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21.03.02 Southern Irregular Warfare Strategy in America 1861 – 1865: An Alternative Theory — A Brief 2004 Essay by Society Member Bertil Haggman of Sweden

Notes Concerning the Author

Society member Bertil Haggman is an author and retired European attorney living in Sweden. He has been researching Confederate irregular warfare between 1861 and 1865 for over ten years and is preparing a book manuscript on the subject.  Since 1971 he has published around 150 books and journal/magazine articles in various languages.

His book manuscript “Confederate Irregular Warfare, 1861 – 1865″ is now being published on his blog,  Two Confederate partisan ranger and guerrilla units are presented on the blog per week beginning in March 2011.

His essay, below, first presented in 2004 and published here in June 2014, is from his early efforts to explore partisan warfare and its potential in defending the Confederate States against invasion by Federals.

The Essay

Danville, VA, April 4, 1865

“The General-in-Chief of our Army has found it necessary to make such movements of the troops as to uncover the Capital, and thus involve the withdrawal of the Government from the city of Richmond.

It would be unwise, even if it were possible, to conceal the great moral, as well as material injury to our cause that must result from the occupation of Richmond by the enemy. It is equally unwise and unworthy of us, as patriots engaged in a most sacred cause, to allow our energies to falter, our spirits to grow faint, or our efforts to become relaxed, under reverses, however calamitous. While it has been to us a source of national pride, that for four years of unequalled warfare, we have been able, in close proximity to the center of the enemy’s power to maintain the seat of our chosen Government free from the pollution of his presence; while the memories of the heroic dead, who have freely given their lives to its defence, must ever remain enshrined in our hearts; while the preservation of the capital, which is usually regarded as the evidence to mankind of separate existence, was an object very dear to us, it is also true, and should not be forgotten, that the loss we have suffered is not without compensation.

For many months the largest and finest army of the Confederacy, under the command of a leader whose presence inspires equal confidence in the troops and the people, has been greatly trammelled by the necessity of keeping constant watch over the approaches  to the capital, and has thus been forced to forego more than one opportunity for promising enterprises.

The hopes and confidence of the enemy have been constantly excited by the belief, that their possession of Richmond would be the signal for our submission to their rule, and relieve the burden of war which, as their failing resources admonish them, must be abandoned if not speedily brought to a successful close.

It is for us, my countrymen, to show by our bearing under reverses, how wretched has been the self-deception of those who have believed us less able to endure misfortune with fortitude, than to encounter danger with courage.

We have now entered upon a new phase of a struggle, the memory of which is to endure for all ages, and to shed ever increasing lustre upon our country. Relieved from the necessity of guarding cities and particular points, important but not vital to our defense with our army free to move from point to point, and strike in detail the detachments and garrisons of the enemy; operating in the interior of our own country, where supplies are more accessible, and where the foe  will be far removed from his own base, and cut off from all succour in case of reverse, nothing is now needed to render our triumph certain, but the exhibition of our own unquenchable resolve. Let us but will it, and we are free; and who in the light of the past, dear doubt your purpose in the future?

Animated by that confidence in your spirit and fortitude, which never yet has failed me, I announce to you, fellow countrymen, that it is my purpose to maintain your cause with my whole heart and soul; that I will never consent to abandon to the enemy one foot of the soil of one of the States of the Confederacy; that Virginia, noble State, whose ancient renown has eclipsed by her still more glorious recent history; whose bosom has been bared to receive the main shock of this war; whose sons and daughters have exhibited heroism so sublime as to render her illustrious in all time to come; that Virginia, with the help of the people, and by the blessing of providence, shall be held and defended, and no peace ever be made with the infamous invaders of her homes by the sacrifice of any of her rights or territory.

If by stress of numbers, we should ever be compelled to a temporary withdrawal from her limits, or those of any other border State, again and again will we return, until the baffled and exhausted enemy shall abandon in despair his endless and impossible task of making slaves of a people resolved to be free.

