guerrilla warfare was only “marginally related to their martial tradition.” “Announcement of such a strategy in 1861,” he said, would not “have prompted an enthusiastic response.”4

The proposition has attracted the attention of some of the most important writers on the war: in addition to Gallagher, George M. Fredrickson, Reid Mitchell, and the writing team of Herman Hattaway, Richard Beringer, Archer Jones, and William N. Still. Considering why the Confederacy lost the Civil War, Reid Mitchell, in 1992, said, “In 1861 the Confederacy did not choose to fight a guerrilla war—because, in large part, it did not seem possible to fight a guerrilla war and keep slavery intact.” Coauthors Hattaway, Jones, Beringer, and Still, in a five-hundred-page consideration of Why the...