The rough and tough exploits of Confederate raider John Mosby

September 7, 2012

Partisan ranger John Singleton Mosby is a most enduring Civil War character in a crowded field. He operated outside the usual chain of military command and became famous for his lightning strikes against unsuspecting Union troops followed by an equally rapid disappearance. The “Gray Ghost,” as he was known, was a showman, wearing a scarlet-lined grey cloak and plumed hat, and he reveled in his notoriety. His assignment was to harass, delay and demoralize Northern troops occupying central and western Virginia and he did it well.

The South called him a hero. The North called him a guerrilla and thief.

He was all three. Mosby and his men were rough and tough heroes to residents who felt protected by them and offered them places to stay, and to the South in general for their successful raids. Although officially volunteers in the military, as partisan rangers they were obligated to supply their own needs. They made good use of the plunder taken in frequent raids, including the finest horses and guns.

Uniforms weren’t a concern because Mosby told his men to wear any piece of gray clothing.

In a time when men still camped in large numbers and marched as a unit directly into enemy fire, Mosby’s methods were revolutionary. His headquarters were in the saddle; there was no place for the enemy to attack. His raids occurred when the time was right and no one knew his plans until they met at the appointed place.

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He modeled his operation on Continental Army Brig. Gen. Francis Marion, known as the Swamp Fox, who ambushed the British and then disappeared into South Carolina woodland or swamps during the American Revolution. Marion, in turn, had learned the technique from the Cherokees during the French and Indian War.

Mosby, a lawyer, joined the Confederate army when he was 28 and married with two children. He served under cavalry commander Capt. J.E.B. Stuart, a man his own age and one he came to idolize. He was Stuart’s scout on his famous 100-mile ride around Union Gen. George B. McClellan’s army in June 1862.

It was Stuart who acquiesced to Mosby’s request in December 1862 to give him a few men and allow him to try out his Swamp Fox-inspired plan to disrupt Union activity in Loudoun County. The men often met at Rectors Cross Roads, near Middleburg, at the start of a raid because of the easy access, friendly residents and good spring for watering the horses.

By late February, Mosby’s Raiders had scored three successful hits on Union outposts. In response, Union Col. Sir Percy Wyndham, stationed at Fairfax Court House, dispatched 200 troops under Maj. Joseph Gilmore on March 2 to find Mosby and arrest him. Gilmore headed to Middleburg, a town suspected of harboring the raiders, but en route the officer and his troops got drunk when several bottles were passed around. When they reached Middleburg, they tore up the town, searched every house and then arrested all the old men of Middleburg — the only men around — and took them as prisoners of war.

Mosby, hearing of the mayhem, gathered 17 of his men and rode after the Union troops, hoping to catch up with them either in Middleburg or at Aldie on the road back to Fairfax Court House. They missed Gilmore but did find other Union troops at Aldie getting horse feed at the mill. The raiders charged with wild whoops, bearing down on the surprised soldiers who seemed unable to move. Mosby captured 19 soldiers and 23 horses. He had again embarrassed the Union.

Adding to his luster, the elderly men who had been dumped by Gilmore outside town and left to walk home assumed Mosby was their rescuer and referred to him as a hero.

Mosby did not fit the image of the brawny, military superstar. Born near Richmond on Dec. 6, 1833, he wasn’t expected to live through childhood. Always a sickly and frail child, he was often bullied by classmates. As an adult, he was shorter than average and weighed about 125 pounds. In group photos, he is the thinnest man in the picture.

Wyndham lashed out at Mosby, calling him nothing but a horse thief. Mosby responded that the only horses he had taken had riders on them, armed with sabers and guns. It was then that Mosby began plotting his revenge for the insult by kidnapping the Englishman from his heavily guarded headquarters at Fairfax Court House.

On the cold winter night of March 8, 1863, the 29 raiders Mosby had handpicked for the assignment showed up at the meeting place. As he described the events, there was still snow on the ground and rain began to fall as the raiders picked their way through wooded sections, avoiding regularly traveled roads. At one point a Union scout hailed them, and after assuring him they were Fifth New York Cavalry, they promptly arrested him. Working their way carefully around Union camp sites, they reached Fairfax Court House at 2 a.m. where all was quiet with only a few sentries on duty. No one was expecting any trouble this far inside the lines.

Mosby cautioned his men to be quick as they had to be back to their own base by dawn. The men began gathering horses from every stable. Discovering that Wyndham was in Washington for the night, Mosby chose a new target: Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Stoughton.

Mosby knocked loudly on the house where he was staying, a window opened and someone asked who was there. “Fifth New York Cavalry with a dispatch for General Stoughton,” Mosby replied. The door was opened by Stoughton’s lieutenant and Mosby and his men pushed their way in, demanding to be taken to the general’s bedroom. He was found sleeping heavily under a pile of quilts with several empty champagne bottles near the bed.

Mosby pulled the blankets back and slapped Stoughton’s naked behind. The general sputtered awake and Mosby told him he was under arrest. Then he asked him if he had ever heard of Mosby and the general said he had.

“I am Mosby,” Mosby said, obviously enjoying the moment. “Stuart’s cavalry has possession of the Court House; be quick and get dressed.”

Outside, the raiders had gathered every horse available and about 60 prisoners including two captains, seven couriers and the camp telegraph operator. Carefully, quietly, they left Fairfax Court House without firing a shot and returned home. They had done what had been considered impossible.

In his memoirs, published posthumously in 1917, Mosby reflected on that morning as they reached safety at Centreville.

“The sun had just risen and in the rapture of the moment, I said to [ranger] Slater, ‘George, this is the sun of Austerlitz,’ ” referring to one of Napoleon’s greatest victories at the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz, when the sun broke through heavy mist at just the opportune moment. “I knew I had drawn a prize in the lottery of life and my emotion was natural and should be pardoned.”

In June 1863, at Rector’s Cross Roads, Mosby’s Rangers got the official military designation of Company A, 43rd Battalion, 1st Virginia Cavalry. By then, Mosby had been promoted to major.

They operated in a large swath of Virginia that became known as Mosby’s Confederacy and the name lives on today. It has a triangular shape and is bordered by the Shenandoah Valley to the west, the Potomac River to Alexandria on the east and the Rappahannock River on the south. Most of his operations were centered in Fauquier and Loudoun counties.

At the end of the war, Mosby disbanded his rangers rather than surrender as a unit. Many of his men got their parole, after signing a statement vowing not to take up arms against the United States again, and returned home. Mosby did not do the same. He was awaiting advice from his commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, but it never came. He tried to work out his personal surrender with Maj. Gen. W. S. Hancock, headquartered in Winchester, but Hancock refused and instead offered a reward of $5,000 for Mosby’s arrest.

Mosby was no longer an active combatant. Instead, he was a man on the run. It was Gen. Ulysses S. Grant who finally stepped in and arranged his parole.

Much of Mosby’s Confederacy looks as it did in the 1860, thanks to efforts by preservation groups, and his name is attached to an elementary school and the section of Route 50 between Paris and Lenah. Warrenton has a monument and a museum honoring him.

Rector’s Cross Roads, now named Atoka, is still a tiny place with few buildings, one of which is the location where the 43rd Battalion was officially organized. It is now the headquarters of the Mosby Heritage Area Association.

Wheeler writes “A House Divided” blog on washingtonpost.com/civilwar.

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