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john singleton mosby

John Singleton Mosby – Confederate Raider

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This entry is part 3 of 4 in the The Lives of Confederate Generals

John Singleton Mosby, the great Confederate Raider was born December 6, 1883, at Edmonton, Powhatan County, Virginia. He was of early American Anglo-Saxon stock. His grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War.

He and his family moved to a farm near Charlottesville, Virginia, under the eave of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He traveled a great distance to school, by horseback. In 1849, he entered the University of Virginia, showing special aptitude in his studies. While an undergraduate, he was sentenced and fined to six months in jail and one thousand dollars, for shooting a fellow student. The sentence was later annulled. Mosby was admitted to the bar of law at Bristol, Virginia, in 1855. The war clouds were already gathering in 1857, when John Mosby took Pauline Clark as his wife.

As the ominous drums of war rolled louder, climaxing in the firing on Fort Sumter, John Mosby joined a newly organized cavalry company, known as the Washington Mounted Rifles. Ordering near Richmond, where over sixty-five thousand Yankee troops had laid siege, Mosby met, for the first time, his idol, the incomparable J.E.B. Stuart.

When Joe Johnston’s Army returned from the Potomac to defend Richmond from a drive up the Yorktown Peninsula, Mosby was ordered to rear guard action, where his furious, dare-devil charges threw the advancing Yankees into an almost constant state of front line confusion.

After reaching Richmond, he stepped forward to volunteer to infiltrate the Federal lines to see if they were in full force, or just a demonstration. Under cover of night, he slipped nervously through the Federal lines, making use of every bush for cover, and occasionally bluffed his way, when challenged. Mosby returned to Confederate headquarters, healthy and unscratched, with information, to his superiors Stuart and Johnston, correct in every detail.

When the terrific bombardment by Federal artillery rocked the church steeples of Richmond, the Southern Cause was in terrible danger with one hundred thousand Yankees at the very gates of the city, and Joe Johnston, himself, wounded. Robert E. Lee took over the command. He needed information about positions. Again, Mosby stepped forward to volunteer, and again, he threaded his way, ghostly, efficiently, through the Federal troops. Returning unscathed, Mosby not only disclosed valuable information on the Yankees, but presented Stuart with a bold plan to ride completely around Yankee General McClellan’s forces on a scouting and raiding expedition.

Mosby’s plan was approved by both Lee and Stuart and resulted in one of the most daring large scale raids of its kind in history, Mosby acted as scout for the 1200 picked men who made the complete ride around and through McClellan’s lines. The boldness and daring of the action caught the Yankees completely by surprise; for they could not conceive of a mere 1200 men riding through their force of over one hundred thousand. The entire world praised Jeb Stuart, who commanded the force, for the ingenuity and military audacity of the expedition.

After the Federal government passed the Partisan Ranger law, the Confederates followed suit. Mosby was granted the right to form a small group of rangers. Thus, John Singleton Mosby, born for the death flirting path where few men walk, baptized in the fury of gunfire and saber clash, eagerly grasped the cup destiny had drawn for him, drinking deeply of the potion prepared for men without fear.

From that moment until the bitter end of the War, John Mosby and his Rangers operated behind enemy lines; living close to death, in the bosom of the enemy.

Mosby and his men began their raids behind the lines of the enemy, in Northern Virginia, and as the months passed, they penetrated deeper and deeper into Yankee territory. With only fifteen picked men in the beginning, Mosby quickly caused terror to run through the Yankee camps. He raided night and day, and while the armies settled down in winter quarters, Mosby and his men continued their operations, capturing outposts as well as large bodies of men and horses.

Mosby developed a way of disbanding and reassembling his men in a short order the enemy was never able to fathom. As a file of Yankee Calvary would ride through the night, they would be joined along the way by men, also on horseback, who filtered in among their ranks, unnoticed, and who rode with them, silent and grim; then, on a given signal, the night would suddenly burst with pistol shots, and Yankees would fall from startled horses, unable to discern from what quarter the attack came. Saddles were quickly emptied and hoofbeats faded rapidly away in the night. It was only then the few survivors knew… Mosby’s men

Twisted ribbons of what had been rails, smoking embers that had been crossties, and a desolate ground that bore no track… this was the scene that quickly informed the Yankee that Mosby had come… and gone. By 1863, Mosby had become the terror of Northern Virginia and Maryland. He kept thousands upon thousands of Federals busy trying to catch him. 

At three o’clock in the morning, in February 1863, Mosby took three hundred men and in snow a foot and a half deep, filtered through thousands of Yankee infantry and cavalry swarming around Yankee General Stoughton’s headquarters at the Fairfax, Virginia Courthouse. They moved quickly, once inside the ring, capturing Stoughton and his staff and about 80 of his best horses, then they turned and shot their way out to freedom.

After that, no Yankee, general or private, slept soundly, no matter his supposedly secure position.

As Grant advanced on Fredericksburg with his huge army, he found himself subjected to a lightning fury that struck first at one flank, then at another; his losses increased by the day, and he knew he had attracted the special treatment of Mosby’s Rangers. Grant immediately dispatched over three thousand Yankee cavalry to defeat Mosby and his three hundred men… but he was nowhere to be found. At the moment, John Mosby was stopping one of Grant’s troop trains on the B.&O. Railroad and taking the entire Yankee Army payroll of a hundred and sixty-five thousand dollars… destroying the train and a mile of track… and taking the troops prisoner.

Sheridan, the new Federal Commander of Cavalry had hardly taken over this new office and his nine thousand mounted men, when he realized he was in for trouble, and that numbers did not guarantee safety. Mosby hung on his flanks like a bulldog, and at every opportunity, attacked, with his small force of three hundred men. August 12, 1864, Mosby waited until Sheridan’s huge wagon train of 525 wagons and 200 head of beef cattle had gone into camp, then he attacked the three thousand Yankees with his three hundred men, set fire to most of the wagons and drove off the cattle and six hundred horses, plus two hundred Yankee prisoners.

Grant’s plea of Lincoln: “If it requires the whole of the U.S. Treasury, get Mosby.” But neither money nor men could grant that desire to Grant or Lincoln. Even though Sheridan and his subordinate Custer in barbarian fashion hanged two of Mosby’s men, Carter and Williams, near Bristol, Virginia… offering them their lives if they would reveal Mosby’s whereabouts… but they would not talk. In retaliation, Mosby hanged six of Sheridan’s men, and sent word that he would gun down both Custer and Sheridan on sight… but such was not to be his pleasure. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, and Mosby disbanded his forces, riding South trying to join Joe Johnston’s forces in Carolina to continue the fight, but he learned before he arrived of Johnston’s surrender. Mosby was captured and later pardoned by Grant.

He had won worldwide reputation; noblemen from England, from Germany, from Ireland had come to join his service, but such recognition meant little to John Mosby; his steed had been winded, his revolver emptied… the battle was bitterly lost.

He died May 30, 1916 at Washington, D.C. leaving behind his mark, high on the shields of honor and bravery in battle. He was a Southerner, a bit of the greatest fighting breed of man, in all the world.

Originally published in The Southerner Magazine, April, May 1956.

Series Navigation<< Nathan Bedford ForrestJ. E. B. Stuart – Knight of the Confederacy >>

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