Guerrillas in Their Midst

REVIEW: ‘The Unvanquished: The Untold Story of Lincoln’s Special Forces, the Manhunt for Mosby’s Rangers, and the Shadow War That Forged America’s Special Operations’

Col. John Mosby with some of his Rangers (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)
May 27, 2024

The history of the Civil War frequently is told through its biggest battles and personalities: the Battle of Bull Run. Antietam. Gettysburg. Abraham Lincoln. Jefferson Davis. U.S. Grant. Robert E. Lee.

Certain big moments inevitably figure into the narrative. South Carolina’s secession. The attack on Fort Sumter. The Emancipation Proclamation. Booth’s assassination of Lincoln.

The Civil War was all that—and it was the first modern war, featuring ironclad ships, submarines, trains, and instantaneous communications via the telegraph.

But the War Between the States also very much was a story of small, often furtive machinations by individuals of less stature—most of whom are unknown to history. The Unvanquished, as Patrick K. O’Donnell terms them, were proto-special forces operatives who engaged in unconventional warfare to extraordinary effect.

For sure, guerrilla warfare was as old as the country. The rebellious early Americans flummoxed and outraged the Red Coats by taking the fight off the battlefield and into the forests and swamps.

But the Civil War took unconventional warfare to new levels. A Confederate recruitment advertisement in an 1862 copy of the Richmond Examiner illustrates some of the dirty deeds that became common tactics:

[We want fighters] to hang about their camp and shoot down every sentinel, picket, courier and wagon driver we can find; to watch [for] opportunities for attacking convoys and forage trains, and thus rendering the country so unsafe that they will not dare to move except in large bodies. … [M]en who will pull the trigger on a Yankee with as much alacrity as they would on a mad dog.

These corps, often named "Scouts" or "Rangers," employed anywhere between 15 and 150 men. They practiced asymmetric warfare, which aims to leverage a small number of men to inflict high costs on the enemy. Frequently, this meant disrupting communications by cutting telegraph lines and sabotaging or hijacking supply trains. They also burned bridges and depots. These shadow warriors regularly snuck up on large fighting forces in the dark of night and seized high-ranking officers.

They stole horses and nearly anything else that might be of use to their opponents. Pay was paltry, so leaders would regularly allow their charges to keep their plunder.

John S. Mosby, the rare well-known guerrilla, observed,

A small force moving with celerity and threatening many points on [an enemy] line can neutralize a hundred times its own number. … The military value of a partisan’s work is not measured by the amount of property destroyed, or the number of men killed or captured, but by the number [of the enemy] he keeps watching [him]. Every soldier withdrawn from the front to guard the rear of an army is so much taken from its fighting strength.

Mosby, it is worth noting, also illustrated the psychological effects of unconventional warfare. His skill at surprising Union soldiers, creating mayhem, and then vanishing sowed fear and earned him the moniker, "The Gray Ghost." Herman Melville, who traveled with Mosby for a time, wrote:

As glides in seas the shark,

Rides Mosby through green dark.

All spake of him, but few had seen,

Yet rumor made him every thing—

A farmer—woodman—refuge—

The man who crossed the field but now;

A spell about his life did cling—

Who to the ground shall Mosby bring?

In some instances, these special operatives did their work with derring-do and panache. Confederate Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow caught word of a Union party being held to celebrate George Washington’s birthday. "Frank" as his companions called him, arrived at the event convincingly disguised as invitee Sallie Marsten, a 21-year old, slim-waisted maiden with long flowing hair. He flirted and danced with Yankee officers and charmed intelligence from them.

O’Donnell, who has written a baker’s dozen books on military matters, shows how the North’s and South’s Scouts and Rangers regularly harried the opposing armies. But they also often played critical roles in the big events of the Civil War.

For example, a Union Scout posed as a Confederate soldier assigned to guide duties. He approached General John Bell Hood and his troops, who were en route to the Battle of Bull Run. The imp cooly told Hood that Stonewall Jackson had retreated from Bull Run and demanded Hood back him up in a location north of the battlefield where Yankees were in pursuit. The general—hoodwinked—set off in the wrong direction and the faux Confederate slipped away.

The South’s special operatives also had roles in huge clandestine schemes. They partnered with the Confederate Secret Service Bureau in a plot to throw the 1864 election. Their plan had two prongs: They would tap into the Northern public’s war-weariness by fomenting antiwar rebellions in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. They also would boost a Copperhead candidate for the presidency, in hopes that his campaign for ending the war would cost Lincoln reelection.

Those mischiefs failed, so the South’s secret service and Mosby’s Rangers aimed bigger: blowing up the White House and working with John Wilkes Booth to get rid of the president.

Admirably, The Unvanquished gives the reader a fuller appreciation of the Civil War and its conduct. But the book is more important than that.

The story of the Civil War often is told in a way that makes the triumph of the North seem inevitable. The North had a mighty industrial base. Grant was a military genius. Sherman was ruthless and his march unstoppable. Slavery was evil and could not endure.

In fact, things could have gone very differently. O’Donnell argues the South could have drawn out the Civil War for decades had it fully embraced guerrilla warfare. Certainly that is what Confederacy president Jefferson Davis wanted: never surrender. Instead, they could sap the North’s desire to fight by immensely driving up the costs of victory. This could be achieved by dispersing the South’s troops into small bands scattered among the forests and mountains. From there they could intimidate and exterminate any Northern sympathizer in Southern states, recruit new members, and launch attacks on border states.

That the Civil War could have concluded the same way as the American wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan is a deeply unsettling thought. That Robert E. Lee and some others within the rogue republic were unwilling to go this ghastly route is remarkable. That much of the South nonetheless chose nonmilitary means to tyrannize over American Blacks was an additional sick, further development of unconventional warfare.

The Unvanquished: The Untold Story of Lincoln’s Special Forces, the Manhunt for Mosby’s Rangers, and the Shadow War That Forged America’s Special Operations
by Patrick K. O’Donnell
Atlantic Monthly Press, 432 pp., $30

Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of