Small Wars Journal

We Had to Burn Out the Entire County: Irregular Warfare in the American Civil War and its Modern Implications

Thu, 08/13/2015 - 4:09pm

We Had to Burn Out the Entire County: Irregular Warfare in the American Civil War and its Modern Implications

Christian B. Keller and Paul C. Jussel

Irregular warfare in the American Civil War is one of those “slippery” topics:  it is a subject difficult to research due to the scattered and fragmented nature of the source material, the unsavory realities of barbarism and atrocity that lurk beneath the historical analysis, and the politically- and emotionally-charged potentialities of truly understanding why and how it happened.  It is a topic that has, until recently, been understudied and yet possesses immense practical significance for contemporary civilian and military leaders around the world.  Irregular war—defined as warfare generally understood as non-conventional in nature and that utilizes tactics, methods, and strategies not normally associated with the “accepted,” traditional manner of warfare at the time—has been around since the first ancient wars of the Middle East.  Ever since humans have fielded armies there have been forces either aligned with those armies or against them that somehow did not follow the same set of rules and/or sought different targets and objectives.  The history of the United States is rife with examples of irregular warfare, from the first colonial wars against the native Americans to the Mexican War, to the Philippine Insurrection.  Obviously, the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the entire so-called “War on Terror” have also been filled with examples of irregular warfare, and modern strategic thinkers predict we will have a lot more of it in the future.

Think about what it means if something is “slippery”:  it is probably hard to grab, hold for long, or get a good look at.  Like a wet fish freshly caught from a stream, it is easy to lose one’s hold on it—and then it escapes.  At that point the fisherman has to go through the entire process of baiting the hook again, casting the line, and, if he’s lucky, reeling in the catch for another round.  Unless the fisherman is experienced, mistakes are likely, and the fish keeps getting away.  So it goes when thinking about irregular warfare during the Civil War:  it is just not an easy task compared to the already difficult chore of studying more conventional historical topics.  So how does one not lose hold of this slippery subject?  The first issue one must confront is the definition of terms.  What, exactly, was a Civil War-era “irregular?”  Is how we define that term today different from the generally understood 19th century definition?  Were there variations and sub-types of irregulars as they appeared in the war?  Why does clarifying the terms matter?  To answer the last question, without definitions we cannot classify the fellows we mention or measure their significance in the greater operational and strategic context of the war.  And if we fail to consider their significance then we lose the practical value of understanding their history for modern national security professionals.

Francis Lieber and His Code

Francis Lieber, a first-generation German immigrant who had settled in South Carolina, was a well-known legal scholar and philosopher who had strong connections with the antebellum U.S. military.  Before the war broke out, he found himself isolated as a Unionist in Confederate Charleston; his move to New York City in 1856 coincided with an appointment to Columbia College as Professor of History and Political Science.  Lieber’s family was split by the war, but when his son Hamilton, an officer in an Illinois regiment, was wounded, Lieber went west looking for him and found support in the form of Major General Henry W. Halleck, commander of the fractious and highly volatile Department of the Missouri.  Halleck was himself no small fry in the nexus between the law and military policy, and had fairly earned the nickname “Old Brains” within the Union Army for his scholarly inclinations (he had recently written a book on the law of war, among other publications).  But Old Brains had run out of brainpower over how to formulate a practical and logical policy regarding Confederate irregulars by the spring of 1862.  Halleck experienced firsthand how difficult it was not only to deal practically with the military problems posed by southern-aligned irregulars, but perhaps just as bothersome, how to classify and define them in order to determine a “doctrine” to effectively fight them.  When he was transferred to Washington in the spring of 1862 to serve as general-in-chief, Halleck finally had the position and influence to start the process.  Enter Francis Lieber.  (Birtle, 28-32; Witt, 187-196)

