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Book Review: Gray Ghost (by James A. Ramage): CWT

Originally published by Civil War Times magazine. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby, by James A. Ramage, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 606-257-8761, 462 pages, $30.

In Gray Ghost, James A. Ramage offers a scholarly portrait of John Singleton Mosby, "one of the most successful guerrilla leaders in history." No biographer of Mosby has woven the various threads of Mosby's life together as deftly as Ramage does in this portrait of one of the Civil War's most compelling figures.

Mosby was born in Virginia on December 6, 1833, into a prosperous slave-holding family. Sickly and spoiled, he became the target of bullies. Instead of recoiling before these antagonists, he developed a fiery temper that hid behind beneath his frail-looking body. Gentle and loving among family, he developed an unbending sense of justice and honesty.

Although he disliked school, Mosby was bright and well-read. He attended the University of Virginia until he shot a bully, which got him expelled and jailed. His family secured his release with a pardon from the governor. By 1861, he had become an attorney and had a wife and two children.

Mosby opposed Virginia's secession until the war started. He entered Confederate service as a private in a militia company that became part of the 1st Virginia Cavalry. Restless by nature, Mosby despised inactivity and volunteered for scouting duties. Physical ailments that had nagged him disappeared, and he found that warfare suited him unlike anything else.

By the spring of 1862, J.E.B. Stuart was employing Mosby as a scout. As the year ended, Stuart, whom Mosby called his "best friend in the army," approved Mosby's request to conduct partisan activities near Washington, D.C. At the time, only Mosby understood the potential for such efforts.

Mosby chose to operate south and west of the Union capital–primarily in Virginia's Fauquier and Loudoun counties. From "Mosby's Confederacy," as the area became known, he conducted raids against Federal outposts, wagon trains, railroads, and cavalry detachments. The exploits and accomplishments of his 43d Virginia Cavalry Battalion were unmatched by any similar command in the war.

Ramage fully recounts Mosby's 28 months as a partisan ranger. All the major operations are here in detail and in context.

With the defeat of the Confederacy in April 1865, Mosby refused to surrender, keeping his command together almost two more weeks. Federal authorities offered $5,000 for Mosby's capture, until Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant pardoned him at Lee's request. Settling in Warrenton, Mosby prospered as an attorney until 1872, when he openly supported Grant–a Republican–in his campaign for re-election to the presidency.

In 1878, Mosby accepted the U.S. consulship in Hong Kong, beginning a 25-year exile from Virginia. Until his death in 1916, Mosby alternated between law and government positions. He wrote his memoirs and a strident defense of Stuart's conduct during the Gettysburg Campaign. He never remarried after his wife, Pauline, died, and he doted on his children and grandchildren. Eventually, Southerners welcomed him back into the Confederate pantheon.

Gray Ghost's treatment of Mosby's prewar and postwar years is the finest in print. Ramage used family records, manuscript collections, and government documents to render compelling descriptions. The heart of the book, Mosby's Confederate service, is solidly presented and prudently analyzed. Although Ramage's narrative lacks the stylish verve of Virgil Carrington Jones's classic biography, Ranger Mosby (1944), this new study is much more scholarly and accurate. Gray Ghost is a well-researched, ably written, and revealing study of a remarkable man.

Jeffry D. Wert
Centre Hall, Pennsylvania

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