- An Advice Manual for Wanna-Be Guerrilla Hunters
The Gospel of Luke records some wise advice about counting the cost before undertaking a major project. "Suppose one of you wants to build a tower," Jesus told a crowd of followers. "Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'" Historians seeking to understand irregular warfare during the American Civil War might benefit from similar counsel. The field of guerrilla studies is vibrant and expanding; within the last three years, young scholars have produced several major monographs and university presses have issued two important anthologies. The foundation of the field has been laid for future scholars to construct the tower. Now it is important to sit down and estimate the materials that are needed to continue the work.1
What follows is an advice manual for those who delve into the past in search of Civil War guerrillas. It includes an estimate of the cost—such as the variety of fields that one must master and the difficult ethical questions that one will confront in the process. It incorporates the lessons learned from those who laid the foundation in the hopes that those who add to the edifice—especially those scholars working on the state of Kentucky and other understudied centers of guerrilla activity—will complete their portion of this important work.
1. Master local history but keep your eye on the big picture
Any scholar who writes about Civil War guerrillas must become an expert in local history who is willing to trace complicated genealogies and explore facts that may seem arcane on the surface. Foundational works have established that irregular warfare was organic to local conditions. Brian McKnight and Barton Myers conclude that the irregular war was thousands of localized conflicts that resonated through the county, regional, state, and national levels. Each local conflict had distinct features. Mark W. Geiger waded through decaying bank records in rural Missouri country courthouses to uncover a failed financial scheme to support the newly formed Confederate government that bankrupted entire family networks of the state's planter class. Geiger attributes the intensity of Missouri's guerrilla conflict to this unique circumstance. Thousands of the state's wealthiest families [End Page 68] lost their land in lawsuits arising from the scheme. Geiger argues that a disproportionate number of young men from this class joined guerrilla bands. "The legal jargon and the old-fashioned, formulaic language record a calamity that fell on these communities and produced a vicious reaction," he concludes. "In the insular towns and rural neighborhoods of the Boonslick, these people would have seen an implacable, punitive justice system taking apart the whole social order, at the point of Federal bayonets."2
Local history holds the key to identifying who constituted the rank and file of guerrilla bands. Aaron Astor advocates the use of social network analysis as a tool to uncover the relationships that drew men and women into insurgency. "Guerrillas operated relationally, developing bonds of trust, lists of enemies, reliable lines of supply, routes of escape, houses of refuge, and structures of command based on informal but meaningful ties between members and between themselves and the wider community," he notes. "These relationships typically built on existing prewar social networks that established certain persons as respected community leaders and drew certain members of the community more tightly together than others." Social network analysis traces the interconnected webs that bound people: political and religious affiliation, gendered kinship patterns, neighborhood and settlement, class and trade relations, and the interactions among slaves, slaveholders, and non-slaveholding whites. Using digital tools, connections can be mapped onto the physical landscape to aid historians in constructing the "mental geography" of guerrillas in a given locale. Astor applied this analysis to unionist guerrilla "Tinker Dave" Beaty and his Confederate rival Champ Ferguson, who operated in Fentress County, Tennessee. Confederate guerrillas were men with links to the Andrew McGinnis farm in the Wolf River...