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The Gray Ghost’s Death Lottery

By Jeffry D. Wert
8/31/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

The innocence of war was long gone by 1864 as John Mosby and his Rangers exacted revenge on a personal level.

A ragged line of Union soldiers stood in a field along Goose Creek in Rectortown, Virginia, on November 6, 1864. They jostled, chatted and joked with each other, pleased to be outdoors on a brisk autumn day. As prisoners of war these 27 Yankees had been confined to a brick store building in the village, waiting to be taken south to a Confederate prison camp. Little did they know that nearly a fourth of them were marked to settle a blood debt—minor characters in a major drama of reckoning between lieutenant Colonel John Singleton Mosby and Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer.

A few minutes before noon their captors—members of the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, better known to history as Mosby’s Rangers—led the Federals from the store to a gentle slope above the creek. It was likely Ranger Sgt. Maj. Guy Broad- water who addressed the prisoners. Seven Rangers had been executed by the prisoners’ Union comrades, Broadwater informed the group, and an equal number of them would share a similar fate. The words stunned and silenced the Northerners. A hat with 27 slips of paper, he explained, would be passed along the line, and each man must draw one slip. Seven of the pieces had been marked, and if a Yankee drew one of them, he was to be executed. A Ranger handed the hat to the first soldier.

Mosby, commander of the battalion, stayed in the village, unwilling to watch as his orders were carried out. Events during the past three months had forced Mosby to act. He did so reluctantly, or as he explained later: “I determined to demand and enforce every belligerent right to which the soldiers of a great military power were entitled by the laws of war. But I resolved to do it in the most humane manner, and in a calm, judicial spirit.”

Mosby had been conducting partisan operations since January 1863. An opponent of secession and a reluctant soldier, he had adapted to military life with surprising ease as a member of the 1st Virginia Cavalry. Restless by nature, Mosby thrived on scouting and picket duty. In time he became one of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s most trusted scouts. On December 30, 1862, Stuart gave Mosby permission to conduct forays against enemy detachments, camps and wagon trains in northern Virginia during the winter months. Within weeks Mosby’s value as a partisan became evident. The climax came when he daringly captured Union Brig. Gen. Edwin Stoughton at Fairfax Court House on March 9, 1863.

The Stoughton capture brought Mosby fame both in the South and in the North. Young volunteers hurried to join the growing command. Mosby chose as a base the counties of Fauquier and Loudoun, where civilians enthusiastically sheltered, fed and concealed the Rangers. The local folks also alerted the partisans to the arrival of Federal units in the region, devising various warning signals. The area became known as “Mosby’s Confederacy,” and Mosby, an antebellum lawyer, served as its supreme military and civil authority.

The Rangers’ mission was, as he stated it, “to weaken the armies invading Virginia by harassing their rear.” Scouts constantly searched for targets. When one of them found an opportunity to strike, Mosby gathered his men at a prearranged rendezvous. With outriders ringing the column, the Rangers descended upon supply wagons, an enemy outpost, a railroad train or a body of Federal troops. The Confederates struck swiftly, with each man firing a brace of revolvers. “A small force moving with celerity and threatening many points on a line can neutralize a hundred times its own number,” asserted Mosby.

On June 10, 1863, at Rector’s Cross Roads (modern-day Atoka), Mosby organized his command into Company A, 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry. He selected each officer personally while allowing the men to affirm his choices with a vote. Reserved and even taciturn, Mosby imposed his will and discipline upon youthful hotheads serving under him. If a member dared to cross him or behave badly with the civilians, Mosby banished him to the Confederate Army. He forged a matchless partisan command, earning official praise from Stuart and General Robert E. Lee for its exploits and timely gathering of critical intelligence.

By the summer of 1864, the battalion consisted of six companies, including an artillery company. Before autumn chilled into winter, Mosby organized two more companies. He counted between 300 and 400 officers and men in the command. Although he seldom used more than 100 to 150 Rangers on a raid, the reach of the partisans extended to the outskirts of Washington, D.C., and west beyond the Blue Ridge into the Shenandoah Valley. It was toward this latter region that Mosby increasingly shifted his operations as a decisive struggle for control of the “breadbasket of the Confederacy” unfolded that summer and fall.

A July raid into Maryland by a Confederate army under Lt. Gen. Jubal Early ignited the confrontation. After testing the defenses of the Federal capital, Early returned to Virginia, where he defeated a Union command in the Second Battle of Kernstown. He also sent cavalry units to burn Chambersburg, Pa., in retaliation for burnings and other depredations committed earlier that year by Federal forces in the Valley. General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant reacted, with prodding from President Abraham Lincoln, by amassing an army at Harpers Ferry, and appointed Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan as its commander. On August 10, Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah marched south, up the Valley, against Early’s Army of the Valley.

