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A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of…

A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil…

by Daniel E. Sutherland

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In A Savage Conflict author Daniel E. Sutherland brings his expertise to bear on the subject of guerrilla fighting in the Civil War era. The author uses an extensive array of material on guerrilla fighting to make several arguments regarding not only the style of fighting but also its’ effect on both the Confederacy and the United States. Sutherland places all considerations second to his main objective: to examine how Confederate guerilla warfare affected the outcome of the Civil War. The author, like a modern-day Victor Frankenstein collecting parts for his re-animation experiment, gathers scattered studies of guerilla fighting into a single body. Like Frankenstein, this Modern Prometheus project crafts a greater whole from the sum of the parts. It is an important contribution to the subject of Civil War era guerilla warfare.
Sutherland’s greatest challenge is to take the many and varied kinds of combatants, Confederate and Union, and explain how they were guerillas. Regardless of what label the fighters adopted or were given - Partisan Ranger, Guerilla, bushwhacker, Buffalo, Jayhawker to name but a few - Sutherland contends that “at least two things defined nearly all ‘guerillas.’” Foremost was the manner of combat employed by the fighter. The “‘irregular’ way they attacked, harassed, and worried their foes” was very much “unlike the methods used by regular soldiers in conventional armies.” In addition, the primary concern when forming such companies was local defense to protect their families and or communities from internal and external foes. The author concedes that this is somewhat “elusive, ungainly and untidy” but contends this only reflects the “nature of the guerilla war.” It is a very functional definition and allows the author to bring to the table many varied elements in support of his overall argument.
Sutherland wisely institutes order on the topic by delineating it chronologically. He does not seek to craft an exhaustive study of guerilla fighting in every neighborhood (impractical at best) but rather to carefully examine regional variations and mine those variations to show how they charted policy for both opposing forces and governments. Dividing the war period into four sections - beginnings, rules of the games, democracy run amok, day of the outlaw - Sutherland sets down an arc showing how guerilla forces evolved over time and in place. This is no small accomplishment given that, as the author details, guerilla warfare is by its’ nature locale specific and is usually best served as a local history study. Sutherland’s Frankenstein-esque approach to pulling cogent parts from each local history study serves to build a clearer picture of the overarching effect of the fighting during the war. He demonstrates that a guerilla war deployed by local fighters gained state and then national recognition within the Confederacy; sometimes placed those two political bodies at odds with one another; caused opposing forces (armies, governments, and counter-guerilla fighters) to direct energy and manpower against those efforts; disintegrated into contests for control of the forces; devolved into personal vendettas; and eventually lost the backing of both the government and the local people whom the guerrillas initially set out to protect. The last of these, the failure to sustain public confidence in their cause, was a major blow to the independence objective of the Confederate government. Guerrilla outrages and the insular nature of its’ command structure undermined civilian confidence in their own government’s ability to protect them.
Like all projects there are some minor errors, even Frankenstein’s creation retained bolts and a few exposed sutures. Perhaps the most problematic is the inclusion of General Edward A. Wild’s December 1863 expedition without context of prior events. In no other region examined by Sutherland does he fail to mention local exigencies that lead to guerrilla events or Federal retaliation. Sutherland notes that locals, in response to the expedition, called for removal of the guerrilla fighters because “their further presence here will bring upon us speedy and inevitable ruin.” While Wild’s expedition was indeed the tipping point, continuous guerrilla activity and counter-measures from February 1862 through the expedition produced this certainty in the local people. Just as Sutherland tracked in other regions of the south, northeastern North Carolina learned first hand the shock of continuous warfare. Fitting the larger argument made by Sutherland, northeastern North Carolina locals despaired of the continued tactics thus guerrilla activity undermined the effort to establish a national government. The author lost a chance to make his larger point by failing to include that context.
Sutherland’s overall point is, nonetheless, made. Union commanders (and Confederate ones as well) were forced to take notice and find ways to counter the guerrilla fighting. The harshness of the fighting itself contributed to the wearing away of home-front morale and unity. These sutured parts come together from the bone yards of local history studies and produce a whole creature - one that should be studied by anyone with a serious interest in the Civil War era.
  ncunionist | May 1, 2012 |
Guerrilla warfare in the Civil War has not received adequate attention from historians.

Daniel Sutherland is a history professor at the University of Arkansas who has conducted extensive research on guerrilla warfare during the American Civil War. The book reflects his extensive knowledge of the subject.

The book often loses perspective in its citing of examples of guerrilla activities. This failing is partially because guerrilla activities need to be placed in multiple contexts: their impact on the civilians in the impacted areas, on the Union and Confederate armies, and on the political leadership. Sutherland does show the evolution of guerrilla warfare from being comprised of partisans of one side to deserters to revenge seekers.

Occasionally, the authors language sometimes detracts from the information that he presents. For example, "More disturbing than this exploitation of the guerrilla war by armed thugs was the larger number of rebel guerrillas who crossed over to the dark side" (page 211). The dark side? Why not just say "criminal activities" -- although the rest of the sentence could also use rewriting.

The book does show that guerrilla warfare was more extensive, and had a greater impact, than is generally acknowledged. It was an interesting read, just not as informative as I had hoped. ( )
  NLytle | Mar 28, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0807832774, Hardcover)

The American Civil War is famous for epic battles involving massive armies outfitted in blue and gray uniforms, details that characterize conventional warfare. A Savage Conflict is the first work to treat guerrilla warfare as critical to understanding the course and outcome of the Civil War. Daniel Sutherland argues that irregular warfare took a large toll on the Confederate war effort by weakening support for state and national governments and diminishing the trust citizens had in their officials to protect them.

Sutherland points out that early in the war Confederate military and political leaders embraced guerrilla tactics. They knew that "partizan" fighters had helped to win the American Revolution. 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. Sutherland considers not only the implications such activity had for military strategy but also its effects on people and their attitudes toward the war. Once vital to southern hopes for victory, the guerrilla combatants proved a significant factor in the Confederacy's final collapse.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:15 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

While the Civil War is famous for epic battles involving massive armies engaged in conventional warfare, A Savage Conflict is the first work to treat guerrilla warfare as critical to understanding the course and outcome of the Civil War. Daniel Sutherland argues that irregular warfare took a large toll on the Confederate war effort by weakening support for state and national governments and diminishing the trust citizens had in their officials to protect them.… (more)

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