One of the most enduring explanations for why the confederacy lost the Civil War asserts that the Rebels were too democratic. First proposed by David H. Donald as a variation on a theme by Frank L. Owsley, it has survived, with some modification by recent scholars, as a viable part of most multicausal explanations of Confederate defeat. To date, the argument has rested largely on the supposed political blunders of the central government, in its indelicate handling of issues that infringed on personal liberties or that injured the sensibilities of powerful state politicians, to demonstrate the disruptive effect of Confederate individualism. Occasional references are also made to problems caused by the independent spirit of the Confederate soldier, but these discussions tend to convey a greater sense of pride or respect for this quality than rebuke. Little has been said about how military policy might have been influenced by an underlying tension in Confederate society between democracy and authority, between individualism and discipline, or between popular conceptions of the war and the government’s conduct of the war. Conscription, probably the most divisive issue involving individual fights, cut across both social and military lines, but another pivotal military issue eclipsed even conscription: guerrilla warfare. Indeed, guerrilla warfare sparked sharp policy debates in both North and South that affected the outcome of the war in no small way.
Large numbers of common folk assumed from the earliest days of the Confederacy that guerrillas would be an important component of their nation’s military force. This is not to say they underestimated the role to be played by conventional soldiers, for even the least militarily knowledgeable Rebels sensed that independence could not be won by fighting an exclusively irregular contest. Rather, they believed that guerrillas could help win the war, and many men wished to contribute to Confederate victory in that way. They saw guerrilla warfare as a freewheeling, unfettered, grassroots style of fighting that suited southern tendencies toward individualism and localism. Like the Europeans who had associated the guerrilla style with “natural man” since the eighteenth century, Rebel advocates also thought of it as “natural,” almost primordial. For Confederates, guerrilla warfare was not democratic: in any political sense, in that it was not based on philosophical musings about republican values, but it exemplified democracy in a social, Tocquevillian sense, whereby equality and individual action formed the impetus for a “people’s war”.
Yet, for two reasons this popular enthusiasm for a democratic uprising ran amok almost from the start. First, the original guerrilla war produced a pair of nasty mutations–community vigilantism and outright outlawry–that made Rebel noncombatants the victims, rather than the beneficiaries, of this people’s contest. Earlier advocates be came disillusioned when the guerrilla struggle, feeding off its own excesses, began to hurt those it was supposed to defend more than it helped them. Second, Confederate political and military leaders, tied to traditional, hierarchical forms of social and military organization, were suspicious of the guerrilla war’s grassroots origins and feared the consequences of such an unregulated mode of fighting. In a sense, the transformation of the original guerrilla war from a useful means of local defense and voluntarism into a rapacious free-for-all justified their doubts and fears, but Confederate leaders added to the chaos by first underestimating and then failing to harness its passionate energy.
None of this is to suggest, as have some historians, that the Confederacy fell because it failed to mount a more vigorous guerrilla contest. Yet the opposite position–that the guerrilla struggle was a mere “sideshow” that had little bearing on the outcome of the war–also misses the point. Scholars only began to appreciate the extensive social and political implications of the Confederacy’s guerrilla war in the 1980s. Since then, they have presented increasingly sophisticated appraisals of the structure, organization, composition, and motivation of guerrilla bands, the roles of southern civilians in the irregular war, and the impact of guerrilla warfare on communities. The guerrilla war has emerged as a war unto itself, a war with its own rules, its own chronology, its own turning points, and its own heroes, villains, and victims. At the same time, it also formed part of the wider war. It influenced the strategy and logistics of conventional campaigns, the political culture, the morale of soldiers and civilians, the southern economy, and ultimately, the very nature of the conflict. Insofar as it evolved in unexpected ways and lurched out of the control of leaders and civilians alike, the guerrilla war weakened the Confederacy and became an important factor in Confederate defeat.
