Civil War Book Review: Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals

Mountcastle, Clay. Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals. University Press of Kansas (September 2, 2009). 212 pp., 20 photographs, 5 maps, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0-7006-1668-8 $29.95 (Cloth).

How did Union soldiers respond to guerrilla warfare by Southerners?  Who conceived of and put into practice Union Army punitive measures against Southern civilians?  Just how widespread and damaging were these Union punitive measures?  Clay Mountcastle explores and answers these questions in his new book Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals.

Mountcastle’s thesis is that Union punitive actions began and continued mainly due to guerrilla activity, started small and isolated in the west, moving east and increasing in size and scope by the end of the war.  In fact, writes the author, by 1864 Union punitive measures “evolved into a powerful and decisive force” which ultimately enabled Union victory.

Like Daniel Sutherland in his recent A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War, Mountcastle notes the difficulty of defining guerrillas, but says guerrilla attacks shared some similarities:

1)      Surprise attacks or ambushes

2)      Vulnerable enemy

3)      Rapid retreat

4)      No prisoners

He doesn’t believe it is important to distinguish between guerrillas in Punitive War because Northern soldiers didn’t do so.  In fact, the author is careful to point out that the focus of this book is not on guerrilla warfare at all, instead looking solely at Union responses to this issue.

The author’s four main chapters cover several areas of main Confederate guerrilla activity and Union responses, moving east as the war progresses but not in strictly chronological order.  Punitive actions started in Missouri and originated with common soldiers on the ground.  Infamous Union General John Pope orchestrated some of the first concerted actions in Missouri.  As the war progressed, punitive actions increased in size and scope and were taken east by some of the generals (Grant, Sheridan, Sherman, Hunter) who had experience with the guerrilla war and response in Missouri.  Mountcastle disagrees with Mark Grimsley and Mark Neely, especially the latter, about whether or not the Civil War was a total war.  He believes the Union punitive war was much more widespread, indiscriminate, and damaging than other historians are willing to admit.  In addition, Mountcastle challenges Robert Mackey’s assertion that the guerrilla problem was solved by Union forces, believing instead that the guerrilla war fizzled out as the war ground to its inevitable conclusion.

While Mountcastle does a thorough job arguing his point his assertions probably place more importance on guerrilla warfare as the source of Union reprisals than a majority of historians would admit.  His belief in the Civil War as total war should also bear some scrutiny.  To be fair the author does admit that the Civil War does not approach some of the worst atrocities in western history, with the Thirty Years War in Germany cited as one such example.

Whether or not you agree with Clay Mountcastle’s assertions in Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals, this interesting and persuasively argued new book will force readers to reconsider the severity of the Civil War, especially Union responses to Confederate guerrillas.  Those interested in the “real war”, one far away from the major battles, will absolutely want this book in their collection.  Readers will be able to read about and process a wide variety of opinions in the ongoing discussion of guerrilla warfare during the greater Civil War by combining Punitive War with some of the books by historians Mountcastle challenges here.  Highly recommended.

I would like to thank Ranjit Arab at the University Press of Kansas.

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


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