On Terrorism, Guerrillas, and the American Civil War

When United Flight 93 crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, the battle for control of the plane’s cockpit became almost immediately an iconic scene for Americans. The bravery of the passengers prompted widespread sympathy, awe, and appreciation. The story of their close confrontation with the terrorists, their grasp of the wider situation developing on that day, and their patriotic rush to overpower the hijackers defined what appeared to be a new form of warfare, one in which citizens might play major roles in meeting the enemy, one where civilians stood on the front lines.

The roots of this type of warfare and the widely felt terror that accompanied it can be found in the American Civil War when southern guerrillas and partisans struck fear in the Northern public. Significantly, the setting for this citizens’ form of warfare was, and continues to be, an important aspect of the encounter with terror. After 9/11, of course, the setting for this violence seemed to be the confined quarters of an airplane. In the Civil War the setting was the cramped cars of the railroad. Both settings have inspired fear in large part because the machine had the potential to become the instrument of war, a hurtling bomb, incredibly dangerous and shockingly terrifying to its passengers. These spaces made people feel anonymous and the violence appear random, as well as starkly opposed to the order and efficiency of the machinery.

During the Civil War something about the tight space of the railroad car and the possibility of attacks instilled fear among the Northern public. When southern guerrillas attacked railroad cars, stripped the passengers of valuables, set fire to the trains, or shot captured men, Northern civilians all along the border appeared at risk in a new way. Soldiers too might be caught in these circumstances.

Ephraim C. Dawes, a 1st Lt., went into the South with the 53rd Ohio Infantry, fought at Shiloh in 1862, and guarded the Memphis and Chattanooga Railroad in 1863. His unit tracked southern guerrillas in Tennessee and Mississippi during these years. The destruction his army produced was something he tried to convey to his family members back in Ohio: “you don’t know what war is. You can’t appreciate it. Wait till an army overruns the country. till all the male population are in arms till your fences are all burned orchards and barns and chicken roosts robbed, Houses entered and valuables stolen–gardens wantonly destroyed and all manner of excesses committed–not so much by the army as by loose craracters [sic] taking advantage of the unsettled condition of affairs to enrich themselves at everybody else’ expense. It may be the worse picture but it is very like things in the West. Tenn. District.”

Dawes’ family in Ohio, however, seemed unconcerned about the escalating chaos afflicting southern civilians and instead worried much more about the mounting threat of guerrilla raids into Ohio and on unsuspecting Northern soldiers and civilians. Dawes tried to calm their fears: “you need not go crazy or trouble yourself at all if I should be captured by guerrillas as they were never known to hurt anybody. All they do is to capture a man, steal all he’s got about him, make him ride a mule bareback 40 or 50 miles parole him and let him make his way afoot to the nearest civilization.”

But the Northern fear of guerrillas could not be so easily set aside. We might consider the role of the new technology of the railroad and the telegraph in structuring those fears. When Confederate partisan rangers brought telegraphic signaling boxes on raids and took control of Northern-run trains and stations, the sophisticated machinery appeared vulnerable in a surprisingly new way.

Moreover, the modern, refined, and enclosed space of the railroad car was also especially important in shaping these fears. The campaign to counter the insurgency of the southern partisans and guerrillas took the Union army years to organize and understand, and it played out differently in Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, and Virginia. By October 1864, however, the guerrilla warfare and the counterinsurgency efforts of the Union Army had taken an unexpected turn. Union forces were using local Confederate civilians as human shields on the trains in Northern Virginia to prevent John S. Mosby’s men from attacking them. In Richmond the Confederacy’s leading newspaper editors were confident that Mosby would attack the trains anyway, even if he “knew that all who were dear to him were on a train.” They believed Mosby would not hesitate for a second “provided he were assured that the good of his country demanded the sacrifice.”

Such self-sacrifice and, indeed, the sacrifice of family, friends, and fellow citizens was tolerable, it seemed, in the service of the national cause. Northern newspapers routinely disparaged the Confederate guerrillas and partisans as lawless banditti, but Confederate newspapers just as vigorously defended them as legitimate forces in a modern struggle. Of course, the terms encompass a wide range of characters–from the elite and educated but ruthless Mosby to the vindictive and bloodthirsty William Quantrill whose raid on Lawrence, Kansas, indicated to many Northerners the madness and terror of guerrilla warfare.

Their actions, and especially the quite modern setting of their violence (and the fear it sparked), give us a different picture of the Civil War. The war encompassed types of violence well beyond the large-scale set piece battles we are familiar with, such as Gettysburg, and included forms of terror, hostage taking, random violence, and recrimination we have largely forgotten.

About William Thomas

William G. Thomas III is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities. He teaches digital humanities and digital history, 19th century U.S. history, the Civil War, and the history of slavery.
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