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Tag: guerrillas (page 1 of 1)

Civil War Loyalty Tests on the Railroads

On July 12, 1864 an anonymous letter was forwarded to the military commander of the Union forces around Nashville, Tennessee, and then on to Colonel A. Anderson, the General Superintendent of the United States Military Railroad (U.S.M.R.R.) in that district. Because the U.S.M.R.R. was such an important link to General William T. Sherman’s army as it fought its way south and east toward Atlanta, and because southern guerrillas were constantly endangering the vulnerable rail lines, Anderson and his superiors could take no chances. He was directed to “have the loyalty of all his employees tested.”

Loyalty to the Union was declared through an oath and the swearer simply signed a statement, but the idea that loyalties were not only tested but also monitored in the Ciivl War is one that we have sometimes lost sight of. The boundaries between North and South seem to us so clear and incontrovertible that such measures would appear unnecessary. Yet, in the Civil War, especially in East Tennessee, the boundaries were blurred. Huge armies fought in the war, but at the local level the conflict was more personal.

The anonymous letter seemed to include plans for spying on the Union Army, and outlined the “best way to get to the rebels news.” Specifically, the recipient was directed to go to the “Huntsville Depot” and contact the letter writer’s mother. Because the Union  Provost Marshall boarded with her, she had never been denied a pass–or one for her friends. From there the spy was directed to go 7 miles where there “lives a woman who permits the rebels to go to and from her house at will.” 

He also provided directions on “how to save self when the guerrillas shoot into the Rail Road trains.” The man worked on the railroad and generally “knows when they [the guerrillas] are about.” Through signals and some advance warning, he knew when the attacks would occur. So, his protocol was to fill the engine furnace full of wood then lay down “behind the wood in such a way as to be safe.” Whenever he saw a guerrilla he recognized but does “not want to speak” for fear he would be exposed, he would shake his head.

Angry and tired of working on the railroad for the Union forces, this man expected to run off and join a Confederate cavalry unit. He cheered the work of the guerrillas, especially John Hunt Morgan, and was pleased to report that “there is scarce a nightbut what there are more less union men killed along the railroad.” As for the woman who provided the safe house for spies: “Mrs. Holman is a true woman of the Confederacy,” the man noted.  

The Union Army faced a significant counterinsurgency challenge in large parts of the Confederacy. The railroads, however, because of their size and complexity were run by thousands of civilians rather than controlled directly by military commanders. The railroads were quasi-military operations, necessary to control and manage but beyond the capacity or expertise of any given regimental officer. Few men in the Union Army needed loyalty testing, but the civilians associated with the railroads were another matter. So, the response to this intercepted communique to test the loyalty of the employees on the railroad was not unexpected, but the use of the rail system in war brought a new dimension of scale, reach, and vulnerability and made the conflict a more modern one. 

[The letter is from: National Archives and Records Administration, Letters Received by A. Anderson, Gen. Sup.  Record Group 92 subgroup 1674 Box 2.]

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.