Longstreet Wants to Disband the Partisan Rangers

December 26, 1863 (Saturday)

Noted Confederate ranger, Champ Ferguson

Noted Confederate ranger, Champ Ferguson

Partisan Rangers operated independent from any official command structure. Sometimes, they might join in or aide an army in their neck of the woods, but for the most part, they played upon the enemy’s supply lines and generally terrorized the population regardless of their affiliation. Confederate Partisans in Eastern Tennessee were not only a problem for the Unionists, but were quickly becoming an issue for James Longstreet, who was trying to live off the land for the winter thirty or so miles north of Knoxville.

Though unofficial, according to Confederate law, the rangers were “entitled to the same pay, rations, and quarters” as any other troops in the service. Additionally, when they raided, they were allowed to keep the spoils of war. First they had to hand over their loot to the local quartermaster, but he would then pay them outright for their findings. They were basically privateers on horseback. This is where Longstreet had a problem.

A simple request by General John Vaughn, who commanded a brigade of infantry in Micah Jenkins’ (Hood’s) Division, sparked a heated lashing out against the rangers. Vaughn requested from Richmond the permission to mount his entire brigade, making them more or less cavalry. Secretary of War James Seddon allowed it, but before Vaughn could take action, Longstreet put pen to paper in an attempt to stop it.

“I would respectfully suggest that we have already more cavalry than we need,” wrote the General, “and not enough of infantry.” He explained that the area where they were encamped was “completely overrun by cavalry; farms destroyed and forage and subsistence consumed and wasted to such an extent that I am apprehensive that we shall not be able to get along.”

This was due, wrote Longstreet, to the “partisan cavalry, having authority to keep and sell everything that they capture.” As it turned out, they did not always “confine their captures to the enemy’s side.” They would steal horses, mules, cattle, and even slaves, drive them south and sell them.

This practice was apparently contagious. When regular cavalry saw the partisan cavalry profiting from the sales of animals and humans treated like animals, they, according to Longstreet, took up “the idea that they should enjoy like privileges.” And so regular and official Confederate cavalry was now doing the same. They “frequently take property captured from the enemy and from our own citizens and dispose of it to their own advantage.”

Longstreet feared “that this feeling to acquire property is more at heart with much of our cavalry than a disposition to drive the enemy from our soil.”

Another fine advantage of being a partisan ranger was that you were exempt from the draft. Though one was in the saddle much of the time, there was little aside from desire for adventure keeping him there. This was turning into an exciting way to keep out of the regular army.

Noted (and dead) Confederate partisan William H. Stuart

Noted (and dead) Confederate partisan William H. Stuart

“I would suggest,” Longstreet continued, “that all partisan cavalry be made regular cavalry by law, if they so elect. Failing in the choice, it would be well to disband all such organizations and let the men be subject to conscription.”

Longstreet also petitioned Seddon to “halt new enlistments for the cavalry, as that branch was already full.” This was turning into a complicated situation. The terms of enlistment for many in the cavalry were set to soon expire. The South, of course, wished for all to re-enlist, but most of the troopers were planning to refuse unless they were given a forty days’ furlough. If the furlough went ungranted, they would simply leave the army and wait to be conscripted. When the draft caught up with them, they’d sign up for the cavalry. “We are likely to have nothing but cavalry and artillery,” lamented Longstreet.

Soon enough, General Robert E. Lee joined Longstreet in his calls to repeal the 1862 Partisan Ranger Act. By the middle of February, they would have their wish.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 3, p872-873; Public Laws of the Confederate States of America, 1862 (Session I, Chapter 63). []
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