Partisan Warfare in the American Civil War

Black and White Image of Partisan soldiers  standing in a line looking toward another officer during the Civil War
Roberto Naranjo

In the pre-dawn hours of August 13, 1864 part of the 525-wagon convoy carrying supplies to Sheridan's army stationed near Winchester, Virginia came to a rest stop near Berryville. Unnoticed by the guards, several gray-clad figures converged upon two Union cannons. Moments later Mosby's Rangers opened fired on the convoy. With shells landing amid the camp and wagons exploding in flames a wave of rebel riders swarmed over the confused Yankee soldiers. Mules and horses ran around violently, many still hitched to their wagons. In the confusion, Union soldiers were unable to mount a defense and slowly surrendered. When the smoke finally cleared, Mosby's men held nearly three hundred prisoners, in addition to seven hundred horses and mules and two hundred head of cattle. Seventy-five supply wagons were either destroyed or seized. An adequate amount of provisions to supply 2,200 Union soldiers was now bound for the Confederacy(1). It turned out to be Mosby's biggest assault of the war and gave cavalry chief Phillip H. Sheridan a quandary, how to deal with rebels that were not regular soldiers but marauders.

Aside from the Confederate regular soldier, another breed of Southern fighter existed, the irregulars. Composed generally of two groups, extremists fighting on their own as guerrillas and the more conservative units known as Partisan Rangers and raiders, the irregulars created problems for both the Confederacy and the Union. The problems they begat for the Southern states ranged from disobeyed orders to outright criminal acts resulting in the objections to their use by highly placed officials. The Union, on the other hand, enacted policies to end the destruction of property, terrorism upon civilians, as well as delays of military movements by these groups. Led by many men, three individuals stood out as the most famous irregular leaders of the Civil War: William Clarke Quantrell, John Hunt Morgan, and John Singleton Mosby. As mentioned earlier, the irregular fighters can be categorized as either guerrillas or Partisan Rangers.

The most independent and loosely organized of the two groups were the guerrillas. One such guerrilla band, operating out of Missouri, followed the commands of William Clarke Quantrell (aka Chas). Quantrell's band began operating in the fall of 1861 after obtaining a commission from Jefferson Davis. His first recruits numbered just eight and effectively operated throughout the war with less than a hundred. Most of Quantrell's recruits carried a dubious past and the Civil War afforded them an opportunity to bend their anger and/or revenge. One murdered his father, another his brother. One partisan pillaged and burned a house, while another was robbed of all earthly possessions. One witnessed the rape of his mother and sister and many others were outright thieves themselves(2). In another part of the Confederacy however, a much different character joined a diverse type of irregular outfit, the Raiders. The raiders who joined John Hunt Morgan in Kentucky at the beginning of the war belonged to the aristocracy. They descended from planters who had originally settled Virginia and North Carolina and now had created a new nobility in the Bluegrass state. Four years before the war they became known as the Lexington Rifles. At the start of the war they were sworn into the Confederate army as the First Kentucky Cavalry(3).

East of Kentucky, in the state of Virginia, a less independent raider organization emerged to become the ultimate example of Partisan warfare, Mosby's Rangers. By the end of the 1863 winter season, John Singleton Mosby was promoted to the rank of captain and allowed to proceed in organizing a company with the understanding that, although he was the commanding officer, "the men will have the privilege of electing the lieutenants . . . when the requisite number of men are enrolled, an officer will be designated to muster the company into service."(4) A couple of days later Jeb Stuart, Mosby's commander, suggested he called them Mosby's Regulars since Partisan Rangers had a bad connotation. The men attracted to Mosby's Regulars however were not of the regular army stock but a wide variety which included discharged veterans, deserters, wounded soldiers, some home on furlough, Marylanders not bound by laws affecting the Confederacy, old civilian men as well as boys all anxious to fight in the cavalry.(5) The independence associated with these bands attracted recruits, regardless of how independent they really were. The freedom of the irregulars depended chiefly in their association with the military command. Morgan's Raiders and Mosby's Rangers followed orders from the Confederate High Command but were allowed some latitude.

