Guerrilla Warfare in the Civil War

Guerrilla (irregular) warfare erupted in a number of areas in Mississippi during the Civil War. It was particularly prevalent in portions of the state where loyalty to the Confederacy was tenuous or waned as the war progressed. Historian John K. Bettersworth has described this “disloyal country” as stretching from northeastern Mississippi, near the Tennessee border, down through the central prairie into the Piney Woods and along the Gulf Coast. Within these areas Confederate authority during the war was challenged by deserters who formed bands to resist conscription and payment of taxes, especially the onerous taxes in-kind; committed acts of sabotage; and battled Confederate forces sent against them. Regular civil government often disintegrated in counties where guerrillas operated. Bettersworth listed two dozen counties where evidence of opposition to the Confederacy occurred: it was particularly powerful in Attala, Choctaw, Covington, Greene, Jones, Leake, Perry, Scott, Smith, and Tishomingo. The Gulf Coast counties, virtually abandoned by Confederate forces early in the war, also were havens for guerrillas.

Although some of these guerrillas sought to make contact with or enlist the aid of Union forces, disloyalty to the Confederacy was not always synonymous with Unionism. Opposition was generated by a number of factors. Class differences played a major role. The vast majority of guerrillas did not own slaves and had no vested interest in a Confederate victory. In areas of fiercest resistance, residents possessing a strong antiauthoritarian streak deeply resented conscription, taxation, and the loss of property to roving Confederate cavalry. A band of guerrillas led by Newt Knight in Jones County achieved mythic status after the war, when they were widely reported to have seceded from the Confederacy and established the Free State of Jones. According to Victoria E. Bynum, these men were frequently aided and sustained by both women and slaves, were bound together by intricate familial connections, and were both perpetrators and victims of violence. In Jones and other counties where wartime disloyalty vexed Confederate authorities, evidence suggests that guerrilla warfare was at times driven by feuds and personal antagonisms that predated the war.

Pro-Confederate politicians and residents complained persistently to Gov. Charles Clark and Confederate military authorities about the depredations committed by guerrillas. As a result, a number of efforts were made to bring guerrillas to heel. Forays into Jones County in 1864 by Confederate cavalry and infantry resulted in the capture and execution of a number of Knight’s followers, but the invaders also suffered casualties and did not decisively quell resistance.

Elsewhere in the state, guerrillas operated for both sides in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. Pro-Confederate groups sparred with Union expeditions into the Delta, fired on vessels traveling down the Mississippi and Delta waterways, and provoked retaliatory measures. Plantations and towns were raided and buildings were often burned by Federal forces to punish guerrilla activity. Guerrillas who supported the Union raided Mississippi from Arkansas and from islands in the river, stealing crops and livestock, skirmishing with Confederate scouts and state troops, and providing intelligence to Federal troops. As in other regions, whites involved in these ventures often enlisted the help of escaped slaves.

The pervasive nature of guerrilla warfare reveals that disillusionment deepened as the war wore on; it is telling that a majority of guerrillas were Confederate deserters. The deep animosity and resentment generated by guerrilla activity persisted long into the postwar era, evidence that a sizable minority of Mississippians never embraced the Lost Cause mythology that extolled Confederate solidarity and the sacred nature of the Confederate experience.

Further Reading

  • John K. Bettersworth, Confederate Mississippi: The People and Policies of a Cotton State in Wartime (1943)
  • Victoria E. Bynum, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (2001)
  • William D. McCain and Charlotte Capers, eds., Memoirs of Henry Tillinghast Ireys: Papers of the Washington County Historical Society, 1910–1915 (1954)
  • Daniel E. Sutherland, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerillas in the American Civil War (2013)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Guerrilla Warfare in the Civil War
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date February 20, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018