I’ve never (no, never) seen a historic house that I haven’t wanted to go right into.
A famous person lived here? Something significant occurred there? Knock, knock, let me in. A great work was born inside those walls, in that room, on this desk? Lemme see, lemme see.
I mean, if you want to get close to history — touch it, feel it, breathe it, absorb it, understand it — where better than in the places where the men and women who made it lived and worked and thought and did? Maybe even left a little psychic energy behind. (Okay, that’s a little fanciful, but you never know. . . .)
So I was disappointed the first time, a few years ago, that I saw the Mosby house in Warrenton, Va. That would be the house that John Singleton Mosby, a.k.a. the Gray Ghost, a.k.a. Confederate raider extraordinaire, occupied for some number (more on this later) of years after the Civil War. The graceful stuccoed Italianate stood empty and inaccessible on its wide grassy lot right on Main Street, and all I could do was stand outside the locked wrought-iron gate and peer intently at the front door and the floor-to-ceiling windows and wish I could roam around in there.
Cut to the present, and guess what? The then-stalled plans for a museum in the Mosby house eventually became unstalled, allowing the Mosby Museum to open a year ago March 9. “The 150th anniversary of Mosby’s raid on Fairfax Court House,” museum docent William Connery informs my husband and me meaningfully, referring to the daring foray that made Mosby famous (he nabbed a Union general). Hmm. That’s a neat coincidence. Or is it Mosby’s left-behind psychic energy. . . ?
At the moment, we’re the only visitors on this early spring afternoon, so we get a personal tour from the highly knowledgeable — and most expressive — Connery, who greets us on the wide front porch dressed, in true Southern style, in sport coat and slacks, plus a gray baseball cap that reads “The Gray Ghost” over Mosby’s signature.
Standing on the porch, we hear the story of the house, which was built in 1859 by a local judge named Edward Spilman, from whom Mosby bought it in — well, sometime after the Civil War. The precise details are a little sticky, you see, and still apparently under investigation. “He may have lived here as early as 1866,” says Connery, though the only dates of his occupancy that are absolutely clear are the years 1875-76.
This would jibe with the big old metal state historical marker on the front lawn, which flatly declares that Mosby lived in “Brentmoor” for two years. But Brentmoor, it turns out, was a 20th-century dubbing. Mosby called it the Main Street House, another staffer tells me. And since he might have lived in it as long as 11 years, that could make the marker wrong on two counts. But people know more now. It all has to do with the way deeds were recorded back in those days, apparently. The researchers will get to the bottom of it, I’m sure.
Anyway, can we go inside now, please? And so we do. Into the wide and spacious entry hall (just as I imagined, except no grand staircase; the stairs are all but hidden in a separate hall at the back of the house), lined with photos of the good-looking Mosby in various guises — with facial hair and without, posing alone or with a group of his Raiders, in uniform and in civvies.
Connery points to one shot of a uniformed Mosby with a star on his collar. “This is why so many people think he was a general,” he says. (Is he talking to me? Because, um, guilty.) “They think a star means a general, but in the Confederate Army, it meant a major.” Ah.
In the two high-ceilinged (and I mean high!) parlors, the furnishings are period, but not authentic Mosby or anything, although some are from the descendants of Eppa Hunton, the Virginia lawyer and politician (and fellow Confederate officer) who bought the house when Mosby left town in 1877. One small framed item on a wall in one room, though, is indisputably Gray Ghost — a copy of the letter issued after the war by none other than Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, giving Mosby, who had a bounty on his head, full parole and the right “to travel freely within the state of Virginia.”
“It was the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card,” Connery says. I’ll say.
And after that, Mosby settled into the postbellum life of a local lawyer. His wartime exploits may have made his name, and probably still controversially define him for most people today, but turns out, there was so much more to the man (who was nothing if not controversial). “We’re celebrating his whole life,” emphasizes museum co-director Madeleine Gibbs. And between Connery and the many informational placards on the walls throughout the house, you can learn everything about it.
Like: that he at first opposed secession and didn’t approve of slavery, but nonetheless had a slave, Aaron Burton, who served him throughout the war. That he was wounded seven times. That he was only 5-foot-6, with a steely stare that could bore right through you. (“He got that from his mother,” Connery says.) That after the war, he befriended Grant (there was that pardon, and also he’d been impressed by Grant’s kindness to Lee at Appomattox), and even managed Grant’s 1872 presidential campaign in Virginia. Which earned him the enmity of many of his fellow townsfolk, and a potshot from an unknown gunman at the Warrenton depot. That he joined the Republican Party. And allowed thereafter as how “hell is being a Republican in Virginia.” (That was then, of course. . . .)
Also that he and his wife, Pauline, had eight children, the youngest two of whom died in infancy. That Pauline died at just 39 from complications following the birth of the youngest. This was in a second-floor room of the Main Street House. No, we can’t go up and have a look, darn it. At least not yet; the staff hopes to furnish it (there’s a period bed all ready to go, Gibbs tells me) and open it up eventually. (We’ll have to come back!)
After Pauline’s death, Mosby headed off to Hong Kong, where he served as U.S. consul. Afterward, he lived and lawyered in California — and befriended a family by the name of Patton and their young son, Georgie, whom he counseled on theories of military strategy. Coming back to Washington, he worked for the Justice Department, and died in 1916.
Wow, that was a long life after the war. And just as swashbuckling.
He’s buried in Warrenton Cemetery, next to his beloved Pauline, so we set off to see his resting place, making a couple of stops along the way: at the Mosby memorial beside the Old Courthouse on pretty Main Street, an obelisk with the usual paeans to his honor, virtue, courage, etc.; and at the California Building, where he and his partner, James Keith, had their law offices.
We wander around for a while trying unsuccessfully to pinpoint the latter’s location. Finally, I ask a woman having a smoke outside a square red-brick building where it is. “You’re looking at it,” she says. So we stand and look at it some more, then move on to the cemetery.
Searching seems to be the theme for the day, because we have a spot of trouble finding Mosby’s grave site, too, though we come upon it at last. It’s just a plain granite block, not far from the Confederate memorial but distinctly separate from it, among a row of old headstones. Nothing fancy.
We stand and look at it for a time, too, in the spring sunshine, among the live oaks and the cedars swaying in a gentle breeze. And in the all-encompassing stillness, well, I swear I can feel the man’s psychic energy still flowing.