Gangs Kill, Torture and Plunder

Article excerpt

We tend to think of the Civil War as a conflict between organized armies. Violent to be sure, but otherwise clean and decorous, with gentlemen in charge, the customs of war usually followed and atrocities the rare exceptions. This perception is largely true, but there were significant exceptions, which are the themes of the three books considered here.

Those living in the Appalachian mountains in the South tended to be pro-Union. Mountaineers for the most part did not own slaves, did not engage in the kind of agriculture that would have made slavery profitable and hated the slave-owning class for reasons dating at least to the Revolution.

As a result (and as Ulysses Grant noted in his memoirs), many loyal regiments were formed from Southerners who left the South to fight for preservation of the Union. Unfortunately, this also meant that some regions became subject to the kind of warfare that we associate today with Bosnia or Zaire, setting neighbor against neighbor. Murder, banditry and arson were conducted by armed gangs that operated under the colors of both sides.

Often these gangs were composed of men who had joined to avoid conscription into real military service. Their criminal depredations left a legacy of hatred that must have lasted at least as long as the legacy of bitterness from Sherman's march.

"Hiwasse," by Charles F. Price (Academy Chicago Publishers, $20), is a novelized version of a Southerner's reconstruction of his ancestor's service during the war. The principal villains are a group of thugs called "Yellowjackets," who claim to be serving the Union cause but who steal, rape, burn and murder.

Scene after scene contains such mayhem, so much so that the reader is left sickened. It is realistic, in the sense that such portrayals of evil often are. …