A Confederate Insurgency

It is difficult to imagine how a legitimate, sustained guerrilla campaign could have been undertaken by remnants of the defeated Confederate army after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. It is true that irregulars fighting for the Southern cause had scored some moderate successes throughout the war, perhaps most notably in Missouri, which was wracked with partisan bloodshed across the state.[1] Farther east, “Confederate guerrilla leader John S. Mosby and his troopers continued to be a constant thorn in Sheridan’s side” during the latter’s 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign.[2] But these successes were fairly isolated and dependent on numerous factors that would not have been present in a post-war insurgency.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to such a partisan campaign was the question of where to base and wage an insurgency. Many leading military thinkers of the nineteenth century believed that guerrilla warfare could only be successful in the mountains.[3] This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, especially in a rural region such as the American South. Indeed, perhaps the most successful guerrilla fighters of the last four decades have been those fighting in the forbidding terrain of Afghanistan. Without the benefit of large urban areas in which to blend into the civilian population, Confederate guerrillas would have been forced to seek shelter in the southern Appalachians. From the outset, therefore, those fighters would have been confined to a relatively small strip of territory. The issue then would have become one of local loyalties. Guerrillas need support from the population they are based in, and the upland regions of the Confederacy had been among the most Unionist areas in the South. With little room to maneuver and little support from the local population, Confederate guerrillas operating in the Appalachians would have had an uphill climb (no pun intended).

Another significant problem for Confederate partisans would have been coordination of such a campaign. Although the guerrillas who fought in Jackson County, Missouri, during the war were among the most successful, “there is little evidence that these guerrillas ever sought or had the capability to coordinate their efforts with similar uprisings in other parts of the state or other border states (notably Kentucky).”[4] Again calling on modern examples of insurgencies, the partisan fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq have access to all modern methods of communication, and they have been able to sustain global operations with a high degree of sophistication and coordination. In an era when telegraphs and railroads were still relatively cutting-edge technology, post-Civil War insurgents would have been very hard-pressed to mount or maintain a coordinated campaign.

Both of these issues could have been ameliorated with the presence of a regular Confederate army, which would have acted as a supply base and communications hub. Ultimately, this would have been the conundrum faced by those former Confederates contemplating a guerrilla campaign: with the regular armies defeated and disbanded, there was a need for partisans to carry on the fight; without a regular army to support them, the partisans could not have succeeded.


[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 784-8.

[2] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 309.

[3] Walter Laqueur, “The Origins of Guerrilla Doctrine,” Journal of Contemporary History 10, no. 3 (July 1975): 353, 373, http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?url=http://www.jstor.org/stable/260153

[4] Don R. Bowen, “Quantrill, James, Younger, et al.: Leadership in a Guerrilla Movement, Missouri, 1861-1865,” Military Affairs 41, no. 1 (February 1977): 42, http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy2.apus.edu/discover/10.2307/1987096?uid=3485568&uid=3739960&uid=2134&uid=2&uid=70&uid=3&uid=3485120&uid=67&uid=62&uid=3739256&sid=21101708660993.

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