All over Northern Virginia, the Confederacy’s Gray Ghost spooked his Yankee prey.
He seemed to be everywhere. But he was nowhere to be found.
Each rustling leaf, snapping twig or rush of air signaled his approach to hopeful Federal forces, but their elusive quarry could not be caught. Colonel John Singleton Mosby, with his scarlet-lined cape swirling around him and the plume of his hat dancing in the wind, kept everyone guessing.
Typical was a nocturnal incident that occurred in Jefferson County, in the freshly minted state of West Virginia. Some 200 drowsy passengers on the eight-car B&O Western Express from Baltimore got a rude awakening in the early morning hours of October 14, 1864, when Mosby and 83 of his Rangers derailed the train near Duffields Depot. They emptied the cars, damaged the locomotive and burned the train. The Rangers seized $173,000 from two U.S. Army paymasters who were among the passengers, and melted back into the Loudoun County, Va., countryside.
They divided the money—intended for Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s army in the Shenandoah Valley—at Ebenezer Chapel the next day. Each participant got almost $2,100 in the so-called Greenback Raid, and Mosby, as usual, refused his share. His men chipped in and bought him a horse, which he named Coquette.
Mosby, dubbed the “Gray Ghost” for such exploits, commanded the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry—also known as Mosby’s Rangers—officially established June 10, 1863. As partisan rangers who could divide up what they captured, they launched hundreds of attacks in the Northern Virginia area where they often operated—so many, in fact, that the region became known as Mosby’s Confederacy. Their actions were so effective that General Robert E. Lee exclaimed, “Hurrah for Mosby! I wish I had a hundred like him!”
Mosby directed small groups to attack swiftly, rely on the cover of night and carry off as many men and horses as possible. He ensured secrecy by having his soldiers verbally deliver messages so there would be no incriminating papers if they were captured. “Make no mistake about it, he was in charge,” says Don Hakenson, a Mosby historian and the former director of the U.S. Army & Joint Services Records Research Center. Mosby is considered by the military to be the father of modern guerrilla warfare, and his tactics are still studied today.
Before the war, Mosby was a lawyer and staunch Unionist who opposed secession. But like Lee, he chose to stay with his native state when the fighting started, enlisting in the 1st Virginia Cavalry in May 1861. In the spring of 1862, Mosby joined the staff of General J.E.B. Stuart. On December 31 of that year, he asked Stuart for permission to organize an independent command against Federal forces. Stuart left Mosby with nine men, and they carried out two raids. Pleased with his success, Stuart gave him 15 men for an independent operation, and they began work in Fauquier County on January 18, 1863.
Mosby’s Rangers were young, and he believed much of his success was due to their taking risks older and wiser soldiers wouldn’t. Eric Buckland, author of Mosby’s Keydet Rangers, observed that about 60 of the men who rode with Mosby matriculated at Virginia Military Institute; their average age in 1863 was 18. A few of the Rangers were only 14 or 15, but most were between 18 and 22. “When you read the young girls’ diaries, you see they were enamored with these dashing men,” says Judy Reynolds, executive director of the Mosby Heritage Area Association.
At a time when husbands, fathers and sons were away fighting for the Confederacy, having such strong, charming young men on the premises was a distinct advantage for the women and children left behind. The Rangers shared the horses, food, money and other spoils of their raids with the families who hosted them in safe houses. Mosby was a “welcomed guest,” observes Tom Evans, author of Mosby’s Confederacy. “He paid for himself and his horse, as did his men who boarded in homes throughout Northern Virginia.”
And his daring exploits gave the South a much-needed supply of good news. One legendary event that propelled Mosby into the headlines was his capture of Union Brig. Gen. Edwin Stoughton at the Dr. William Presley Gunnell House in Fairfax on March 9, 1863. Mosby walked into the bedroom, pulled down the covers and slapped Stoughton on the behind. When Stoughton awoke, Mosby ordered him to get up. According to Mosby biographer Virgil Carrington Jones, Stoughton roared: “‘What is this! Do you know who I am, sir?’
“‘I reckon I do, General. Did you ever hear of Mosby?’
“‘Yes, have you caught him?’
“‘No, but he has caught you.’”
Mosby himself was sometimes on the receiving end of a surprise visit in the middle of the night. In June 1863, he and his wife, Pauline, were staying at the home of James Hathaway in Fauquier County. “Someone tipped off the Federal command, and 80 soldiers from the 1st New York Cavalry came riding down the road at midnight,” notes Dave Goetz, owner of Mosby’s Confederacy Tours. Captain William Boyd and his men surrounded the place and searched every room. Mosby, trapped on the second floor, opened the window and climbed out onto the branch of a walnut tree. “He sat out there for two hours while they looked for him,” Goetz says. “He was 20 feet away, and they never looked up.” When they finally rode away they took the raider’s horse, which they named Lady Mosby, but they didn’t take the Gray Ghost.
He had another close shave in May 1863. He was in a barbershop on Culpeper Street in Warrenton as Union troops searched the town for him. When the officers entered, the barber spread lather generously over Mosby’s face, disguising him as he sat in the chair. When Mosby was questioned, he claimed his name was Johnson and avoided capture.