Lieber drew upon legal, historical, and theoretical precedents as he thought about what would become the famous “Lieber Code.”  Irregular fighters, especially militia leaders like Daniel Morgan and guerrilla chieftains such as Thomas Sumter, had helped the colonies win their independence from Great Britain.  The antebellum Indian wars, such as those conducted against the Seminoles in the late 1830s, were one giant laboratory of irregular and counter-irregular methods and leadership.  Winfield Scott, who had participated in the Seminole Wars as a mid-rank officer, implemented lessons learned in counter-irregular warfare when he took charge of the American expeditionary army in central Mexico in 1847, so successfully enacting a pre-emptive counter-guerrilla strategy—called General Orders #20--that Mexican irregulars were essentially rendered impotent in his march on Mexico City.  Lieber knew about all of this, and just as importantly, agreed with both Scott and Halleck on what 19th century military theory defined as “irregular warfare.”  As Robert Mackey and Clay Mountcastle have explained, most Civil War-era officers at the general officer rank would have been at least somewhat acquainted with the ideas contained in Baron Antoine Henri Jomini’s famous treatise, The Art of War, and his later two-volume Grand Military Operations.  In these works, Jomini, whose ideas were taught at West Point, made two overarching observations about irregular warfare:  first, wars fought among the people were a bad thing.  He claimed that “the spectacle of a spontaneous uprising of a nation is rarely seen…the consequences are so terrible, that, for the sake of humanity, we ought to hope never to see it.”  Continuing, he opined “as a soldier, preferring loyal and chivalrous warfare to organized assassination…I acknowledge that my prejudices are in favor of the good old times when the French and English Guards courteously invited each other to fire first--as at Fontenoy--preferring them to the frightful epoch when priest, women, and children throughout Spain plotted the murder of isolated soldiers.” (Jomini, Art of War, pp 30, 35) Jomini was referring here to the people’s war unleashed upon the French from 1807-1814 in Spain that, according to Napoleon himself, was the key element in his final defeat.  Jomini, however, saw the irregular fighting in Spain as an anomaly and dismissed it as both undesirable and unlikely to happen again, perhaps because of his own prejudices.  What he did expect would reoccur in future conflicts was the use of “partisans,” whom he classified not as mounted detachments of armed civilians operating permanently behind enemy lines, but as regular army cavalry employed as raiders and scouts in the enemy’s country.  In this second comment on irregular war Jomini foretold the use of both Confederate and Union cavalry as raiders, an irregular use of regular army units employed as an adjunct to conventional army operations.  Although a definitive connection between Jominian theory and the great Civil War cavalry raids is hard to prove, it is likely that leaders on both sides who had studied Jominian concepts before the war remembered at least a little of what they learned, and, combined with some practical military experience in the antebellum period, applied that knowledge to the realities on the ground from 1861-1865. (Mackey, 11-12)

It was with his strong background in law, well-versed in both American and European history, and armed with a good understanding of Jominian theory (and, according to one author, Clausewitzian complexity) that Francis Lieber embarked upon his work. (Witt, 184-186)  We can thank this German immigrant for creating the primary definitions and classifications of Civil War-era Confederate irregulars in his pamphlet, Guerrilla Parties, published in late 1862.  Halleck was so pleased that he instructed Lieber and four military officers to draft a more comprehensive and formal document, which became the War Department’s General Orders #100, Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, issued in April 1863 with President Abraham Lincoln’s signature.  Despite the title, which implied more than just counter-guerrilla policy, the General Orders (often called the “Lieber Code”) created, among other things, a loose Federal military policy regarding enemy irregulars and broke down the seemingly nebulous mass of pro-Confederate fighters into definable, more identifiable groups.  It also offered Union commanders, a basis on which to make decisions about how to deal with southern irregulars.  It gave them an official guideline that sanctioned both what Jomini advocated and Union authorities throughout the occupied South had already begun to do:  dispensing harsh, summary judgment on enemy civilians and non-uniformed irregulars caught in the act of attacking Federal troops or destroying Federal property; imposing fines and taxes on disloyal civilians in areas where irregulars had attacked; prescribing indefinite imprisonment and possible execution of disloyal civilians discovered aiding enemy irregulars; and offering the option to summarily execute captured Confederate irregulars who themselves took no prisoners and/or were caught in civilian attire. (Sutherland, 126-129)

All of these confirming guidelines notwithstanding, the “slippery fish” syndrome that plagues modern students and practitioners of irregular war became almost immediately evident to Federal counter-irregular leaders.  The General Orders were not dispensed as holy writ.  Instead, as Andrew Birtle explains, they were “issued only as guidance, since the War Department believed that local commanders were best equipped to decide the proper boundary between leniency and severity.” (Birtle, 35)  That meant that how the counter-irregular war would be waged would be highly regionalized, and even localized, dependant on the experience, temper, and mettle of the Federal commanders in charge and what kinds of resistance they encountered.  Hence, the Union never created an identifiable, set, counter-irregular “strategy” akin to Ulysses S. Grant’s conventional “simultaneous advance” strategy for 1864 or Winfield Scott’s earlier “Anaconda Plan.”  That had enormous effects on the conduct of the irregular war and implications for future American counter-irregular war-making.  Although the Lieber Code did influence European armies’ future doctrine, set the foundations for the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, was studied later at West Point, and offered a springboard for discerning future U.S. military occupation policy, the fact that it never became official Federal policy during the Civil War was problematic and created the basis for the dichotomous, almost schizophrenic approaches (as opposed to viable strategies) of conciliation and harshness that characterized American counterinsurgency policy until World War II.

