Confederate collapse and mirage of guerrilla warfare

There is a long, enduring myth that Confederate military leaders, namely General Robert E. Lee, eschewed the notion of continuing the war past April 1865 by transforming the Confederate army into a guerrilla force, simply because it was ungentlemanly or contrary to their nature.  We point to the account of Brigadier-General E. Porter Alexander as the primary evidence in regard to Lee’s thoughts. But truth be known, Alexander did not mention “guerrilla” in his recollections.  Nor was there any indication on Alexander’s or Lee’s part that somehow the military forces would wage an unconventional… or to throw in a 21st century term that is all the rage of late… asymmetrical campaign.   Rather, Alexander’s account points more to personal escape, at which time he would “send for my wife & children.”  From that narrative and others I gather that most references to continuing the war were more so to elude potential retaliation and the specter of humiliation in defeat.

Still, this comes up as a common counter-factual in Civil War debating circles.   Could the Confederacy have waged an asymmetrical campaign?  And how effective would that have been?

There’s a whole bunch of discriptives that get wrapped up here with “guerrilla.”  From the start, the rebellion was an insurgency, simply by definition.  What makes “guerrilla” a subset within that genera of combat is the use of non-traditional forces and tactics.  The name derives from Spanish for “little war.” In a guerrilla warfare campaign, the rebellion uses small units, typically not organized to the high degree seen in conventional warfare, to perform actions that are local in scale.  Traditional military forces, possessing better organization and usually access to more resources, would normally crush the insurgent forces in a stand-up fight.  Instead the guerrillas pick situations where to best negate the weight of the conventional force and make the biggest impact for their numbers.  Thus the asymmetry noted in more recent discussions about this type of warfare.

The long-game objective in a guerrilla war is for the forces in rebellion to continually strain the resources of the conventional force to the point where either a wider rebellion emerges or the suppressing force seeks a compromise.  With this (and I’m working quickly here to fit a B-I-G topic into a self-imposed small blog post form), we see the need for the guerrilla force to gain sanction and support from the population.  As Mao Zedong said, “the people are the sea that the revolutionary swims through.”… or similar translation.  For a guerrilla strategy to work, the population would be pre-disposed to the political goal of the insurgency AND be willing to endure suffering to support the guerrilla force… to say the least.

So, how about the ex-Confederacy as it stood in April-May-June 1865?  Was it populated by a people willing to support such an effort?

No doubt, this will raise the ire of some partisan readers, but let me put this bluntly – no, the Southern States were not ready to support such an effort.  Consider last campaigns conducted by Sherman, Wilson, Stoneman, Potter and others.  Those operations ranged far and wide across the Confederacy.  And instead of inspiring more men to join the ranks of the army, those operations had the opposite effect.  Instead of running into “Francis Marions” behind every creek in South Carolina, Sherman and Potter found quite the opposite.  Deserters were encountered almost as often as Confederate regulars.  Thus, I would offer, had Zogby or other pollsters posed the question to southerners in mid-1865, the numbers would have leaned towards “end the war.”  The “sea” was rather shallow for the fish to swim through.  Indeed, there were some guerrilla-like operators that emerged in the immediate post-war era.  There were armed forces opposing the military governors and later the reconstruction governments.  But these ultimately failed to achieve any result in the field, falling far short of perpetuating the Confederacy.

But let us also consider the other facets to the “population.”  There were two major war aims imposed by the surrender of Confederate arms – preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery within the rebellious states.  This changed the status of more than a third of the population of the Confederate states to the positive.  If not guaranteeing complete citizenship and rights, emancipation did secure some means of self-determination.  So as we further consider the “sea” for which any guerrilla “fish” would operate, the water becomes shallower still.

The next point to consider would be the opposition force to any Confederate guerrilla effort.  I would submit that in 1861, the United States Army had already acquitted itself well to counter-insurgency operations against guerrilla forces.  Almost every line officer had experienced some action – be that Seminole Wars or other actions on the western frontier.  And the operations during the Civil War brought more experience for both regulars and volunteers.  Indeed, if we look to the decades that followed the Civil War, the U.S. Army continued to operate, for the most part, as a counter-insurgency force on the frontier.  Arguably, the Army of that period was among the most successful, historically speaking, in that mode of warfare – a legacy that, unfortunately, was not appreciated by leaders a century later, I think.  But the point I would make in regard to any Confederate guerrilla movement, circa 1865, the right type of force, with a doctrine already established, would be draining what little water the “fish” had left to swim through.

All that said, where this counter-factual really falls apart for me, demonstrating that a Confederate guerrilla warfare option was simply not plausible, is how the Confederate leadership ultimately adapted to the situation.  Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton III is a good example.  Nearing the end of the war, Hampton openly suggested guerrilla warfare as an option.  But just over a decade later, Hampton was the 77th governor of South Carolina.   Simply put, the former Confederates found it easier to work within the political and social constructs to impose a “compromise” than to continue to wage war.  That’s not to say there was no violence in play.  Far from it.  But the violence in play was not a guerrilla war… under the conventional definition of that unconventional style of war.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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