Partisan Rangers And Cavalry Raiders

A combination of mobility, disinformation campaigns, knowledge of terrain, and aggressiveness were the keys to success for partisan rangers and cavalry raiders alike.

Partisan rangers used many of the same tactics as guerrillas, but since they generally constituted larger forces they also employed small-scale battle tactics. Their adversaries tended to outnumber them, so partisans only gave battle at a time and place of their own choosing. Most bands avoided direct fights with equal or greater forces, yet fought smaller detachments as often as was practicable, because a high degree of activity behind Federal lines drew Union forces away from the main campaigns.

Colonel Joseph C. Porter of Missouri suffered for failing to follow this practice. His force, which rarely numbered more than a couple of hundred, was too small and ill-trained to sustain constant campaigning. As he recruited in northern Missouri in the summer of 1862 his numbers swelled to 2,000, but they were mostly unarmed farmers who he wanted to get south to Arkansas so they could join the Confederate army. Union forces ran his band to ground in a series of engagements that decimated and scattered it.

An important weapon in the partisan's arsenal was misinformation, often with the aid of sympathetic civilians. "Swamp Fox" Thompson liked to spread the rumor that he planned to attack a fort when he was really leaving the area; with the Union troops barricaded inside awaiting an attack, he could move away unmolested. Other leaders used civilians to exaggerate their numbers to local Union militia to discourage them from attacking; conversely, if they wanted to fight they would have their civilian helpers play down their numbers to give Union soldiers a false sense of security. Morgan had an even better resource: George "Lightning" Ellsworth, a telegraph operator who tapped into Union lines and was so skilled that he could imitate the distinctive "fist" of individual Federal operators (see Plate E). After listening in for a time to discover Union plans, he would then send fake orders and reports, or reroute trains of reinforcements out of harm's way.

Partisan rangers survived because they remained constantly on the move. Such long rides were exceedingly wearing on the men, who would tie themselves to the saddle and sleep in relays, with others making sure they did nor drop out of line (horses will generally follow other horses, but a sleeping rider can unconsciously pull on the reins and make the horse stop or move away.) Partisans took care to avoid being tracked, and crossing heavily-patrolled railroads posed special hazards. Horsemen usually crossed the track singly, spaced at least 40 feet apart along its length so that their

An impression of Mosby's men keeping a rendezvous at the Blue Ridge pass, Shenandoah Valley. With their intimate knowledge of the land, raiders could scatter and regroup in rough terrain under cover of darkness, when regular Union troops risked getting disorganized, lost, or ambushed. (LoC}

Images Brice Crossroads

hoofprints were less noticeable and, even if seen, might be mistaken for farmers or stray horses rather than a large body of men. Another trick, used when riding through the woods and needing to cross a dirt road, was to lay blankets across it first to prevent leaving a clear trail. If the Union presence grew too strong the commander of a small local partisan company might disband, sending each man home until called up again; some individuals acred as guerrillas in the meantime.

Partisans generally operated in small mounted detachments, and while Mosby commanded more men he usually split his command into groups of not more than 30 men led by a trusted officer, each group with a specific goal. This was especially suited to western Virginia, which had densely wooded hills and mountains offering easy shelter but also good roads, making travel easy. The Union army had been fighting guerrillas in Mosby's area of operations for two years before he arrived; constant attacks on the railroad had forced the Federals to construct blockhouses at key bridges and stations, and provide armored rolling-stock to protect trains and work-crews. These worked well against untrained guerrillas, but Mosby's expert intelligence-gathering found gaps in the defenses. The Union could not afford to armor all the trains, and Mosby could always find a stretch of defenseless track or an unwary patrol to pounce upon.

As in Arkansas and Missouri, Union commanders in western and northern Virginia took their frustration out on the local populace, burning homes and even executing suspected informants. The destruction reached its peak during Gen l'hilip Sheridan's 1864 Shenandoah campaign when, after pushing Jubal Early out of the Valley, Sheridan pulled back north, burning everything as he went. While historians have often said this was to deny Lee's Army of Northern Virginia food supplies, Sheridan's own stated purpose was to destroy the guerrillas' means of subsistence. This had failed in Arkansas, and it failed here; enraged guerrillas redoubled their efforts, joined by civilians who now had nothing to lose.

A relatively successful measure was the creation of specialized counterinsurgency units along the lines of the 1st Arkansas Cavalry, the best of which was Capt Richard Blazer's Independent Scouts. This small unit of elite troopers, armed with seven-shot Spencer repeaters, spent much of 1864 chasing Mosby. They treated civilians and prisoners leniently to gain their


Confederate BrigGen John Hunt Morgan's most valuable raider was probably a Canadian named George "Lightning" Ellsworth, who expertly tapped into Union telegraph lines. This not only allowed him to pick up Union message traffic, but also to send deceptive messages exaggerating Morgan's numbers, giving false reports of his movements, and even creating phantom armies. Each telegraph operator had a distinctive "fist," his own way of sending Morse code that others would recognize like an individual voice. Ellsworth was an expert at imitating them, thus fooling Union telegraph operators into thinking they were communicating with colleagues they had known for years. One explanation for "Lightning's" nickname was that he once did his wiretapping trickduring a thunderstorm, and miraculously avoided getting struck by lightning.