This strategic confusion, borne of the unofficial nature of General Orders #100, created immense problems for Union counter-irregular operations through 1865, and arguably continued generating institutional fog through the end of the 19th century. The Lieber Code certainly helped American soldiers define their attempts to manage irregular warfare throughout the Plains Indians Wars and the 1902 Philippine Insurrection, but it provided no formal policy.  Thankfully, modern counter-irregular norms have been addressed by recent treaties, notably the 4th Geneva Convention (1949) as well as the current Protocols I – III.  All of these documents have been accepted as customary international law, to be recognized and followed by all nations whether signatories or not.  Although these documents have created a legal basis for current actions, the underlying challenge remains just as true today as it did during the Civil War: how to ensure local commanders appropriately follow them. The lesson for future strategic leaders, as we teach them at the War College, is clear:  there has to be an extant, understood, and official counter-irregular policy (one that is not likely to change much over time) that is rooted in law, history, practical experience, and ethics that can be easily adapted to serve as the basis of any future counter-irregular strategy.  Admittedly, presidential administrations, domestic tolerances and attitudes, and congressional leaders change over time, creating an obvious set of obstacles.  Additionally, each conflict will necessarily exist within its own unique context and therefore a strategy that works for one will not necessarily work well for the next.  These caveats aside, in an age of increasing volatility, with hybrid and irregular threats abounding, it is absolutely imperative that the U.S. has a solid counter-irregular policy, supported by good doctrine, already extant and understood by military leaders before any operations take place. Despite its shortcomings, what the Lieber code did do was help Federal commanders figure out what kind of Confederate irregular they were facing.  Even if most officers in blue in Tennessee or northern Virginia or Missouri did not frequently consult the document per se, the classification scheme that it provided informed their operational and tactical decision-making.  A brief overview of the categories Lieber arrived at will be helpful in better defining who Civil War irregulars were and why we in the 21st century should care about them.

Classifying the Confederate Irregulars

Partisan Rangers:Uniformed enemy combatants who were regularly enrolled, paid, officered, and directly answerable to proper Confederate authorities, but who utilized irregular tactics. Always mounted, they mainly operated behind Federal lines, choosing military and infrastructural targets, and if captured, were considered POWs subject to the protection of the laws of war, unless they violated them.  Mosby’s and McNeil’s Rangers in northern Virginia and Western Maryland fell into this category.  Some of John Hunt Morgan’s men on his famous raids in Kentucky in 1862 probably behaved more like partisans than regular cavalry raiders.  Lieber thought partisans were totally legitimate enemy fighters, for theoretical and historical reasons summarized below.

Guerrillas: “Self-constituted groups,” not formally tied to any army or subordinate to any Confederate authority, that embarked on “petty war… by raids, extortion, destruction, and massacre, and who… generally give no quarter.”  They tended to attack Federal military targets and Unionist guerrillas, but as the war progressed many held little compunction against raiding Unionist civilians.  They often lay down their arms and melted back into the civilian population from whence they came, but then later coalesced back together again when opportunities beckoned.  Thus, Lieber continued, “they easily evade pursuit, and… become insidious enemies.” (Hartigan, 33, 41-42).  Sometimes they wore uniforms, sometimes they did not, and their pay and rations almost always came from civilians, whether donated or extorted.  Usually mounted and often operating well-behind Union lines among pro-Confederate populations, their motives ranged from patriotism to personal revenge to a lust for booty.  Federal commanders had the right, Lieber argued, to treat guerrillas harshly, but recommended that they be viewed as regular prisoners of war unless their crimes could be irrefutably proven.  William Quantrill, Champ Ferguson, and possibly—depending on the time one assesses him—“Bloody Bill” Anderson fell into this group.

War Rebels: Harder to classify and identify, these were civilians who occasionally took rifle in hand to oppose occupying Federal troops, generally in small bands, but sometimes individually.  They tended to blend patriotic and personal motivations, attacked both military and civilian targets, and as the war dragged on and became more brutal, often committed gross atrocities, especially against local Unionists.  They never wore uniforms and received no sanction or pay from the Confederate government.  One month they could be quite active in an area and the next completely fade away.  Recent historiography has indicated that these kinds of irregulars often joined guerrilla bands for a period of time, then resigned from them when the situation suited, and sometimes resorted to behavior of the lowest classification, the “bushwhacker.”  Near the end of the war the James brothers, operating in Missouri, were good examples of war rebels.  If captured, war rebels and bushwhackers, which Lieber claimed blurred the line between combatant and civilian and thus violated the laws of war, could be immediately executed. (Mountcastle: 43-44, 132)

