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 By Patrick O'Donnell

  • Thursday, April 18, 2024
  • Scott S. Smith

Anyone who has read any of Patrick K. O'Donnell's narrative histories knows that he does very deep research, much of it on the front lines and at the sites, as well as reading volumes in little-known personal libraries and the diaries of participants. This always yields lots of new details and insights, which he combines with a riveting storytelling skill. Some of the most highly-regarded of his 13 books are We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Marines Who Took Fallujah (2006, on multiple Commandants' Professional Reading Lists, required reading for Marines) and Washington's Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution (2016, named one of the 100 Best American Revolution Books of All Time by the Journal of the American Revolution).

His latest, to be published May 7, 2024 (Atlantic Monthly Press), 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, is no exception. Despite my having written extensively about the Civil War based on authoritative sources (as well a visiting the excellent museums in Atlanta and Richmond), there are so many revelations in this book that I found myself underlining passages on most of its 352 narrative pages and turning down the corner of 60 of the ones that struck me as the most important. For example:

°Today's special operations forces have their primary origins in the Civil War's irregulars on both sides, small units of guerrillas who pioneered ingenious ways of disrupting conventional approaches to military victory that tied down huge numbers of the enemy's armies trying to counter them.

°They often wore the uniforms of the enemy and penetrated their lines to gather intelligence, mastering the accents, slang, and details about their supposed unit needed to pull this off if questioned. Discovery that they were spies likely meant their execution. At best, their suffering and endurance operating in all weather and seasons without adequate clothing, food, or sleep are almost unimaginable.

°The Confederate special ops forces, most famously Mosby's Rangers, were central to the South's strategy of denying the Union a clear victory and costing the North hugely in terms of the loss of soldiers and the investment in operations, weapons, and infrastructure. It was no wonder that even as the Union armies were winning on the battlefields and at the major Southern cities and fortresses, the Confederacy's leaders were on the verge of turning to guerrilla warfare across the entire South. Countless conflicts have proven that once an insurgency has the support of at least a portion of it, they have almost impossible to defeat. Taking a lesson from present day irregular warfare and covert operations continue to impact current events in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The Northern public had become so disillusioned with the war by the time of Lincoln's reelection bid that he was certain he was going to be defeated. To put this in an updated context, the North and South only had a total population around 30 million, compared with 330 million in the U.S. today. According to the most authoritative estimates, the combined deaths during the Civil War were at least 655,000 or possibly as high as 750,000. That would be as if 7-8 million had died in four years now, a figure that is virtually inconceivable for Americans today, most of whom seem horrified by any conflict that costs the lives more than a few thousand of our military (never mind the suffering of the wounded and the financial cost).

As of 2022, only 1.4 million are active in the U.S. military and 6% of our population are veterans or have any military experience at all to give them serious perspective on histories of wars. It also does not help that so many bookstores having gone out of business due to distractions like social media, podcasts, and streaming, while digital versions of books are not usually bought in stores and pay only a fraction of the royalties as printed versions. There is little demand for teaching more than the basic facts about American history in schools and apparently this does not stimulate students to want to learn more independently.

It's no wonder that relatively few Americans, especially outside the South, know more than the highlights of what happened during the Civil War. The Unvanquished brilliantly tells this larger story through a smaller story by bringing the conflict down to a very human level.

Creating Special Forces North and South

The Unvanquished focuses on a previously untold story of the Jessie Scouts, some 50 Union Scouts who donned Confederate uniforms and had an enormous impact on the course of the war. The narrative alternatives between John Singleton's Mosby's Rangers and the Confederate Secret Service who crossed paths with the Union Scouts. One thing that stood out for me was that despite being irregulars, most of them operated within the rules of war most of the time, such as not executing someone who had surrendered or killing civilians unnecessarily. Many respected their enemies and there were extraordinary heroes on both sides.

Mosby was a typical colorful and unlikely leader. At 5'7" and 128 pounds, he admitted he was the "frailest and most delicate man" in his company when he joined the Confederate army as a private at 27 in 1861. A bookish lawyer in Virginia, he was depressed about leaving his wife and children and was opposed to secession, but felt loyal to the state. He was not an advocate of slavery and after the war was critical of those who promoted the Lost Cause claim. He even campaigned for Ulysses S. Grant to become president.

"He would emerge not only as a guerrilla leader who pioneered a new form of warfare but as a master spy...who understood the importance of actionable and strategic intelligence and knew how to keep a secret; he would remain an enigma and take many of the great mysteries of the Confederacy to his grave..." wrote O'Donnell. "His bold Gen. J. E. B. Stuart in December 1862 to borrow a few men to conduct guerrilla operations in the Union Army's rear area...would change history."

Over and over, the new special forces somehow overcame tremendous odds to defeat or escape those who tried to kill or capture them. At Miskel Farm in 1863, for example, though outnumbered two-to-one, Mosby and his men captured 82 and killed or wounded 25 others.

An improbable leader on the Union side was Richard Blazer. "He had no martial bearing, with a 'faraway look in one eye and a nearly sleepy look in the other'...He sported a disheveled look, flopped on the parade ground and often issued the wrong orders...He temperament alternated from 'silent to even morose, jolly, and even cross,' O'Donnell quoted one observer. "Independent in thought, he despised red tape...he formed one of the first counterinsurgency units in the U.S. Army, Blazer's Independent Scouts, who hunted the South's most dangerous men."

