By Jeffry D. Wert

Simon and Schuster

384 pp. $22.95

IN A VAST triangle extending west from Washington to Harpers Ferry and Front Royal -- along roads where commuters now creep and Sunday drivers meander -- the most storied command in American military history raided and romped through the last two years of the Civil War.

Col. John Singleton Mosby and his 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry galloped into legend even before Appomattox and have remained there ever since. Now Pennsylvania historian Jeffrey Wert takes a fresh, unromantic look at Mosby's band and finds that -- for all his brilliance as a commander and their skill as fighters -- the unvanquished rangers probably did little to delay Union victory and instead brought unnecessary suffering to their own people.

With a good local map in hand, Wert's book also serves as a valuable guide for day trips to dozens of towns and villages where Mosby operated, each with a story or two to tell. Some are now close-in suburbs (Fairfax City, Herndon, Centreville, Chantilly, Dranesville) and most of the rest lie in beautiful countryside within an hour's drive of Washington: Leesburg, Waterford, Hamilton, Hillsboro, Harpers Ferry, Point of Rocks, Berlin (now Brunswick), Hamilton, Purcellville, Aldie, Middleburg, Upperville, Paris, Snickersville (Bluemont), Rector's Crossroads (Atoka), Rectortown, Salem (Marshall), Piedmont (Delaplane), the Plains, Markham, Berryville, Millwood, Rectors Crossroads, Warrenton, Culpeper, Front Royal. All that is Mosby country.

The Confederate experiment with independent commands of partisan figthers soured very quickly. Many were simply mounted ruffians, and their prerogatives -- the right to live near home and among friends, to eat and dress well, to be free of camp routine and massed combat and, not least, to plunder and keep their booty -- earned them the envy and scorn of Johnnie Reb. In less than two years, all but Mosby's command and another in the Shenandoah Valley were disbanded.

At one time or another, Wert writes, more than 1,900 men (each named in an appendix) rode with Mosby's eight companies -- about double previous estimates. Most by far were Virginians, many were teen-agers (the youngest 14) and for all their bravado they were also the boys next door: During a howling June rainstorm, Capt. Billy Smith and 40 of his men ducked into his family home near Warrenton, where Mom and Sis fixed the "wet, hungry rebels" a hot meal and put them up for the night.

Mosby's men provided their own fine horses, were armed only with a brace of Colt revolvers, carried a few sandwiches in a haversack and usually wore "something gray" (adding plumes or gold braid for holiday balls or engagement parties). They rode with "devil-may-care hilarity," and one victorious raiding party at Point of Rocks trotted off wearing captured bonnets and crinoline "like a parade of Fantastics."

Yet the rangers were up to serious business. They struck with surprise and fury -- destroying Union patrols and camps, capturing scouts and entire wagon trains, tearing up railroad tracks -- and then melted away to their homes or the mountains to await the next rendezvous. Federal cavalry stalked them futilely (majors Charles Russell Lowell and Caspar Crowninshield of Massachusetts almost made a career of it), and Blazer's Scouts -- a 100-man posse armed with repeating rifles and ordered to get Mosby -- were wiped out in a bloody ambush by their prey.

For a while, Mosby was a hero to his people -- and even served as policeman, judge and jury in areas where civil government had broken down. But guerrilla warfare turned inevitably into atrocity, execution and reprisal. On Nov. 28, 1864, an enraged Phil Sheridan ("I will let them know there is a God in Israel") sent 3,000 cavalrymen bursting eastward across the Blue Ridge, and for the next four days they torched much of Loudoun County and part of Fauquier in retribution for their support of Mosby. The final toll of the "Burning Raid" is unknown, but two regiments alone reported incinerating 150 Loudoun barns, six flour mills and a thousand haystacks in only two of the four days. In Middleburg, wrote Catherine Broun, "the whole heavens are illuminated by fires." At Waterford, two young women "watched their family's hay burn and, waving United States flags, shouted: 'Burn away, burn away, if it will prevent Mosby from coming here.' "

Four months later, the war was over and Mosby quietly disbanded his Rangers. They became doctors, policemen, publishers; Mosby himself turned Republican, buddied up to President Grant and served as U.S. consul to Hong Kong and later a Justice Department attorney. Memories of the rangers' exploits would succor the Lost Cause for decades. But they had ultimately failed. Their casualties were enormous -- 35 to 40 percent, Wert estimates, including 85 killed, mortally wounded, or executed, 16 dead in prison of disease, more than 100 wounded (including Mosby three times), 477 captured and 25 who deserted. In turn, writes Wert, it is difficult to quarrel with a Union cavalry historian's assessment that Mosby's rangers had not "accomplished anything more than to increase the cost and bitterness of the war."


The American Navy

In the Civil War

By William M. Fowler Jr.

Norton. 352 pp. $22.50

YOU CAN'T tread the waters where the Merrimack and Monitor dueled, and the Mississippi no longer flows below the Vicksburg bluff. So it's easy to forget that the Civil War was fought as desperately on water as on land. But in fact, naval operations figured prominently and successfully in the North's grand strategy: While the Army was capturing the secessionist capital at Richmond, the Navy would sieze control of the Mississippi to break the Confederacy in two and blockade its ports against arms and supplies from Europe.