It wouldn’t be the last time. On December 21, 1864, Mosby stopped at the home of Ludwell Lake, near Atoka, for dinner and was grievously wounded when he was shot through a window by a corporal from the 13th New York Cavalry. When the Federals entered the home, known as Lakeland, they found Mosby lying on the floor. “What they didn’t know was that Mosby had the presence of mind to take off his uniform coat and shove it under the bureau, after which he collected some of the blood from his wound and put it in his mouth,” Jones wrote. “They asked Mosby his name, and he groaned faintly it was Lt. Johnson of the Sixth Virginia Cavalry.” They rode away, leaving Mosby behind.
Mosby had the ability to strike quickly and create confusion even when his opponent appeared to have the upper hand. “He was tireless in the saddle, and he was continually moving,” Buckland says. “He knew where the enemy was.” On July 4, 1864, Union Colonel Charles R. Lowell sent a patrol of 100 men from his 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry and 50 from the 13th New York Cavalry to search for Mosby. Mosby heard about it and prepared to intercept their return. In the resulting fight July 6 at Mount Zion Church near the village of Aldie, 80 of the Federal troops were killed, wounded or captured. Of the 175 men in Mosby’s command, one was killed and six were wounded.
The bold raider appeared larger than life to those who pursued him. He used fear as a weapon, and many Federal cavalry soldiers were afraid to find him. “If they heard a squirrel or an owl at night, they were convinced Mosby was up in the trees,” says Goetz. “He seemed to come out of nowhere and to disappear into thin air.”
“A blow would be struck at a weak or unguarded point, and then a quick retreat,” Mosby recalled after the war. “The alarm would spread through the sleeping camp, the long roll would be beaten or the bugles would sound to horse, there would be mounting in hot haste and a rapid pursuit. But the partisans generally got off with their prey. Their pursuers were striking at an invisible foe. I often sent small squads at night to attack and run in the pickets along a line of several miles.
“Of course, these alarms were very annoying, for no human being knows how sweet sleep is but a soldier….I have often thought that their fierce hostility to me was more on account of the sleep I made them lose than the number we killed and captured.”
One such instance occurred almost by accident at Aldie in March 1863, when Mosby and 17 of his men came upon 200 Federal cavalry feeding their horses at the mill. As the Rangers approached, Mosby’s horse bolted and carried him alone through the Federal skirmish line and across a small stone bridge. The Yankees panicked and fled in all directions, allowing the Rangers to capture 19 men and 23 horses.
Despite his fearsome reputation, Mosby was a principled man, and he expected the same when he picked his Rangers. “I think he was one of the most honest, moral people you’d ever meet,” said Horace Mewborn, editor of From Mosby’s Command.
A Richmond Dispatch article from May 10, 1896, offered a description of the Rangers’ leader: “People who had pictured Mosby as a terrible brigand chief were surprised when they came face to face with him to find a rather slender but wiry-looking young man, of medium height, with light hair, keen, restless eyes, and a pleasant expression. In manner he was plain and unassuming. Cool in danger, quick to think and practical in carrying out his ideas—qualities which aided materially in his success.”
Buckland observes that Mosby had an unerring way of looking inside a man and knowing what he was made of. “He didn’t cotton to skulkers or shirkers. If someone wasn’t doing his job, he was put out of the unit.”
Mosby’s sense of fair play in war was demonstrated after troops under the command of General George Armstrong Custer executed seven Rangers in the fall of 1864. Mosby opted for retaliation by ordering seven Union prisoners to be executed. Lots were drawn among the captured Federals to see which ones were fated to hang. One of the unlucky prisoners to draw a lot was a young drummer boy. When Mosby learned of this, he ordered that the boy be spared and another lot be drawn to take his place. “All felt it necessary,” Mosby wrote after the war, “but every heart was touched with its pathos.”
Opinions vary as to whether the work of Mosby and his men prolonged the war. Jones, who made the colonel known with the publication of his 1944 book Ranger Mosby, concluded that his raids and attacks extended the war. Goetz believes Mosby’s operations so tied down Federal supply, transportation and communication lines that he prolonged the war by six months. Buckland thinks differently: “They were a considerable annoyance, and probably not much more than that.”
Mosby never surrendered. Instead, he disbanded his unit on April 21, 1865. His command had grown to eight companies and included about 1,900 men. He believed in reconciliation and became a Republican, backing Ulysses S. Grant for president in 1868 and 1872. Mosby’s post-war actions were unpopular in Warrenton, where he had set up a law practice—so much so that he was shot at while departing a train there in 1877. “People would walk to the other side of the street so they didn’t have to acknowledge him,” Hakenson says. His wife and one son had died in 1876 (another son died in 1874), and living in Warrenton had become perilous. With Grant’s assistance, he was appointed U.S. Consul to Hong Kong by President Rutherford B. Hayes, and served in that position seven years. He later worked with the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Francisco, in the General Land Office in Nebraska and as an assistant attorney in the Department of Justice in Washington.
Mosby died May 30, 1916, at the age of 82. Surrounded by his family, he rests in Warrenton Cemetery, visited often by those who study his methodology and others simply awed by his genius. As long as the stories live, so will he.
“Interest in the Gray Ghost is a never-ending proposition,” Hakenson says.
Teri Johnson is a freelance writer and editor. Tim Johnson, an award-winning photojournalist, creates Civil War art photographs featuring ghosted images (www.civilwarghosts.com). The couple resides in Falling Waters, W.Va.
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.