Let us not then respond, my countrymen, but, relying on the never failing mercies and protecting care of our God, let us meet the foe with fresh defiance, with unconquered and unconquerable hearts.


(Jefferson Davis to the People of the Confederate States of America – From the President’s Letter Book)

The appeal of President Davis of April, 1865, of which the complete text is rendered above, has been endlessly debated. Was he calling for irregular warfare or was he not? Here I will attempt to argue the case for an irregular war from the outset of the war.


The Confederate States of America (CSA) was to a great extent a decentralized state, its territory was vast (at least compared to states to territories of European states and an aggressor would have long communication lines to cope with. It will be attempted to present a few arguments in favor of an irregular war of the South, the main argument being that war should have been avoided in the first place. It was wrong to settle the conflict by aggression.

It is important to consider history before presenting arguments that the war could have led to survival of the CSA as an independent nation.


To further explore what happened or might have happened in the South 1861 – 1865 it might be useful to take a look at 1808 – 1814 in Spain and Portugal. Napoleon’s armies encountered guerrilla resistance in the westernmost extremes of the European continent (but also elsewhere). From 1808 to 1814 the Spanish and Portuguese fought a national resistance war against the French aggressor. The Spanish and the Portuguese armies mainly consisted of irregulars aided by a British expeditionary force. The reason for the lack of conventional armies was that the armies of Madrid and Lisbon had almost ceased to exist. The popular feeling, however, was that French aggression had to be resisted. Individuals who answered the call to arms had no conventional forces to join. Thus guerrilla bands sprang up all over the Iberian Peninsula. Even the provincial armies were forced to operate as irregulars.

The technique of the French emperor was first to remove the King of Spain of the family of Bourbon. A “Junta of Regency” was then formed to offer the Spanish crown to Napoleon’s brother Joseph. When Joseph was proclaimed king the people rose in rebellion.

The Spanish and the Portuguese fought often losing battles against French garrisons all over the countries. The British under General….Wellington then landed a force at MondegoBay in Portugal. This force and the guerrillas would in the end chase all French forces out of the Iberian Peninsula.

The value of the insurgents was that they operated behind the French lines and cut off the communications of the French forces. In answer the French landed a force in Portugal under Marshal… Soult. He was forced to operate in Northern Portugal using Oporto as a base attempting to hunt down guerrillas in the northwest part of the country. Wellington meanwhile was permitted by Portuguese authorities to order all people in the French occupied areas to abandon towns and villages and take to the hills. As a result the French had great problems providing provisions.

Napoleon as a result had to commit more and more French troops to Spain and Portugal. Although he was a skilled strategist he never managed to control the situation on the Iberian Peninsula. Had it not been for the partisans the French would probably have been able to defeat Wellington. The French were not able to concentrate to attack because three quarters of the troops were diverted to chasing Spanish and Portuguese irregulars, guarding crossroads and providing garrisons.

The various partisan organizations concentrated on falling upon isolated French scouts, messengers, and stragglers. Between 1810 and 1812 French sources estimated that the guerrillas killed 100 soldiers per day. The French General….Massena was so isolated by the irregular action that he went without orders from headquarters in Madrid for three months. The Spanish were always well informed of French movements and could disperse quickly.

The fighting for years remained on a petty level: ambushes, quick assaults, and small skirmishes. Sometimes the irregular organizations joined forces to face a French force in battle. One of the main guerrilla leaders, Espoz y Mina, was well financed. He raised revenue by levying customs duty on goods imported from France. One Spanish source noted also the effective way of providing provisions: “Everywhere uniforms were secretly made for his soldiers and the highest mountains as well as almost impassable defiles were the seat of arms manufactories, munitions dumps and hospitals. His sick and at times his wounded were cared for in the villages and hamlets, and quite a few in the very houses where those who had caused their wounds were lodging.” (G.H. Lovett, Napoleon and the Birth of Modern Spain, New York University Press, 1965, p.717). At the peak of activity Espoz y Mina had 8,000 men under arms and on occasion and at Aibar in 1810 he defeated a French force in battle. Some of the more organized guerrilla organizations were used as scouts and auxiliary forces during conventional operations (compare Ferguson in Tennessee, Quantrill and Anderson in Missouri, who sometimes joined conventional Confederate forces as scouts and skirmishers).

