Down in North Carolina, dramatic events were also taking place, if at a slower pace. There a hodgepodge Confederate army was still in the field, commanded by Joseph Johnston and consisting of the remnants of the Army of Tennessee and troops pulled from the garrisons of now abandoned ports of Charleston and Wilmington. The Union army under William Tecumseh Sherman was steadily moving north, seeking to link up with Grant in Virginia. Although Johnston's men had given the Yankees a bloody nose on the first day of the Battle of Bentonville the previous month, they had shortly thereafter been forced to retreat when Union reinforcements arrived. As Johnston confessed, he lacked the ability to do anything more than annoy Sherman. On April 26, having learned of Lee's capitulation in Virginia, Johnston surrendered to Sherman.
In the midst of all this, President Jefferson Davis refused to admit that the cause of the Confederacy was lost. Moving out of Richmond with his Cabinet and what remained of the Confederate treasury, he fled to Danville, Virginia, where he released a remarkable statement to the press.
Relieved from the necessity of guarding cities and particular points, important but not vital to our defense, with an army free to move from point to point and strike in detail the detachments and garrisons of the enemy, operating on the interior of our own country, where supplies are more accessible, and where the foe will be far removed from his own base and cut off from all succor in case of reverse, nothing is now needed to render our triumph certain but the exhibition of our own unquenchable resolve. Let us but will it, and we are free.
What President Davis was talking about was, in effect, abandoning a conventional military strategy and resorting to partisan warfare, or what we today would usually call guerrilla warfare. It had a history going back to the emergence of civilization, but it was widely understood even in the more dignified 19th Century. The term "guerrilla" comes from the Spanish for "little war" and was popularized by the Spanish partisans fighting against Napoleon during the Peninsular War. Russian partisans had played a key role in thwarting Napoleon's attempt to conquer Russia and Tyrolean insurgents fighting Napoleon in northern Italy had captured the public imagination. Many Southerners could look back on heroes from the Revolutionary era who had battled the British in the Carolinas, such as Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter. Guerrilla fighters might not have had the mystique in the mid-19th Century that they would gain during the Cold War, personified by Che Guevara, but they were a well-established part of the public imagination. Anyone who read Davis's statement knew exactly what he was talking about.
Davis was not the only person who wanted to resort to partisan warfare. E. Porter Alexander, Robert E. Lee's brilliant chief of artillery, approached his commander before the surrender at Appomattox with a dangerous proposal. Rather than capitulate, Alexander argued, they should simply order their men to disperse in small bands and carry on the fight. Other men in the Southern ranks also remained defiant, in spite of all the catastrophes that had befallen the Confederacy in 1865. The possibility of a widespread partisan war was a very real one.
What would a Confederate partisan war have looked like? Certainly it wouldn't have looked pretty. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the men of the Army of Northern Virginia dispersed on April 8, when Lee historically made the decision to surrender to Grant unless they could cut their way out of the trap the next morning. This was also the moment when Porter approached Lee, so it's entirely possible that the great general was thinking the question over. At that point, there were between fifteen and twenty thousand men still with Lee. Had he ordered them to scatter, large numbers of them would have been captured by the Union forces then swarming through the area, especially the large cavalry corps commanded by General Phil Sheridan.
Perhaps half might have escaped, however, either individually or in small groups. Plans might have quickly been laid to meet at designated rendezvous points. Porter himself envisioned the men making their way back to their home states. We would have seen central Virginia flooded with perhaps ten thousand scattered Confederate fighters, but they would have had no ability to supply themselves with food except by taking it from the civilian population. Lee had foreseen this problem and had spoken of it to Porter as a justification for not following his advice. Some civilians would have done their best to help the insurgents, for support for the Confederacy remained strong in many quarters even this late in the conflict. But Virginia had been picked clean by the war and there was little food left to give. Sheridan's vengeful cavalry, experienced in this sort of thing from their fighting in the Shenandoah Valley, would have surely made the ordinary people of Virginia pay dearly for any help they provided to the partisans. It would have been a truly bloody business,
If Lee's army had dispersed rather than surrender, and central Virginia was filled again with the sounds of battle as the partisan bands fought against their Union foes while they desperately sought food, what would Johnston have done? Historically, Johnston surrendered because Lee had surrendered, and the remaining Confederate forces in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi followed suit. If Lee's men were still fighting, albeit now as partisans, we can assume that Johnston would not have surrendered and that his army would have remained intact for at least the time being. Unlike Lee, Johnston did not surrender because his army was trapped and surrounded, but because the war was obviously lost and he was unwilling to see his men die for nothing.