At the start, neither navy amounted to much. The Union fleet was scattered from the Mediterranean to the Pacific (thanks to the negligence, or worse, of Southern-sympathizing Navy Secretary Isaac Toucy), and the Confederate fleet consisted of a mere 10 ships mounting 15 guns. To some extent, Fowler's story is one of bureaucratic rivalry (Secretary of State William Seward tried to order the Navy around until waved off by Lincoln), intra-service feuding (the Union's Mississippi gunboats were under Army command for a time) and innovative efforts to build ships (British yards skirted neutrality laws by building only hulls and sending them to the Azores or elsewhere to be fitted for war).

But the navies never lacked for fighting verve, and Fowler, a Northeastern University history professor, does full justice to the heroics and theatrics: Adm. David Farragut lashed to the rigging at Mobile Bay, the better to see over the smoke of battle; the mountainous Confederate ram Albemarle sunk by 16 Union sailors in a small launch with a mine attached to a spar; the abandoned Confederate ironclad Louisiana sent drifting ablaze toward a Union squadron on the Mississippi and exploding "in a Wagnerian finale"; the incredible odyssey of the Confederate raider Shenandoah, whose skipper refused to believe the war was over and sailed her from the Bering Sea around Cape Horn to England -- finally hauling down her colors seven months after Appomattox.

And there were lesser heroes -- those who conducted the coastal surveys, designed powerful guns and explosives, built the new ironclads and the not-so-new rams. Not least were the men in the ranks. At one point David Porter's gunboats were trapped and tangled in a Mississippi bayou with Rebels pinging minie' balls off the metal hulls. Fowler writes: "The men sensed doom. Porter put the crews on half rations; he told them to sleep by their guns and stand ready to repel boarders. Should all this fail, they were to blow up the boats, arm themselves and take to the swamps."

In the end, the navies could claim only partial success. The blockade isolated the South but failed to cripple it economically; the Confederate raiders were mere "paper sharks"; the Union Army and Navy seldom coordinated their operations; and not every innovation worked (25 ancient whalers loaded with stones were sunk to seal off Charleston harbor, but within a month sea creatures and channel currents had nibbled and washed away the barrier). And though the U.S. Navy emerged from the Civil War "as one of the most powerful seaborne forces in the world, {it} just as quickly disappeared . . . Fowler writes. The sailors were sent home, the heroes forgotten, the ships sold or scrapped and the technological lessons lost -- and the Navy soon "lapsed into a period of decline and neglect."


A Southern Community

In the Great Rebellion

By Wayne K. Durrill

Oxford. 288 pp. $29.95

Washington County lies on the southern shore of North Carolina's Albemarle Sound and in 1860 was a plantation society (tobacco and cedar shingles) dominated by a few families in uneasy alliance with affluent small farmers. Five years late, it was in ruins. In this unusual social of that society is explored by an editor with the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland.

Soon after the outbreak of war, the county's repressed tenant farmers and wage laborers realized that the oligarchy was doomed and quickly began vying to pick up the pieces. Early in the war, Federal troops moved into coastal enclaves, and slaves began fleeing to their protection. Other slaves seized plantation land for themselves, raising and selling crops; still others were "refugeed" by their owners to upcountry farmers and managed a degree of liberty. Widespread guerrilla warfare eventually broke out, prompting Jefferson Davis to order 10,000 troops to destroy the county seat at Plymouth. The chaos was complete, and by war's end, antebellum Washington County was gone with the wind.

In a fascinating statistical appendix, Durrill examines the county's leaders and soldiers in terms of their Confederate or Union sympathies, occupations, real-estate holdings, personal properties and slave-holdings. Each man who fought, he concludes, "calculate{d} how his economic interests might best be served" and each -- whether planter, middling farmer, artisan or laborer -- "had something to gain, providing the fortunes of war smiled upon him."


An Illustrated History

By Geoffrey C. Ward with

Ric Burns and Ken Burns

Knopf. 426 pp. $50

IF YOU buy this stunning volume, be sure to leave it out where young people can find it. Though by no means a children's book, it cannot help but fascinate young minds and young curiosities -- or indeed anyone only passingly familiar with America's great tragedy.

The Civil War is a companion volume to the recent PBS television series of the same title and was prepared with the assistance of its eloquent and masterful young director, Ken Burns. It offers by far the best combination of text, photos, lithographs, paintings and maps that I can think of.

The text covers the war in straightforward fashion and is augmented by cameos on aspects as diverse as music, spies and the death of Willie Lincoln. Separate essays expand the causes of the war (Don E. Fehrenbacher), slavery (Barbara J. Fields), the soldiers (Shelby Foote), politics (James M. McPherson) and the war's legacy (C. Vann Woodward).

But what makes the book so compelling are the hundreds of photos -- most glimpsed only fleetingly in the PBS series. Many have not been published before, and all are superbly reproduced. (Studying them with a magnifying glass can yield additional treasures of detail.) One sees the steamboats that saved Grant at Shiloh, Confederate pickets warming their hands over a campfire at Fredericksburg, a Union mess hall decorated for Christmas, black troops at a reading lessson, hundreds of fresh graves at Stones River and a covey of old-timers dashing across a field at Gettysburg on the 50th anniversary of Pickett's Charge.

Perhaps the most searing photos are individual portraits of about 70 young men posing proudly in their neat uniforms, and then 250 pages later another 50 young men -- all wounded in Virginia in the last two weeks of the war -- displaying their stumps, scars and mutilations for the records of the Harewood Army Hospital in Washington.

Robert A. Webb is an editor of the Outlook section of The Washington Post.