The guerrillas on the Iberian Peninsula pinned down thousands of French troops. In British and Spanish historiography there are divided views on how effective the guerrillas were. One thing is more or less certain: the Spanish would not have been able to defeat the French on their own. A regular force was, in this case the British, needed. In the same way an all-out guerrilla warfare in the South would have been in need of a large conventional Confederate force.


It has been said that history never repeats itself. Naturally there can be no exact comparison between the guerrilla war on the Iberian Peninsula in the beginning of the 19th century and Southern irregular warfare. There are, however, a few lessons to be learned: it is not possible to defeat a conventional army with guerrilla forces alone. A combination of partisan and conventional forces is needed. In 1861 communications had been revolutionized by railway. It was possible to transport troops and material on train over large areas. At the same time the railway was vulnerable. History has shown that it is not possible to guard railway tracks over large areas. It requires too much soldiers. Systematic attacks on railway lines would thus be effective against an enemy.


A number of areas in the 13 Confederate states were suitable to irregular warfare: Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri (the Ozarks can be mentioned here) and Arkansas (in this state effective Confederate guerrilla leaders were Captains James McGhee and Joseph F. Barton, George Rutherford and in the Ozarks James Ingraham and Buck Brown), Virginia including today’s West Virginia), Alabama north of the Tennessee River, several counties in North Georgia, Florida, Louisiana (Union river traffic was vulnerable) and Mississippi.

In Tennessee famed partisan ranger and guerrilla fighter Captain Champ Ferguson and his independent cavalry company fought for control of the Upper Cumberland Plateau region along the Kentucky border. Operating against local Unionists he was at times attached to the command of General Koseph Wheeler and scouted for General John Hunt Morgan.  The guerrilla fighters fought from ambush and under close cover. They were dangerous foes, because they struggled for their own home ground. As the long hunters of old they understood the war of the forest and the vast mountains. In the words of General Basil Duke, a founder of the famous Filson Club in Louisville, Kentucky, as attested that Ferguson was a the most celebrated and successful exponent of irregular warfare on the Southern side. In the opinion of General Duke he was not a bushwhacker, but in his methods much resembled them.

Duke spoke to Captain Ferguson several times. Asked in 1862 if it was true that he killed prisoners Ferguson answered: “Why, Colonel Duke, I’ve got sense. I know it ain’t looked on as right to treat reg’lar soldiers tuk in battle in that way. Besides, I don’t want to do it. I haven’t got no feeling agin these Yankee soldiers, except that they are wrong, and oughtn’t come down here and fight our people.  I won’t tech them; but when I catches any of them hounds I’ve got good cause to kill, I’m going to kill ’em….I haven’t killed nigh as many men as they say I have, folks have lied about me powerful.”


In Kentucky Abraham Lincoln had fared badly in elections 1860. 1862 and in 1864 the situation had developed then to a point when the state had to be placed under martial law and the departmental commander began executing four Confederate prisoners for every Union soldier killed by the Confederate guerrillas. Kentuckians was as a result further alienated and in 1864 voted 61,000 to 26,000 for the peace candidate, George B. McClellan. In 1860 Lincoln had for instance received only one vote in Clark County, Kentucky (e-mail in the author’s archive.

Confederate guerrilla leaders in Kentucky were Marcellus Jerome Clarke, son of a distinguished Kentucky family (his uncle had been candidate for governor in 1855 and his cousin Pauline had married John Mosby in Virginia). Other leaders were Samuel O. “One Armed” Berry, a one-time schoolteacher, who was held in prison in the State of New York for many years. His sister had been bayoneted to death by Unionists. Others were Henry C. Magruder, like Clark executed by hanging after war’s end.