Johnston might have retreated to the southwest, away from both Sherman and Grant, but had he done so, Sherman would have launched a vigorous pursuit and probably run him down in a North Carolinian version of the Appomattox Campaign. Besides, his army was already melting away from desertion. So, for the purposes of our little thought experiment, let's assume that Johnston's orders his men to scatter into partisan bands around April 15. North Carolina would have turned into the same bloodbath that would have been sweeping Virginia at the same time. Thousands of starving men, no longer under any unified command structure, would have been moving to and fro, alternately fighting or trying to avoid the Union forces which would have been trying to track them down.
There were still Confederate forces in the field under the command of General Richard Taylor in southern Alabama and Mississippi, as well as small garrisons in Georgia and Florida. Word of the partisan fighting would have reached them by the time Union forces arrived to gobble them up. We can assume that many of them would have surrendered, or simply thrown away their uniforms and gone home, but many of them might also have elected to take to the woods and join the partisan effort. What would have happened in the strategically irrelevant Trans-Mississippi, where the Confederate remained in a fairly stable position, is anybody's guess, although it should be pointed out the Governor Pendleton Murrah of Texas wanted to continue resistance against the Union even after he learned of Lee's surrender.
Would the Confederates have been able to maintain any kind of organized command structure? It's difficult to say. I find it very unlikely that Jefferson Davis, hiding out in the swamps of Florida or the mountains of northern Georgia, would have been capable of exercising any real control over his remaining forces even if he had avoided capture. Had he achieved his objective of reaching the Trans-Mississippi and found momentary safety there, he could still have exercised no real control over the Confederate partisan bands east of the river. At best, he would occasionally have been able to smuggle out messages encouraging further resistance, rather like Saddam Hussein did between the fall of Baghdad and his capture in December of 2003. Lee and Johnston were good soldiers, but getting on in years and exhausted by four years of toil. Would they have had the endurance to be guerrilla commanders? It's doubtful. I would expect both of them to either give themselves up or wait to be captured and spend the remainder of the conflict in honorable imprisonment.
On a more local scale, however, the situation changes. The Boers maintained a roughly organized partisan effort against the British, when, following the defeat of their conventional armies, their troops scattered into small, fast-moving partisan units known as "commandos" (from which we get the modern name of soldiers in the special forces). The Americans in the southern colonies were able to do so after the destruction of their conventional armies at Charleston and Camden in 1780. Moreover, in Wade Hampton and Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederacy had outstanding cavalry commanders who would surely have made equally outstanding partisan leaders.
If the Confederate had turned to partisan warfare on a massive scale after the spring of 1865, what would have been the reaction from the Union high command? After four years of war, these were men hardened to the strength of iron and granite. Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and George Thomas were not going to be in the mood for forgiveness. The war had become much harsher in 1864-65 than it had been before, as hundreds of burned out farms in Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina could attest, to say nothing of the smoldering ruins of Atlanta, Columbia and Richmond. Any civilians who actively aided the partisans could be certain that vengeful Union cavalry would soon descend upon their homes and leave them in flames. The Union still had effectively unlimited resources of manpower and material, and the collapse of Confederate authority would have allowed them to recruit untold thousands of freed slaves as well, making their army even stronger.
More importantly, there was an alternative government to vie for the loyalties of the people. Under President Lincoln's "Ten Percent Plan", a state could be brought back into the Union with a functioning government as soon as ten percent of the number of people who voted in the state in the 1860 election had sworn loyalty to the Union, with generous pardons extended to all but very high-ranking Confederate political or military officials. By the time we are suggesting the Confederate armies might have dispersed into partisan bands, there were already functioning Unionist governments in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee. As the Union army gained control of the cities and towns, with Confederate partisans consigned to the forests and hills, similar administrations would have soon become operational in other states as well.
With Confederate partisans simultaneously trying to fight Union occupation forces and keep themselves fed and supplied, the loyalties of the people would soon become torn between the Confederate "bitter-enders" (to use a phrase from the Boer War) and the emerging Unionist governments. Knowing that Union forces would burn them out if they helped the partisans, and that the partisans might loot them of their food no matter what they did, there would be an inevitable shift towards the Union side, After all, even a temporarily effective partisan campaign would have provided no real chance for an ultimate victory against the Union and this would have been obvious to all concerned.
Throughout the remainder of 1865, we would see scattered Confederate partisan bands battling against Union forces trying to run them all to ground. But history shows that a partisan campaign can only persist in an environment where the partisans enjoy the support of the civilian population. The Southern people had had enough of war, which was aptly demonstrated by the steadily increasing rate of desertion from the Confederate armies during the months before November of 1864 (when Lincoln's reelection ended any realistic chance for a Confederate victory) and April of 1865. Combine with the certainty of terrible retribution, we can be sure that the exhausted civilian population would not have been inclined to support the partisans very much.
