An American Editor

June 21, 2010

On Books: A Savage Conflict

I am slowly whittling away at the books on my bookshelf. I have now finished reading A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerillas in the American Civil War by Daniel E. Sutherland.

If you have any interest in the U.S. Civil War, this is a must read book. Although we learned a little bit about some of the more infamous guerilla raiders in our history classes, A Savage Conflict is a comprehensive look at not only the raiders but how they came to be and their true role in the Civil War. There is little glossing over of what these raiders — both Confederate and Union — did, especially in Kansas and Missouri.

Although guerilla warfare was first authorized by the Confederacy virtually simultaneously with the attack on Fort Sumter, the original concept was for them to be attached to more traditionally formed armies and under the control of the regular armed forces. This “control” did not last long on either side. In too many cases, the guerillas were simply bands of outlaws, not believers in a cause.

Confederate and Union leaders worried that reliance on guerilla warfare would do more harm than good and would serve to undermine military discipline. This ultimately became a major problem for the Confederacy. As the guerilla war progressed, two types of guerilla bands developed: the official and the independent. Towards the end of the conflict, little governmental control over either type existed.

Sutherland takes us on a journey through the wasteland of guerilla warfare. He describes how Southern sympathizers formed guerilla bands originally with the idea of protecting their homes, especially in areas were the Confederate army was missing or lacked control, which led to Unionists, that is Union sympathizers, creating their own bands to protect themselves from the Southern bands, all of which led to what seemed to be a never-ending cycle of escalation.

These problems existed in virtually all of the border and deep south states, but was most evident in Missouri and Kansas. Sutherland makes clear that the guerilla movement existed as much in Mississippi as it did in Tennessee, Virginia, and Missouri. He tells us about the leaders, their motivations, and their activities, and he clearly distinguishes between those with a sense of duty and honor and those who were simply gangsters.

With so many guerilla bands to cover, this book could have been a book of rote entries — dry but encyclopedic; instead, it is well written and easy to read. This book does suffer from the endnote problem, but in this case, I was able to ignore all the endnotes. For the most part, they were simply citations, not explanations. However, the book would have been enhanced if it had not had the endnote callouts or at least had a prefatory author’s note saying that they could be ignored by the average reader. (For my view of endnotes and footnotes, see Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses.)

Because guerilla bands came and went, especially as leaders were captured or killed by various forces, Sutherland’s approach is to address the guerilla war by years. Although I was skeptical at first about approaching this topic in this fashion, it turned out to be a sound approach, enabling me to better follow the story.

Anyone with an interest in the Civil War and the effect it had on the average citizen should include A Savage Conflict in their readings. The guerillas made a particularly bad war even worse, especially for the Confederacy, and an understanding of the guerilla war and its backlashes enhances one’s understanding of the U.S. Civil War and the reasons underlying some of the decisions made during the postwar reconstruction era.

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