Units outside the realm of command, like Quantrell's guerrillas, acted completely on their own, following orders from their leaders and no one else. Operating essentially on their own, these men caused difficulties for the Confederacy. The problems ranged from desertion and disobedience of orders to criminal acts aggravating the image of the South in northern minds. At first these problems led to anti-Partisan sentiments in the military hierarchy and eventually to sanctions and measures enacted to limit their activities. One of these problems, affecting the regular units as well, became with time more pressing, desertion. The nature of Mosby's Rangers frequently led to desertion. To facilitate escape after a raid, many were allowed to go home.

As the war lingered on, those staying at home became more numerous, resulting in a loss of good raiders. Besides desertion, disobedience plagued the Southern forces. In the lower ranks disobedience manifested itself in the form of desertion. In the upper ranks however, outright disobeying of orders was often prevalent. On one occasion Morgan received orders from General Bragg to raid Kentucky, but not to cross state lines into Union states. After raiding through the Bluegrass state, he crossed over to Ohio and Indiana coming to within sixty miles of Lake Erie. As troublesome as disobedience and desertion were, the methods employed by Quantrell were more damaging to the Southern image in the North. Began originally as a reactionary force against the Kansas Jayhawkers, they soon turned violent. Throughout the conflict, Quantrell's men murdered Federal troops as well as Kansans. Some of the killings involved hanging or execution.

One spring day in 1863 the city of Lawrence, Kansas felt the fury of these guerrillas. Known later as the Lawrence Massacre, the rebels killed at least one thousand. The loss of property was estimated at $1,500,000. Only one raider was killed.(6) Besides murder another type of crime was robbery. By 1863, Morgan's raiders were acting more and more like thieves. According to the account of Basil Duke- Morgan's right hand man; "this disposition for wholesale plunder exceeded anything that any of us had ever seen before . . . Each man who could get one, tied a bolt of calico to his saddle and let it unwind, only to throw it away and get a fresh one at the first opportunity . . . One man carried a bird cage with three canaries in it for two days, and another rode with a chafing dish on the pummel of his saddle until an officer made him throw it away . . . I could not believe that such a passion could have developed among any body of civilized men."(7) The target of all this fury was of course the Union. The Partisans and guerrillas caused countless problems for the Union. One target of irregular activity involved the destruction of railroad tracks and derailment of trains. Mosby and Morgan excelled at this. Mosby's men used turpentine to set the wooden supports of the rails on fire and weaken them, or loosen them in order to bring down the locomotive, or in one occasion, use a Howitzer to blow an engine up.(8) Morgan's tactics were to stop the train and put the locomotive out of commission. Then they would set fire to the freight cars and; if near a water house, destroy it too. The rails did not fare any better either. Dismantling several of them, the men would proceed to twist them around a tree in what became known as Morgan's neckties.(9) The irregulars also targeted bridges and tunnels for destruction. One such tunnel was Tunnel Hill, seven miles north of Gallatin, Kentucky.

In August 1862, Morgan's Raiders "ran a captured freight locomotive inside the tunnel at high speed and wrecked it upon a pile of cribbed crossties. We then set fire to the ties and to the wood framework inside. After it had burned, slate rock collapsed from the roof."(10) The destruction completely interrupted Union General Buell's supply line from Louisville. By the end of the month, his troops had full rations for only ten more days. One month earlier, Morgan had burned the bridges of the Kentucky Central Railroad causing General Jeremiah Boyle, in command of the Federal troops at Louisville, to send urgent telegrams to Washington requesting immediate assistance.(11) These actions prompted Lincoln to order General Halleck, operating in Mississippi, to look into these raids. The irregulars provided another essential service to the high command: scouting. Mosby's most important duty for most of his command was to penetrate the region of country occupied by Northern troops, keep to the woods around enemy camps, interrogate citizens, acquire information on their numbers, position, or designs, and relay it to his superiors.(12) One such action took him behind one flank of McClellan's army to discover whether he was following General Johnston or just feinting to do so. McClellan was just feinting. However beneficial or not partisan warfare was to the Southern cause, the reactions to it were vocal and swift. The Confederate High Command at first objected to their continued use.