An already ugly situation might have been made even worse if Confederate partisans had decided to direct their attention towards Southerners who swore loyalty to the newly established Unionist administrations. Given the now unorganized nature of the Southern partisans, it would have been impossible to prevent all groups from engaging in retaliation against Unionist Southerners, even if what remained of the Confederate leadership had been inclined to restrain them. The result would have been a civil war within the Civil War. This actually happened in East Tennessee and other places historically, but it would have been vastly worse and on a wider scale in the scenario we are describing. We might even have seen former Confederate troops who had surrendered being mobilized by the Union governments to fight against their former comrades.
This, then, would have been the South in the summer and fall of 1865 had the Confederates decided to resort to large-scale partisan warfare rather than give up the fight. Tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers would be at loose across the country, fighting as partisans. Some of these bands might be loosely organized on a local level by leaders such as Nathan Bedford Forrest or Wade Hampton, but communication would be extremely difficult and it's likely that most of the groups would not be under any effective command at all. Without any system of logistics to supply themselves, the partisans would have had to turn to looting to obtain food. Within a short time, there would be very little distinction between the Confederate partisan bands and simple outlaws. Any civilians would supported the partisans would have been burned out of their homes and many of them would have turned against their fellow Southerners in desperate bids for safety and peace. Thousands of more men would have died in a cause that had already perished. Historically, the South took decades to recover from the American Civil War, but in this scenario, the wounds inflicted upon Southern society would have been infinitely worse.
That this nightmare did not come to pass can be attributed above all to three men: Robert E. Lee, Joseph Johnston, and John C. Breckinridge. Lee and Johnston refused to give orders that would have scattered their men into partisan bands. Being Virginia gentlemen of the old school, they had no wish to engage in a guerrilla conflict, especially one they had no chance of winning. Both army commanders cared deeply about their men, and neither was going to be willing to have them killed to no purpose.
On April 20, a paroled General Lee wrote Jefferson Davis a letter, though the President could not have received it before he was captured a month later. In it, Lee states the following:
From what I have seen and learned, I believe an army cannot be organized or supported in Virginia, and as far as I know the condition of affairs, the country east of the Mississippi is morally and physically unable to maintain the contest unaided with any hope of success. A partisan war may be continued, and hostilities protracted, causing individual suffering and the devastation of the country, but I see no prospect by that means of achieving a separate independence. It is for Your Excellency to decide, should you agree with me in opinion, what is proper to be done. To save useless effusion of blood, I would recommend measures be taken for suspension of hostilities and the restoration of peace.
Lee was always very tactful and careful when communicating with Davis. Reading between the lines, it is clear that Lee was doing two things. First, he was trying to make it clear that a partisan war would achieve nothing but add to the suffering of the Southern people. Second, he was leaving a footnote in history to absolve himself of any responsibility in the event that Davis was foolish enough to attempt a partisan war.
Johnston didn't have to write to Davis, for he got a chance to say pretty much the same thing to the President's face. The commander of the Army of Tennessee was probably the last man Davis wanted to see, for they had been bitter personal enemies for years, perhaps as far back as their West Point days in the 1820s, Johnston told Davis plainly that the war was over, that there was no point in continuing resistance, and that attempting a partisan war would simply bring more death and devastation to the people of the South. When Davis equivocated on whether he should allow Johnston to negotiate a surrender of his army, Johnston went ahead and did so without the President authorization.
Breckinridge served as the Confederate Secretary of War in the waning days of the Confederacy, having assumed the position in January of 1865. He recognized immediately that the South no longer had any chance of victory and took it upon himself to guide events towards as easy and honorable a conclusion of hostilities as possible. As he said to Davis, "This has been a magnificent epic. In God's name, let it not terminate in a farce." Yet Breckinridge remained faithfully by Davis's side through the hopeless, grim flight to the south, keeping the cavalry escort that protected the President together, and all the while doing his best to persuade Davis that the war was well and truly lost.
All the while, Breckinridge used his moral authority, and the now hazy legitimacy he held as the Secretary of War of a disintegrating government, to help Confederate soldiers surrender and go home. He assisted Johnston in his negotiations with Sherman and pushed other Confederate government officials and military officers to pressure Davis to cease resistance. As Davis seemed close to losing his grip on reality after the fall of Richmond, everyone turned to Breckinridge for guidance. To everyone, he gave the same message. The war was over. Surrender to the Yankees. Peace with honor is preferably to fighting to the death. In the end, Breckinridge's efforts probably prevented thousands of men who might otherwise have vanished into the woods and hills from doing so.
All Americans should give thanks to Lee, Johnston, and Breckinridge for helping to prevent the nightmare vision of a Confederate guerrilla war from becoming a reality. The American Civil War was the most traumatic experience our nation has ever gone through, yet it would have been even worse had Davis been able to persuade even a sizable fraction of his army to fight on as partisans. For this, all three of those men deserved to be placed in the pantheon of American heroes.