Author: Daniel E. Sutherland

professor of history at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

Guerrilla Warfare in Virginia during the Civil War

Although guerrilla warfare did not ravage Virginia to the extent that it did some other Confederate states during the American Civil War (1861–1865), nevertheless it did play a significant role in shaping the nature of the conflict. Guerrilla fighters, by definition, are combatants who operate outside the formal constraints of the military and, therefore, outside the laws of war. In Virginia, guerrillas took up arms as a natural response to Union invasion—especially where conventional Confederate troops were too few or too distant to oppose the enemy—and as a favored means of intimidating perceived enemies within small, usually rural, communities. What resulted, first in Unionist northwestern Virginia and then in Confederate Virginia, was often a “neighborhood” war, where residents brutally fought one another, rather than outsiders, for local control. Partisan leaders such as John D. Imboden and John Singleton Mosby made names for themselves, the latter described as having “danced on the nerves of opponents where they were most vulnerable.” At times, however, the conflict’s violence, which sometimes included terrorist tactics directed at civilians, seemed to rage out of control and alarmed Confederate authorities. Where the authorities had once encouraged the guerrillas, by 1862 they sought to bring them under Confederate control, creating sanctioned “partisan rangers.” Efforts to rein in the guerrilla fighters were only partially successful.


Culpeper County during the Civil War

With a population of 12,063, Culpeper was the forty-seventh largest of Virginia’s 148 counties in 1860. More than half of that population was African American, including 6,675 slaves. The majority of citizens in this prosperous community—its principal commercial crop being wheat—had wished to avoid war. The county voted by a margin of one vote for John Bell and the Constitutional Union party over John C. Breckinridge and the Southern Democrats in the U.S. presidential election of 1860. Like most of Virginia, however, Culpeper endorsed secession on May 23, 1861, a month after U.S. president Abraham Lincoln called on the state for volunteers to put down the rebellion. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), the men of Culpeper served most prominently in five Confederate regiments: the 7th, 11th, and 13th Virginia Infantry, and the 4th and 6th Virginia Cavalry.