- Extreme Civil War: Guerrilla Warfare, Environment, and Race on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier by Matthew M. Stith
In Extreme Civil War, Matthew M. Stith lays a claim for the trans-Mississippi frontier as the site of an extreme form of the Civil War because of the prevalence of guerrilla war, harsh environmental conditions, and conflicts created by slavery and the participation of Native Americans. He proposes to use this extreme context to further our understanding of the basic nature of guerrilla war.
On the face of it, focusing on race and the environment, factors largely overlooked in previous discussions of the war as it unfolded in the region, would appear to be a likely way to further our understanding of the extremes of the Civil War, as Stith terms it. Stith does delve deeply into the particular conditions of the trans-Mississippi frontier and how they played out in the context of war in the region, making a case for how the harshness of western conditions and the conflicts around slavery and Native American participation in the war intensified the violence and suffering. What he does not explain is how or why race or the environment is critical to understanding guerrilla war as it played out in the trans-Mississippi frontier.
When it comes to guerrilla war, Stith repeatedly points out that what characterizes this form of warfare is that it is "civilian centered." And although slaves and Native Americans were civilians, Stith repeatedly informs the reader that civilians were "women." This observation that the involvement of civilians is what distinguishes guerrilla war from "regular" war is not new. Beginning with the Civil War itself, the Lieber Code, issued as General Orders No. 100 by Lincoln in the spring of 1863, defined guerrilla war as the abuse of civilians by self-constituted brigands. Historians such as Michael Fellman, in his classic work Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri during the American Civil War (1989), and, more [End Page 497] recently, Daniel Sutherland, in A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (2009), have struggled with this initial definition, attempting to be more evenhanded in their assessment of the motivations of the guerrillas. Stith makes a contribution to this discussion by identifying civilians as women and suggesting that guerrilla war is best understood by seeing it as civilian centered. To be fair to earlier historians of guerrilla war, it is not that they do not include women in their discussions (Fellman in fact devotes an entire chapter to discussing whether women were victims or agents in their response to the abuses of both Union soldiers and guerrillas), but discussing how women responded to a conflict made by men is presumably not the same as suggesting that guerrilla war, as a form of warfare, was "centered" on (women) civilians.
To suggest, then, that guerrilla war is a form of warfare centered on civilians and that those civilians are women is a big claim that has the possibility of reframing how we understand how not just the military war, but the war in general, was fought, understood, and eventually resolved. Unfortunately, as with his discussion of the role of slaves and Native Americans, Stith has some difficulty getting beyond the act of simply naming. This act is not to be underestimated in its destabilizing contribution to the discussion; but with such a deep understanding of his particular context, it seems he could have done more to map out exactly how civilians fought their war in the region. In order to move his study of guerrilla war forward, Stith might well have taken a leaf from the playbook of questions military historians regularly ask of formal military conflicts. Who was fighting whom for what reason? Who won what? Who lost what? As long as guerrilla war was understood to be without politics—as just men out robbing on a spree; highway brigands; young men sucked into the mainstream breakdown of order, "violentized"—we have...