Academic journal article Civil War History

Sideshow No Longer: A Historiographical Review of the Guerrilla War

Academic journal article Civil War History

Sideshow No Longer: A Historiographical Review of the Guerrilla War

Article excerpt

IN 1956, BRUCE Catton lamented that historians had treated the Civil War's guerrilla conflict as a "colorful, annoying, but largely unimportant side issue." No one seemed to hear him. Some twenty years later, Emory M. Thomas described the exploits of even the best known and most effective Confederate guerrillas as "more or less side shows," which led a frustrated Phillip Shaw Paludan, writing a decade after Thomas, to repeat Catton's concern more forcefully: "A systematic study of this irregular war is needed." In truth, that would have been difficult in the late 1980s, but a torrent of books, articles, and dissertations about irregular operations during the Civil War has poured out since then. Using this body of work as a foundation, it may now be possible to tackle Paludan's daunting assignment. Recent research has suggested that the guerrilla war, far from being a sideshow, was a crucial part of the larger war. It influenced strategic thinking among both soldiers and politicians. It touched the lives of untold numbers of southern civilians and their communities. In much of the South, it was more than just part of the larger war; it was the war itself, a war with its own roles, its own chronology, its own policies, its own turning points, its own heroes, villains, and victims. In the end, it altered the nature of the entire conflict to a startling degree.(1)

Historical treatment of the guerrilla war has passed through three phases during the past half century. In the 1940s and 1950s, writers focused on the exploits--mostly heroic and romantic--of famous guerrilla leaders, such as John Singleton Mosby and William Clarke Quantrill. Their choice is understandable. The Civil War meant battles and leaders during those decades. Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant defined the limits of popular interest in the war. The same could even be said of most historians, for while politics and diplomacy held some sway in academic circles, few authors explored the complex economic and social dynamics of warfare. Nor did scholars have--or at least express--a very realistic conception of war. The story of the Civil War was a tale of liberal democracy triumphant, and the battles that determined its outcome were portrayed as noble contests waged by honorable men inspired by a patriotic muse. Even Bell I. Wiley's books about Johnny Reb and Billy Yank and Dudley T. Cornish's work on African American soldiers, while breaking away from the heroes and leaders and serving as harbingers of a brand of military history soon to become fashionable, presented sanitized versions of the lives of volunteer soldiers in conventional armies.(2)

Nor did these scholars concern themselves with definitions, a subject that requires comment before proceeding. We call it the guerrilla war, and that expression will do as long as one appreciates the rocks and shoals it disguises. The word guerrilla, as is generally known, dates from the Spanish war of resistance against Napoleon Bonaparte in the early nineteenth century. It became grounded in American usage during the Mexican War, and while colorful Americanisms like bushwhacker and jayhawker became popular alternate names during the Civil War, all were absorbed by guerrilla. So, too, the more precise partisan, ranger, and raider, designations used by Confederate and Union officials to distinguish between government-sanctioned irregular troops attached to the conventional armies and the independent and frequently predatory bands that waged war on their own.

The distinction between guerrillas and partisans is useful--indeed, essential--at a certain level of inquiry, for it does define two different styles of irregular operations. Represented by Quantrill and Mosby, respectively, practitioners of those two styles were often poles apart in their approaches to warfare, their public images, and their treatment by northern and southern authorities. In these respects, irregulars and irregular warfare are probably better terms to encompass the variety of activities that defined the guerrilla war. …

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