Book Review: Yank and Rebel Rangers: Special Operations in the American Civil War, by Robert W. Black

The literature on elite military forces typically involves spectacular and legendary stories of specialized units performing extraordinary battlefield operations. Special operations forces consist of highly skilled and trained soldiers who can work in austere and asymmetric environments. From the Biblical account of King David’s “mighty men”[1] to the modern-day SEAL Team Six, specialized forces have played a pivotal role throughout military history. Of the myriad of special operations forces, the units known as Rangers have a celebrated history and lineage that has evolved in today’s US Army, 75th Ranger Regiment. Their past includes well-known units such as Rogers’ Rangers of American Revolution fame; Mosby’s Rangers, the Confederate cavalry shock troops of the Civil War; and the US Army Ranger Assault Group that scaled the heights of Ponte du Hoc during the Normandy beach landings during WWII.

If there was a “ranger laboratory” where skills, purpose, and missions were honed and perfected, it was during the American Civil War. Author Robert W. Black examines the role small, independent, and unconventional units played during the American Civil War in his newest book: Yank and Rebel Rangers, Special Operations in the American Civil War, published by Pen & Sword Ltd, UK, 2019.

Black, a retired US Army colonel and 1995 inductee to the US Army Ranger Hall Fame,[2] takes readers on a literary reconnaissance of relatively unknown unconventional units during the Civil War. In 370 pages, Black divides the book just as the horrific conflict did – Part 1 explores “The Rebels” and Part 2 the “Yank Rangers.” The prologue, preface, and epilogue are equally impressive, where the author reveals valuable background information on the overarching complexity (i.e. varied purposes, roles, and functions) ranger-like units exhibited throughout their history. Most impressive, reflective of all Robert Black books, is his research; in Yank and Rebel Rangers, readers will find literally hundreds of sources, and citations and a rich bibliography. Archival photographs of key leaders are included in the book, thereby bringing to life the personalities of characters mentioned throughout the book.

Investment is made in the initial chapters to explain the myriad of reasons why partisan, non-military, and apolitical populations formed unconventional armed forces or guerrilla outfits. The name ranger evokes the battlefield tactic of ranging beyond static positions, such as a city, fort, or an area where primary combat operations are conducted. In early America, those who knew the land and relied on instinct to survive via farming or hunting made fine rangers. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, citizens found themselves pitted in a vicious conflict where many could not avoid choosing sides, which would be the case during the Civil War. Conventional commanders began to see the value of recruiting such capable partisans, seeing them as not only excellent fighters, but as a capable force to spy, scout, and perform special operations independently of their conventional units. Following the American independence, these elite units faded away until the country found itself in a horrific civil war where once again both sides found ranger units an effective force multiplier and capability.

Black intentionally does not focus this book on the more popular guerrilla or light cavalry leaders or units. For example, notable experts of shock force tactics are not included in the book, such as John Mosby, John Morgan, and Nathan Forrest. Instead, and more interestingly, Black introduces readers to Confederate ranger units like, The Moccasin Rangers, The Iron Scouts, and The Comanche’s. Likewise, the author highlights similar Union ranger units such as, the Loudoun Rangers, The Snake-Hunters, and The Swamp Dragons. The author provides interesting details that show how the opposing ranger units similarly worked in concert with conventional forces, executing missions that enabled the main forces or regional commands to move and maneuver more freely. Confederate and Union ranger units (sometimes referred to as “raiders”) perfected the art of screening, scouting, deception, and protecting the flanks of larger formations. Black eloquently and factually writes vignettes of actual ranger-like activities, accomplishments, and, in some cases, the atrocities committed by these unique organizations. The author clearly shows how both sides were equally adept at attacking the opposition’s vulnerable logistical hubs, rail and road networks, and command and control nodes; and in a few instances, transitioning from legitimate rangering-type units to criminal gangs and outlaws.

Where the book may be lacking balance is the author spends most of the book discussing Confederate units more than he does Federal ranger-like units. Some readers may want to learn more about Union unconventional units (and their success, atrocities, and failures). For example, the Long-Roberts Partisans,[3] the 5th Tennessee Cavalry, USA,[4] Doc Morse’s Guerillas[5], and the Orr Brothers[6] who played equally famous or infamous roles for the Union during the war.

Overall, the book is an excellent overview, and in many instances entertaining, of the evolution of the Rangers during the American Civil War. Readers having a special operations background or interest, as well as Civil War buffs, will be rewarded by reading this book.


[1] King James Bible, 2 Samuel 23:8-38


[3] Stephens, Larry D., John P. Gatewood: Confederate Bushwhacker, 2012, p. 93 and 95

[4] Baggett, James Alex. Hometown Yankees: Tennessee’s Union Cavalry in the Civil War, LSU Press, 2009

[5] The Civil War Irregulars in the Chattanooga Area, Thursday, July 16, 2015 – by Chuck Hamilton;

[6] The Reluctant Yanks, The Civil War Letters of Joseph F. & B. Franklin Orr, Co. F, 76th Ohio Infantry, web version,