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Posted on Jun 3, 2005 in Books and Movies

The UNcivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861 – 1865 – Book Review

By Richard N Story

The UNcivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861 – 1865
Robert R. Mackey
Oklahoma University Press, Hardcover, 2004

Many people consider the American Civil War to be the last true romantic war where soldiers on both sides fought with gallantry and extended every courtesy to his opponent and the civilians caught up in the war. This was true in many instances, but like all wars, the American Civil War could be as brutish for the combatants as any modern conflict. One of the nastier aspects was the irregular war conducted by the Confederates States, and the responses by the Federal Government. The types of irregular warfare have always been misunderstood and often ignored in the analytical writings of the war. LTC (lieutenant colonel) Mackey not only applies a modern appreciation of the warfare he examines, but also places it in the proper historical context.


The author opens the book with an historical review of the theory and practices that were in use with irregular warfare at the time of the American Civil War. LTC Mackey notes that irregular warfare can be broken down into three types. The first and least organized, and one most open to sheer banditry, was guerilla warfare. Today guerilla warfare is most associated with national uprisings, but in this area that was a totally foreign concept. The Civil War guerilla was defined as a band of individuals fighting without direct support or leadership of the military, or leadership of the Confederate Army. Today we know these formations as bushwhackers or marauders. The next type of irregular warrior was the partisan ranger. The partisan rangers were raised by individuals and acted as irregular warriors, but were closely linked to the field armies and officeres appointed by the legal government. The most famous of the partisan rangers was John Singleton Mosby. The last type of irregular warfare was the cavalry deep-raiding, which was regular cavalry detached from the field armies to raid deep into the enemy’s rear. The best Confederate raiders were Generals John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest. With the theory and practices now laid down for the reader, LTC Mackey then begins an analysis of the three types of warfare with a simple question: Why didn’t the Confederates make greater use of irregular warfare?

It was in Arkansas that, arguably, the Confederates lost the war. With the Confederate armies shattered, the Confederate States of America lost control of the upper Mississippi river. To prevent the Union army from gaining all of Arkansas and upper Louisiana, General Hindman issued the ‘Bands of Ten’ orders which called for the creation of irregular units to slow the Federal armies. The orders stated that each group with at least 10 men could elect a captain, sergeant, and corporal, and begin to raid without waiting for specific instructions from the headquarters. Also, as an afterthought, the orders tossed in a tidbit that they could draw pay and supplies when allowable, and that the Captains should report in from time to time with headquarters. Not surprisingly with such a loose coupling between the legal government and the Bands of Ten, it was not long before the raiders took to attacking civilians on both the Confederate and Federal side. The Federal response would not be a surprise to any modern student of irregular warfare. Reprisals and relocation of civilians as well as special anti-guerilla units were used to combat the bushwhackers. While it is true the bushwhackers did slow the invading Federal army, in the end they were so dangerous to everyone that both the Federal army and Confederate army had to hunt down and eliminate the guerilla units.

John Singleton Mosby was without doubt the best partisan ranger leader of the war. The areas of Virginia, and what is now West Virginia, was known as ‘Mosby’s Confederacy’ because of his ability to operate behind enemy lines with seeming impunity, and for bringing the rule of law to the areas he operated in. Mosby operated under the direction and control of the Confederate authorities which gave him legal protection and rights and most notably legitimacy in the eyes of the civilian population. Mosby’s men served because, like privateers, booty seized during the campaign would be apportioned and he would receive a share. Mosby was not driven from the field prior to 1865 because the Federal authorities failed to recognize and understand they were not dealing with a guerilla band, but a partisan ranger outfit. It was not till Sheridan’s march through the Shenandoah Valley in perhaps the greatest anti-partisan operation of the war that Mosby’s reign behind enemy lines ceased. Perhaps the truest thing that can be said for the irregular warfare in Virginia is that despite all the success that Mosby had, his unit did not materially affect the Federal army and hence was a strategic failure.

Unfortunately for the Confederates, the Federal forces in Tennessee and Kentucky learned and adapted to the ways of irregular warfare. John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest operated early and with great success. These successes also raised great hopes for the cavalry raiders. Unfortunately, the bad will between Morgan and Forrest, and the increasingly sophisticated defenses by the Federal forces wore down the raiders and forced them to return to regular cavalry service. LTC Mackey takes great care to show how the Federal forces adapted and learned from experience and won the fight in Tennessee and Kentucky.

LTC Mackey’s analysis of the irregular warfare in the upper south convincingly proved that all three types of irregular warfare were failures. Except for the President of the Confederacy, almost all the other leaders had studied the results and had no confidence in irregular warfare. So the reason the Confederates did not employ irregular warfare more could be summed up in two reasons:

1) It did not work.

2) It burdened the civilian population more than the enemy.

Technically speaking, the book is nearly flawless. I encountered only one major typographical error, and the book is free of any grammatical errors as well. The writing is a technical analysis rather than popular history, and therefore discusses the issues with a scientific manner rather than a more entertaining style. The book is a good read, despite the occasional redundancy or bogging down once or twice in the theoretical discussions of irregular warfare. The only problem in the writing is that, as the author admits, the manuscript went from a 500 page doorstop to the final 288 pages and, in my opinion, the condensing of the material lead to the redundancies. Based on a research paper for the United States Army School of Advanced Military Studies, the book is well supported by sources both from official records as well as popular histories and first-person sources. The illustrations are chosen to best highlight the subjects being illustrated, and one map in particular brought home the true nature of the Anaconda Plan. This book is what I like to call a ‘two bookmark book’. One bookmark to keep your place in your reading, and the second to mark your place in the end-notes where some very good information is hiding that is relative to the discussion. Listed at $34.95, The UNcivil War is a mid-range priced book, but is good value for anybody seeking a technical analysis of why the Confederate States of American failed in it’s usage of irregular warfare. Highly recommended for any student of the American Civil War.