Bushwhackers or Armed Prowlers: The only difference between them and the War Rebels, apparently, was the intended target:  isolated Union pickets, stragglers, foraging parties, and defenseless Unionist civilians.  This class of irregular, the lowest on Lieber’s scale, was highly opportunistic and took advantage of the chaos the passage of war created as much as possible.  The main theme here was that their prey tended to have little recourse to defend themselves, often attacked from ambush or with complete surprise.  Lieber hated bushwhackers intensely and reiterated in the General Orders that Confederate irregulars who abided by the rules of war deserved humane treatment, and those who did not could be harshly punished.  If someone shot from the trees at a lone Union picket or killed a provost marshal in cold blood as he rode from town to camp, that individual violated the “ethics” of war and deserved death.  The historical record is rife with Union officers complaining about bushwhackers, regardless of the southern state or theatre of operations.  Federals sometimes lumped all enemy irregulars from guerrilla on down as bushwhackers (or for that matter, misidentified partisan rangers as guerrillas), a problem that led to difficulties in creating effective counter-irregular tactics. (Birtle, 32-33).

Understanding who one’s irregular enemy is can be a challenge today, just as it was when Lieber wrote his code.  If Federal officers thought they had it tough trying to identify who it was they were fighting and thus what they could—or should—do in response, modern American and allied military leaders have encountered equal if not greater difficulties.  In Iraq from 2003-2012 and still in Afghanistan today, the irregular enemy not only speaks a different language and blends seamlessly into the host population, but can adhere to any one of literally hundreds of different tribes, ethnicities, and religious sects, all characteristics that influence their identity and thus how soldiers on the ground are to treat them.  Add to this complex environment the omnipresence of the media, instantaneous digital communication, and increasingly intrusive political limitations-- factors absent or greatly reduced in the Civil War--and it is easy to understand the frustrations exhibited by many modern higher-ranked officers.  Increasingly, they have discovered firsthand the underlying truth that lurked beneath Lieber’s classifications:  that current guidelines for treating enemy irregulars are and will continue to be necessarily fuzzy, highly subjective, and, in the end, can at best serve as general parameters, even in today’s age of specified doctrines and codes of conduct.  In the end, absent a consistent and comprehensive counter-irregular policy, the assessments of the commanders on the ground are still the key ingredient to successful counter-irregular warfare.  Educated commanders, familiar with the nuances of history, the operational environment, and culture as well as the implications of modern ethics and political concerns, are therefore of paramount importance, but not only at the tactical and operational levels of war, where the irregular threat is real and present: without insightful guidance from strategic leaders, the counter-irregular tactician will be handicapped.

Now that we discussed what the Lieber Code did and did not do—and how we might better classify irregular Civil War combatants--it would be useful to think about a few key themes involved in the study of irregulars in the conflict.  These themes, not surprisingly, still resonate today and can inform modern strategic thinkers.

Historical Themes and Their Implications

First, the Confederacy did not have the monopoly on irregulars.  Just as the United States employed the services of the Northern Alliance in ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001 and certain Iraqi militias after 2006, Federal leaders realized, albeit sometimes slowly, the operational potential of using Southern Union men as irregular fighters.  Consider all the Unionist sections of the seceded Confederate states--places like Eastern Tennessee, Western Virginia, and Western North Carolina—areas that generally voted against the secession of their states and remained at best lukewarm toward the Confederacy when Union armies started penetrating their regions.  Add to this the perceived injustices of the Confederate draft, tax-in-kind, and other governmental intrusions for a cause they considered wrong, coupled with long-standing class-related feuds with wealthier, slave-holding neighbors, and the stage was set for numerous Unionist insurgencies and insurgent groups within the giant insurgency called the Confederacy.  Some of these Unionist guerrilla groups assisted General George Stoneman in his famous raid into Western North Carolina in 1865, including one led by a man named Kirk (not James T, but George W., Colonel of the 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry, USA). (Sutherland: 232-233; 250-251).

Second, like many of America’s current irregular foes, not all Civil War-era irregulars, northern or southern, were motivated by the same factors, which made defeating them a tricky and complex proposition.  Current strategic leaders would be well-advised to remember this truism as they ponder why many of our enemies around the world stay in the field after absorbing punishing defeats, and how to convince them to lay down their arms.  Geography played a role, then and now, as did class, the presence (or lack thereof) of the Union or Confederate regular Army, and time.  What spurred on pro-Confederate guerrillas in Missouri, for instance, such as hatred of anti-slavery Kansas Jayhawkers dating back to the days of “Bleeding Kansas” (c. 1854-1860), was quite different than what motivated the men who joined John S. Mosby’s band of rangers in northern Virginia.  And what kept southern guerrillas in the field in Arkansas as late as 1864—lust for plunder, hatred of both Unionist neighbors and Union and Confederate regulars, for example—was noticeably at odds with their more patriotic motivations in early 1862, a situation similar to why the notorious guerrilla chief Champ Ferguson stayed in the saddle for the South in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee late into the war.  In Ferguson’s case, hatred of Unionists was definitely a factor, but so was an intense desire for revenge and an admittedly strong sense of southern patriotism.  If the complex mosaic of irregular motivations sounds troublingly familiar, it should come as no surprise to modern military practitioners that finding feasible and acceptable ways to quell an irregular enemy’s inspiration is a problem of strategic and political significance. (Sutherland, 82-83) 