Later they revoked the Partisan Ranger Act in order to limit them. The Union reacted by drafting military policies to deal with these rebel units. Two vocal opponents to irregulars in the South were James A. Seddon, Secretary of War and Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser. James A. Seddon, in his annual report for 1863, stated the objections to Partisan Rangers. Their usefulness "had been very partially realized, while from their independent organization and the facilities and temptations thereby afforded to license and depredations grave mischiefs have resulted. They have, indeed, when under inefficient officers and operating within our own limits, come to be regarded as a more formidable and destructive to our own people than to the enemy."(13)

General Rosser, commander in the Shenandoah Valley, wrote to Robert E. Lee that, with the exception of John Mosby, these rangers were "a nuisance and an evil to the service and ought to be disbanded, and the men placed in the regular ranks. Without discipline, order, or organization, they room broadcast over the country, a band of thieves, stealing, pillaging, plundering, and doing every manner of mischief and crime. They are a terror to the citizens and an injury to the cause . . . Most have engaged in this business for the sake of gain."(14) General Rosser's letter to Lee initiated the way for the repeal of the Partisan Ranger Act. Passed in 1862, this law gave its blessing to freebooting irregular commands. The new law of 1864 declared that henceforth all partisan units to be considered regular army. They would be bought under the "general condition of the army as to discipline, control, and movements."(15) The only exception being Mosby's Rangers. The Union was, as expected, less excepting. Union policy, circulated in 1863 through the office of General Henry W. Halleck and written by the German-American legal scholar Francis W. Lieber, sought to define regular partisans, authorized by their own government from irregular Missouri-like guerrillas not under some general military law. Regular partisans, when caught in a fair fight, were to be treated like regular prisoners of war. However, guerrillas universally considered as "bushwhackers" were to be handled as criminals, not prisoners of war. Halleck asked Lieber to incorporate these ideas into general instructions for Union armies in the field that later became General Order #100 on April 24, 1863.(16)

The focus of all these reactions and policies felt heavily upon the shoulders of the irregular leaders, especially three of the most famous, or infamous: Quantrell, Morgan, and Mosby. For William Clarke Quantrell, any policy enacted, whether Southern or Northern meant nothing. Leader of the first and most notorious Missouri guerrilla group, Quantrell's early years were uneventful. All that changed during the summer of 1857. While setting out for California with his brother, a group of Kansas's outlaws ambushed them not long into their journey. After stealing everything they carried, the outlaws proceeded to shoot them. They succeeded in killing his brother and left Quantrell behind, believing he too was dead. Quantrell survived and from that moment forward he vowed to avenge his brother. Until his death years later, he did not stop. The Civil War provided Quantrell with the vehicle to vent his avenging anger. He proceeded to kill, with very few exceptions, every Union soldier and specially, every Kansan he could lay hands on. A man possessed of extreme determination and luck, Quantrell managed to stay one step ahead of Union forces. On one occasion, more than twenty Federals trapped Chas inside a house with eight members of his band. They managed to overcome the odds and their enemies, killing all of them. Believing to be part of the Confederate Army, Quantrell took council on whether to surrender or not after the war. Most of his men did, but a small group stayed with him to continue their unrestricted warfare against the Union. Moving through Kentucky on his way to Maryland, he was surprised by a detachment of soldiers. After an intense exchange of fire, two of Quantrell's men were killed and he critically wounded. The lone survivor escaped. Several days later, Quantrell was moved to a military hospital in Louisville where he died two days later. A similar ending befell John Hunt Morgan. John Hunt Morgan began his military career in the calm summer days of 1857 when he organized the Lexington Rifles. A social organization devoted to military drills and parades, it became the First Kentucky Cavalry at the beginning of hostilities under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnston. Morgan's first taste of combat came during the battle of Shiloh. His company arrived when the fighting was almost over and served as the rear guard for a retreating Confederate force. After Shiloh, he would not participate in another major battle again.(17)

