Civil War Book Review: A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War

by Brett Schulte on June 1, 2010 · 1 comment

Sutherland, Daniel E. A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War. The University of North Carolina Press (July 1, 2009). 456 pp., 16 illustrations, 3 maps, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0-8078-3277-6 $35.00 (Cloth).

When people mention the Civil War, images of solid lines of opposing ranks firing volleys into their enemies typically comes to mind.  Far less rare are images of hit and run attacks and executions in the night.  Daniel Sutherland seeks to explore guerrilla warfare, another important facet of the Civil War, in its entirety.  By looking at the overall guerrilla war rather than focusing on one specific region, Sutherland has provided readers with a new perspective on the guerrilla war.  A Savage Conflict will serve as an excellent jumping off point for further research and study, both on the academic and “buff” levels.

Daniel Sutherland, a professor of history at the University of Arkansas, has also written Guerrillas, Unionists, and Violence on the Confederate Home Front.  This title should prove to be of interest to readers when they finish A Savage Conflict.  Unlike many authors who become enamored of their subject, Sutherland does not supply his chosen topic as THE decisive reason for Union victory and Confederate defeat.  Rather, he is quick to mention guerrilla warfare as A reason, and backs this assertion up with numerous points.  His fifteen years of research, numerous source materials, especially from manuscript collections, and solid conclusions lead readers to believe his conclusions.

Sutherland’s decision to cover the entire guerrilla war is atypical of Civil War guerrilla warfare studies, most of which focus on a particular region or group of partisans.  He divides his book up into four sections, each of which covers a particular time period.  Each chapter within a section focuses on a specific area of the South and in some cases even the Midwest.  I was amazed to learn that guerrilla warfare not only touched my home state of Illinois but occurred in nearby Fayette County, a fact which had eluded me up to this point.  In retrospect, when the Southern leanings of “Little Egypt” (southern Illinois) are considered this shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Looking at the guerrilla war from a wide angle allows Sutherland to compare and contrast the various types of guerrillas, of which there were many.  He writes in his Preface that the term “guerrilla…is fraught with difficulties.”  This doesn’t stop him from trying his best to wade through the morass and come up with a reasonably successful way to divide partisans from guerrillas from bushwhackers.  In addition to problems of definition, many irregulars attempted to masquerade as other types for various reasons, and changed how they operated throughout the war.

Ultimately, says Sutherland, the guerrilla conflict changed how both sides created and enforced military policies.  In addition, the Confederates failed to properly control and utilize their partisans early in the war due to a general disdain of these men on moral grounds.  This failure, argues the author, led to growing bands of men who answered to no government, counter guerrilla measures by southern Unionists, and the failure of the Confederate government to perform its primary duty of protecting its citizens.  In the end the growing number of partisans ultimately became a decisive factor, but not THE decisive factor, in Confederate defeat.

Daniel Sutherland’s A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War works well as an introduction to the guerrilla conflict as a whole while also shedding light on how different the various forms of guerrilla warfare could be depending on time, place, and external factors.  This book can be read and understood quite easily by anyone interested in Civil War guerrilla warfare and should serve as a starting point for research on the topic for years to come.  Sutherland has produced an excellent and thought provoking look at an always controversial topic.  This book is a must read for anyone looking to gain a greater understanding of this much lesser known area of the great conflict.  John Singleton Mosby said after the war, “The bloody part of the war I like to keep in the background.”  This bloody part of the war is in the background no more thanks to Daniel Sutherland.  Highly recommended!

I would like to thank Gina Mahalek at The University of North Carolina Press.

Editor’s Note: A copy of this book was provided gratis for the above review.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Fred Ray June 1, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Excellent, even seminal, book. I mostly agree but have two criticisms — first, Sutherland does a poor job of differentiating between the different types of guerrillas e.g. partisans like Mosby who operated under military discipline and worked closely with regular forces vs. undisciplined bands, and second he lets his thesis run away with him. There were plenty of other reasons why the Confederacy lost popular support, beginning with the steady stream of military defeats and including rampant inflation, food shortages, impressment of property, conscription, etc. but he barely mentions these.

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