A tour of ‘Mosby’s Confederacy’ gives a taste of thefamed cavalryman’s hair-raising exploits.
By Karen M. Laski
“They had for us all the glamour of Robin Hood and his merry men, all the courage and bravery of the ancient crusaders, the unexpectedness of benevolent pirates and the stealth of Indians.” So wrote Sam Moore, a young man from Berryville, Virginia. Such extravagant admiration for Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby and his Partisan Rangers continues today, more than 130 years after the end of the Civil War.
Recently, a group of 35 Civil War buffs retraced Colonel Mosby’s exploits through Virginia’s Fauquier and Loudoun counties. The trip, sponsored by the Goose Creek Association, whose members come from both counties, was billed “The Ultimate Tour of the Gray Ghost’s Confederacy.” The tour began at the Mount Zion Baptist Church, three quarters of a mile east of Gilberts Corner, a place Mosby often used as a rendezvous point. Mount Zion Church is only a footnote in the annals of Civil War history, but a significant one to Mosby fans. Church property was never involved in the fight, which took place to the east of the two-story brick building. Because the church is an easily identifiable landmark, the skirmish that took place on July 6, 1864, between Mosby’s Rangers and Union soldiers was labeled the Mount Zion fight.
Tom Evans, one of the two guides, has conducted the tour more than 200 times. In the church cemetery Evans pointed out the graves of William “Major” Hibbs and James Sinclair, two of Mosby’s Rangers. Evans could not resist telling the group about Sinclair’s strange drinking habits.
Whenever Sinclair sat down to do some serious drinking, he would have a bagful of live snakes at his side. Between swigs of whiskey, he would bite off a piece of whichever reptile took his fancy. For obvious safety reasons, the head was eaten first. “It beats potato chips,” Evans quipped.
Sinclair’s penchant for snakes was not shared by his fellow rangers, but it illustrates the type of men who were attracted to the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry–independent, bold men who, like Mosby, disliked the routine of ordinary military life.
“I preferred being on the outposts,” said Mosby, who found garrison duty boring. The 5-foot-7-inch, 128-pound Mosby was an ordinary-looking man who seemed an unlikely candidate for the dashing, romantic figure his admirers envision. Like Robert E. Lee, Mosby opposed secession, yet joined the Confederate forces when Virginia left the Union.
Mosby’s lack of enthusiasm for the military was evident from the beginning, and no one expected such an indifferent soldier to achieve military fame. Long after Mosby’s participation in the Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, a member of his regiment commented, “There was nothing about him then to indicate what he was to be.”
Others disagreed. Brigadier General James Ewell Brown Stuart, Mosby’s mentor, sawa young man of intelligence and courage, and sent him on several scouting expeditions behind Union lines. Mosby’s intelligence reports on Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Union army may have been the reason Stuart allowed Mosby and nine men to remain in Loudoun County when he set up winter quarters near Fredericksburg.
Lee opposed partisan units, as did many old-line military officers. Too often men of questionable character with dubious motives filled the ranks of such units. When discipline broke down, the partisans often victimized the very citizens they had pledged to defend. Despite the military’s reservations, the Confederate Congress enacted a law in April 1862 that created partisan ranger units. Within a few months, partisan units ranging in size from regiments to companies were organized in eight states.
Almost 2,000 men would serve with Mosby over the next two years. Many were too young to join the regular army, yet Mosby favored these young troopers. “They haven’t sense enough to know danger when they see it, and will fight anything I tell them to,” he once noted.
“Mosby’s Confederacy” encompassed almost 125 square miles in the Piedmont region of Fauquier and Loudoun counties. The tour’s sponsor, the Goose Creek Association, focuses its efforts in the same area. The association promotes historic preservation, orderly growth and conservation of natural resources. Founded in 1970, the group has never lost a battle, according to President Janet Whitehouse–a record unmatched by Mosby. “The countryside is essentially what it was during the Civil War,” Whitehouse noted. “It’s a treasure.”
As the tour bus made its way down secluded country lanes, past open farmland and rolling pastures, it was obvious that the terrain favored guerrilla warfare. A lone sentry could sit astride his horse on a hilltop and see for miles. Forests provided natural cover, and the ubiquitous stone walls gave temporary refuge.
