John Singleton Mosby, the Confederate “Gray Ghost,” spent much of his postwar life fending off controversy.
On a foggy morning at the end of April 1865, Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby assembled 600 of his famed Rangers one last time. “The vision we cherished of a free and independent country has vanished, and that country is now the spoil of a conqueror,” announced the partisan cavalry leader widely known as the “Gray Ghost of the Confederacy.” “I disband your organization in preference to surrendering to our enemies. I am no longer your commander. After an association of more than two eventful years, I part from you with a just pride in the fame of your achievements.”
When the war ended, the 32-year-old Mosby still had a half century of life ahead of him. He initially returned to his lawyer’s practice in Warrenton, Va. But the postwar years brought trouble for the former raider, including unfounded rumors that he had been involved in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and criticism over his friendship with Ulysses S. Grant, who helped get Mosby paroled.
Yet the former Rebel was not inclined to apologize for his wartime record. In a letter written long after the conflict he said: “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.”
Mosby’s law practice dried up after he successively endorsed Republicans Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes for president. In a letter to a former comrade, Mosby declared: “I ceased to be a Confederate soldier about eleven years ago, and became a citizen of the United States. As a soldier, I did conscientiously what I thought to be my duty; as a citizen, I shall do the same thing as far as I know how.” His heretical political views made many enemies for the Gray Ghost among his fellow Southerners. In fact, one night in 1877 a would-be assassin took a shot at Mosby as he left a train in Warrenton. Eventually he moved to Washington, D.C., and whenever he returned to his old hometown, he strapped on a revolver. Asked if he believed in the existence of hell, Mosby once quipped: “Of course. Any Southerner who did not obviously had never tried to vote Republican and live in Virginia.”
In 1878 the recently widowed Mosby accepted an appointment as U.S. Consul in Hong Kong. He remained there for nearly seven years, incurring the ire of other American envoys in southeast Asia over what he perceived as their corrupt practices in accepting bribes and fees.
Near the end of Rutherford B. Hayes’ administration, Mosby returned to the United States, this time moving to San Francisco, where a dying Ulysses Grant had arranged a job for him as a Southern Pacific Railroad attorney. With the old animosities gradually fading, Mosby returned for a visit to Virginia. While there in 1897, he lost his left eye after being kicked by a horse.
When the Spanish-American War erupted in 1898, Mosby tried to secure an officer’s commission in the U.S. Army. But his efforts were blocked by Secretary of War Russell Alger, who had served as a colonel in the 5th Michigan Cavalry under George Custer. Alger had not forgotten that Mosby executed several Michigan soldiers in response to the killing of his own men after they were taken prisoner. The former Rebel ended up training a California cavalry troop, dubbed “Mosby’s Hussars,” in preparation for combat—but the fighting ended before they even left Oakland.
In the early 1900s, as Mosby neared 70, he did a stint as a U.S. land agent in Colorado and Nebraska. He was essentially living paycheck to paycheck at that point, as evidenced by this excerpt from a letter concerning an expense voucher: “Please give it immediate attention. On account of the extraordinary expenses I had on account of my daughter’s illness, I am clean out of money. I could not get a Pullman berth coming here from Washington with a transportation request—Wd. Have had to advance the money ($11.00) for it. I don’t have the money to advance and didn’t care to borrow it.”
Not everyone was happy with Mosby’s work. Government agent W.R. Lesser, whom Mosby helped indict for fraud in 1902, excoriated him in comments to the Omaha World-Herald: “The fact is that the colonel has just about lived through his best days. He is fully 75 years old and lives in the past, not the present. Why, he can’t carry on a business nor a social conversation for five minutes without going back to the days when he was in the saddle, fighting the union in everyway possible….He tells the same stories over and over until they become stale. He lets everyone know he is Mosby and seems to think he is all of it.”
Next Mosby headed back East, working from 1904 to 1910 in the Justice Department in Washington, a post his brother-in-law helped him obtain. Mosby confided to Sam Chapman, formerly one of his officers, that as a private attorney he had once received “several fees much higher than my whole year’s salary is now.”
With the arrival of the William Taft administration, Mosby was dismissed from his post. He said bitterly: “Hence, like Old Lear, I am turned out to ‘bide the pelting of the pitiless storm.’ I never heard at the Department the slightest complaint against me; was always the first there in the morning. But old age was a mere pretext, and the real reason was to punish me for having three scoundrels indicted for robbing the Indians, and my opposing their application, which was finally successful, to get the prosecution dismissed.”
Mosby always defended his mentor, J.E.B. Stuart— sometimes so vigorously that Flora Stuart, the general’s widow, feared he might do more harm than good. Mosby no doubt would have been heartbroken had he read his hero’s blunt appraisal of the colonel’s command, written in January 1864: “The hope of plunder & the desire to escape the wholesome restraints of military discipline actuate the greater part. Mosby himself and about 15 of his men are none such, but I am sorry to say the majority are a worthless rabble & none know it better than Mosby himself.”
On August 13, 1915, Mosby wrote to a friend: “I am no longer seeking glory but trying to get a little money to live on in my old age while I am writing my Memoirs of the War in Virginia in [which] I shall have something to say about Bristol. It was there that I bid goodbye to my wife & children. It was the hardest battle that I had to fight in the war. I am now 81 years old but am mentally and physically as sound as I was then.”
On Memorial Day, May 30, 1916, the Gray Ghost died. His memoirs were not quite finished.
Douglas Gibboney, vice president of the Harrisburg Civil War Round Table, is the author of Scandals of the Civil War and other books. He and his wife live in a farmhouse near Carlisle, Pa., that was raided by Confederate cavalry during the Gettysburg Campaign.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.