Another model for success would be Colonel John S. Mosby’s operations in Virginia. His force eventually grew to eight companies with around 700 men. His warfare was systematic and methodical, and self-sustained. The government in Richmond did not need to furnish weapons, horses, or any other equipment. The forces lived entirely out of the land. Equipment was captured from Union stores. All items were distributed between the men. As the war progressed the Confederate government relied to a greater extent on irregular forces. Already in 1862 firmer control was established through the Confederate Partisan Ranger Act). Still, a number of guerrilla bands were outside government control but the War Department attempted to coordinate their activities with operations of the regular Confederate armies.

An alternative Confederate strategy could have been to have a standing army of perhaps 100,000 to 150,000 men. Part of such an army could have been stationed in the border states but the main body kept in the Deep South waiting for Union advance. The concept of Generals John Hunt Morgan and Nathan B. Bedford could have been developed further to destroy communications and other installations to hinder the advance of Union troops.

The war industry in the South could have been further decentralized. The Partisan Ranger Corps, consisting of thousands of companies, even regiments could have operated to harm and hinder communications, telegraphs cut, railway lines blown up and bridges destroyed in a methodical fashion. Every Union forces moving into Confederate territory would have been encountered by first irregular bands hindering the advance. At points of advantage the conventional units of the Confederate States Army would be employed.


Thus the war might have been dragging on into 1866, maybe 1867. More and more Union soldiers would die in ambushes and in small skirmishes. Public opinion against the war would grow in the North. Mothers who had lost their sons in blue would form protest organizations against the war. Many Union draftees would escape to Canada as the anti-war movement in the north grew in strength. The prospect of being isolated in a small Southern garrison town and raiding the surrounding areas risking to be ambushed by strong partisan and guerrilla forces would not be very exciting.


In Conclusion: the limited Confederate focus on the partisan and guerrilla alternative could have been one of the major reasons for the defeat of the South. Robert L. Kerby in “Why the South Lost the War (1986) saw the Confederate decision to fight as a de facto nation-state waging conventional war as one of the critical decisions. Instead the Confederacy should have waged a protracted irregular war. Such a war would, however, have made the struggle more revolutionary and it would have departed from the Southern constitutional model. The Confederate leaders obviously were too civilized and valued humanity too much to engage in the bloody measures necessary to wage an all-out irregular war. It would have resulted in bloodshed and violence not only on the enemy but fellow Southerners would have suffered as well.

It is said that Colonel William Clarke Quantrill of Missouri once presented a comprehensive guerrilla strategy for the Confederate States of America on a visit to Richmond in December of 1862. There is only one source for what took place during the meeting, Major John N. Edwards. He in turn is to have received the information from Texas Senator Louis T. Wigfall, who was present during the Interview with Secretary of War Seddon

Below are excerpts from Edward’s account:

“Quantrell asked to be commissioned as a Colonel under the Partisan Ranger Act, and to be so recognized by the Department…Never mind the question of men, he would have the complement required in a month after he reached Western Missouri. The warfare was desperate, he knew, the service desperate, everything connected with it was a desperate fight.”

To structure the conversation I have made a few changes in the original manuscript in dialogue fashion:

Seddon (S): “War had its amenities and its refinements. In the nineteenth century it was simple barbarism to talk of a black flag.”

Quantrill (Q): “Barbarism ! Barbarism, Mr. Secretary, means war and war means barbarism. Since you have touched on this subject, let us discuss it a little. Times have their crimes as well as men. For twenty years this cloud has been gathering; for twenty years…hates have been engendered and wrathful things laid up against the day of wrath. The cloud has burst. Do not condemn the thunderbolt.”

(Seddon just bowed his head).