During Early’s withdrawal from Maryland, Mosby had met with the general, expressing a “desire to co-operate with him.” Early probably accepted the offer and then ignored it. Mosby wrote later that the Confederate commander never sent him a message or an order. Early “never requested me to do anything,” said Mosby. Despite this, Mosby decided to augment Early’s operations by striking more frequently across the Blue Ridge against Sheridan’s supply and communication lines.

Within days of Sheridan’s initial advance south, Mosby and 350 Rangers, bolstered by a pair of howitzers, crossed into the Valley at Snicker’s Gap. On August 13, outside of Berryville, the Confederates attacked a supply train of the 1st Cavalry Division, routing its infantry guards and seizing more than 500 horses and mules, more than 200 head of cattle and about 200 prisoners. The action cost Mosby five casualties.

Farther south, meanwhile, Early’s army stopped Sheridan’s movement at Fisher’s Hill. With instructions not to suffer a battlefield defeat that might adversely affect Lincoln’s reelection campaign, Sheridan began retiring north. He had been ordered by Grant to destroy the fertile region’s crops, barns and mills and confiscate its livestock. As the Northerners retreated, cavalry units roamed the countryside, liberally applying the torch. A Union horseman admitted that it “was a sad sight,” as stunned residents watched their harvests and barns become engulfed in flames. “It was a phase of warfare we had not seen before,” he wrote, “and though we admitted its necessity, we could not but sympathize with the sufferers.”

Pillars of smoke marked the passage of Sheridan’s army. On August 19, Captain William Chapman and three companies of Rangers came upon 30 members of the 5th Michigan Cavalry who had burned the barn on the Benjamin Morgan farm southeast of Berryville, and were preparing to destroy the brick house. Enraged at the destruction, the Rangers charged, with Chapman shouting: “Wipe them from the face of the earth! No quarter! No quarter! Take no prisoners!” The Michiganders not killed in the attack were seized, shoved into the farm lane and shot. The Rangers rode away, seeking other enemy detachments.

One of the Federals, Private Samuel K. Davis of Company L, had feigned death when shot in the face. He crawled away and hid nearby. Two Rangers returned before long and examined the bodies to be certain they were dead. They found one trooper still alive and shot him in the head. When a contingent of Union cavalrymen arrived at the Morgan farm, Davis appeared and recounted what had occurred. The Civil War had long since lost its innocence, and now hard men on both sides seethed with anger—and plans for revenge.

Retribution for the Morgan affair came a month later at Front Royal. Approximately 120 Rangers under Captain Samuel Chapman, William’s brother, attacked a Union ambulance train as it rolled in from the south on the morning of September 23. Believing that the ambulances were traveling to Winchester without an escort, Chapmen divided his force, and one contingent charged toward the train. Chapman was mistaken, however, as the ambulances were trailed by two Federal cavalry divisions, led by Sheridan’s cavalry commander, Brevet Maj. Gen. Alfred T.A. Torbert.

The Rangers’ assault brought forward the Federal troopers. Suddenly, said an eyewitness, the Yankees “came up like a flock of birds when a stone is cast into it.” A Ranger claimed that the blue-jacketed horsemen “enveloped the devoted band like a cloud.” The Confederates scattered, racing toward shelter in the Blue Ridge. In the ensuing melee and pursuit, the Northerners captured five Rangers and 17-year-old Henry Rhodes, a resident of Front Royal who had borrowed a neighbor’s horse and joined Chapman’s men. Now young Rhodes and the Rangers were prisoners, surrounded by hundreds of furious Yankees.

The Federals’ anger had been fueled by a report that one of their comrades, Lieutenant Charles McMaster, had been shot after he surrendered at the Morgan farm. Squads of cavalrymen led away three Rangers—David L. Jones, Lucien Love and Thomas E. Anderson—and shot them. A Michigander, despite the pleas from Rhodes’ widowed mother, emptied his revolver into the youth. Torbert offered two remaining Confederates—William Thomas Overby and a Ranger named Carter—their lives if they revealed the location of Mosby’s headquarters. When neither man replied, Torbert ordered their execution. Earlier, Grant had advised Sheridan, “Where any of Mosby’s men are caught hang them without trial.” Members of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, McMaster’s regiment, carried out the order. On Overby’s body they placed a placard that read, “This will be the fate of Mosby and all his men.”