Third, the character of the irregular war varied widely throughout the South, with no unified rebel strategy for irregulars.  As Daniel Sutherland and Robert Mackey have shown, the ends, ways, and means of southern irregulars differed wildly depending on where, and when, they operated.  There was never a coordinated Confederate national “irregular strategy”—or way--that dictated doctrine for how operations against Union forces was to be implemented, or to what end.  Instead, what developed from the start of the war was a highly regional, ad-hoc series of arrangements between local conventional Confederate commanders and guerrilla bands and partisans with occasional input from state governors and the national government in Richmond.  If this sounds comparable to Al Qaida’s command and control structure in recent years, the Taliban’s current arrangements with local warlords in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, or other violent extremist organizations such as the Islamic State, that should not be surprising.  As one recent Army War College graduate observed, “it’s hard to implement an effective irregular strategy for the long term.”  That is good news for America and its allies overall, but it simply means in realistic terms that our enemies face their own set of unique strategic challenges, just as we do.  It does not necessarily make it any easier for the commander on the ground, or his superior at headquarters, trying to “win” an irregular war. 

In the Civil War, the closest the South ever came to an “official” irregular war strategy was General Thomas C. Hindman’s “Bands of Ten” decree in early 1862 Arkansas, meant to deter the advance of Federal General Samuel Curtis’s Army of the West while Hindman rebuilt conventional Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi theatre.  That quasi- theatre strategy completely backfired and ended up costing the South more in the end than it gained.  Much of the reason behind Hindman’s failure had to do with a lack of means—supplies—for the irregular bands, a problem especially chronic west of the Mississippi River and in the Appalachian South.  Thus, when the southern irregulars ran out of officially-furnished supplies, they found their own, preying not only upon Unionist civilians but also patriotic Confederates in their quest for sustenance.  This endless irregular search for food, clothing, horses, weapons, and other supplies took on a life of its own in certain parts of the occupied South, such as Arkansas, whereas in others, like northern Virginia, in which primarily the more disciplined partisan rangers operated, the depredations committed against southern civilians by their own irregulars were much more limited.  Again, time played a role in how the character of the rebel irregular war, and Union countermeasures, evolved.  In Western Virginia, for instance, bushwhacking was especially severe and internecine fighting among neighbors very intense in 1861 and 1862, but later on, after the Union armies had completely thrown out Confederate regular forces and occupation forces grew more numerous and more experienced, the irregular threat declined to a manageable level.  Conversely, who could have foreseen in the early years of the war, during which it was Federal policy not to harm southern civilians, that Sherman’s March to the Sea would be an acceptable operation against the Confederate people’s will to resist?  Time, history teaches us, can make all the difference in changing the character of a war.  This seems especially true in irregular war.  (Witt, 274-278; Mackey, chapters 1-2, 4)

A fourth theme involves the role of the local civilian population.  As it is today in Afghanistan and other areas where American and allied forces are involved in counter-irregular warfare, understanding this aspect is pivotal to strategic success.  One retired U.S. Army general recently offered a way to think about this fundamental component:  “you have to make them glad that you’re there, or at least not hate you.”  That may well be the bottom line for irregulars and those who fight them, because the center of gravity in an irregular war is the people.  Whichever side wins over the majority of the civilian population in a given geographical area is well on its way to victory.  This mantra held as true during the Civil War as it did for the British in the American South during the Revolutionary War, or in America’s own involvement in Latin America, Mexico, and the Philippines in the first decades of the 20th century.  The big problem confronting most Union counter-irregular commanders--that their modern counterparts have not always faced--was an unavoidable uphill struggle from the start:  the local civilians tended to be inherently hostile in 1861 through 1863, even in areas of the Confederacy occupied early on by the Federal army, and as the war intensified, that hostility tended to increase as a result of the harsher war measures undertaken by both counter-irregular and conventional Union forces.  The evolution of this “Hard War,” as Mark Grimsley  termed it, exemplified by Union General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea in late 1864, Philip Sheridan’s burning of the Shenandoah Valley that same fall, and the Lincoln administration’s arming of black troops in 1863, resulted in one of two reactions by pro-Confederate civilians:  they either crumpled under the pressure and destruction and grudgingly gave in or they simply hated the Yankees even more and supported their local irregulars all that more fervently.  If the latter, there was little the local Union leaders could do to totally eliminate the southern irregular threat.  This was precisely what happened in Virginia’s Loudoun and Fauquier Counties, what was colloquially known as “Mosby’s Confederacy.”  As part of his overall hard war strategy, General Ulysses S. Grant, now overall Federal commander, permitted Sheridan to take any measures necessary to defeat both rebel irregulars and conventional forces in north-central and western Virginia.  Sheridan and his subordinates Generals George Crook and Wesley Merritt took to their mission with relish in December 1864.  Sheridan wrote Henry Halleck near the end of November:

