Guerrilla Warfare during the Civil War
According to historian Daniel Sutherland, Civil War guerrillas, regardless of what they called themselves or the side for which they fought, shared at least two characteristics. First, guerrillas utilized unconventional methods of warfare to harass and worry their foes, tactics that stood in marked contrast to those of conventional armies. Second, guerrillas saw their principal responsibility as defending their homes and communities from internal or external foes.
Guerrilla Activity in North Georgia
One of the earliest catalysts for guerrilla activity in Georgia was the Conscription Act, which was passed by the Confederate Congress in April 1862. Those men wishing to avoid the draft often formed armed bands, which were sometimes joined by Confederate army deserters. Such groups were particularly active in parts of north Georgia, where staunch Unionists and dissenting civilians who were disenchanted with Confederate government policies comprised a minority of the population. In July 1862, for example, a citizen in Gilmer County noted that a contingent of well-armed and mounted men, roaming the countryside to avoid conscription, were stealing, burning houses, killing livestock, and threatening the wives of Confederate soldiers.
In an effort to control guerrilla organizations and maintain order in north Georgia, Governor Brown granted commissions authorizing mounted commands to the region. Brown also attempted to address the problem of lawless bands of men stealing property from civilians around the state. The governor was careful not to accuse any of the bands raised under his authority with these crimes,
John P. Gatewood and his murderous gang comprised probably the best-known guerrilla force operating in north Georgia. Gatewood never received official state sanction, but he might have operated periodically under Wheeler's authority. Although most of Gatewood's numerous victims were U.S. soldiers or Unionist civilians, his men sometimes brutalized even Confederate sympathizers.
Guerrilla Activity in South Georgia
The southern part of the state was also periodically plagued with guerrilla violence, and the swamps and pine barrens of south Georgia provided hiding places for deserters, draft evaders, and Unionists. In November 1863 an expedition involving state and Confederate troops passed through Wilcox, Ware, Coffee, and Clinch counties, arresting deserters and runaway slaves along the way. The Okefenokee Swamp was another refuge for individuals and small groups of men, although the number of draft evaders or deserters who hid there is impossible to determine.
Citizens in Worth County reported in October 1864 that lawless villains prowled over the county, stealing and committing depredations. Bands of deserters raided the town of Blackshear, in Pierce County, ransacking local stores seven times in February 1865. A Confederate inspector in Ware County reported that men seeking to evade conscription had banded together south of the Altamaha River to resist arrest.
Sherman's Response to Guerrillas
Surrender and Paroles
By the final months of the war, local legal systems no longer functioned in many parts of Georgia, and guerrilla activity increased accordingly. Large numbers of Confederate army deserters in the Georgia mountains joined home guard, militia, or irregular organizations. Many of these deserters claimed that they had taken furloughs to protect their home communities from bushwhackers or robbers.
The presence of guerrilla and state-sanctioned irregular military organizations in north Georgia generated a passionate public debate over their activities and composition. Some citizens characterized these bands as fearless protectors of Southern citizens, while others claimed that the groups sheltered deserters and even men who had formerly served in Union home guard companies. A civilian writing to an Augusta newspaper in January 1865 noted that lawless parties were too large to capture and predicted that anarchy would result in north Georgia if the war did not end soon.
Wofford surrendered all Confederate forces in north Georgia at Kingston, in Bartow County, on May 12, 1865. In the preceding weeks, Wofford had attempted to meet with roughly 500 guerrillas who had refused to obey his orders to surrender. Union general Henry M. Judah, who had negotiated with Wofford, announced that anyone who did not surrender would be considered an outlaw.
Guerrillas knew that their paroles would protect them from punishment at the hands of military authorities but not from local civil prosecution, leading Wofford to predict that most irregulars would move abroad. It is impossible to determine how many guerrillas actually migrated, but the notorious Gatewood and his gang were among those who departed the state, heading for Texas.
Thomas Conn Bryan, Confederate Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1953).
David Carlson, "The "'Loanly Runagee'": Draft Evaders in Confederate South Georgia," Georgia Historical Quarterly 84 (winter 2000): 589-615.
Robert S. Davis Jr., "Memoirs of a Partisan War: Sion Darnell Remembers North Georgia, 1861-1865," Georgia Historical Quarterly 80 (spring 1996): 93-116.
Lee B. Kennett, Marching through Georgia: The Story of Soldiers and Civilians during Sherman's Campaign (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).
Jonathan D. Sarris, "Anatomy of an Atrocity: The Madden Branch Massacre and Guerrilla Warfare in North Georgia, 1861-1865," Georgia Historical Quarterly 77 (winter 1993): 679-710.
Jonathan D. Sarris, A Separate Civil War: Communities in Conflict in the Mountain South (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006).
Daniel E. Sutherland, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
Mark V. Wetherington, Plain Folk's Fight: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
Keith S. Bohannon, University of West Georgia
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.