By Doug Coleman
John Singleton Mosby was born in Powhatan County in 1833. His family moved to Albemarle County in 1840. In 1847 he enrolled in Hampden Sydney College, which did not work out. In 1850 he enrolled in the University of Virginia, where he was expelled for shooting a townie named Turpin in the neck (dueling was considered a violation of the University’s honor code). Mosby was tried for unlawful shooting and given a year in jail. His family had some influence, so he was pardoned by the governor and his substantial fine forgiven by the legislature.
His arrest and trial was a turning point for Mosby. He had grown to respect his prosecutor, William Robertson, and expressed an interest in the law. Robertson encouraged him and gave him access to his law library while he was jailed. After his pardon, he studied law under Robertson and joined the Virginia Bar.
He married in 1857 and had two children by the time things were heating up in 1860. He opposed secession. Still, when the North invaded, he joined the army as a private and fought at First Manassas. He subsequently scouted for Stuart’s cavalry during the Peninsular Campaign in 1862, where he was captured and imprisoned in Washington’s Old capitol Prison. He was exchanged very quickly and returned to service. Following the battle of Fredericksburg in December, Mosby served with Stuart to disrupt supply and communications behind Yankee lines.
Mosby was about to become famous as Lee authorized Mosby to take command of the 43rd battalion of the Virginia cavalry. This proceeded to operate under the rules pertaining to partisan rangers, as authorized by the Confederate Congress – they were not subject to the sort of discipline as regular soldiers and got to keep a portion of what they captured – privateers on horseback. In Mosby’s famous “Greenback Raid” each of his men received a couple thousand dollars when a soldier’s pay might be $13 a month.
Mosby continued his disruption of Federal communications in Northern Virginia in January and February 1863. On March 2nd, he led a small band into Aldie, surprising and routing a detachment of cavalry that had been out looking for him. He captured 19 at the cost of one trooper wounded.
On March 8th, Mosby led 29 men to Fairfax Courthouse on a night raid. He captured Union general Edwin Stoughton in bed, together with two captains, 30 soldiers and a company’s worth of horses. Mosby promptly earned a promotion to captain. By the end of March he was a major. He made Lt. Colonel in January 1864, full colonel in December 1864.
The regiment “formally” organized in Rectortown in June 1863; seven more companies, plus a short-lived battery of light howitzers, would follow. At its height in 1864, the regiment had about 400 men, though about 1900 served over the duration. These men were dispersed throughout the Virginia piedmont, generally within a day’s ride of Middleburg. They lived with local families or camped on their land and were largely locals themselves, enjoying warm beds, hot food and up to the hour intelligence on Yankee movements from their neighbors.
They were careful not to dress in the blue uniforms of their opponents, as that would get them shot or hung as spies if captured, but they had no regular uniform and helped themselves to every other piece of Yankee equipment they needed. The Yankees did hang seven of his men allegedly caught out of uniform at Front Royal in September 1864. Sheridan advocated rounding up the Rangers’ families as guarantors of good conduct and summary executions whenever a guerilla was captured – this at a time when Sheridan was already burning out the Shenandoah Valley, rebel and loyalist alike, to starve the Confederacy.
Mosby, with Lee’s approval, retaliated for his men’s execution by having his Yankee prisoners draw lots for the same fate. Of the seven men selected, three were hanged, two were shot in the head (and recovered) and two escaped. Mosby sent a note to his counterpart that reprisal would be the new normal if the executions continued; the Yankees stopped hanging his men.
The fact that the Yankees were hanging prisoners suggests a certain sense of desperation, which in turn implies that Mosby’s partisans were effective. Mosby’s himself declared that the goal of his command was to disrupt the enemy’s supply lines and communications, forcing the Union to divert 100 men for each of his own just to guard the rear. Grant is reported to have complained that Mosby diverted 17,000 men from the front. In Alexandria, log stockades and gates went up and blockhouses were erected to guard Duke and King Streets, lest nightriders dash in and burn warehouses and rail stock. The bridges along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad were fortified and garrisoned against Confederate raiders. Supply wagons and couriers needed an escort. Even this did not always work. On August 13, 1864 Mosby and 300 of his rangers hit Sheridan’s supply train at Berryville. For a loss of two killed, Mosby captured 100 wagons, 200 cattle, several hundred horses and 200 Yankees, killing five and wounding ten.
This last raid more than annoyed Grant. On August 16th, he wrote Sheridan suggesting that he detach a division of cavalry to sweep Loudoun County of all its livestock, Negroes and any male under 50. Sheridan could not spare a division from the Valley campaign against Early, but he did detach 650 troopers. Following Early’s defeat at Cedar Creek, in November Sheridan gave orders to lay waste to Mosby’s Confederacy in earnest, ordering his cavalry to: “destroy all forage and subsistence, burn all barns and mills and their contents and drive all livestock in the region.” But he did temper this by emphasizing no homes should be burned or civilians harmed. Sheridan’s decree fell upon the Unionists and rebels alike. The Yankees burned 230 barns, 8 mills, a distillery, 8000 tons of hay and 25,000 bushels of grain, slaughtered 1000 hogs and drove off 5-6000 cattle, 3-4000 sheep, and 5-700 horses. Twelve rangers were captured. Mosby wisely avoided combat with this vastly superior force and devoted his resources to driving livestock away from the Yankee dragnet.
Notwithstanding Union efforts to starve him out or hunt him down, Mosby was still conducting operations upon Lee’s surrender. He attempted to surrender to the Union commander in Winchester, but they could not come to terms. He never surrendered his command. He simply disbanded it on April 21st. Mosby himself ended the war with a $5000 bounty on his head and it was two months before the Yankees stopped hunting him and gave him the same terms as the rest of Lee’s army. He had been wounded three times; a bullet through the thigh at Annandale in August of 1863, a bullet to the groin in September of 1864 and a gunshot wound to the belly in December of 1864. He was just 31 when the war ended.
Mosby returned to his law practice in Warrenton. The occupying Yankees gave him a hard time, necessitating a personal note from Grant for his family’s safe conduct. Mosby ended as a Republican supporter of Grant, which provoked the contempt of his neighbors. He left Warrenton for the District, but had trouble finding clients. He sought a political appointment and became consul to Hong Kong, a position he held from 1878 -1885. Upon his return, he spent 16 years as a railroad lawyer for the Southern Pacific in California. In 1901 he returned to Washington to become a lawyer for the Department of Justice, where he retired at 76. He died on Memorial Day 1916 and is buried in Warrenton.
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at email@example.com.