“Who are these people you call Confederates ? Rebels, unless they succeed, outcasts, traitors, food for hemp and gunpowder. There were no great statesmen in the South, or this war would have happened ten years ago; no inspired men, or it would have happened fifteen years ago. Today the odds are desperate…The ocean belongs to the Union navy. There is a recruiting officer in every foreign port. I have captured and killed many who did not know the English tongue. Mile by mile the cordon is being drawn about the granaries of the south, Missouri will go first, next Kentucky, next Tennessee, by and by Mississippi and Arkansas, and then what? That we must put gloves on our hands, and honey in our mouths, and fight this war as Christ fought the wickedness of the world?…”

S: “What would you do, Captain Quantrell, were yours the power and opportunity ?”

Q: “Do, Mr. Secretary? Why I would wage such a war and have such a war waged by land and sea as to make surrender forever impossible. I would cover the armies of the Confederacy all over with blood. I would break up foreign enlistments… I would win the independence of my people or I would find them graves.

S: “And our prisoners, what of them?

Q: “Nothing of them; there would be no prisoners. Do they take any prisoners from me: Surrounded, I do not surrender; surprised, I do not give way to panic; outnumbered, I rely on common sense and stubborn fighting; proscribed, I answer proclamation with proclamation; outlawed, I feel through it my power; hunted, I hunt my hunters in turn; hated and made blacker than a dozen devils, I add to my hoofs the swiftness of the horse, and to my horns the terrors of a savage following….Meet the torch with the torch, pillage with pillage, slaughter with slaughter, subjugation with extermination. You have my ideas of war, Mr. Secretary, and I am sorry that they do not accord with your own, nor the ideas of the government you have the honour to represent so well.”


Partisan warfare is over two thousand years old. Modern mystification in Western civilization of the partisan started in the 19th century in Germany with works such as Die Hermannsschlacht (a theatrical play 1808-09; not published until 1821), when Germanic forces defeated Roman legions in the Teutoburger Forest in 9 AD, led by the chieftain Arminius. During the Napoleonic wars the author, Heinrich von Kleist, was encouraging a resistance against Napoleon of France across Europe. Guerrilla warfare already raged in Spain and in parts of Europe. Now, with Napoleon’s armies in Berlin von Kleist wanted to encourage a German resistance.

Another early writing on the type of the partisan occurred first in Scotland and then in the American South.

The culture of the partisan and guerrilla was widespread in the South before the war between the War Between the States. In the nineteenth century the South had a growing culture and admiration for the partisan warrior, a heritage from the American Revolution (see such Southern periodicals as Southern Literary Messenger, Southern Quarterly Review and DeBow’s Review).

Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (which is based on Rob Roy MacGregor Campbell, who led a Scottish uprising against the English in 1715) was one ideal partisan figure.

Most important, however, was probably the Virginia author Beverly Tucker, who published many novels on partisan fighters including The PartisanLeader (1836). Famed South Carolina author William Gilmore Simms was also influential. He wrote a series of seven novels beginning with The Partisan in 1835, which glorified the Southern guerrillas of the American Revolution (note the recent Hollywood film “Patriot” which is loosely based on Francis Marion, the South Carolina revolutionary leader).

Finally a few words of Professor James A. Ramage in his Rebel Raider – The Life of General John Hunt Morgan (1986):


Partisan warfare was a formidable strategic instrument, opening a hundred second fronts in the enemy rear, frustrating and wearing down the invaders, nullifying the advantages of superior manpower and resources in the North, and striking at the mind and will of Northern voters. Guerrillas could have paralyzed Union logistics, and many local successes could have changed the relative strength of the opposing forces. A lengthy guerrilla war might have resulted in a long drawn out struggle and maybe victory.

Instead of using the partisan strength of the Southern sharpshooters, of the many were woodsmen grown up with hunting and guns, almost all military force of the Confederacy was concentrated on winning large battles. The purpose was to achieve a final strike against the North in traditional Napoleonic style. This gave the North the advantage of larger numbers and overwhelming production base. In no way does my theory reflect negatively on the brave Southern soldier or the strategic genius of General Robert E. Lee. The four year struggle shows the courage and determination of the Confederacy and its people. It is, maybe, time to consider alternative strategic possibilities and what they might have led to.

Bertil Haggman