The American Civil War as Regular and Irregular War

If there is one thing that Aaron Sheehan-Dean’s new book, The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought in the Civil War, delivers on from the outset is that the irregular war no sideshow to the larger military campaigns beginning in 1861. Typically, large histories of the Civil War relegate moments of irregular or guerilla warfare to its own chapter, thus denying or minimizing its importance to the evolution of fighting between 1861 and 1865.

Here is one example of how Sheehan-Dean moves beyond this problematic approach:

Most historians mark the war’s opening with the firing on Fort Sumter. Starting the narrative in Charleston Harbor–at a military installation by uniformed soldiers of two hostile nations–presents the Civil War as a regular military conflict. But the Civil War also began on the streets of Baltimore and St. Louis. And from the beginning, it was a conflict defined as much by its irregular features. These cities both lay along the border between North and South, the region where the war’s irregular violence was worst. Observers pondered: Would Fort Sumter or Baltimore define the coming conflict? The irregular fighting in Baltimore inspired one Northern paper to declare it a ‘reign of terror,’ intentionally summoning the specter of the French Revolution. The Civil War never generated a terror of the sort led by Robespierre, but that does not mean its participants exercised the gentlemanly restraint we might imagine characterized warfare in the age of honor. (pp. 49-50)

One of the things that I find very helpful about analyzing the Baltimore and St. Louis street riots alongside the bombardment of Fort Sumter is that it gives us the perspective of Americans North and South in 1861 looking forward and not knowing how the fighting would evolve and what rules of warfare would be embraced. Americans, according to Sheehan-Dean simply did not know how the war would be fought in 1861.

The other point I want to make is a more subtle one about historiography or the debate about the place of irregular warfare within the larger war. Certainly this question has divided historians in recent years, most recently in the pages of one of the academic journals devoted to the Civil War. That Sheehan-Dean – who studied under the historian who has been quite vocal in questioning the emphasis or importance of irregular warfare in recent years –  is taking such a strong stand suggests that this question has been largely settled.

15 comments… add one
  • Rob Baker Nov 16, 2018 @ 6:07

    I’m curious how his argument and conclusions might add or take detract from my conclusion. My research ended in the 2nd Seminole War.

  • HankC Nov 15, 2018 @ 5:10

    Not to quibble, but the line should really say ‘Most of the public mark the war’s opening with the firing on Fort Sumter.’.

    In Missouri, at least, irregular warfare was the rule rather than the exception.

    Fighting in and with Kansas dates to 1855. As I like to remind my lost cause friends, they weren’t fighting over tariffs.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 15, 2018 @ 6:34

      Thanks for the correction. ASD delves into both of these subjects.

  • Craig L. Nov 13, 2018 @ 9:11

    Herman Melville wrote an entire book of Civil War poems, mostly during the war, and published it shortly thereafter. It wasn’t a great success as the author had established himself as a writer of novels and short fiction before the war and never really made the transition from novelist to poet in the public’s perception or in that of the poetic fraternity of his era. But the longest of his Civil War poems did treat irregular warfare in a manner that resonated in the South and was largely ignored or overlooked in the North.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 13, 2018 @ 10:50

      Hi Craig. Thanks for sharing this.

    • London John Nov 16, 2018 @ 4:09

      Thanks for the info. I hope it’s not considered an attempt to advertise to mention that Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War is free on Kindle.

  • London John Nov 13, 2018 @ 2:40

    Does he consider the NY “draft riots” as part of the war?

    • Kevin Levin Nov 13, 2018 @ 5:06


  • Boyd Harris Nov 12, 2018 @ 8:56

    Just got to Fort Sumter in my class lectures today. I really try to emphasize the escalation of violence as a viable option in my lectures, particularly between 1855-1860. It helps to make the student’s more receptive to the escalation of the war during 1862-64.

  • Mark Snell Nov 11, 2018 @ 14:53

    “The Civil War never generated a terror of the sort led by Robespierre, but that does not mean its participants exercised the gentlemanly restraint we might imagine characterized warfare in the age of honor.” Really? Take a look at what happened in (West) Virginia. The warring parties literally beheaded people. . . and threw them off cliffs, drowned them, etc. Old Testament type of stuff.

    • Msb Nov 12, 2018 @ 14:50

      You’re agreeing with him. Read his sentence again.

  • Louis Drew Nov 10, 2018 @ 5:07

    Just wondering which issue of which academic journal you’re citing…

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