The reason for Morgan's non-participation in any other major battle was his change in tactics. Granted permission and financial aid by General Beauregard, Morgan headed to Kentucky on the first of his five raids into the Bluegrass state. His aim was two fold: to recruit Kentuckians and to create havoc in Union armies. The method employed by Morgan to accomplish that destructive scenario differed greatly from Quantrell's. Morgan concentrated on the destruction of railroads, bridges, tunnels, and trains. He also commandeered Federal supplies, which always included horses. In contrast to Quantrell, Morgan took Federal prisoners whom he sent south to prison camps. As a result of his success, Jefferson Davis promoted him to the rank of Brigadier General and his second in command, Basil Duke, to full Colonel. He had reached the pinnacle of his career. By the summer of 1863, slightly over six months from his promotion, Morgan and most of his officers found themselves behind bars in Ohio. He had surrendered scarcely sixty miles from Lake Erie. Governor David Tod of Ohio insisted they were civil prisoners and treated them as such. Their only course of action was to escape, which was accomplished in November. Despite a $5000 reward for his capture, Morgan made it safely to South Carolina were his family was now residing.(18) Early in January 1864, he rode triumphantly into Richmond, Virginia. The friendly, warm reception granted by the people of Richmond differed greatly from the one received from the Confederate High Command. By disobeying orders from Bragg not to cross into Northern territory, he now got the cold shoulder. He spent most of January trying to secure a new military position, but was turned down every time. He then tried his luck somewhere else. In Decatur, Georgia, Morgan's luck changed. There he established an independent company. By March he finally had convinced the War Department and was granted command of the Department of South Western Virginia. On the last day in May, he sent a message to the War Department telling them of his plan to raid into Kentucky and bring back horses. Long before the message arrived in Richmond, Morgan was on his last raid to Kentucky.(19)

This raid proved to be the most controversial. His men resorted to pillaging and burning, attacking the civilian population, acts that were kept to a minimum before. The raid also proved to be a failure, capturing not a single horse. On his way back to Virginia, he stopped in Greenville, Tennessee. There, surprised by the Thirteenth Tennessee Union Cavalry and fired upon while attempting to surrender, Morgan died instantly. He was buried in Richmond and three years after the war, his remains were taken back to his native Kentucky for a final resting place.(20) Partisan leaders did not always end so tragically. John Singleton Mosby proved the exception. Mosby became the most famous and legendary figure of Partisan warfare during the Civil War. His flair for the dramatic and appearance was unsurpassed. A simple man before the war, the conflict elevated him to heights that served him throughout his life. Born a delicate child (to a moderate aristocratic family), he suffered from chronic pulmonary illness. He spent his school years at the mercy of other students. Mosby had few friends and spent most of his time reading the classics. As a result, he developed a strong, hardheaded character. While attending the University of Virginia he shot a fellow student after an argument and was sent to prison. Thanks to the help of his parents, he was paroled. Before the start of the War Between the States, Mosby opposed secession, but he joined the Washington Mounted Rifles, a company being organized to defend Virginia. That became Mosby's resolve to enlist in the Confederate Army, to fight for his home state. Mosby began his partisan career as an independent scout for JEB Stuart. He infiltrated within Union camps and kept Stuart informed of the whereabouts and conditions of the Federal Army in the area. A man bored by inactivity he suggested to Stuart to leave him nine men for a few days of raids in 1863. His life as a partisan ranger finally arrived. His adventures have become legendary. Of all of them, three stand out as classic Mosby. Penetrating the vast Union camp in Fairfax Court House, he headed to the tent of Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton and with his sword, whacked him on the rump and pulled him from bed. He proceeded to take his prisoner together with two captains and thirty regular soldiers.(21)