I will soon commence on Loudoun County, and let them know there is a God in Israel.  Mosby has annoyed me considerably, but the people are beginning to see that he does not injure me a great deal, but causes a loss to them of all they have spent their lives accumulating.  Those people who live in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry are the most villainous in this Valley, and have not yet been hurt much.  If the railroad is interfered with I will make some of them poor.  Those who live at home, in peace and plenty, want the duello of this war to go on; but if they have to bear their burden by loss of property and comforts they will cry for peace.

            (Sheridan to Halleck, 26 November 1864, OR, ser. 1, vol. 43/1, 671-672).

After all the burnt mills, barns, and fields had stopped smoking and dozens of captured bushwhackers and a few of Mosby’s partisans laid to rest in newly-dug graves, the verdict was clear:  northern Virginia west of the Bull Run mountains was pretty well devoid of anything a military force could use to support itself.  But Mosby, his men, and a few other ranger bands were still out there and more adulated than ever by the local population, viewed as the sole force for good and justice after all the Federals’ wanton destruction.  The Federal high command had strategically failed.  Grant had probably touched upon the only workable, decisive solution to the irregular problem in northern Virginia when he toyed with the idea of physically removing the entire civilian population east of the Blue Ridge for “the necessity of cleaning out that country so that it will not support Mosby’s gang,” but even Grant, who had earlier wrestled with Confederate guerrillas in Tennessee and Mississippi and grew to hate them, could not bring himself to such an extreme measure.  Thus, despite the best efforts of two of the North’s most earnest and gifted strategic leaders, the irregular Confederate partisan threat remained to the very end of the war in Virginia, the one example in which the Confederacy’s irregular warriors actually stalemated the Union’s countermeasures for the entirety of the conflict.  The inability of the Union leadership to deal decisively with the civilian population there was primarily responsible.  (Mountcastle, 128-135)

This was not, however, always the case, and that fact brings us to a fifth theme:  the inherent brutality of the irregular war, which in some regions became a particularly vicious “war within a war,” and made achievement of strategic objectives elusive.  As John Inscoe, Noel Fisher, and William Trotter have argued, the Appalachians and other mountainous areas of the South offered unique challenges and opportunities to the Union and Confederate command authorities that differed from the strongly pro-southern civilian situations in northern Virginia, western and central Tennessee, along the Mississippi, and in most of Arkansas and Missouri.  The “Mountain South” started the war with a strongly divided civilian population, some supporting the Confederacy and others remaining loyal to the Union.  Many initially leaning toward the Confederacy later became lukewarm for the reasons mentioned earlier, or even Unionist, and thus as the Federal armies penetrated deeper into the Confederacy and entered these hilly regions, rebel leaders found themselves dealing with a rebellion within their own borders.  From middle 1862 onward the Confederates were forced to play the role of the counter-irregular, with very limited means, in places like Western North Carolina, Eastern Tennessee, northern Alabama, and even northern Georgia.  Union military leaders happily took advantage of the situation and enlisted the aid of local Unionist guerrilla and partisan bands, with the result that the civilian population in the Mountain South was caught literally in the middle of a civil war within the Civil War.  Guerrillas fought guerrillas, partisans fought guerrillas and regular troops, regular troops suffered constant bushwhacking, and civilians were endlessly plundered and terrorized by both sides.  In these areas, winning the loyalty of the civilian was especially difficult because of the quickly escalating brutality inherent in this free-for-all and because so many noncombatants switched sides the minute an armed force of any ilk passed into their remote valley or glen.  To say that the Confederates lost the irregular war in the Mountain South by failing to subjugate or co-opt Unionist civilians is too strong of a statement, but they certainly never came close to winning, whereas Union commanders utilized the split civilian loyalties of these regions to their best operational and even strategic advantage, draining away manpower, energy, and resources from the Confederate regular war effort.  As an officer in the 64th North Carolina, one of the few southern counter-irregular units, put it:

