American Civil War; Guerrilla Warfare; Guerrilla War

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The American Civil War and Guerrilla Warfare

Guerrilla War
 
In 1865, General Robert E Lee stated that if the Army of Northern Virginia could make it to the Blue Ridge Mountains, it could hold out for 20 years. Gen. Lee was referring to what soldiers of the era called a "Defensive Guerrilla War."
 
Roman Emperor Hadrian and the world’s greatest military power were brought to their knees by inferior guerrilla bands in the early second century, and because of Rome’s losses to guerrilla raids from the north, it succumbed to a stalemate and constructed a massive wall, known as Hadrian's Wall, to separate its empire from the highland of northern Britain. The power of Rome was withheld its objective of conquering the territory to its north, and the wall that Hadrian built serves as a reminder of what few can achieve against such daunting odds. While familiar terrain and loyal citizens were key to the guerrilla victory, the home field advantage was also appreciated by King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, alongside their Greek allies, as they defended the Pass of Thermopylae and inflicted at least 20,000 casualties on the invading Persian goliath. Prior to surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia, General Lee, during the American Civil War, seriously contemplated disbanding the army, creating a massive guerrilla force, and relocating it to the mountains. The twentieth century is a recent reminder of how common citizens turned guerrillas could prove to be one strong opponent. By continuing its employment of guerrilla warfare, the Vietnamese demonstrated to the rest of the globe that it was more than capable of defeating a few world powers.

Guerrilla Warfare and Guerrilla War Strategy Map
American Civil War Strategy Map.jpg
American Civil War: Guerrilla Warfare and Guerrilla War Strategy Map

The Microcosm
 
Native Americans learned to track and hunt at an early age, and their tactics in (guerrilla) warfare were merely a transition from hunting animals to stalking the enemy.
 
General Ulysses S. Grant, traveling through the South’s Cumberland Gap in 1864 noted: "With two brigades of the Army of the Cumberland I could hold that pass against the army which Napoleon led to Moscow."
 
During the American Civil War, William Thomas, a Cherokee chief and Confederate colonel, abandoned the traditional Napoleonic Tactics in favor of the superior advantages gained by Guerrilla Warfare while in the defensive position known as familiarity of terrain. (See Thomas's Civil War Strategy.) Raised as a Cherokee to become the only white man to ever serve as a Cherokee chief, Thomas was fond of the old ways of guerrilla tactics which had been successfully employed by the Indians for centuries, such as "fight from the base of the ridge, keep the mountain to your back, succor the enemy, and then spring the trap." The natives had been using the tactics against superior forces long before the white man had stepped onto the continent, understood Thomas. Guerrilla warfare was adopted by a young George Washington, as demonstrated while fighting for the British crown during the French and Indian War.
 
Thomas petitioned North Carolina Governors Henry Toole Clark and Zebulon Baird Vance, and even presented Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Braxton Bragg with his plan to employ his troops, the Thomas Legion, "to defend the passes of the Smokies." (See Cherokee Indians: Weapons and Warfare.)
 
And in February 1864, Colonel Thomas reminded South Carolina officials that in the beginning of the war, he had urged the Carolinas to “make preparations to defend the passes in the Smoky Mountains for their common protection…and by express permission of President Davis, I raised a legion of Indians and highlanders.”
 
The Confederate Army, however, ordered the Thomas Legion to the Shenandoah Valley in May 1864, which resulted in the Union army having a gateway to the South, while it allowed bushwhackers to plunder, at will, East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. One incident, known as the Shelton Laurel Massacre, was the result of the region's lawlessness and anarchy.
 
By abandoning tactics of Defensive Guerrilla Warfare, as it was called at the time, it resulted in the loss of home field advantage and the outright attacks against a defenseless civilian populace, which was also the network necessary to support and sustain the guerrillas in the field.

On May 2, 1864, in a letter to "Headquarters Armies Confederate States," General Bragg proclaimed that "General Longstreet’s army having left East Tennessee opened all of Western North Carolina, Northeastern Georgia, Northwestern South Carolina, to incursions of the enemy." And in May 1864, Colonel Black, with the First South Carolina Cavalry, stated that although Thomas and the Cherokees were assigned to Western North Carolina, "a wide gap is open for the inroad of the enemy." Bragg and Black had voiced their concerns the exact month that the Legion was ordered to the Shenandoah Valley.
 
The Thomas Legion, consisting of Cherokee Indians and mountain men, would be the last Confederate unit to surrender East of the Mississippi. The legion captured the Union occupied town of Waynesville, North Carolina, and then negotiated its own surrender terms on May 10, 1865, which was more than one month after Lee had already surrendered to Grant. The last Confederate command of the Civil War to surrender was the First Indian Brigade, under the command of Brig. Gen. Stand Watie, on June 23, 1865. Cherokee Chief Watie's brigade consisted of Cherokee Indians and it had effectively exercised Guerrilla Warfare for the duration of the war, and when the brigadier surrendered his command, he also became the last Confederate general to lay down his arms. The Cherokee had performed well both east and west of the mighty Mississippi, and their battlefield successes were the result of their Guerrilla War tactics.
 
Although there were units of the Civil War known by names such as Partisan rangers, bushwhackers, Jayhawkers, and even raiders, several of the commands enjoyed much success in the conflict due to their practice of guerilla tactics.

(See also related reading below.)

Recommended Reading: Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-1865: A Riveting Account of a Bloody Chapter in Civil War History. From Library Journal: The Civil War on the Kansas-Missouri border was initially fought by Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers, guerrillas from Missouri and Kansas, respectively. Union troops mostly displaced the Jayhawkers by 1862, but the Bushwhackers remained active until Lee's surrender. Continued below...

