Guerrillas and antiguerrillas

Guerrillas varied widely in their tactical ability. Most contented themselves with harassing civilians and sniping at small groups of enemy soldiers, while others developed a keen sense of tactics equal to that of any career officer.

The classic "bushwhack" was a simple yet effective ambush. One or more guerrillas concealed themselves in the undergrowth along a road, cutting a small hole in the greenery in the opposite direction from which the enemy would come; after the enemy passed, the guerrillas fired into their backs before slipping away. This forced Union troops to start patrolling in larger detachments, which used up manpower and limited the number of patrols. Troops crossing rivers at fords or on boats found themselves fired upon from the far bank, and the guerrillas would be long gone by the time the soldiers reached their position.

Guerrilla bands were especially effective at disrupting communications. Telegraph lines made easy targets, as did mail couriers, and in the worst areas entire companies had to escort a single courier. Exasperated Union officials sometimes forced known secessionist civilians to carry the mail, but this just encouraged them to join the guerrillas: they reasoned that if they were going to he shot at, they might as well be shot at by the enemy and not their own side. While couriers could be protected, the hundreds of miles of telegraph lines could not, and Union commanders had to resort to threats. The line from Springfield, Missouri, to Fort Smith, Arkansas, spent as much time down as up, so BrigGen John McNeil warned that he would hang a captured Bushwhacker wherever the line was cut, and the nearest house within ten miles would be burned if owned by a rebel sympathizer. Nor was river traffic safe from the guerrillas, who would snipe from the heavily forested riverbanks, forcing captains to add armor to their steamboats. If the guerrillas were lucky they might capture a boat as it lay moored at one of the many small river towns, stripping it of any supplies before sinking it.

While guerrillas often enjoyed superior firepower, the superior discipline of Federal troops usually carried the day if they got into an extended fight, and there are reports of the guerrillas retreating in the face of saber- and bayonet-charges. The rule among the guerrillas was to close quickly to bring their pistols to bear, and withdraw if they began taking serious casualties. It took some time for Union forces to wake up to the danger of guerrilla warfare, however. A year into the war, LtCol James Buel was supposed to be guarding Independence, one of the largest towns in western Missouri. He and his officers were billeted in various houses, while his troops had an unfortified camp on the outskirts of town. Despite the fact that the guerrillas raised a rebel flag in full view of the town Buel did nothing to concentrate his scattered troops, and was surprised by an early morning attack that wiped out his entire command.

Union officers in Missouri began to respond during the summer of 1862, when guerrillas had revealed a weakness during several failed attempts to take fortified buildings. Most western towns had a large brick courthouse in the middle of a wide square at the center of town; filling its windows with


Many Union garrisons discovered that the safest place in town was the courthouse, which tended to be a large brick structure in the center of an open square; the door could be barricaded and the widows fortified with logs or sandbags. Without artillery, it was very difficult to take such a building by storm, 1: In this imagined but oft-repeated scenario, Confederate guerriffas wearing Union uniforms get to the edge of town without being challenged. They open fire on the scattered Union sentries and anyone else bearing arms. As they ride around the streets firing into the air to intimidate the populace, Union soldiers retreat to the fortified courthouse, which has already been well stocked with rifles and ammunition.

2: The guerrillas surround the courthouse square and snipe at the garrison from windows and doorways. 3: One group try to rush the courthouse to either torch it or storm their way inside, but the defenders - knowing that they will not be treated as prisoners-of-war - refuse to surrender and drive off the attack.

4 & S: The frustrated guerrillas loot and burn stores, before riding off and disappearing into densely wooded country.

While courthouses proved difficult to take, their defenders could do little to help the inhabitants of the town. Guerrillas joked that the soldiers owned the courthouse, but they owned everything else.

Grand Texas

After guerrillas started sniping at river traffic, gunboats became essential for Union control of the waterways. The Fort Hindman was part of the Mississippi river fleet, and served In the Red River campaign; this civilian side-paddle steamer was converted for military use by the addition of iron plating and cannon, but even near the end of the war many boats were still armored with heavy timbers or even bales of cotton, as the need for gunboats far outstripped their production. Even iron plate could not protect them against cavalry raiders with artillery, or guerrillas who were lucky enough to pounce on them while they were moored; a number of boats changed hands more than once during the war. (LoC)

logs and sandbags made an instant fort with a commanding field of fire, virtually invulnerable to an attacking force that lacked cannon.

Union timber blockhouses usually proved equally resistant; yet the guerrillas often boasted that while the Yanks controlled the towns, they controlled everything else. Guerrillas tended to be locals who knew the best hideouts, the best places for ambush and all the back roads, and they could rely on friends and neighbors to supply and inform them. Union troops, on the other hand, were often from other states and had to rely on vague maps and local guides of dubious loyalty. The guerrillas rode the best horses they could steal, or fine steeds given to them by sympathetic locals. The Union troops, especially local militias, were indifferently mounted on government-issue horses or even mules, and could often be outrun and outmaneuvered.

The key was to remain unnoticed, and guerrillas would often camp deep in the woods or create special shelters. John McCorkle, a scout for Quantrill, related: "We then dug a pit or cave in the side of the hill and covered it with logs, old boards and brush, with a fireplace in the back with a chimney made of sticks and mud. This was a warm place to stay, but we cooked only at night for fear the Federals would locate us by the smoke from the camp." McCorkle went on to describe one of their secret rendezvous, which they called "the bull-pen":

This was situated in the dense woods about a mile from Cedar Creek. There were two ways of approaching the "bull-pen," one through the bottom and the other through the woods south of John Moore's farm. We never approached this camp together, nor left it together, always going separately in different directions, in this way leaving no trail and this camp never was discovered by the Federals until after the war.

Bull Bottom Farms Mississippi

Since defensive measures only diverted guerrilla attacks to softer targets, the Federals had to try to hunt them down. Large cavalry sweeps achieved little except sending the guerrillas into temporary hiding, so in some areas the Union command created special antiguerrilla units. The 1st Arkansas Cavalry Volunteers, raised from Unionist Arkansans with a deep hatred for the guerrillas who had brought anarchy to their state, ruthlessly hunted down and killed more than 200 of them, more than any other unit in Arkansas. They kept on constant patrol, bringing along howitzers to cow an enemy unaccustomed to facing artillery. At times these units won pitched battles against concentrations of up to 1,000 guerrillas united to defeat them. Like Union troops in other states they burned the homes of secessionists, but they also targeted gristmills because these were used as meeting grounds and supply depots for the guerrillas.

Less successful was BrigGen Alfred Ellet's Mississippi Marine Brigade, formed to eliminate the guerrillas who constantly harassed Union shipping, thus increasing costs and slowing deliveries. These 1,200 men, provided with eight troop transports, several other boats and a battery of 6-pdrs, chugged up and down the river between Memphis, Tennessee, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863. They targeted spots from which boats had been fired upon, searched for guerrillas and burned down the homes of local civilians for supposedly aiding them (on at least one occasion a Rebel guerrilla staged his attacks from a Unionist town in order to get the wrong civilians punished.) Ellet's men lacked the discipline of the 1st Arkansas, and failed to do more than add to the region's misery.


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