Perhaps, the best-known Confederate partisan cavalry unit was John Singleton Mosby’s Rangers. The unit was formed in January of 1863 by Mosby and named the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry. This was later expanded into Mosby’s Command, a regimental-sized unit of partisan rangers operating in Northern Virginia.
The 43rd Battalion operated officially as a unit of the Army of Northern Virginia, subject to the commands of Robert E. Lee Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, but its men (1,900 of whom served from January 1863 through April 1865) lived outside of the norms of regular army cavalrymen.
The Confederate government certified special rules to govern the conduct of partisan rangers. These included sharing in the disposition of spoils of war. They had no camp duties and lived scattered among the civilian population. Mosby required proof from any volunteer that he had not deserted from the regular service, and only about 10% of his men had served previously in the Confederate Army.
John Singleton Mosby did not fit the part of the Gray Ghost of the Confederacy. He was a rather slim, spare man who would not attract much attention in a crowd. A native Virginian, he was born on December 6, 1933 in Powhatan County into an old family of English origin.
Mosby’s family moved to Albemarle County near Charlottesville in 1840 where he attended elementary and secondary school. He entered the University of Virginia in 1949 where he took Classical Studies. In his third year he was involved in a duel with a notorious bully who he bested. However, he was arrested, tried and convicted two serious felonies. Sentenced to a prison term he used the time wisely by studying the law.
Mosby was pardoned on December 23, 1853 by the governor. He continued his law studies and was admitted to the bar. In 1857 he married Pauline Clarke in Nashville, Tennessee. The couple settled in Bristol, Virginia which was close to the bride’s hometown in Kentucky.
Mosby expressed opinions that were opposed to secession but joined the Confederate Army as a private at the start of the war. He initially served in the Washington Mounted Rifles under William “Grumble” Jones. Jones was instructed to enlarge the unit by Confederate authorities. He did as instructed and the unit was renamed the Virginia Volunteers with two mounted companies and eight companies of infantry. He did not like the lack of congeniality in the enlarged unit and asked for a transfer. It was denied. The unit participated in the Battle of First Manassas.
J.E.B. Stuart realized Mosby’s skill at gathering intelligence, promoted him to first lieutenant and him assigned him to his scouts. He was with Stuart during the famous “Ride Around the Union Army” during the Peninsula campaign. At one point he was captured by Federal cavalry and imprisoned in the Old Capital Prison in Washington for ten days. He was exchanged after a brief ten-day incarceration.
Mosby impressed Robert E. Lee by personally reporting his observations from a brief stopover at Fort Monroe while he was being transferred to Washington. He had observed the movement of Ambrose Burnside’s troops by ship up to Northern Virginia to reinforce John Pope’s army there.
In January 1863 Stuart, seconded by Lee, instructed Mosby to form the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry. Known variously as Mosby’s Command, Mosby’s Rangers and Mosby’s Raiders, they carried out a combination of reconnaissance missions, raids to Union supply lines and Union headquarters.
Mosby became famous for carrying out a daring raid far behind enemy lines at Fairfax Courthouse in March 1863. In a nighttime action he led 29 of his men and captured Union Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Stoughton, two captains, 30 enlisted men and 58 horses. All without firing a single shot.
By September 1864 he had been wounded twice but had quickly returned to duty. Mosby’s rangers were causing severe disruption to the Federal supply lines and Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant ordered Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan,“When any of Mosby’s men are caught, hang them without trial.”
Subsequently, seven of Mosby’s men were hung by the Union army. In retaliation, Mosby ordered 7 captured Union soldiers to be hung in Rectortown, Virginia on November 6, 1864. Eventually, 3 men were hung. The others either escaped or were wounded after being shot and survived.
Mosby sent a personal letter to Sheridan pointing out the fact that he had captured and released far more Federal soldiers than they had lost. Sheridan and the Union army complied and no more prisoners were executed by either side.
He took a near-mortal wound on December 21, 1864 when he was hit in the abdomen by a soldier of the 13th New York Cavalry while eating dinner at Rector’s Crossroads, Virginia. He recovered and returned to duty in about two months.
On April 21, 1865 Mosby simply disbanded his unit after Lee’s surrender. Some of his men obtained paroles from the Federal army but Mosby and several of his men set out to join the remaining Confederate army of Joseph E. Johnston. They read about Johnston’s surrender in a newspaper.
Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock had put a $5000 reward on him but he eluded capture until General Grant intervened and issued him a parole. Mosby’s war had finally come to an end.
After the war this most partisan of Confederates became a Republican and supported Ulysses Grant for the Presidency. Grant thought highly of him commenting, “Since the close of the war, I have come to know Colonel Mosby personally and somewhat intimately. He is a different man entirely from what I supposed. He is able and thoroughly honest and truthful.”
Mosby suffered greatly for his support of Grant. He was threatened, his boyhood home was burned downed and he was nearly assassinated. Grant appreciated his support and appointed him as the U.S. Consul to Hong Kong from 1878 to 1885. After that he worked as a lawyer for the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Francisco followed by positions in the Departments of the Interior and Justice.
John Singleton Mosby did not approve of slavery but nevertheless he fought for the South for four long years. He explained why in a 1907 letter. “I am not ashamed of having fought on the side of slavery—a soldier fights for his country—right or wrong—he is not responsible for the political merits of the course he fights in … The South was my country.”
The Gray Ghost died on May 30, 1916 in Washington, D.C. He is buried in his beloved Virginia at Warrenton, Fauquier County in the middle of what is today officially known as the Mosby Heritage Area. The Gray Ghost will be remembered forever in the hearts of all Virginians, especially those who live in what is known as Mosby’s Confederacy.
I live about two miles from Mosby’s boyhood home and the sites of his schools in Albemarle County, Virginia. Although not a native Virginian, I am proud to say that I live in Mosby’s Confederacy.