Historian Goodrich describes the death and destruction the guerrilla war wrought on this region through excerpts from diaries, letters, local news accounts, and published articles, letting the victims do most of the talking. Citing cases that graphically underscore the terrorism, Goodrich captures the fear of the populace. He indulges in a few overly dramatic statements… This title should be considered for public libraries with strong Civil War collections.

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Recommended Reading: The Devil Knows How To Ride: The True Story Of William Clarke Quantrill And His Confederate Raiders. Description: William Clarke Quantrill was quite possibly the most dangerous man to fight in the Civil War. The leader of an almost psychopathic band of guerrilla warriors, Quantrill participated as a Confederate in a deadly border war between Southern sympathizers in Missouri and the Unionist Jayhawkers of Kansas. He was largely responsible for the 1863 massacre of nearly 200 unresisting men and boys in Lawrence, Kansas, as well as dozens of other brutal acts that today would be called terrorism. Among the notorious men who rode with him were Frank and Jesse James, whose postwar crime careers are briefly reviewed. Continued below...
Edward E. Leslie provides an objective treatment of his controversial subject, and readers will appreciate his ability to tell a good story--including the one about why Quantrill's bones currently rest in three different states and why a forensically correct wax reconstruction of his head can be found in the refrigerator of an Ohio historical society.

 

Recommended Reading: Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War. Description: During the Civil War, the state of Missouri witnessed the most widespread, prolonged, and destructive guerrilla fighting in American history. With its horrific combination of robbery, arson, torture, murder, and swift and bloody raids on farms and settlements, the conflict approached total war, engulfing the whole populace and challenging any notion of civility. Michael Fellman's Inside War captures the conflict from "inside," drawing on a wealth of first-hand evidence, including letters, diaries, military reports, court-martial transcripts, depositions, and newspaper accounts. Continued below...

He gives us a clear picture of the ideological, social, and economic forces that divided the people and launched the conflict. Along with depicting how both Confederate and Union officials used the guerrilla fighters and their tactics to their own advantage, Fellman describes how ordinary civilian men and women struggled to survive amidst the random terror perpetuated by both sides; what drove the combatants themselves to commit atrocities and vicious acts of vengeance; and how the legend of Jesse James arose from this brutal episode in the American Civil War.

 
Recommended Reading: Mountain Partisans: Guerrilla Warfare in the Southern Appalachians, 1861-1865 (Hardcover). Description: This is the story of a civil war within the Civil War. Some mountain folks in Southern Appalachia opposed the Confederacy, especially when the South's conscription and impressment policies began to cause severe "home hardships." Deserters from the Rebel army hid in the mountains and formed guerrilla bands that terrorized unprotected Confederate homesteads. Violence escalated so much that Richmond had to detach entire Confederate regiments to pursue, engage, and eliminate these guerrilla units. Continued below...
Mountain Partisans penetrates the shadowy world of Union and Confederate guerrillas, describes their leaders and bloody activities, and explains their effect on the Civil War and the culture of Appalachia. Although it did not alter the outcome of the war, guerrilla conflict affected the way the war was fought. The Union army's experience with guerrilla warfare in the mountains influenced the North's adoption of "hard war" as a strategy used against the South in the last two years of the war and helped shape the army's attitude toward Southern civilians. Partisan warfare in Southern Appalachia left a legacy of self-imposed isolation and distrust of outsiders. Wartime hatreds contributed to a climate of feuds and extralegal vigilantism that lasted for generations. The mountain economy received a monumental setback from the war's devastating effects, laying the groundwork for the region's exploitation and impoverishment by outside corporations in the early 20th century.
 

Recommended Reading: War at Every Door: Partisan Politics and Guerrilla Violence in East Tennessee, 1860-1869. Description: One of the most divided regions of the Confederacy, East Tennessee was the site of fierce Unionist resistance to secession, Confederate rule, and the Southern war effort. It was also the scene of unrelenting 'irregular,' or guerrilla, warfare between Union and Confederate supporters, a conflict that permanently altered the region's political, economic, and social landscape. In this study, Noel Fisher examines the military and political struggle for control of East Tennessee from the secession crisis through the early years of Reconstruction, focusing particularly on the military and political significance of the region's irregular activity. Continued below...

Fisher portrays in grim detail the brutality and ruthlessness employed not only by partisan bands but also by Confederate and Union troops under constant threat of guerrilla attack and government officials frustrated by unstinting dissent. He demonstrates that, generally, guerrillas were neither the romantic, daring figures of Civil War legend nor mere thieves and murderers, but rather were ordinary men and women who fought to live under a government of their choice and to drive out those who did not share their views.

 

Recommended Reading: Bushwhackers, The Civil War in North Carolina: The Mountains (338 pages). Description: Trotter's book (which could have been titled "Murder, Mayhem, and Mountain Madness") is an epic backdrop for the most horrific murdering, plundering and pillaging of the mountain communities of western North Carolina during the state’s darkest hour—the American Civil War. Commonly referred to as Southern Appalachia, the North Carolina and East Tennessee mountains witnessed divided loyalties in its bushwhackers and guerrilla units. These so-called “bushwhackers” even used the conflict to settle old feuds and scores, which, in some cases, continued well after the war ended. Continued below...

Some bushwhackers were highly organized ‘fighting guerrilla units’ while others were a motley group of deserters and outliers, and, since most of them were residents of the region, they were familiar with the terrain and made for a “very formidable foe.” In this work, Trotter does a great job on covering the many facets of the bushwhackers and guerrillas, including their: battles, skirmishes, raids, activities, motives, the outcome, and even the aftermath. This book is also a great source for tracing ancestors during the Civil War; a must have for the family researcher of Southern Appalachia.

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