Stoughton's military career was ruined thereafter. On another occasion, he single-handedly captured a whole company of Federal cavalry simply by riding up to them, demanding their surrender at the point of his pistols, and shouting, "Charge 'em boys!" "Charge 'em!" to imaginary followers behind him. This was the highlight of his celebrated feat of ascertaining the position of McClellan's army by riding completely around it.(22) The other classic Mosby antic occurred at the end of December 1864. Dressed in a gallant uniform with the rank of lieutenant colonel, Mosby was surprised in the house of a farmer while celebrating the wedding of his ordnance sergeant. The Federals entered the room, and he placed his hands on his collar to conceal the stars. A few minutes later firing erupted in the backyard. One bullet came through the window and struck him in the stomach. The bullet created only a stinging sensation, but it managed to bleed. As the wound was bleeding profusely, Mosby pretended to be dying. A Federal doctor examined it and pronounced the injury as being mortal. Later, according to Mosby, the Federals had had a good deal of liquor. The soldiers left and Mosby was carried to a neighbor's house two miles away. A few days later, the Federals discovered that the wounded man was Mosby, too late to find him. A report released by the Union declared Mosby as dead, an idea the Confederates were careful to advocate.(23)

By April 1865, Mosby's adventures seem to come to an end. General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, but Mosby continued hiding in the Virginia waste fields. A $5000 reward was placed upon his head. Finally, on June 17, accompanied by his brother, Mosby surrendered in Lynchburg. His career as a ranger had ended. After the war he became council in Hong Kong, worked in the U. S. Department of Interior and Justice and died appropriately on Memorial Day, 1916. Fighting on a different level from the regular soldiers, these rangers and guerrillas became a weapon difficult to deal with. Created by the Confederate government and later abandoned, with a sole exception; and pursued as criminals by the Union with hardly any distinction, they thrived. Their success under adverse conditions can be explained by the extraordinary personalities that lead them: William Clarke Quantrell, John Hunt Morgan and John Singleton Mosby.

Notes: 1-James A. Ramage, "Gray Ghost- The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby", pg. 190-191

2- J. P. Burch, "Why the Quantrell guerrillas were organized", "The True Story of Chas W Quantrell", pg. 26

3- Edison H. Thomas, "John Hunt Morgan and his Raiders", chap. 1 and 2, 2-3, 19-20.

4- W. H. Taylor, Special Order No. 82, March 23, 1863 ibid. vol. 51, part 2, 688.

5- Kevin H. Siepel, "Fox in the Henhouse", "The Life and Times of John Singleton Mosby", 77-83.

6- J. P. Burch, "Lawrance Massacre", "The True Story of Chas W Quantrell", 150-151.

7- Edison H. Thomas, "John Hunt Morgan and His Raiders", chapter 7, 81-82.

8- Kevin H. Siepel, "Firestorm", "The Life and Times of John Singleton Mosby", 125-126.

9- Edison H. Thomas, "John Hunt Morgan and His Raiders", chapter 5, 46-54.

10- ibid. chapter 6, 86-93

11- ibid. chapter 6, 86-93

12- John Esten Cooke, "Mosby", "Wearing of the Gray", 104.

13- Michael Fellman, "Official Confederate Policy", "Inside War". 99

14- ibid. 99

15- ibid. 99

16- ibid. 100

17- Edison H. Thomas, "John Hunt Morgan and His Raiders", chapter 3, 29.

18- ibid. chapter 8, 86

19- ibid. chapter 9, 94

20- ibid. chapter 10, 102

21- Edmund Wilson, "John S. Mosby", "Patriotic Gore", 316

22- ibid. 316

23- ibid. 317-318 Bibliography Burch, J. P. "A True Story of Chas W. Quantrell", Vega, Texas 1923 Cooke, John Esten. "Wearing of the Gray." New York: Kraus Reprint Co, 1969 Fellman, Michael. "Inside War: The guerrilla conflict in Missouri during the American Civil War." New York: Oxford University Press, 1989 Ramage, James A. "Gray Ghost- The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby." Lexington, Ky. The University Press of Kentucky, 1999 Siepel, Kevin H. "Rebel: The Life and Times of John Singleton Mosby" New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983 Thomas, Edison H. "John Hunt Morgan and His Raiders". Lexington, KY. The University Press of Kentucky, 1975 Wilson, Edmund. "Patriotic Gore: Studies in the literature of the American Civil War". New York: Oxford University Press, 1962

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