Reasons for Fighting as a Guerrilla in the Civil War – Part I

In the American Civil War, most notably in Missouri, the use of standard military tactics as a method of fighting was a far second place to that of guerrilla fighting. Why was this method of fighting preferred and what was the real reason behind it? Guerrilla warfare was actually the method used by the American patriots in the Revolutionary War. Few battles were fought in standard military fashion, and this was a major reason for the American victory – the British troops simply were not prepared to handle this type of warfare and believed the Americans to be fighting in and “ungentlemanly’ manner.

Author Bruce Nichols believes, in the case of the Civil War, that there were five primary motives – bitterness, anger, hope, desperation and excitement.

The first reason, bitterness, was probably the one that was primarily the main motivator, but is overlooked as a military reason and viewed more as the actions of criminals, which in many cases was true. Union Major General John M. Schofield stated that “…the bitter feelings between the border people, which feeling is the result of old feuds, and involves very little, if at all, the question of Union or disunion…” and there were plenty of examples of wrongdoings, or the notions of wrong doing, to push many men to care less about the state of the Union, but rather, how to enact retribution on this perceived wrong doing.

The perfect example is the collapse of the makeshift prison in Kansas City that housed female family members of Missouri bushwhackers. The prison collapsed under questionable circumstances, killing and maiming some of the women housed there. William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson lost one sister and had another one maimed and it is said this single event pushed him over the edge. He wrote in 1864, “I have chosen guerrilla warfare to revenge myself for wrongs I could not honorably avenge otherwise.” There was also instances of Union troops, some made up of Kansan “Red-Legs” who were enacting their own vengeance on the Missourians, burning, killing, and destroying farms and families that drove some Confederate soldiers to desert in order to return for vengeance as a guerrilla.

The second reason, anger, Nichols points out as being from some “tyranny real or imagined” and points to things such as the suspension of civil rights, occupation of the state, extremism of abolitionists, the emotional issue of slavery, raids on Missourians by Kansas Jayhawkers, the use of German immigrants, the Federal government calling for a draft, and finally, sensational southern press and it’s censoring by the Union authorities.

In Part II, we’ll continue with the other three motivating reasons: hope, desperation and excitement.

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