A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War

A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War

A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War

A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War


The American Civil War is famous for epic battles involving massive armies outfitted in blue and gray uniforms, details that characterize conventional warfare. A Savage Conflict is the first work to treat guerrilla warfare as critical to understanding the course and outcome of the Civil War. Daniel Sutherland argues that irregular warfare took a large toll on the Confederate war effort by weakening support for state and national governments and diminishing the trust citizens had in their officials to protect them.

Sutherland points out that early in the war Confederate military and political leaders embraced guerrilla tactics. They knew that "partizan" fighters had helped to win the American Revolution. As the war dragged on and defense of the remote spaces of the Confederate territory became more tenuous, guerrilla activity spiraled out of state control. It was adopted by parties who had interests other than Confederate victory, including southern Unionists, violent bands of deserters and draft dodgers, and criminals who saw the war as an opportunity for plunder. Sutherland considers not only the implications such activity had for military strategy but also its effects on people and their attitudes toward the war. Once vital to southern hopes for victory, the guerrilla combatants proved a significant factor in the Confederacy's final collapse.


Most people think of the American Civil War as a clash of mighty armies. the so-called guerrillas of the war, we have been told, barely qualified as a “sideshow.” They certainly did not influence how the war was fought or decide its outcome. I believe that view of things may be wrong. This is not to deny the generals and battles their due, but it is also true that the great campaigns often obscure as much as they reveal. in point of fact, it is impossible to understand the Civil War without appreciating the scope and impact of the guerrilla conflict, although that is no easy thing to do. the guerrilla side of the war was intense and sprawling, born in controversy, and defined by all variety of contradictions, contours, and shadings. in the face of such complexity, wisdom dictates a sketch of the story to come.

Large numbers of Confederates wanted to fight as guerrillas in the spring of 1861. Southern history and culture drew them to this style of warfare, and they never questioned its value. Rebel leaders were not so sure. They knew the historical precedents for guerrilla warfare, not least of all in the American Revolution, but they also considered it slightly dishonorable. An extensive guerrilla war also seemed likely to undermine military discipline and cohesiveness, and it most certainly defied the wisdom of conventional military strategies. Even so, when forced to employ guerrillas in the early months of the war, Confederate leaders found them extremely useful. 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. They shielded communities, stymied Union efforts to occupy the South, and spread panic throughout the lower Midwest. the politicians and generals could not have hoped for more, and so they vacillated, never fully endorsing their guerrillas but uncertain how best and how long to use them. History had shown that guerrillas could not win wars on their own, but rebel leaders knew not how to make them part of some broader plan.

This indecisiveness hurt the Confederates. Guerrillas grew increasingly independent and ungovernable, very nearly waging their own war. They also drew a devastating response from the enemy. Seeing . . .

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