The people of Virginia may have been Mosby’s greatest asset. Jeffry D. Wert, author of Mosby’s Rangers, wrote, “When Mosby came to Virginia, he made his mission theirs and gave shape to people’s lives for over two years.” The rangers could not have operated without the cooperation and assistance of local citizens.
“Jeb” Stuart once cautioned Mosby to “not have any established headquarters anywhere but in the saddle.” Accordingly, Mosby and his rangers lived in “safe houses” throughout the region. Many had hiding places–trapdoors and secret wall panels that enabled them to go undetected when houses were searched by Union soldiers.
Hathaway House, the former home of James and Elizabeth Hathaway, was one of these places. Mosby’s wife, Pauline, and their children had joined him at the three-story brick house northeast of Salem (now Marshall) in March 1863. Their presence did not go unnoticed by an informant.
On the night of June 11, a detail of men from the 1st New York Cavalry was sent to Hathaway House to look for Mosby. Each room was searched, but all the soldiers found was a pair of spurs in Pauline’s bedroom. Rather than leave empty-handed, the New Yorkers arrested Hathaway and left with their prisoner.
Mosby had crawled out the bedroom window and hung from a limb of a large black walnut tree next to the house. Had any of the soldiers below bothered to look up, Mosby would have been discovered. The tree is still standing, but the limb is gone.
When the current owners, Jimmy and Sally Young, moved in, they doubted the story until tourists started showing up. In cars and by buses, people came to see the huge old walnut where Mosby had clung more than a century ago. Whatever doubts remained were put to rest when their daughter-in-law’s uncle, Virgil Carrington Jones, author of Ranger Mosby, confirmed the tale.
Throughout the tour, Evans pointed out a number of structures that had harbored wounded rangers or had been used as rendezvous sites. Stuart met with Mosby at Middleburg’s Red Fox Inn (then the Beveridge House) on several occasions, and a second-floor dining room is named in Stuart’s honor. Unlike the Red Fox Inn, many buildings remain in private hands and are not accessible to the public.
Over 80 percent of Mosby’s Rangers were Virginians, and that may explain the overwhelming support he received from local citizens. A Massachusetts cavalryman summarized the situation this way: “Every farmhouse in this section was a refuge for guerrillas, and every farmer was an ally of Mosby, and every farmer’s son was with him, or in the Confederate Army.”
Quarters were easier to secure than horses–the rangers’ lifeline. Most of the men had two horses, and Mosby reportedly kept six. To evade capture and effectively employ the element of surprise, the rangers moved constantly. Demolishing bridges, destroying railroad tracks and robbing trains took their toll on horseflesh.
Local farmers supplied some mounts, but most were taken from Union soldiers. When Mosby’s Rangers raided the Fairfax Court House on March 9, 1863, they captured 30 soldiers, two captains, Brig. Gen. Edwin Stoughton and 58 horses. Upon hearing the news, Abraham Lincoln remarked, “I can make brigadier generals but I can’t make horses.”
Mosby’s successes so irritated Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant that after the Berryville wagon train raid on August 19,1864, in which 29 of 30 Union soldiers were killed, the North’s top military leader told Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan to hang any rangers he captured without benefit of a trial. Sheridan’s main objective was to defeat Maj. Gen. Jubal Early, not Mosby, in the Shenandoah Valley, and he delayed committing any men to the new task.
Three weeks after Sheridan’s defeat of Early at Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864, Grant again instructed Sheridan to “clear out the country so that it will not support Mosby’s gang.” Brigadier General Wesley Merritt was given four days to destroy all barns and mills in Snickersville before moving on to other areas. A Middleburg resident reported, “The whole heavens are illuminated by the fires.” Mosby was a hunted man, his days clearly numbered.
Mosby’s military career nearly ended two months later at Lakeland, a two-story ashlar stone house near Rectortown. During the Civil War it was owned by Ludwell Lake, a huge man who never saw his shoes after the age of 20, according to local historian John Gott.
On the miserably cold, wet night of December 21, Mosby sought refuge at Lakeland because of the owner’s reputation for “setting a good table.” As Mosby was about to sit down to dinner, a Union soldier shot through a nearby window and wounded him in the abdomen.
