Were there Union and Confederate Irregulars in the Civil War?
by Gordon Thorsby
Colonel John S. Mosby, C.S.A.
In the recent years, there has been a burgeoning historiography on the irregular fighting that went on during the Civil War. The Confederacy covered an expansive territory including wide spaces of Arkansas and Missouri and less populated areas of northern Louisiana and Mississippi. It was in such places that the use of irregular fighting became the standard.
There were the irregulars of Mosby, Morgan and Forrest from the South along with others. Were there Union irregulars? Many argue that the Union military did not utilize them. This has room for question.
Irregular military fighting organization and fighting is a slippery term that can be misconstrued. Let’s attempt to define it better. By definition, what is irregular fighting? The dictionary defines it in vaguely as any non-standard military. Others supplement the definition as irregular warfare causing the diversion of troops. Example: Confederate irregulars could help negate the inherent numerical superiority held by Union armies. Another defines it as, “an irregular military organization is a military organization which is not part of the regular army organization" or part of combined effort in a specific military conflict. Irregulars performed military duties and often disobeyed military authority. They were independent. Another described it as the military performing "how" and "what," and added one more objective focusing on a unit's "why". These irregulars often performed scouting, harassing, and ambushing better than regular units that increased the need for such organizations. The use and the definition debate rages depending on who's side one views it.
The South possessed a talent to develop and utilize irregulars. Col. John S. Mosby’s 43rd Virginia Cavalry was considered an irregular cavalry and critical to the operations for Richmond, General R.E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virgina. Mosby's methods were achieved by launching small unit operations of ten to twenty men, striking fast, and then disappearing into the farms of the area. Could his operations meet more a definition of guerilla tactics or irregular fighting?
Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s division of Western Theater Cavalry made arguably the most famous irregular raids destroying supply lines and monopolizing thousands of Union troops trying to catch up with him. He kept thousands from use in front line campaigns against the Army of Tennessee (AOT). However, in 1862 he was under army direction and fought organized Union cavalry in actions. Wasn't Morgan therefore a regular organization?
Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest executed some dashing irregular raids in western Tennessee in1862 and later. He also commanded infantry and cavalry in 1863 and beyond so was Forrest and his organization irregular or regular?
Brig. Gen Albert Jenkin's brigade operated was a regular unit as part of the Army of Northern Virginia. However, to Lee and Cavalry cavalier J.E.B. Stuart, Jenkin's brigade was considered a bunch of irregulars. Jenkins performed excellently when called upon, but despite his efforts, his brigade was undependable and was poorly utilized in the Gettysburg campaign.
There were other units in the trans Mississippi that displayed similar functions. Irregular methods were necessary. What of Union irregulars? Could a force be regular one day and irregular anther depended on the mission? Does this expand the term of Irregular forces?
Advent of Union Irregulars
Union generals in the field and the administration in Washington struggled to address the whack-a-mo problems that irregular style fighting monopolized resources. The best solution seemed to be the development of units that exhibited similar traits. The difference was that Union irregulars were often called on to transition from regular for one situation, then to irregular for another situation. Union irregulars were utilized in two situations, 1) to deal with irregulars and 2), to generally destroy in quick hitting in high mobility.
The Stoneman Raid of 1865. William Palmer of Kentucky, John Miller of Michigan and Division commander Gen. Alvan Gillem were commanders of it, but it wasn't Palmer’s or Gillem’s first experience to irregular fighting methods. Palmer was the commander of the District of Kentucky and had to deal with guerilla activity. Gillem had experience fighting irregulars and guerillas in eastern Tennessee. Stoneman’s raid never met any considerable force or unit or as a part of any other general campaign. Their targets were military support resources and government entities and along the way resorted to some uncontrolled looting and pillaging.
James M. Lane and his "Jayhawkers" a.k.a. "Red Legs" composed of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Kansas Volunteers cut a swath of destruction along the Kansas-Missouri border. The unit acted under direct orders and destroyed everything they crossed. They also were uncontrolled in pillaging along the way.
Alfred Ellet’s Mississippi Marine Brigade was recruited to combat guerilla units and cut Confederate supply lines along the Mississippi River. A unique organization in military history, it cruised the Mississippi pouncing on Confederate resistance as a quick reaction force and destroyed Confederate supply resources. It also displayed other irregular tendencies looted cotton on plantations. Federal authorities brought the organization to an eventual end because of its actions.
Were there other irregular Federal forces that resembled Forrest's or Morgan' forces at some point? Possibly, and there is debate as to some of them. Could William T. Sherman's Army in Georgia and the Carolinas might be considered as irregulars? Probably not? Most destruction was performed by ragtag groups and individuals while foraging within the force. Pillaging was not condoned but hotly debated. What about Sheridan’s Valley Campaign? He did have to fight Gen. Jubal Early’s Corps during most of the fall but burned most of the Shenandoah Valley in the process. These questions are open to considerable debate and It depends on one's point of view.
The problems with irregulars whether North or South is that they became increasingly uncontrollable. Conventional military officers on both sides considered irregulars as unreliable, and prone to committing atrocities. Washington and Richmond were conflicted since they condemned actions and yet positively confirmed their results.
The bottom line might be that Irregular forces were limited early in the war, but as it progressed, entire regions became irregular. The war devolved down a slippery slope where the line of acceptability became harder to define. The political and classical military powers preferred not to go there and they drew back from the "cliff" and decided to bring the country together.
The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865. Fisher, Noel, published by LSU Digital Commons, 2005.
The 1865 Stoneman's Raid, Follow Him to the Ends of the Earth, by Blackwell, Joshua Beau, History Press, 2005.
Sherman's March Through the Carolinas, by Barrett, John G. University of North Carolina Press, 1956.
"We Had to Burn Out the Entire County: Irregular Warfare in the American Civil War and its Modern Implications," Christian B. Keller and Paul C. Jussel, 08/13/2015.
"Fickle Allies: Regular and Irregular Confederate Forces in Missouri during the American Civil War," by Welborn Scott D., 5/22/15, https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/citations/ADA612148.
Plenty of Blame to Go Around, by Wittenberg, Eric J. and Petruzzi, J. David, Savas Beatie, 2019.