One of the best-known cavalrymen of the Civil War was John Singleton Mosby. He served under J.E.B. Stuart for the Confederacy during the Fredericksburg and Gettysburg campaigns and started his own cavalry unit, the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, which became known as Mosby’s Rangers, or Mosby’s Raiders.
Mosby’s Rangers operated out of Middleburg, Virginia. Their area of operations in Northern Virginia ranged from the Shenandoah Valley to the west, along the Potomac River all the way to Alexandria in the east, bounded on the south by the Rappahannock River, with most of his operations centered in or near Fauquier and Loudoun counties.
His troops were such a thorn in the Union’s rear areas and supply trains that his area of operations became known as “Mosby’s Confederacy.” They were masters at the art of guerrilla warfare, gather intelligence of the enemy, able to strike quickly in the rear of Union forces, and then able to melt away undetected from pursuing forces.
At war’s end, when General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox, Mosby’s men never surrendered, they disbanded and returned to their farms. In a bit of an interesting twist of fate, after the war, Mosby became a political ally and close confidant to President Ulysses S. Grant, his former enemy during the war and served as a consul to Hong Kong.
Early Service And Unit Beginning: Mosby was against secession from the Union, however when the war began, he enlisted in the Confederate infantry as a private, having decided that he couldn’t turn against his home state. He was soon granted a commission as a Major and assembled two companies of cavalry and eight of infantry called the “Virginia Volunteers” and took part in the first Battle of Bull Run.
By June of 1862, Mosby was scouting for J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry during the Peninsula Campaign. He took part in Stuart’s famous ride around McClellan’s army but was captured on July 20, while waiting for a train at Beaverdam Depot.
He was held as a prisoner in Washington D.C., but he was released in just 10 days as part of a large prisoner exchange program. While being transported back to the South, he observed large amounts of Union troops under Ambrose Burnside from North Carolina on their way to reinforce the Army of the Potomac and John Pope in the Northern Virginia Campaign. Once he was released, Mosby walked to the army headquarters outside Richmond and personally related his findings to Robert E. Lee.
After the disastrous Union defeat at Fredericksburg in December 1862, Stuart and Mosby led several raids behind enemy lines in Prince William, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, to disrupt the Union communications, harass the enemy and gather supplies for their own forces. Late in the month, with Stuart’s blessing, Mosby gathered experienced horsemen from the Middleburg, VA area to form Mosby’s Rangers.
Mosby’s Rangers Are Born: Mosby created his force under the auspices of the Partisan Ranger Act of 1862 which sought to recruit irregulars for service into the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War.
There were two purposes of the Partisan Ranger Act. The first purpose was to take control over guerrilla warfare and decide who would and would not be able to use it. This proved useful to Confederate military raiding. The second purpose was to promote the use of guerrilla warfare to help protect areas where there was little protection from the army. The Partisan Ranger Act resulted in many Southerners believing that any of form of guerrilla warfare was now being approved. From Wikipedia:
The Partisan Ranger Act allowed Davis to form a group of partisan rangers. This also led to the recruitment of irregular soldiers into the Confederate army. This meant that partisan rangers would have the same rules, supplies, and pay as the regular soldiers of the army, but they would be acting independently and were going to be detached from the rest of the army.
The partisan ranger’s job would gather intelligence and take supplies away from the Union army. Anything they brought back, they would give to the quartermaster, a military officer who was in charge of providing food, clothing, and other necessities, and in return, they would get paid. The Partisan Ranger Act drew many Southern men who were interested by this opportunity.
By February of 1864 under pressure from General Lee and other senior officers, the Partisan Ranger Act was repealed and all but two guerrilla groups were disbanded. Mosby’s Rangers and McNeill’s Rangers. Both operated in Virginia and operated under normal military discipline.
For the most part, Mosby and his forces operated out of an area that a horse could travel in a day’s hard riding, about 25 miles (40 km) in any direction from Middleburg.
Mosby summed up his operations quite simply:
My purpose was to weaken the armies invading Virginia, by harassing their rear… to destroy supply trains, to break up the means of conveying intelligence, and thus isolating an army from its base, as well as its different corps from each other, to confuse their plans by capturing their dispatches, are the objects of partisan war. It is just as legitimate to fight an enemy in the rear as in the front. The only difference is in the danger …
Mosby’s men dismissed the use of sabers, thinking them too limiting in combat. Instead, they each carried two .44 caliber revolvers and many of his troops carried two more, one each stuffed in a boot top. The tried using carbines captured from Union cavalry but found them too unwieldy for their type of operations.
Mosby experimented with some small artillery pieces but quickly stopped their use as they were of little practicality for the type of lightning fast hit and run raids his forces were conducting.
Each man had at least two horses and many men had several. Mosby himself had six horses that he’d change out frequently. The men’s treatment of their horses and the sentiment they shared about their horses, not as animals but as members of the unit was legendary.
Mosby’s men conducted nearly 30 raids in 1863-64 and were very successful at putting a thorn in the enemy’s backside as well as scouting and foraging for the army. They hauled in 1,600 horses and mules, 230 beef cattle, 85 wagons and ambulances, and 1,200 captured, killed or wounded, including Union Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Stoughton who was captured in bed.
Mosby, it was reported, woke Stoughton with a “spank on his bare back.” The general was outraged and demanded to know what the meaning of this was. Mosby asked him, “have you ever heard of Mosby?” The general replied, “Have you captured him?” at which time Mosby said, “I am Mosby,” he said. “Stuart’s cavalry has possession of the Court House; be quick and dress.”
He was wounded twice in battle but was able to return to duty quickly each time. The Union began hanging any of Mosby’s men they captured. This quickly became the norm for Mosby’s men when the captured Union soldiers. This continued until late in November 1864 when Mosby wrote to General Philip Sheridan and requested that both sides return to treating prisoners of war more humanely. Both sides agreed and there were no more executions.
When Lee surrendered in 1865, Mosby and his men were leery of surrendering, fearing that the Union would hang them as spies. They received mixed signals from General Winfield Scott Hancock’s staff and rather than risk it, they instead just disbanded the unit.
Post War: Mosby was only 31 when the war ended, but was constantly harassed by occupying Union troops. Not only him but his wife and family as well. It took a personal letter to now President Grant to stop the practice.
Mosby supported Grant, his former foe, in the presidential election and was his campaign manager in the state of Virginia. Grant in his memoirs wrote about Mosby after the war and came away with a different perspective.
“Since the close of the war, I have come to know Colonel Mosby personally and somewhat intimately. He is a different man entirely from what I supposed. … He is able and thoroughly honest and truthful.”
He was named the Consul to Hong Kong, a position he held for eight years and served in the Justice Department as well as a lawyer for the railroad. He was now reviled in much of his home state of Virginia for his friendship with Grant. He disagreed with the practice of slavery and tried to explain his reasons for still fighting for the South. In a 1907 letter he wrote:
“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” and he added,”The South was my country.”
He died on May 30, 1916, Memorial Day, from complications from throat surgery and is buried in Warrenton, Virginia.
Photos: Mosby Museum