Monday, November 25, 2013

Sutherland: "AMERICAN CIVIL WAR GUERRILLAS: Changing the Rules of Warfare"

[American Civil War Guerrillas: Changing the Rules of Warfare by Daniel Sutherland (Praeger, 2013). Hardcover, photos, appendices, notes, bibliographical essay, index. Pages main/total:123/175. ISBN:978-0-313-37766-2 $37]

Daniel Sutherland's American Civil War Guerrillas is one of the newest volumes from Praeger's Reflections on the Civil War Era series, volumes intended to provide "strong syntheses that also include new material and provide fresh arguments. Aimed at public library and general readers, these books should also be useful as classroom readings for college students." This book certainly fits the mold, and, given that Sutherland has already published arguably the finest single volume overview and analysis of the guerrilla aspect of the Civil War, Praeger could not have selected a better authorial candidate.

American Civil War Guerrillas is a brief study, but effectively addresses at varying length the full range of issues surrounding the subject. The book begins in 1861, with the initial formation of small guerrilla bands, explaining where these groups emerged and what motivated them. Personal concerns like neighbor grudges, local defense, desire to avoid national service, and revenge/retaliation were omnipresent, but Sutherland also raises the important point that guerrilla warfare as understood at the time was deemed by many an honorable, albeit romanticized, mode of fighting. This was especially true in the South, with its tradition of irregular war heroes from the Revolution like Francis Marion. Another chapter discusses the daily existence of the Civil War guerrilla -- how they dressed, how they were armed, and how they operated.

With the 1862 Partisan Ranger Act, the Confederate government attempted to give legal status to guerrillas and place them under some semblance of control. The legislation backfired, however, with masses of men avoiding, or deserting from, the regular service to join free bands of irregulars. These men operated under fewer and fewer constraints as the war progressed, eventually plunging huge areas of the Border States and South into civil chaos. Sutherland also documents the progression of counterguerrilla policy from the Union perspective, one that eventually codified formal terminology for irregular fighters and defined punishments (the Lieber Code). Also discussed in the book is the Union army's use of local control measures like banishment, hostage taking, fine levying, property assessments, imprisonment, and extreme measures like summary death sentences and the burning of towns thought to harbor bushwhackers and their supporters.

While the 'turning point' mythologizing of 1863 events like Gettysburg and Vicksburg is no longer a given, Sutherland believes the year to be the negative tipping point in the strategic value of guerrilla warfare to the Confederacy. The widespread incidence of lawless depredations committed by guerrillas upon the civilian population regardless of allegiance combined with the enormity of the Union army's retaliatory capacity and willingness to use it together resulted in plummeting home front morale and confidence in the Confederate government. In the midst of social chaos, some pro-Confederate communities even came to welcome order-sustaining Union occupation as the lesser of two evils. In American Civil War Guerrillas, Sutherland holds firmly to the idea originally developed in A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (UNC Press, 2009) that guerrilla warfare and it consequences were a factor in Confederate defeat no less decisive than any other single cause. It remains a powerful theme in this book.

The final chapter traces the ultimate defeat of Confederate guerrillas, from a combination of military defeat and withdrawn local and Confederate government support. The epilogue recounts the various means by which surviving partisans and guerrillas defended their wartime deeds (though not all felt the need or obligation to do so), and the degree of success these ex-irregulars had in shaping the historical perspectives of later generations.

Complaints with the book are primarily a product of inherent space limitations. Clearly a study designed to cover the entire breadth of guerrilla topics in little over 100 pages will be forced to compress, generalize, and omit. While individuals like "Tinker Dave" Beatty are indeed mentioned, more emphasis on the employment of pro-Union guerrillas would have been welcome and discussion of whether Union leaders ever attempted to justify their own use of guerrillas is missing. Also, while Sutherland does at least outline the vast extent of the guerrilla conflict, the text constantly returns to Missouri and Virginia. In his wonderfully educational bibliographical essay, the author appropriately explains the reasons behind this. Unlike the other studies in the series which are synthetic works employing primarily secondary sources, this book does not have the benefit of a deep literature to draw from, analytical scholarship on the subject of guerrilla warfare being only a recent phenomenon; the unavoidable consequence of this being that the author was forced instead to go to primary sources, the vast majority of which are products of Quantrill and Mosby associates. Though reasonably mitigated through explanation, the situation inadvertently ends up reinforcing the distorted and outdated popular image of Civil War guerrilla warfare as mostly a 'Mosby and Missouri' thing (especially for those general interest readers most likely to skip over the book's notes and source essay).  Sutherland also remains less interested than subject scholars like Robert Mackey in categorizing the operators of Civil War irregular warfare.  However, whether this is a critical omission or simply a recognition that such messy subject matter does not lend itself to defined classification is in the eye of the beholder.  I would also liked to have seen Sutherland address the debate between historians Mackey [yes] and Clay Mountcastle [no] in their respective scholarship over whether the Union army developed an effective military strategy deserving of credit for the eventual defeat of the pro-Confederate guerrilla menace. 

In considering the overall value of American Civil War Guerrillas, however, the significance of the concerns listed above pale in the face of the book's many strengths.  As a scholarly primer on Civil War guerrilla warfare, Sutherland's study takes first prize.

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