Review: Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals

by James Durney on October 8, 2009 · 0 comments

Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals (Modern War Studies)
by Clay Mountcastle

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 202 pages
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas (September 2, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0700616683
  • ISBN-13: 978-0700616688

PunitiveWarConfederateGuerrillasAndUnionReprisalsMountcastleConfederate guerrillas are the subject of many books on the Civil War.  Mosby, Quantrill, the sack of Lawrence, Bloody Bill Anderson or Missouri is the subject of many books.  These books look at the guerrilla war from a Confederate perspective, with a slight nod to the Union’s response.  I do not recall a book that looks at the guerrilla war from the Union side, nor one that cover the punitive actions without sensationalism or rancor.  Clay Mountcastle gives us a unique view in this small, well-written book by doing just that.

Lincoln and much of the North under estimated the depth of commitment to secession existing throughout the South.  This lead to a policy of restraint, expecting kindness would case the majority of Southerners to return to the Union.  In truth, Southerners were very committed to the cause showing a refusal to be conquered and occupied.  This refusal manifested itself in burning bridges, tearing down telegraph wires, pulling up rails, sniping or attacking isolated groups of soldiers.  Armies excel at fighting battles against other armies.  They do not excel at guarding miles of railroad tracks or telegraph lines.  Chasing after locals, trying to determine which civilian had fired on a riverboat or burned a bride is not a good mission for soldiers.  Hours of marching, enduring dust and heat with little or nothing to show for it wears away restraint and builds contempt for those locals.

Starting in Missouri, moving down the Mississippi River, marching in Georgia and ending in the Shenandoah Valley we follow the North’s response to the guerrilla problem in the field, at headquarters, in Washington and in the press.  This is a history of the development and implementation of a policy of reprisals against civilian property.  Systematically, the author shows how reprisals became a bottom-up and a top down policy.  Men in the field tired of attacks and fruitless marches started attacking farms or towns.  In turn, department commanders faced with an invisible foe in a “defeated” area were unable to maintain order in the face of small-scale attacks.  In turn, Washington faced with a break down in the field harden the policy and accepted reprisals as policy.

This is an excellent history of punitive war and is much more than a list of towns burned or farms devastated.  It is a history of a policy change that changed the face of war forever.  The author has written a well-supported thesis, with full footnotes and a bibliography.  Well thought out and presented, this book is history of the Union effort to break the South’s will to fight by reprisals.  The author says this took place “in the space and time between battles”.  This is true but foe many men in the Union army this was the Civil War they fought.

This book is a valuable addition to my Civil War library, presenting a view of the war that moves past “Battles and Leaders” into the reality of “the space and time between battles”.  This is a story that will resonate with veterans of our modern wars.  Guerrilla warfare is becoming the norm and how this was “handled” in our history is important.

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