Friday, May 12, 2017

Just Finished Reading - The Guerrilla Hunters: Irregular Conflicts during the Civil War

The Guerrilla Hunters: Irregular Conflicts during the Civil War, edited by Brian D. McKnight and Barton A. Myers; Louisiana State University Press, 2017.

When the Civil War bug bit me about thirty-five years or so ago, I was fascinated by the scope of the conflict. I dreamed of going to the many battlefields of Virginia and Tennessee. A weekend family trip to the more approximate Perryville Battlefield State Shrine temporarily satiated my quest for battleground exploration, but when I brought my enthusiasm for the subject to my grandparents home and farm in Clinton County, Kentucky, I began to learn that the Civil War was not experienced the same everywhere.

Clinton County was the native home of notorious Confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson, and although Ferguson later moved to White County, Tennessee, he returned often to the area to carry out various terrorist activities. On one visit my grandfather told me a family story of Ferguson and his men raiding my ancestors' corn crib. The anecdotal tale made me want to learn more about Ferguson and other guerrillas. However, the only book I could find at the time was Thurman Sensing's, Champ Ferguson: Confederate Guerrilla, which was first published in the 1940s.

Fortunately, for those of us interested in Civil War guerrilla studies, scholarship in this field has expanded tremendously over the last decade or so, with some excellent studies emerging in the last five years. Topics and geographical regions previously unexplored, now are providing us with a much better understanding of how the war was often carried out in the "shadows" of the larger and more familiar military campaigns.

One of the most exciting recent additions to this growing body of scholarship is Guerrilla Hunters: Irregular Conflicts during the Civil War, a series of excellent essays edited by Brian D. McKnight and Barton A. Myers, both of who have produced individual significant works on guerrilla actions.

Guerrilla Hunters opens with a thought provoking introduction by the editors which seeks to "present guerrilla studies in their full complexity, not as a field unto itself." In reading the rest of the essays, this goal is met.

The full complexity the editors wish to expose is partly achieved through the range of geographical diversity in which the essays examine. Of course, the traditional border regions, where irregular operations flourished such as Missouri, Kansas, and Kentucky come in for their fair share of coverage. But essays such as "Irregular Naval Warfare along the Lower Mississippi," by Laura June Davis, and "American Warlord: Reconsidering 'Guerrilla' Leader John Gatewood," by Adam H. Domby, give us a look into both previously unexamined geographical regions and topics.

Many of the essays also develop informative new perspectives. For example, Aaron Astor's essay on Tennessee/Kentucky border Unionist Tinker Dave Beaty and his men and their social networks show the importance of family and kin connections in determining who community members could turn to for protection, and even sustenance support. Similarly, Lisa Tendrich Frank's contribution, "The Union War on Women," looks at how Confederate home front women often endured the counter-guerrilla operations of the Union army, who ironically used many of the same tools to fight irregular forces that they found reprehensible. Matthew M. Stith puts two emerging Civil War fields of study together: environment and guerrillas, in his "Guerrilla Warfare and the Environment in the Trans-Mississippi Theater." The land, weather, and animals/insects of this region, still considered a wilderness in many contemporary circles, shaped how the bushwhackers and their pursuers experienced their unique type of civil war. Likewise, Joseph M. Beilein, Jr.'s "Whiskey, Wild Men, and Missouri's Guerrilla War," examines the influence of alcohol on probably the most active geographical area of guerrilla operations. Beilein argues that alcohol fueled a significant amount of aggressiveness and bad decision making among those who operated in irregular fashion.

Other intriguing essays include Matthew C. Hulbert's "Larkin M. Skaggs and the Massacre(s) at Lawrence," which takes likely the most infamous guerrilla episode and examines it from an new angle. As Hulbert states "when the massacre is broken down into a momentous wave of home invasions perpetrated by pro-Confederate bushwhackers against the households they believed were allowing jayhawkers to function efficiently as pro-Union guerrillas, it much more closely resembles how irregulars themselves understood the waging of war in the Missouri-Kansas guerrilla theater." Also, Andrew Lang's "Challenging the Union Citizen-Soldier Ideal," looks at how Union volunteers sometimes struggled reconciling their images of what a citizen soldier should look like and behave like when forced to deal with irregular forces. Union regulars found that sometimes occupying a region and attempting to control guerrillas set their conceptions of warfare on its head and required the destruction of private property and potentially harming civilians.

Finally, I appreciated that the editors provided a thorough "Readers Bibliography of Civil War Studies." This list of scholarship available on the subject only boosts the Guerrilla Hunters's overall importance.

Whether mentioned above or not, all of the essays contained in this volume advance our understand of an important and ever emerging facet of the Civil War. Irregular warfare studies such as Guerrilla Hunters shed light on the dark corners of Civil War scholarship and remind us that there are still areas of our nation's most significant four years that need examining and rethinking. I highly recommend this work to any student of the Civil War. By reading this book you will certainly not be disappointed in what you learn or how it makes you think about other aspects of the conflict.

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