Mosby had been recovering from a wound when the executions occurred. When he returned to duty on September 29, he questioned Chapman and others about the incident, eager to know which Union officer had ordered the Rangers’ deaths. According to his men, residents of Front Royal had identified Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer as the guilty officer. Although the citizens had no way of knowing who actually gave the order, they recognized Custer. The Union general was a striking and conspicuous figure among the Federals, wearing a black velveteen uniform with golden braid, a red neckerchief and a broad-brimmed hat over his long blond hair. Mosby accepted the locals’ word as fact and blamed Custer. Until the end of his life, despite contrary evidence, Mosby adhered to his belief that it had been the Union’s “Boy General” who had callously executed his men.

“Reprisals in war can only be justified as a deterrent,” stated Mosby. He determined that when he had captured enough of Custer’s troopers, he would exact his own retribution for Front Royal. During the next several weeks as Ranger incursions into the Valley continued, his men separated members of Custer’s command from other prisoners. He informed Lee, “It is my purpose to hang an equal number of Custer’s men whenever I capture them.” Lee granted his approval and forwarded Mosby’s letter to Secretary of War James Seddon, who concurred. When Mosby received Lee’s authorization on November 4, he decided to act with a lottery.

The “painful scene,” as Mosby described the affair, began when a Ranger borrowed the hat of Lieutenant Charles E. Brewster, a commissary officer in Custer’s 3rd Cavalry Division. Placing the 27 slips of paper in the hat, the Confederate stepped in front of the first prisoner in line, held the hat above the soldier’s head and had him draw one slip. Slowly, the Ranger moved down the line from one Yankee to the next. A few of the captives prayed; one man cried. As the hat neared him, a young drummer boy sobbed: “O God, spare me! Precious Jesus, pity me!” When the boy drew a blank slip, he leaped into the air, exclaiming, “Damn it, ain’t I lucky.”

Six men and another drummer boy had chosen the pieces marked for death. The lottery had not sat well with most of the Rangers who had been given the duty, and now a young boy, James Daley, was among the condemned. Either Broadwater or another Ranger rode into Rectortown and informed Mosby of the results. “I didn’t know before there was a drummer boy in the lot,” Mosby recounted later. “I immediately ordered his release & lots again be drawn.” Nineteen prisoners repeated the nerve-wracking process, with one of them drawing the fateful slip of paper.

Five of the seven condemned Federals have been identified—Corporals James Bennett and Charles E. Marvin of the 2nd New York Cavalry, Private George H. Soule of the 5th Michigan Cavalry, Private Melchior H. Houghnickol (or Huffnagle) of the 153rd New York Infantry and Lieutenant Israel Clement Disosway of the 5th New York Heavy Artillery. Only Bennett, Marvin and Soule actually belonged to Custer’s command. The identities of the remaining two men remain uncertain.

Mosby assigned Lieutenant Edward F. Thompson and a detail of Rangers to escort the condemned prisoners to the Shenandoah Valley and carry out the executions as close to the Union lines as possible. The column started forth with a mounted Confederate in front of and behind each of the Federals, who walked. The Rangers bound the left wrist of each captive, attaching the rope to the pommels of their saddles. At Ashby’s Gap in the Blue Ridge, Thompson halted and allowed the condemned men to write a letter to family or friends.

Before they proceeded, Captain Richard Montjoy and Company D of the battalion met them, coming from the Valley with more prisoners. A fastidious dresser, Montjoy wore a Masonic pin on the lapel of his coat. Lieutenant Disosway, a fellow member of the order, signaled Montjoy with the Masonic distress sign. Montjoy convinced Thompson to swap Disosway for a Custer trooper whom he had captured. When Mosby learned of the trade, he angrily reminded Montjoy that the 43rd Battalion “was no Masonic lodge.”

Thompson’s detail descended the mountain and crossed the Shenandoah River at Berry’s Ferry. As the column passed Millwood, a cold rain began to fall, the heavy overcast deepening the night’s darkness. Near Berryville one of the Michiganders, George Soule, loosened his rope and slipped unseen into a ditch beside the road. When the Rangers and other prisoners disappeared into the blackness, Soule fled, eventually reaching the Union lines.

Thompson halted about 4 a.m. on November 7 in Beemer’s Woods, less than a mile north and west of Berryville. Mosby had instructed the lieutenant to shoot four of the prisoners and to hang three, just as the Yankees had done to the six Rangers and Henry Rhodes in Front Royal. The Confederates acted with slow deliberation, like men reluctant to perform the duty assigned to them. Mosby had ordered it, however, and they proceeded dutifully.

