This book focuses on the many small units who spent much of their time operating behind enemy lines during the American Civil War. These were described at the time as scouts, partisans or rangers, and carried out a wide range of operations, from screening the competing armies to ramaging deep behind enemy lines. The scope is also widened to include some operations carried launched from Canada.
Not all of the units examined here really match the modern view of special operations – one example being the admittedly entertaining chapter on Harry Gilmor, who appears to have spent most of his time acting as an entirely conventional cavalry screen for the army in the Shenandoah Valley. This is directly addressed in the epilogue, where the author makes the point that US Rangers aren’t Special Forces in the same was as the British Commandoes or SAS. The units examined here are perhaps best defined by what they weren’t – regular units in the regular armies. It is also worth noting that the units operating as a cavalry screen sometimes had a bigger impact on the war, especially during Stonewall Jackson’s campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley, where they were able to keep his armies hidden from his Union opponents, helping him to win several of his victories.
There are definitely moments where it feels like the author is trying to justify the Confederate cause rather than explaining it. Several of the Confederate leaders he studies were slave owners, none of who apparently had any doubts about their behaviour. At one point one even issued a statement describing Maryland as suffering under the ‘slavery’ of Union rule, apparently without any sense of irony! This might not have stood out quite as much as it did if I hadn’t been reviewing this book against the background of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which served as a brutal reminder that one should always stand up to bad causes. However the author doesn’t shy away from condemning the behaviour of some of the Confederate bands, some of whom were little more than groups of bandits (the Hatfields and McCoys for example), while those operating from Canada just come across as terrorists or bank robbers.
Having said all of that, the actual unit histories themselves are very interesting. The various ranger units carried out some very daring raids, many of which would absolutely count as special operations – notable ones including McNeill’s capture of Union Generals Crook and Kelley or Henry Harrison Young’s ride across the shrinking Confederacy to Grant’s army. The two sides operated in rather different circumstances, with the Confederate rangers normally operating in friendly territory (apart from during the various invasions of the north and in some pro-Union areas in the south, in particular West Virginia), while their Union opponents were almost always deep in hostile territory. However even the Union rangers could find supporters across the south, most obviously from slaves, but also from pro-Union locals. This was an increasingly brutal part of the war, with little mercy shown to captured rangers, although some units developed a respect for their direct opponents that resulted in better treatment.
Overall this is an interesting book that looks at the less familiar Ranger and partisan units of the Civil War, giving some idea of how widespread they were and how much impact they could have on the fighting.
Coming of Age
Part One: The Rebels
1 – The Moccasin Rangers
2 – The Hatfields and the McCoys
3 – The Thurmond Brothers
4 – The Iron Scouts
5 – The Border Rangers
6 – John Imboden
7 – Turner Ashby
8 – Harry Gilmor
9 – Elijah V White and the Comanches
10 – John Hanson ‘Hanse’ and Jesse McNeill
11 – The St Alban Raid
12 – Bushwacker, Ranger and Guerrilla Bands
13 – The Raid to Burn New York City
Part Two: Yank Rangers
14 – Ranger Abraham Lincoln
15 – Loudoun Rangers
16 – The Snake-Hunters
17 – The Swamp Dragons
18 – Grant’s Ranger
19 – Scouts
20 – Rangers and Indians
21 – The Blazer Scouts
22 – The Jessie Scouts
23 – Henry Harrison Young and Sheridan’s Scouts
Author: Robert W. Black
Edition: Pen & Sword