'Savage' Band Warfare Collapses Civil Society; Violence Escalates in South; 600,000 Civilians, Slaves Die

Article excerpt


The American public is generally aware of the horrendous carnage that resulted from the mid-19th-century trauma involving the Northern and Southern states. More than 600,000 soldiers perished from battle wounds and disease during four years of war from 1861 to 1865.

Less well known is the violence irregular troops and guerrilla bands generated on the home front, which contributed to the deaths of another 600,000 civilians and slaves and to the widespread collapse of civil society in the South.

The considerable literature available about guerrilla activity during the Civil War focuses mainly on individual states and regions. A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War is a more comprehensive study that examines the effect of this disruptive form of combat in all the Southern states and certain Northern ones as well and its impact on the ultimate outcome of the Civil War.

Daniel E. Sutherland is an Arkansas University history professor and a prolific Civil War author whose books include Seasons of War: The Ordeal of a Confederate Community, 1861-1865, which focuses on Culpeper, Va., a community that endured occupation by either Union or Confederate forces throughout the four-year struggle. Mr. Sutherland's latest publication, a scholarly examination of the many shadings of irregular warfare that erupted during the Civil War, is the result of his gathering data on this subject over a lengthy period of time.

The Confederacy, with a smaller number of men under arms, was forced to employ guerrillas in the early months of the war. As Mr. Sutherland points out, Guerrillas helped check invading armies at every turn. They distracted the Federals from their primary objectives, caused them to alter strategies, injured the morale of Union troops, and forced the reassignment of men and resources to counter threats to railroads, river traffic, and foraging parties.

This situation became problematical when Union officers branded Rebel guerrillas as brigands and denounced civilians who supported and sheltered them. This fostered harsh policies that were designed to eliminate this type of warfare but often had the opposite effect, causing the activities to proliferate. Regular military units eventually decided that the escalating cycle of gratuitous violence tended to erode the discipline and morale of the troops.

The Confederate government also discovered that guerrilla warfare was a two-edged sword that eventually did more harm than good. The author points out that President Jefferson Davis, who had been educated in the nation's military academies, associated guerrilla combat with barbarism by untutored, even uncivilized, peoples.

The inability to control the excesses of these groups or properly incorporate them into a national military strategy led the Southern legislature to pass the Partisan Ranger Act in April 1862 in an attempt to limit the number of irregular units and their activities. State officials were not always in agreement with national policy, however, which led them to pay lip service to or ignore the Partisan Ranger Act in some cases.

A Savage Conflict examines guerrilla warfare and its effects on a state-by-state basis during various periods of the war. It demonstrates that this approach was not the domain of Confederates alone, but also involved Unionists and other disaffected groups, such as deserters, outlaws and escaped slaves.

Guerrilla bands of whatever stripe generally had two things in common: They employed irregular tactics and were concerned primarily with local defense (i.e., protection of their families and communities).

Initially, Kansas and Missouri suffered most from rival groups attempting to control the reins of government in order to implement pro- or anti-slavery policies. To gain the upper hand, Missouri bushwhackers and Kansas jayhawkers engaged in killing people or destroying property for sport, out of meanness, or in a personal vendetta. …