1: Ellsworth is shown wearing civilian clothing and boots fitted with logger's crampons to help him climb the pole. The portable hand telegraph key was used by both armies; here Ellsworth is employing the simplest method, hooking a wire from a terminal of his key to the uninsulated cable, with a second wire from the other terminal acting as a ground (earth.) More secure results were obtained by using both wires from the key to bridge across a cut in the cable. 2: BrigGen Morgan, and

3: his brother-in-law, Col 8asil Duke, wear typical uniforms of Confederate cavalry officers; black ostrich-feather hat plumes were extremely popular. They carry Colt Navy revolvers, considered by Morgan to be far more useful than cavalry carbines, though his men also carried rifle-muskets so that they could fight as infantry.

Colt Revolver Rough Rider

confidence, and often wore Confederate uniforms or civilian clothing; in sum, they acted like the partisans they sought to defeat. Mosby found Blazer a continual thorn in his side, losing many men to his attacks, until one of his officers finally surprised Blazer's camp. Mosby's men outnumbered Blazer's two-to-one, and closed in quickly before the Federals' repeaters could be brought to bear. Blazer's command was destroyed and he himself was taken prisoner, but his success led to the creation of more counterinsurgency units.

In the Western theater, Morgan and Forrest worked in larger groups to conduct major raids. Morgan preferred to gain the enemy's rear as quickly as possible in order to avoid getting bogged down in fights with numerous combat-ready frontline troops. He would then send detachments out to his flanks to burn bridges and wreck rails to slow pursuit; these groups avoided large enemy groups or any fortification that withstood an initial artillery bombardment. The main body would then hit the prime objective, and the entire force would retreat to friendly lines, avoiding any engagement for fear of being slowed down. John McNeill had a similar philosophy for his much smaller force, summed up simply as "find a way out before going in." Forrest had a liking for double-envelopment attacks, his best being at Brice's Crossroads (detailed in Plates F & G). While Morgan often avoided fights for the sake of speed, Forrest preferred to keep his troopers constantly fighting detachments and outposts, to "keep up the skeer." His most famous line - "get there first with the most men" - summed up standard operating procedure among cavalry raiders, although few perfected it as he did.

Raiders usually sent scouts in civilian clothing out in advance to check road conditions, river levels, and troop dispositions. On the march the scouts would stay several miles ahead of the army, with one or two companies riding as advance guard about half a mile ahead of the main body. Then came the main force, with any wagons or artillery in the center to protect them and

While guerrillas often sniped at supply trains, partisan rangers such as Mosby's men were more successful at capturing them due to their greater numbers and better discipline. The raiders would hit the extended column at a single point, gaining a local Superiority of firepower; they then looted what they could carry, destroyed what they could not, and moved out before the defenders could organize an effective counterattack. [Frank Leslie's lllus tra ted Newspaper)

keep tliem accessible; flankers and a strong rearguard completed the marching order. The rate of march averaged about 3mph, with a break of about ten minutes per hour if the situation permitted. The gait would often be changed from trot to canter or even short gallops in order to keep the horses from getting worn down by repetitive motion.

While the most famous raiders were on the Confederate side, the Union eventually learned to imitate their tactics. In April 1863, Col Benjamin Grierson supported Grant's advance on Vicksburg by raiding with 1,700 troopers through Mississippi, starting from Tennessee and ending up in Union-held Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His main objective was Mississippi's railroads, critical to supplying Vicksburg. To elude pursuit he sent numerous detachments to wreak havoc in various directions, so confusing Mississippi's Home Guard that by the end of the raid the Confederate command simply had no idea where Grierson was or how many men he had. Like many of his Rebel counterparts, Grierson was not averse to dressing his scouts in civilian clothing or enemy uniforms. By far the largest cavalry raid of the war was a Union operation, when in the spring of 1865 the 27-year-old MajGen James Wilson led an entire cavalry corps of almost 14,000 men through northern Alabama and into Georgia, destroying industry in this previously untouched region. Wilson outmaneuvered and outfought Nathan Bedford Forrest and captured the fleeing President Jefferson Davis; his success was largely due to imitating Forrest in having a mobile force unencumbered by a large wagon train, and carrying serious firepower - in his case, Spencer repeaters.

Partisan rangers varied their activities depending on the local terrain. Two bands operating on the Mississippi near Memphis, Tennessee, led by Capts James McGhee and Joseph Barton, were composed mainly of boatmen, and specialized in attacking Union shipping. In early 1863 McGhee's group captured and burned three steamers and sank 12 coal barges, and their attack on the

Mounted Cavalry

Hit-and-run tactics were not always successful. A quick and determined counterattack, or an effective pursuit by well-mounted cavalry, could turn the tables, and if the raiders took too much booty with them they were as encumbered as regular soldiers. {Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper)

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