Rangers and Guerrillas

It is widely accepted that in the American Civil War there was a distinct line between "ranger" units such as Mosby's and "guerrilla" units such as Quantrill's. The dividing line seems to fall in the area of control by the regular military, and less in the matter of tactics. Partisan rangers are seen as more akin to modern special forces units; guerrillas, on the other hand, are frequently treated as little more than bandits. In Civil War literature, the more tightly controlled rangers are often associated with the Eastern Theater of operations, with the more loosely organized guerrillas viewed as primarily a phenomenon of the Western Theater.

Beall, John Y., defendant. Trial of John Y. Beall, as a Spy and Guerrilla, by Military Commission. New York: Appleton, 1865. [ refBibs/intell/civwar.htm]

Breihan, Carl W. Quantrill and His Civil War Guerillas. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1959.

Brownlee, Richard S. Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy: Guerrilla Warfare in the West, 1861-1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1958.

Curry, Richard O., and F. Gerald Ham. "The Bushwhackers' War: Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in West Virginia." Civil War History 10, no. 4 (Dec. 1964): 416-433.

By early September 1861, northwestern Virginia was in Union hands, but "guerrilla bands were fashioning an indigenous resistance movement" that would challenge Union control. "[T]he war in western Virginia changed into a bitter internecine struggle in which guerrilla tactics were ingeniously devised and brilliantly executed."

The article ties together contemporaneous reports with narrative to follow this war within a war. In the end, the authors conclude that "the real military and political advantages gained by the Confederacy in waging guerrilla war were minimal." The Union forces retained control of the main lines of communication and elections went forward in furtherance of the statehood movement.

Jones, Virgil Carrington. Gray Ghosts and Rebel Raiders. New York: Holt, 1956

Jones, Wilmer L. Behind Enemy Lines: Civil War Spies, Raiders, and Guerrillas. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.Dallas, TX: Taylor, 2001. [pb] Lanham, MD: Cooper Square, 2005.

Kerrihard, Bowen. "Bitter Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers." America's Civil War (Mar. 1999). []

"For half a decade before the Civil War, residents of the neighboring states of Missouri and Kansas waged their own civil war." The conflict continued through and after the war years, and produced numerous legendary/infamous participants.

Mackey, Robert R. The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.

Fisher, Civil War Book Review [], finds that this work "offers a systematic evaluation of the role that irregular operations played in Confederate strategy in the Upper South and the effectiveness of Union responses to these operations." The author "argues that the Confederate government made extensive use of unconventional operations, but that Union forces defeated or neutralized every attempt." On the downside, Mackey "seems determined to cast his analysis within a framework of military doctrine, even though that concept would have had limited meaning to most Civil War officers.... More serious is [his] insistence on viewing the unconventional war almost entirely from a centralized, military perspective.... [A]ny analysis of irregular warfare that leaves out its political, social, and even cultural elements will inevitably prove inadequate and perhaps even misleading."

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

For Bruscino, Military Review (Jan.-Feb. 2010), the author is not completely convincing when he argues that "guerrilla warfare waged by Confederates frustrated Union soldiers, which in turn led to attacks on Southern property and civilians.... [T]he causes of retaliatory destruction were more complicated than Mountcastle suggests."

Mosby, John S. Ed., Charles Wells Russell. The Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby. New York: Little, Brown, 1917. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. Gray Ghost: The Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby. New York: Bantam, 1992. [pb]

Clark comment: Mosby was arguably one of the top guerrilla warriors (he uses the term "partisans") of the Confederacy. He rose from private in the cavalry to colonel, commanding his own force. Mosby's best-known single exploit may be his raid on Fairfax (8-9 March 1863), in which he captured U.S. General Stoughton. This episode is recounted by Mosby on pages 129-140 of the Bantam edition of his memoirs. Tidwell, April '65, p. 32, links some of Mosby's activities to "missions of interest to the central [Confederate] government."

There is an up-to-date biography of Mosby: Kevin H. Siepel, Rebel: The Life and Times of John Singleton Mosby (New York: Da Capo, 1997). Seamon, Proceedings 123.9 (Sep. 1997), notes that former Sen. Eugene McCarthy wrote the foreword, and that Mosby's life is taken beyond the Civil War period to his service with the Consular Service in China and later with the Interior Department.

Sutherland, Daniel E.

1. A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

From publisher: The author "points out that early in the war Confederate military and political leaders embraced guerrilla tactics.... 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.... Once vital to southern hopes for victory, the guerrilla combatants proved a significant factor in the Confederacy's final collapse."

Mead, FA 89.1 (Jan.-Feb. 2010), finds that this work is an "engagingly written and beautifully researched study." It is a "dispassionate but horrifying study of partisan warfare in the United States."

2. ed. Guerrillas, Unionists and Violence on the Confederate Homefront. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.

The basic theme here is Southern Unionism. Individual essays cover local examples in Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

Tischler, Allan L. "Union General Phil Sheridan's Scouts." America's Civil War, Nov. 2003. []

In August 1864, Sheridan created "a group of daring scouts [loosely called 'Sheridan's Scouts'] who wore Rebel uniforms and captured Confederate irregulars, dispatches and generals.... Their activities included buying information, establishing networks of Union sympathizers, intercepting enemy dispatches, conveying friendly dispatches, hunting down notorious guerrillas and engaging in desperate combat. At least 20 of the volunteer scouts [of 120 in the group] became casualties, and seven earned the Medal of Honor."

Vasile, Michael A. "Guerrilla Warfare in the American Civil War." [Originally found at, but no longer available. On 7/14/08, was informed by Louisiana State University Libraries personnel that "the LSU Civil War Center's website is no longer in operation."]

This is a very good introduction to some of the arguments that swirl around the nature and effect of guerrilla warfare in the Civil War. The author judiciously presents several points of view, avoids espousing a single view, and draws modest and supportable conclusions. The essay is well worth a read by anyone who is interested in the subject generally and has little background in the specifics.

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