Partisans made Shenandoah dangerous

Irregulars: In the heart of the Appalachians, a savage underground war raged among neighbors on the fringes of the organized armies and great battles such as Cedar Creek.

October 12, 2003|By Darl L. Stephenson | Darl L. Stephenson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Most Americans know the Civil War best for the great battles such as Gettysburg and Antietam.

These pitched battles were fought by organized armies using the tactics of Napoleon and other masters of war. A code of conduct in the armies prevented, despite the fierce combat, large-scale atrocities in the aftermath of conflict.

However, there was another Civil War. It was the war of neighbor against neighbor, often fought in dark mountain pathways and glens where the flash of a hidden rifle would strike down the enemy.

This war of irregulars, or partisans, raged in areas such as western Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri. It was particularly prevalent in areas under Union control where the South had few organized forces to oppose Northern power.

But it also raged all along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains deep into the heart of the Confederacy, where mountain people who owned no slaves opposed Confederate forces that tried to conscript men or impose Confederate authority.

This Civil War was more like the contemporary conflicts in Bosnia or Afghanistan. Although often fought by small, organized units known as "home guards" -- which both sides used -- it was also characterized by bushwhacking, house burnings and lynching by individuals or small groups of men who were more bandits than soldiers.

The organized units -- with at least some discipline -- were best exemplified by the "partisan rangers" of the Confederacy.

The Partisan Ranger Law was written by John Scott on March 27, 1862, and approved April 21, 1862. This law called for the recruitment in Virginia of 10 to 20 companies of partisan rangers composed exclusively of men whose homes were in western Virginia, which was occupied by federal authorities.

The rangers operated for the most part independently but they also cooperated with regular Confederate forces when they were in the vicinity.

The partisan rangers had a checkered reputation. Although intended to provide protection against invading Northern armies, their actions often brought great hardship to Southerners as well.

The depredations of such bands were notorious.

The company known as the "Moccasin Rangers" became so lawless that even its founders deserted it. Eventually Gen. Robert E. Lee himself was forced to call for the disbanding of most such groups.

A notable exception was the command of Col. John Singleton Mosby in Northern Virginia, which the Confederate high command considered a different category from the more undisciplined groups.

The first of the partisan rangers who opposed (or terrorized, depending on your point of view) federal forces in the Shenandoah region was Brig. Gen. Turner Ashby.

Perhaps Ashby's death early in the war has only increased the romance surrounding him. But there is no doubt he ranks high in the pantheon of Confederate cavalry heroes.

He was a handsome man with dark hair and a full, long beard. He was a courageous soldier and a fine horseman, the perfect ideal of the chivalrous knight. Although he often worked in conjunction with the Confederate armies, his commission as captain of a hand-picked band of rangers gave him latitude to operate on his own to harass Union forces.

A short career

He would strike one target in the morning and before evening hit another Union outpost or isolated wagon train. His movements were so swift that the man himself seemed more of a myth than one mortal being.

The swift attacks at various points also made it seem as if more than one unit was inflicting all this damage.

Ashby would often make himself the target to draw Union forces into an ambush, making himself visible to his enemies, mounted on his superb white horse on a piece of chosen high ground.

Ashby met his fate at Harrisonburg, Va., on June 6, 1862, during Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's Valley Campaign.

The summer and fall of 1864 probably saw the height of partisan warfare in the Shenandoah region, especially with the exploits of Mosby.

Mosby had been an irritant to the Union command before this. But now the Valley was fairly crawling with Yankees, sent there under Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan to prevent the Shenandoah Valley from becoming the base of Confederate military operations against Washington and Union supply lines to the west.

Other Confederate partisans such as McNeill's Rangers and Lt. Col. Elijah Viers White's command also operated in the valley and surrounding region.

McNeill's Rangers would be most famous for capturing Brig. Gens. George Crook and Benjamin Kelley at Cumberland in February 1865. It was, however, Mosby's command, the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry, that would gain lasting fame as a guerrilla force to be reckoned with.

The "ubiquitous Mosby," as one newspaperman dubbed him, seemed to be everywhere and his operations were often spectacular.

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