Guerrilla Warfare, Democracy, and the Fate of the Confederacy

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE MOST ENDURING EXPLANATIONS FOR WHY THE CONFEDERACY lost the Civil War asserts that the Rebels were too democratic. First proposed by David H. Donald as a variation on a theme by Frank L. Owsley, it has survived, with some modification by recent scholars, as a viable part of most multicausal explanations of Confederate defeat. To date, the argument has rested largely on the supposed political blunders of the central government, in its indelicate handling of issues that infringed on personal liberties or that injured the sensibilities of powerful state politicians, to demonstrate the disruptive effect of Confederate individualism. Occasional references are also made to problems caused by the independent spirit of the Confederate soldier, but these discussions tend to convey a greater sense of pride or respect for this quality than rebuke. Little has been said about how military policy might have been influenced by an underlying tension in Confederate society between democracy and authority, between individualism and discipline, or between popular conceptions of the war and the government's conduct of the war. Conscription, probably the most divisive issue involving individual fights, cut across both social and military lines, but another pivotal military issue eclipsed even conscription: guerrilla warfare. Indeed, guerrilla warfare sparked sharp policy debates in both North and South that affected the outcome of the war in no small way. (1)

Large numbers of common folk assumed from the earliest days of the Confederacy that guerrillas would be an important component of their nation's military force. This is not to say they underestimated the role to be played by conventional soldiers, for even the least militarily knowledgeable Rebels sensed that independence could not be won by fighting an exclusively irregular contest. Rather, they believed that guerrillas could help win the war, and many men wished to contribute to Confederate victory in that way. They saw guerrilla warfare as a freewheeling, unfettered, grassroots style of fighting that suited southern tendencies toward individualism and localism. Like the Europeans who had associated the guerrilla style with "natural man" since the eighteenth century, Rebel advocates also thought of it as "natural," almost primordial. For Confederates, guerrilla warfare was not democratic: in any political sense, in that it was not based on philosophical musings about republican values, but it exemplified democracy in a social, Tocquevillian sense, whereby equality and individual action formed the impetus for a "people's war". (2)

Yet, for two reasons this popular enthusiasm for a democratic uprising ran amok almost from the start. First, the original guerrilla war produced a pair of nasty mutations--community vigilantism and outright outlawry--that made Rebel noncombatants the victims, rather than the beneficiaries, of this people's contest. Earlier advocates be came disillusioned when the guerrilla struggle, feeding off its own excesses, began to hurt those it was supposed to defend more than it helped them. Second, Confederate political and military leaders, tied to traditional, hierarchical forms of social and military organization, were suspicious of the guerrilla war's grassroots origins and feared the consequences of such an unregulated mode of fighting. In a sense, the transformation of the original guerrilla war from a useful means of local defense and voluntarism into a rapacious free-for-all justified their doubts and fears, but Confederate leaders added to the chaos by first underestimating and then failing to harness its passionate energy. (3)

None of this is to suggest, as have some historians, that the Confederacy fell because it failed to mount a more vigorous guerrilla contest. Yet the opposite position--that the guerrilla struggle was a mere "sideshow" that had little bearing on the outcome of the war--also misses the point. Scholars only began to appreciate the extensive social and political implications of the Confederacy's guerrilla war in the 1980s. …