One of the early Union efforts to deploy irregulars took place in December 1863, led by Gen. William Woods Averell, an experienced Indian fighter, who devised a complex plan to have three forces attack different areas to distract the Confederates, while he led his own group to destroy the Salem, Va., railroad. This would sever the supply line to Gen. James Longstreet's forces who were besieging Knoxville, Tenn., but "deception, luck, and grit had to align perfectly for the plan to succeed," wrote O'Donnell. Largely, though, the skill and aplomb of the Jessie Scouts they actually did, but the raiders barely escaped through enemy territory.

"Not less than 12,000 men were maneuvered to effect my capture," Averell wrote. After the war, he would become a wealthy inventor, popularizing asphalt pavement.

Shadow War, Stalemate, Shenandoah

By the spring of 1864, after three years of what both sides expected would be a quick war, Northern support had so eroded that attempts to draft more men resulted in riots in many cities (some 120,000 managed to evade conscription in legal and illegal ways). Tens of thousands of members of the Union army would eventually desert, some fleeing to Canada, where one element of the CSS was headquartered in Montreal. There, it focused on influencing the November election in the U.S. and oversaw efforts to free thousands of Confederate prisoners in U.S. jails and prison camps with its special forces.

That March, Lincoln had promoted Grant to be commander of all Union forces and pursue a new and more aggressive strategy. But in June, Confederate Gen. Jubal Early's army had nearly seized Washington, D.C., while Grant's forces had been stalled outside Richmond, suffering a staggering 70,000 killed, wounded, or captured. Leading Northern papers owned by Democrats were insisting that the war be ended with a negotiated settlement that would have likely resulted in the Confederacy's independence and recognition by Britain and France in order to get the South's high-quality cotton.

But Grant named Gen. Philip Sheridan to be the commander of the Army of the Shenandoah and gave him the assignment in August to conduct an almost scorched-earth policy to defeat all the rebel forces who had been controlling Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, the back door to D.C.

Sheridan understood the value of his special forces and broke through the bureaucracy that had prevented their being armed with the Spencer rifle. This was the first operational lever-action repeating rifle that that fired a metallic cartridge at a time when most rifles still used paper cartridges. Soldiers using it could fire some 20 rounds per minute, compared with the traditional rifled musket's of about two or three. But the Spencer was much more expensive and strained the North's logistical supply chain, so officials had resisted equipping the entire Army with the weapon.

Led by Sheridan's Jessie Scouts, who furnished priceless intelligence and combated Southern Irregulars in the Shenandoah campaign, where Shenandoah campaign, where Sheridan began delivering badly needed Northern victories in September, though with high casualties on both sides. The Third Battle of Winchester, for example, resulted in 4,000 killed, wounded, or missing for the Confederates, while the Union army lost 5,000.

Election and Assassination

As the November election loomed ("the most important in American history," wrote O'Donnell), the anti-Lincoln campaign split into factions. The so-called War Democrats backed the former commander of Union forces, George McClellan, who called for an armistice and negotiations. The Peace Democrats' candidates demanded an immediate end to the war and were secretly supported by the CSS. McClellan eventually won the party's nomination.

John Fremont, founder of the original Jessie Scouts, became the independent candidate of the Radical Republicans, who did not think Lincoln was advocating abolition of slavery and Black civil rights strongly enough, but he soon dropped out.

Lincoln decided to jettison his Republican vice president and recruited the pro-Union Democratic governor of Tennessee, Andrew Johnson, then ran under the banner of the National Union Party to attract a wide range of voters.

It was the first U.S. election in which absentee ballots were allowed, since so many voters were in the field, and despite extensive efforts at fraud masterminded by the CSS, seven out of 10 Unionist soldiers voted for Lincoln. While the Electoral College delivered 212 delegates for Lincoln to 12 for McClellan, the popular vote was much closer, 55% to 45%. A shift of 80,000 votes in three states could have made McClellan president.

"The Confederates' near victory at Cedar Creek might have been the event that changed the result, but Federal military successes Winchester, in Atlanta, and the naval Battle of Mobile Bay, which sealed off the port from blockade runners...had shifted the will of the country," wrote O'Donnell. Sheridan's Jessie Scouts played a significant role in the Shenandoah.

Because Lincoln's security was remarkably light and D.C. was next to Maryland (part of the Union, but full of Confederate sympathizers), kidnapping him seemed a very realistic strategy. A prelude to this was to be a campaign of terror, including burning down New York City, but the eight simultaneous attempts at the end of November failed thanks to problems with the materials and lighters, as well as the quick response by firefighters and citizens.

The same month, however, the Rangers had captured Scouts' founder Blazer in West Virginia. In the wake, Sheridan merged the Scout units under the command of Henry Young, a battlefield veteran, "master of disguise and...psychological warfare that would wear Confederates with fear of the unseen." These men would continue to lead Sheridan's army.

As Sheridan's campaign drove out the Southern forces from the Shenandoah, the Jessie Scouts reconnoitered Southern defenses, which Sheridan exploited, forcing Lee to retreat from Richmond and Petersburg weeks ahead of schedule.

The South hatched various covert operations to alter the war, The first attempt to kidnap Lincoln failed in March 1865 and John Wilkes Booth was put in charge of the next effort at Ford's Theater. The Confederate Secret Service, escorted by Mosby's Rangers, planned an assassination by blowing up the White House.

Even after Lee surrendered on April 9, the war was not over, with over 175,000 Confederate soldiers continuing to fight across the South. President Jefferson Davis kept moving by rail and calling for all to turn to guerrilla warfare.

Lincoln was murdered by Booth on April 14. He escaped with the help of the CSS (which burned its papers) and members of the Rangers, but was killed on the 26th.

This summary of O'Donnell's landmark new book is merely the tip of an enthralling iceberg of information and stories you have never read anywhere else.

Patrick O'Donnell
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