When an officer finds himself and men bushwhacked from behind every shrub, tree, or projection on all sides of the road, only severe measures will stop it.  No one except those who have tried it can realize what those who do this kind of service have to endure…Our enemies were at home—knew all the roads, byways and trails, and were much in heart over the success of their arms elsewhere…we slashed them every time we had a chance at them [but] They never gave us a fair fight, square-up, face-to-face, man-to-man… (64th NC Officer, quoted in Trotter, 217)

Such a statement could easily have been written by Philip Sheridan, describing his frustrations in northern Virginia, or a modern U.S. officer deployed to the mountains of Afghanistan. For his part, Francis Lieber explained that in these situations “any use of force was permissible if required by military necessity.” Then, as today, irregular war offers the potential to challenge the scruples of even the most ethically-minded participants. Falling into barbarism is an omnipresent possibility. (Witt, 234)

In the end did the irregular aspects of the Confederacy’s war against the Union help or hinder it from achieving its major strategic objective of independence?  What is the primary insight modern strategic leaders should learn from this historic example? Both questions are frankly still hotly debated.  Robert Mackey makes a convincing argument that, along with observations by Clay Mountcastle, Andrew Birtle, and Daniel Sutherland, helps place the irregular war in the greater strategic context of the Civil War.  Mackey breaks the irregular war down into separate regions in the Upper South in his book and evaluates each one individually, ultimately claiming that in Missouri and Arkansas the Confederacy shot itself in the foot by unleashing guerrilla bands too early, without adequate provisions, a strategy or hierarchy to control them, or enough regular army troops to serve as a rallying point.  Union authorities, at first stymied by the guerrillas, learned from their mistakes, usefully employed local Unionists as partisans and guerrillas themselves, and ultimately defeated the irregular war in the Trans-Mississippi.  In Western Virginia, the Union Army eventually squashed the effects of Confederate bushwhackers and guerrillas by weight of numbers and effective counter-guerrilla Unionist militias, but in northern Virginia and in the Shenandoah Valley, despite the hard war unleashed by Grant and Sheridan and some ingenious counter-irregular tactics that sometimes came close to succeeding, Mosby and other partisan rangers remained undefeated until the end of the war.  Mountcastle goes so far as to claim that the punitive measures employed by Sheridan actually backfired, creating even more irregular troubles for him by the time he left to join Grant at the siege of Petersburg in late 1864.  By then, however, any irregular efforts undertaken by the Confederacy could have only tangential effect on the course of the war.  Sutherland admits this, too, declaring that the irregular side of the Civil War made it bloodier than it would have otherwise been but only prolonged the conflict by a few months.  What he states next, however, is filled with strategic significance for us today:

Rebel irregulars…helped their nation lose the war.  The Confederates may well have lost anyway, outnumbered and overmatched materially as they were, but the guerrilla war injured their effort in two dramatic ways.  First, they forced Union commanders to alter their military strategies and occupation policies.  Both rebounded on the Confederates.  Second, the guerrilla war contributed to the erosion of Confederate morale and unity.  This resulted partly from the destruction wrought by Union strategy and policy on southern communities, but it came also from weaknesses the guerrilla war exposed in the Confederate government.  The inability of political and military leaders to exploit the benefits of guerrilla warfare splintered a national bid for independence into a hundred local wars for survival and shook public confidence in the ability of the government to protect its citizens. (Sutherland, 277-278)

Nowhere were Sutherland’s words more reflective of the realities of the irregular war than in the Mountain South, where neighbor truly fought, and hunted, neighbor in an unending spiral of violence that at best disintegrated communities’ cohesion and at worst wiped entire villages off the map.  In Western North Carolina, East Tennessee, and northern Arkansas the irregular war was the Civil War.  Modern military and civilian leaders would do well to remember this example as the U.S. and its allies increasingly find themselves embroiled in civil wars, counterinsurgencies, and counter-terror operations around the world.  Geography, culture, time, the character of the war in question, and the perceptions and security of the civilian populations each matter immensely, perhaps even more than successful leadership of kinetic counter-irregular operations.  American and allied national security professionals, aware of this to a degree already, will need to keep it in the forefront of their minds as they think about how best to serve their nations’ interests in a volatile, uncertain, and financially-constrained future. 

Sources Consulted

Birtle, Andrew J.  U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine, 1860-1941 (Washington, DC:  U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2004).

Fellman, Michael.  Inside War:  The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1990).

Fisher, Noel. War at Every Door: Partisan Politics and Guerrilla Violence in East Tennessee, 1860-186 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

Grimsley, Mark.  The Hard Hand of War:  Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Hartigan, Richard Shelly.  Military Rules, Regulations and the Code of War: Francis Lieber and the Certification of Conflict (Piscataway, NJ:  Transaction Publishers, 2010).

