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.

Northwestern Virginia

Northwestern Virginia, which included what is now West Virginia, became the first part of the state to experience both types of guerrilla conflict: conflict aimed at outside invaders and conflict aimed at intimidating one’s neighbors. The northwest was home to Virginia’s largest concentration of Union sympathizers, and the struggle for political and economic control of its communities began in the spring of 1861. In places not immediately occupied by the Union army, these Unionists formed “guerrilla parties” to counter Confederate neighbors and defend, as one man put it, “our respective regions … as well as … the Union.” Among the first rival bands, operating in a cluster of counties north of Charleston, were the Confederate Moccasin Rangers and the Unionist Snake Hunters. Family and kinship often bound together many members of these bands, thus turning community tussles into something like clan warfare.

In the meantime, in the absence of any substantial number of Confederate soldiers, Confederate guerrillas also did what they could to slow the Union advance. Union troops, for their part, were determined to protect Unionist civilians in the region, to control the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and to block Confederate raids into Ohio and Pennsylvania. A measure of their frustration in achieving these goals may be seen in the harsh retaliatory measures taken against Confederate guerrillas by late in June of 1861. George B. McClellan, the Union commander in the region, announced that “marauding parties” would be treated according to the “severest rules of military law.” McClellan’s successor, William S. Rosecrans, hoping to stop the “neighborhood and private wars,” included civilian supporters of guerrillas in these proscriptions.

A standoff ensued in northwestern Virginia. Union troops became so desperate to control the rebels that they allowed Unionist guerrillas to arrest suspected enemies. They also organized Unionist volunteers into special counterguerrilla units. Company C, 11th (West) Virginia Infantry, for example, was assigned to break up the Moccasin Rangers. For their part, Confederate guerrillas, unable to hit military targets effectively, created chaos by destroying U.S. post offices and county courthouses, waylaying sheriffs and tax collectors, and threatening the operation of law courts.

Soon, even Confederate officials became alarmed by the unchecked nature of this contest. Virginia governor John Letcher had initially encouraged guerrilla resistance. According to Daniel Ruggles, a colonel in the provisional army, the “policy of the State” in May 1861 was “to make each house a citadel, and every rock and tree positions of defense.” By March 1862, however, hoping to bring the independent guerrilla bands under government control, instilling discipline, and better organizing guerrilla resistance, Letcher had authorized the Virginia State Rangers. A few weeks later, Virginia’s law became a model for the national Partisan Ranger Act, passed by the Confederate Congress, to control Confederate guerrillas across the South. No amount of legislation, however, at either the state or the national level, could check the spread and continuing violence of the guerrilla war.

Confederate Virginia

Guerrillas also resisted the Union advance into central and eastern Virginia. The first reports of guerrilla fighting came from Alexandria and Hampton late in June 1861 and, around the same time, Turner Ashby began partisan operations in the Shenandoah Valley. Generally, though, the scope of guerrilla war in Confederate Virginia did not assume major importance until 1863 and 1864, when the Union army secured a permanent foothold south of the Rappahannock River. By then, the state’s most famous band of sanctioned partisan rangers, John Singleton Mosby’s 43rd Cavalry Battalion, had been formed. His men became such a dominant force in Fauquier, Loudoun, Fairfax, and Prince William counties that the region became known as “Mosby’s Confederacy.”

While the number of Unionists in Confederate Virginia was smaller than in the northwestern part of the state, fierce neighborhood wars could also be found there. Indeed, the bitterness of these contests only deepened as the war went on. “Just one thing after another seemed to fan the flame of the war spirit,” explained a resident of southwestern Virginia. Another man in the same region declared, “People had grudges against some neighbor[s]. So they got together to steal and destroy the property of absent soldiers, and even to kill those whom they particularly hated.”

Guerrilla warfare against the Union army came to a head in November 1864, when, following his successful Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Union general Philip H. Sheridan turned his attention to Mosby’s Confederacy—Fauquier and Loudoun counties in northern Virginia. (Some accounts extend Mosby’s reach to Fairfax and Prince William counties, as well.) Sheridan told his men not to destroy private homes, and he wanted no “personal violence” against civilians, but his troops burned thousands of haystacks and hundreds of buildings, confiscated crops, and seized hundreds of horses and cattle. It seemed harsh retribution to many Union soldiers, but at least one of them concluded, “There is no stopping this Infernal Guerrilla Warfare unless destroying [it] Root & Branch.”

Just as the guerrilla war had begun before conventional military operations gained effectiveness, so, too, did it end after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Unwilling even to use the word “surrender,” Mosby did not “disband” his men until April 21, 1865. Jesse C. McNeill did not surrender the state’s last company of partisan rangers until May 8.

The legacy of Confederate guerrilla resistance in Virginia proved to be mixed. It made a distinct contribution to Confederate defense of the state, but it also brought more violence to more communities than conventional warfare could have done. Ironically, by forcing the Union army to take harsh punitive measures against both Confederate guerrillas and their civilian supporters, it also heightened the savagery of the war and contributed to Confederate defeat.

May—June 1861
Guerrilla war breaks out in heavily Unionist northwestern Virginia. In places not immediately occupied by the Union army, locals form Unionist "guerrilla parties" to counter Confederate neighbors, who themselves form guerrilla groups.
June—August 1861
Fighting guerrillas in northwestern Virginia, Union general George B. McClellan announces that "marauding parties" will be treated according to the "severest rules of military law." His successor, William S. Rosecrans, includes civilian supporters of guerrillas in these proscriptions.
June 1861—June 1862
Confederate partisan Turner Ashby's guerrilla forces operate against Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley.
August 1861
The execution of Confederate guerrillas, near Beverly, is first reported.
March 1862
Hoping to control what has become an extremely violent guerrilla war in Virginia, Governor John Letcher authorizes the Virginia State Rangers, partisan guerrillas under the state's control. The law becomes the model for a Confederate bill passed a few weeks later.
June 10, 1863
John Singleton Mosby formally organizes the 43rd Virginia Cavalry, Company A, Virginia's most famous band of sanctioned partisan rangers. His men become so dominant in Fauquier, Loudoun, Fairfax, and Prince William counties, the area becomes known as Mosby's Confederacy.
November 1864
After his successful Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Union general Philip H. Sheridan turns against John Singleton Mosby's partisan rangers. His troops burn thousands of haystacks and hundreds of buildings, seize horses and cattle, and confiscate crops.
April 21, 1865
Virginia's most famous partisan ranger, John Singleton Mosby, "disbands" his Confederates several weeks after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. He refuses to use the word "surrender."
May 8, 1865
Jesse C. McNeill surrenders Virginia's last company of Confederate partisan rangers a month after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox.
  • Anderson, Paul Christopher. Blood Image: Turner Ashby in the Civil War and the Southern Mind. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
  • Inscoe, John C., and Robert C. Kenzer, eds. Enemies of the Country: New Perspectives on Unionists in the Civil War South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.
  • Mackey, Robert R. The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861–1865. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.
  • Noe, Kenneth W. “Who Were the Bushwhackers? Age, Class, Kin, and Western Virginia’s Confederate Guerrillas.” Civil War History 49 (March 2003): 5–31.
  • Sutherland, Daniel E. A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
  • Wert, Jeffry D. Mosby’s Rangers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.
APA Citation:
Sutherland, Daniel. Guerrilla Warfare in Virginia during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/guerrilla-warfare-in-virginia-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Sutherland, Daniel. "Guerrilla Warfare in Virginia during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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