The guerrilla war began almost spontaneously, as befits a people’s war. The guns in Charleston harbor had scarcely cooled before Rebels from the Atlantic coast volunteered to lead “guerrilla,” “partisan,” “ranger,” and “independent” companies against the enemy. One Rebel urged Confederate secretary of war Leroy Pope Walker to authorize “a guerrilla service” in western Virginia, where several bands of irregulars had already formed. “I am deeply interested not only in defeating the enemy,” this man emphasized, “but in whipping him by any and all means and as speedily as possible.” A Louisianian explained the advantages of posting “a regiment of mounted men, on the guerrilla order,” in the southern parishes of his state. “I can get the sturdy men of our State, besides 100 or 200 Indians,” he declared. An Alabamian asked Walker’s permission to raise a company that would wage war “without restraint and under no orders.” He reasoned, “We have a desperate enemy to contend with, and if necessary must resort to desperate means.” Governors got the message, too. A Tennessean urged Isham G. Harris to wage a “guerrilla war” by flooding the countryside “with armed men to repel the enemy at every point.” A “more deadly and destructive antagonism,” he stressed, “could not be raised to repel the invaders.”
Even in the farthest reaches of the country, areas too often ignored by Civil War historians, Rebels prepared for a guerrilla conflict. In Colorado Territory, irregulars hatched plans during the summer of 1861 to stockpile weapons and launch raids against vulnerable minting establishments and ranches–gold and horses being of nearly equal value to the new Confederate nation. As the war progressed, these westerners attacked Union mail trains and expanded their activities into New Mexico. In California, Unionists begged U.S. secretary of war Simon Cameron for help in August 1861. Rebels–desperate men who were “never without arms”–controlled the state government, the petitioners wailed. The ruffians devoted all their energy to “plotting, scheming, and organizing,” insisted the loyal citizens, and it would not be long before “[t]he frightful scenes … transpiring in Missouri would be rivaled by the atrocities enacted upon the Pacific Coast.”
Everyone knew about Missouri, where the most bitter of all guerrilla contests had already broken out. In fact, the instinctive way in which Missourians and other westerners grabbed their muskets and squirrel rifles helps to explain the popularity of the guerrilla war. Some people saw this irregular activity as a brand of western warfare that grew from the region’s frontier heritage. Many westerners, even in 1860, still lived beyond the effective rule of courts and legislatures. They had grown accustomed to settling their own feuds, and they were not squeamish about resorting to vigilante justice. Much has been written about the tendency of southerners generally toward violence, but southerners on the frontier–especially unmarried young men inhabited a world that exacerbated their aggressive tendencies. The Missouri-Kansas border war of the 1850s represented just one of the many “Wars of Incorporation”–including land wars, Indian wars, and open brigandage–waged west of the Mississippi River during the antebellum years. Indeed, this was one region where northern settlers, as demonstrated by the jayhawkers of Kansas, matched southern predilections for guerrilla fighting.
Yet this spontaneous eruption of irregular warfare was not limited to the West. People all along the North-South border, in Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland, and Virginia, embraced it. These states, like those beyond the Mississippi, had been up for grabs politically during the secession crisis. Virginia and Tennessee had been among the last states to join the Confederacy, while Kentucky and Maryland never did enter the fold. The border region thus came to represent a different sort of “frontier,” unmistakably associated with the idea of guerrilla war in the eyes of new Confederates. Here is where they would have to rally and turn back the invading Federals: even guerrilla bands from the Deep South volunteered “for border service” during the spring and summer of 1861. A South Carolinian, for example, raised a hundred men “to be employed on the border” as “destructive warriors,” and similar offers came from Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
Most wars begin without the opposing sides knowing what to expect. Neither citizens nor even the soldiers can fully anticipate how a contest will be fought or what their roles will be. As a result, the spontaneous, sometimes desperate border clashes in the early months of hostilities quickly defined for most southerners the nature of the struggle. Journalist Murat Halstead reported from Baltimore, “Occurrences so suggestive of assassins behind the bushes, gives a smack of the excitement of real war…. “Another citizen confirmed the determination of Marylanders to strike at the Yankees by whatever means possible. “As soon as they begin the retreat through Maryland the people will rise upon them,” he pledged. In Missouri Thomas C. Reynolds, the pro-Confederate lieutenant governor, informed Jefferson Davis that he and other “Southern men” vowed to throw Missouri “into a general revolution” and oppose the Federals in “a guerilla war,” until sufficient numbers of Confederate troops reached the state.