A Ranger grabbed Corporal Bennett and shot him in the left arm and head. Another Rebel walked up to Private Houghnickol, shooting the New York infantryman in the head and right arm. Corporal Marvin, Bennett’s comrade in the 2nd New York Cavalry, pleaded for time to say a final prayer. When he had finished, Thompson evidently stepped forward, placed his revolver to Marvin’s head and squeezed the trigger. The gun misfired, however. The New Yorker had loosened his hand from its bindings during the march, and he escaped through the woods after knocking Thompson down.

That left three condemned Federals. Their captors mounted them on horses, swung ropes over tree limbs, placed nooses around their necks and, as it had been done at Front Royal, whipped the horses. The identity of only one of the three hanged men is known—Wallace Prouty, who was identified by a small Bible with his name on it found in his pocket. Whether Prouty had drawn a marked slip or had been exchanged for Disosway remains uncertain. Before Thompson’s men departed, one of them hung a note on the body of one of the Federals: “These men have been hung in retaliation for an equal number of Colonel Mosby’s men hung by order of General Custer, at Front Royal. Measure for measure.”

Later that morning a Berryville resident who happened on the execution site examined Bennett and Houghnickol and found they were still alive. The Rangers had never checked to see if the two men had died. The citizen cut down the three corpses and buried them. He then placed the two wounded Federals in a wagon and hauled them into Winchester, where he delivered the note to Union Colonel Oliver Edwards. Bennett and Houghnickol survived. Bennett lost the use of his arm and much of his eyesight, while Houghnickol’s right arm had to be amputated.

When Mosby learned the details of the incident, the escape of Soule and Marvin did not bother him. “If my motive had been revenge,” he asserted later, “I would have ordered others to be executed in their place & I did not. I was really glad they got away as they carried the story to Sheridan’s army.” His object, he explained, “was to prevent the war from degenerating into a massacre….It was really an act of mercy.”

With this “act of mercy,” Mosby wanted the reprisals to end. He penned a letter to Sheridan, dated November 11, hoping that it would settle the issue. In it, he recounted the execution in Front Royal and an October 13 incident where Ranger Alfred Willis was hanged as a spy by Union Colonel William Powell. He added, “Since the murder of my men not less than 700 prisoners, including many officers of high rank captured from your army by this command, have been forwarded to Richmond, but the execution of my purpose of retaliation was deferred in order, as far as possible, to confine its operation to the men of Custer and Powell.”

Mosby then noted that seven Federals, “by my order,” had been executed. Although he probably knew by then that two Federals had escaped, it did not matter. His point was that he had issued the order for their executions.

He concluded the letter, “Hereafter any prisoners falling into my hands will be treated with the kindness due their condition, unless some new act of barbarity shall compel me, reluctantly to adopt a line of policy repugnant to humanity.”

Mosby asked Lieutenant Charles Grogan if he would deliver the letter to Sheridan, but Grogan refused to accept the dangerous mission. Lieutenant John Russell, a Berryville native and Mosby’s most valued Valley scout, agreed to the duty. Mosby assured Russell that if the enemy executed him, he would kill 100 Union prisoners currently in Ranger custody.

Carrying a flag of truce, Russell encountered Union videttes outside Millwood. The horsemen blindfolded Russell and led him to army headquarters at the Lloyd Logan home in Winchester. The Union general had withdrawn his army into the lower Valley after inflicting four battlefield defeats upon Early’s forces and destroying scores of barns and mills along the Federals’ retreat route. Valley residents had termed the days of destruction “The Burning.”

Russell delivered the letter to Sheridan, who read it. “Little Phil,” as he was called by his troops, conferred privately with Russell before writing a reply to Mosby. Neither Sheridan nor Mosby revealed the contents of this second letter. Whatever Sheridan responded, the executions and reprisals ended between the two foes.

The war, however, went on. Mosby’s Rangers continued to cross the Blue Ridge and clash with Sheridan’s units. On November 17, the Confederates routed and effectively destroyed Blazer’s Scouts, a command created by Sheridan and led by Captain Richard Blazer with the mission of wiping out the Rangers. Two weeks later Union cavalrymen entered Mosby’s Confederacy, carrying with them fire and smoke. But Mosby and his Rangers endured, finally disbanding on April 21, 1865, 12 days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.

Years after the war, Mosby recalled his decision to exact “measure for measure.” “It was not an act of revenge,” he argued, “but a judicial sentence to save not only the lives of my own men, but the lives of the enemy. It had that effect. I regret that fate thrust such a duty upon me; I do not regret that I faced and performed it.” And so he did, with a lottery of death outside the village of Rectortown on an invigorating Virginia autumn day.

 

For additional reading, see Wert’s Mosby’s Rangers and Ranger Mosby, by Virgil Carrington Jones.

Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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