Guerilla South

In the course of critiquing a Richard Cohen column, Publius says:

In April 1865, [Robert E.] Lee had a fateful choice. Sure, the war couldn’t be won in the traditional sense. But Lee could have turned his battle-hardened army into a guerrilla outfit that could have harassed federal armies for decades. To his eternal credit, he declined to do so. Choosing guerrilla war would have made post-war North/South tensions even more poisonous than they were (with longer lasting effects).

I’m not sure that reflects a correct understanding of the strategic conflict during the Civil War. It’s true that in a conventional war of national liberation, this kind of guerilla strategy would be the expected line for the Confederacy to take. But the rebels had a very specific goal in mind — they seceded from the Union after Lincoln’s electoral victory because they wanted to preserve slavery. It’s very hard to see, however, how a guerilla strategy could have been consistent with the goal of maintaining slavery or the plantation economy. The strategy Southern elites did pursue, of seeking to re-establish first white control over southern state and local governments (including in the states and counties where blacks were a majority) and then total exclusion of blacks from the political process, was, by contrast, a good way of hanging on to half a loaf.

Meanwhile, though the Confederate military didn’t pursue guerilla war against the Union Army, it should be remembered that southern whites did launch a large-scale, years-long campaign of terrorist violence against their African-American neighbors.