By Matthew C. Hulbert
Imagine this scene. A group of well-armed (that is, to the teeth) men methodically approach the dimly lit home of an alleged Unionist in rural Missouri. The exact plot of land or locale is irrelevant; Jackson or Clay County will certainly suffice. Unwelcome and clearly unannounced at this hour of the morning, the shadowy figures of four men halt their mounts suspiciously short of the lantern’s reach. Sensing that his luck has taken a turn for the worst this foggy morning, our chimeric Unionist makes a hasty dash for the nearby woods, shovel still in hand. Before overtaking his own porch rail, he is quickly chopped down by a hail of lead and shot. Moving closer now to their victim, the relatively young (but decidedly stern) faces of William C. Quantrill, Cole Younger, Frank James (looking eerily like Sam Shepard if you’ve been to the movies recently), and George Todd gradually take form in the candlelight. Unbeknown to their ill-fated host, five of Missouri’s most notorious Confederate bushwhackers had come to breakfast…
Now, imagine this same scene again, up to the point of unveiling our trigger happy guests. This time, rather than Quantrill and company, imagine that a small detachment of Confederates in plain clothes, operating under the authority of a Partisan Ranger commission, materialize in the candlelight… Perhaps better still, imagine that a small patrol of Union soldiers—in uniform, with orders to scout the countryside and round up supplies—move into the light after mistaking our ill-fated farmer’s shovel for a shotgun. They chalk up their mistake to darkness and anxiety, return to their unit, and carry on as normal.
Unfortunately for other imaginary Unionists in the neighborhood, scenes such as our invented shooting occurred with great frequency. From secluded roadsides and lonely fields to corn cribs, houses, and front porches, guerrilla violence prospered immensely on the home front. Backshooting, rape, theft, decapitation, hanging, torture, and even random killing rested surely within the bounds of the “guerrilla war.” Daniel Sutherland’s most recent work on the topic, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (2009) highlights both the prolific nature of the guerrilla war (often cast aside by academics as without substantial meaning or isolated to the less interesting Border West) and the critical role played by home front guerrilla violence on the overall war efforts of both sides. That said, as Sutherland’s groundbreaking work expands the geographic and socio-economic parameters of the guerrilla war, it also highlights a critical flaw in most research concerning guerrillas: How to accurately label and organize guerrilla combatants.
Historians typically categorize guerrillas into three major groups or tiers based on official linkages to the Confederate command. Admittedly, some gray space does exist between these labels, but for the most part, scholars are content to rely upon a neatly packed hierarchy and distinct modes of description. Atop the guerrilla hierarchy sits the Cavalry Raider. These figures, such as John Hunt Morgan, Turner Ashby, Joseph Shelby, or even Nathan Bedford Forrest, harnessed the mobility of regular (regular meaning officially enlisted and under the folds of the Confederate government) cavalry units to raid and attack in other “irregular” ways. Next up: the Partisan Ranger. These men, perhaps best personified by John Singleton Mosby—also known as the “Gray Ghost”—operated as full-time guerrillas with permission from the War Department in Richmond (hence the Partisan Ranger’s commission). Despite the proposed legitimacy associated with Partisan Rangers, little supervision came affixed to the commission. Last but not least, we have the Bushwhacker. Bushwhackers like William C. Quantrill, William “Bloody Bill” Anderson, Champ Ferguson, and Samuel Hildebrand fought as guerrillas without commissions and are often looked upon as hyper-violent criminals or well suited for the insane asylum. Granted, bushwhackers likely took part in an untold number of atrocious acts of violence, acts that can and should not be apologized for… but were they really alone in that regard? Sherman may have been careless about fire, but most professional historians refrain from doubting his sanity?
So, what’s all the fuss about? Well, momentarily return to our imaginary example. For all intents and purposes, our poor Missouri farmer was bushwhacked by all three groups listed (the Bushwhackers, the Partisan Rangers, and the inept Union scouts). That is, he was ambushed, killed without warning, assaulted by unknown gunmen, murdered in the dark, etc. Why then, according to our established hierarchy of guerrilla organization (supported by several professional historians), are all three groups not considered bushwhackers? Wouldn’t behavior, rather than official linkages to the high command, a uniform, or orders scribbled on a piece of cardboard to “scout the area and fight as necessary,” serve as a better indicator of status within the guerrilla war? Essentially, why isn’t anyone who bushwhacks considered a bushwhacker? The short answer: Assessing and labeling guerrilla combatants based on the merits of their behavior rather than easily organized, teachable, and often static characteristics such as official orders, uniforms, or socio-political status excuses historians from having to cope with the complexities and fluidity of the guerrilla war. Case in point, how to categorize a regular Confederate soldier who, while on leave, bushwhacks a suspected Unionist and then returns to his unit and resumes fighting in the regular theatre. Did his official connection to the Confederate army excuse his behavior because the man killed was probably an enemy of the CSA? Was that soldier temporarily a bushwhacker? Is there such a thing as part-time bushwhacker? Technically, he did bushwhack someone, right?
Unfortunately, in true Foucaultian fashion, I offer a problematic with no well-packaged solution, power point presentation, or notated outline in tow. To capture the true breadth, nature, and impact of the guerrilla war (essentially a regular war raging on the home front) historians must move past cookie-cutter categorization and binary assertions based on paper orders, raggedy uniforms, socio-political status and, most unfortunately, contemporary political affiliations . The only way to really approach and convey the tragic, hyper-violent, sometimes random, and morbidly fascinating complexity of the guerrilla war is to present it dynamically, as an organic entity created and fueled by a plethora of characters, each sporting a unique, fluid identity based on circumstance, intent and, above all, behavior. Yes, the victims of the guerrilla war were real people and the processes of violence enacted upon them should not be treated abstractly or in a way that excuses the same behavior used to categorize guerrillas. At the same time, however, we must be willing to rethink traditional wartime narratives, ruffle a few feathers, and call the game fairly. Naturally, what sounds like the yearbook answer on paper may prove a tall order in the classroom. But, then again, isn’t breaking new ground sort of the point?