When questioned by a Union officer, the grievously wounded Mosby said he was a lieutenant with the 6th Virginia Cavalry. The Yankees figured he would die of his wounds and left without him, but took his hat. By the time they realized whose hat they had, it was too late. Mosby had been taken by oxcart to another farm. He was continually moved from one safe house to another to avoid capture until he recovered.
The infamous house where Mosby was shot has attracted its share of tourists, much to the chagrin of the current occupant, who once looked up from the breakfast table and found a stranger staring through the window.
Other homes, such as Belle Grove, where diarist Amanda “Tee” Edmonds and her family lived, were frequented by Mosby’s Rangers. Two of Edmonds’ brothers rode with Mosby, and she faithfully recorded conversations with them and the other rangers who boarded at Belle Grove. The site was the perfect place for tour participants to have lunch on a brilliant fall day–or so they thought.
As lunch concluded, the sound of hoofbeats made some wonder if they had eaten their last meal. Suddenly the “Gray Ghost” and four of his rangers charged across the lawn in a shoot-’em-up style reminiscent of an old Western movie.
To everyone’s surprise, these modern-day rangers were from Lima, N.Y., a small town 30 miles south of Rochester. The role of Mosby was played by Donald Stumbo, whose two great-uncles were rangers. The 30-man unit Stumbo organized in 1967 participates in cavalry drills, ceremonies, parades and re-enactments. Each October, members travel to Virginia to ride the same trails Mosby’s Rangers rode in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Once the excitement died down and guns were holstered and horses tethered, Janet Whitehouse talked to the group about the Goose Creek Association’s success in protecting the local quality of life. “I feel very encouraged by our citizens who are increasingly aware of our countryside and the need to preserve it,” she remarked.
From Belle Grove the tour group proceeded to the Marshall National Bank, where, on the corner of Main and Frost streets, a small concrete marker identifies the 43rd Battalion’s disbanding site. Mosby had not known of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, until he read about it in the Baltimore American newspaper. Soon afterward, Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent a message to Confederate stragglers: “Those who do not surrender will be brought in as prisoners of war. The guerrilla chief Mosby will not be paroled.” Mosby chose to disband rather than surrender.
On Friday, April 21, 1865, almost 200 men gathered for a farewell address read by Mosby’s younger brother, William. In part, Mosby had written: “The vision we have cherished of a free and independent country, has vanished, and the country is now the spoil of a conqueror. I disband your organization in preference to surrendering it to our enemies.”
Mosby opened a law practice in Warrenton after the war and for nine years lived in the large white house at 173 Main Street. When he decided to support President Grant and the Republican Party, many of his men labeled him a political turncoat and accused him of deserting the South. People turned their backs on him when he walked down Main Street. One night someone shot at Mosby after he disembarked from a train at the depot.
Grant became so concerned for Mosby’s safety that he appointed him consul to Hong Kong. Other Republican presidents awarded him positions in the General Land Office and Department of Justice. It would be a long time before he returned to Warrenton.
Many years later, when a Baptist minister asked him if he knew what hell was, Mosby replied: “I certainly do. Anyone who has lived in Virginia and voted Republican knows what hell is.”
Mosby died on May 30, 1916, at the age of 82 and was buried in Warrenton Cemetery. His wife and several of their children lie beside him. Not far from the family plot is another daughter, Stuart Mosby Coleman, named after the man her father so admired–Jeb Stuart.
Sixty-six of Mosby’s Rangers are buried in the same cemetery. Perhaps these are the soldiers who forgave him; perhaps these are the ones who realized that after the war Mosby, like Grant and Lee, wanted to get on with rebuilding a divided nation and were willing to forgive their former enemies.
In an effort to stave off development in northern Virginia, a group of local preservationists has persuaded officials in Loudoun and Fauquier counties to designate a broad swath of land as the “John Singleton Mosby Heritage Area.” The proposed tract runs from the Bull Run Mountains to the Blue Ridge Mountains and is bounded by Virginia Route 7 on the north, and Interstate 66 on the south.
Leaders of the effort are planning to draft a map of the region indicating historic sites, as well as compiling educational resources for teachers and preparing a documentary film about the historic area, according to Whitehouse. The group also hopes to encourage tourism such as self-guided car tours through the region by re-erecting small road signs indicating historic locations in Mosby’s Confederacy.