As Union armies pushed the border farther south, threatening communities and citizens with immediate violence, more Confederate citizens resisted. Edmund Ruffin, the quintessential Rebel, who legend says fired the first shot of the war at Fort Sumter, wrote from Virginia in late June 1861, “Guerrilla fighting has begun, & with great effect, near Alexandria & also near Hampton. Some of our people, acting alone, or in small parties, & at their own discretion, have crept upon & shot many of the sentinels & scouts. It is only necessary for the people generally to resort to these means to overcome any invading army, even if we were greatly inferior to it in regular military force.”
When Federal troops menaced the coast of his beloved South Carolina, the novelist and poet William Gilmore Simms recommended that the army assign ten men from each company to guerrilla operations. “[H]ave them … painted and disguised as Indians,” Simms urged the local Confederate commander, and arm them with “rifle, bowie knife & hatchet.” Plenty of men in the army, he assumed, were familiar with Indian warfare. “If there be any thing which will inspire terror in the souls of the citizen soldiery of the North,” reasoned the poet-strategist, “it will be the idea that scalps are to be taken by the redmen.” The fifty-five-year-old Simms, too old and sedentary to embark on active service himself, nonetheless urged all Confederates to join the fray in some fashion. “Every body is drilling and arming,” he observed with satisfaction on July 4, 1861. “Even I practise with the Colt. I am a dead shot with rifle & double barrel…. Our women practise, & they will fight, too, like she wolves.”
The widespread excitement had become palpable by that first summer of the war. “All persons that feel inclined to go into guerrilla or independent service,” declared an Arkansas newspaper in July 1861, “will rendezvous at Little Rock.” Volunteers should be prepared for immediate action, with “a good horse, a good double-barrel shot gun, and as well supplied with small arms as possible.” That same month, recruitment posters went up in Hanover County, Virginia, for the Virginia and North Carolina Irrepressibles. “We are to WEAR CITIZENS’ CLOTHES and to use such arms as we can furnish ourselves,” promised the notice, “to serve during the war … without pay.” De Bow’s Review predicted that, in addition to its magnificent armies, the Confederacy must be prepared “on proper opportunities to pursue that desultory partisan method of warfare before which invading armies gradually melt away.” Indeed, De Bow’s insisted that should the war prove to be a long one, with the enemy gaining ground in the South’s interior, the nation’s “chief reliance must be on irregular troops and partisan warfare.”
American history also shaped thinking about the type of war to expect. Southerners justified secession in 1860 by insisting that northerners had abandoned the governing principles forged in the American Revolution and the spirit of government defined in the U.S. Constitution. Similarly, the secession movement and the creation of a Rebel government inspired comparisons between the Confederate straggle for independence and the war waged by England’s American colonies some fourscore years earlier. Confederate editorialists, orators, and pamphleteers used this theme time and again to rally the populace. “Who can resist a whole people, thoroughly aroused, brave to rashness, fighting for their existence?” asked a Virginian. “This revolution is not the work of leaders or politicians,” elaborated a Tennessean. “It is the spontaneous uprising and upheaving of the people. It is as irresistible as the mighty tide of the ocean….”
For many Rebels the Revolutionary heritage of a “People’s War,” as they were calling the current conflict by October 1861, included guerrilla fighting. Southerners, like most mid-nineteenth-century Americans, believed that their ancestors had defeated Great Britain not with the well-drilled, well-disciplined Continental army, but with the ragtag, defiant militia that operated in critical situations as irregulars. Although modern historians have shown that this was not the case, ardent Rebels had their own version of the past. “The scenes attendant upon the retreat of the British army from Concord and Lexington in the days of the Revolution should be reenacted to the last degree,” insisted one Confederate. “Every man, woman, and child should rise in arms along the line of the retreating foe, and enforce by terrible illustration the lesson to the frightened outlaws how fearful the vengeance of a people armed in the holy cause of liberty….”
American colonists had fought as “partizans”–the common name for guerrillas in the eighteenth century–in every theater of their war for independence but nowhere with more success or deadly effect than in the South. The exploits of Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, Daniel Morgan, and Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee had become legendary by 1860. Both Yankees and Confederates saw themselves as the heirs of Revolutionary “minutemen,” a tradition that most often played itself out, as it had during the War for Independence, with amateur soldiers forming conventional armies. As the South braced for an invasion by vastly superior numbers–again, just as in 1776–the intangible association of amateur minutemen with partisan resistance had a particularly dramatic impact on Confederate assumptions about how to fight.