Inscoe, John.  The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

Mackey, Robert R.  The Uncivil War:  Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865 (Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2004). 

 Mountcastle, Clay.  Punitive War:  Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals (Lawrence:  University of Kansas Press, 2009).

O’Brien, Sean Michael.  Mountain Partisans:  Guerrilla Warfare in the Southern Appalachians, 1861-1865 (Westport, CT:  Praeger Publishers, 1999).

Sutherland, Daniel E.  A Savage Conflict:  The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Trotter, William R.  Bushwhackers:  The Civil War in North Carolina: The Mountains (Winston-Salem, NC:  John F. Blair Publisher, 1988). 

War of the Rebellion:  Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, 128 vols (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1901).

Witt, John Fabian.  Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (New York: The Free Press, 2012).

About the Author(s)

Christian B. Keller is a  Professor of History, Dept. of National Security and Strategy, US Army War College. Dr. Keller is author of Chancellorsville and the Germans:  Nativism, Ethnicity, and Civil War Memory and coauthor of Damn Dutch:  Pennsylvania Germans at Gettysburg.  His forthcoming book is on the strategic-level relationship between Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, to be published by University of North Carolina Press.

Paul C. Jussel is a  Professor of Military Studies, Dept. of Military Strategy, Planning, and Operations, US Army War College. Dr. Jussel is a retired Army Colonel and focuses on theater strategy and campaigning. His passion has always been relating history to current audiences for them to understand the value of past experiences in a modern world.



Tue, 10/03/2017 - 10:37am

There are two problems contemporary analysts run into when studying insurgencies in the late 20th and 21st centuries. The first is the gross effect of the population explosion one which seems to become "mega", and old forms of warfare are misdiagnosed because of the increased scope of sheer numbers of combatants. This can also be applied to new technology that s developed to off set the demographic growth, force multipliers were central to defending our interests against enemies i larger numbers, this has been refined as the technology created other opportunities to fight global terrorism.
The second problem specific in this article is understating guerrillas or irregulars
tactics. A crisis arose when Mosby's men would doff union uniforms ride up to unsuspecting union troops in vulnerable areas and then assassinate their enemies. Such acts were used to justify "the burning", although it was truly an act of total war to deprive the Lee's Army of much needed sustenance to prolong the formal war.
It was one such incident that resulted in General Sheridan ordering Custer to hang several guerrillas after a union officer had been assassinated by Mosby rangers dressed in union forms. This resulted in retaliation hangings.
The question was, under the articles of war was hanging guerrillas captured in union uniforms legal?
It also omits black flag Bedford Forest who ordered the summary executions of black and white soldiers captured at Fort Pillow.
These acts of murder assassinations and terrorism should be reexamined to the end of learning the degree to which President Lincoln and General Grant would offer generous terms of surrender and the importance of General Lee's surrender and end of hostilities, which prevented a continuation of irregular warfare even after Lee's surrender. It should also be used to frame our understanding of the effects it would have on the liberation of the saves and the former slave states that were forced to liberate the slaves but successfully managed to determine how the slaves would exist after the end of "the evil institution" and forged apartheid as the solution. Forcibly detaining slaves in an iniquitous and immoral system as a matter of racism.
More than 600,000 Americans, still the most bloody war in American history died, per capita the impact is magnified when compared to WWII and the effect it had on every household in the USA. To suggest more than Emancipation could have been accomplished after so much carnage is an unrealistic imposition on history.
Today General Lee's place in history is being disputed, was he a man who resolved the issue of a civil war continued by means other than overt armies? Or was he in collusion with the "Lost Cause" and as Commanding General of the Armies of North Virginia acting in concert with guerrillas and other irregular forces?
If these principles had been strictly adhered to these principles outlined in the book or did Mosby and other guerrilla leaders act far outside the normalcy of codified rules and law of war?
Appendix I Ghost, Thunderbolt, and Wizard ,
Colonel Robert W. Black, @ 2008, Stackpole Books
How we responded to irregular warfare in the American experience whether in the French and Indian Wars the internecine irregular fighting during the American Revolution, and even the Plains wars and occupation of the
Continent define how the acts of Mosby were perceived and shaped our perceptions of total war and counter insurgency in foreign contexts?
I think the authors of this article have failed to note the criminal aspects of irregular warfare.
Can a successful strategy be based on responses that are conditioned to impose the sorts of ROEs and limitations on American responses based on new age globalist definitions of "war"?
We are already a most at the point where to write a substantive article on Small Wars you need a lawyer as many of our young warriors are learning in the real world today.


Fri, 08/14/2015 - 8:31am

Thanks for posting this piece... and for researching and presenting this less common, but valuable, perspective. I wonder how Lieber would have identified the various forces-factions involved in the current RUS-UKR conflict.