John Singleton Mosby

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John Singleton Mosby

Born December 6, 1833
Powhatan County, Virginia
Died May 30, 1916
Washington, D.C.

Confederate guerrilla leader

Tormented Union forces in northern Virginia from
1863 to 1865 as commander of "Mosby's Rangers"

During the course of the Civil War, groups of armed raiders known as "guerrillas" or "rangers" sprouted up all across the Confederacy to fight against invading Union armies. A number of these groups amounted to little more than semiorganized bands of outlaws who became best known for episodes of drunkenness and mindless violence. But other Southern guerrilla units operated with great effectiveness against important Union patrols and supply lines. The best of these guerrilla companies was commanded by John Singleton Mosby, a native Virginian whose bravery and dedication made him one of the most feared and respected of Confederate military leaders.

Born and raised in Virginia

John Singleton Mosby was born in Virginia in 1833 to Alfred and Virginia Mosby. Both sides of Mosby's family had lived in Virginia for generations. As he grew up, his relatives instilled in him a great love for his home state. Mosby entered the University of Virginia at the age of nineteen, but his studies were abruptly cut short when he killed a man in an angry dispute.

When Mosby was brought to trial, the court decided that he did not deserve to receive a long prison term. Nonetheless, he was expelled from the university and imprisoned for nine months on a charge of unlawful shooting. Mosby spent much of his time in jail reading law books. When he was released, he became a legal assistant in the office of the local prosecutor who had convicted him.

Mosby worked and studied hard during this time. Within a year or so of his release from prison, he launched a successful career for himself as an attorney. In 1857, Mosby married Pauline Clark, the daughter of a Kentucky politician, and the couple soon started a family. Mosby's peaceful life was shattered, though, when the American Civil War broke out in April 1861.

Mosby sides with Virginia

The Civil War came about because of long-standing differences between the Northern United States and the Southern United States over a variety of issues, especially slavery and the concept of states' rights. Many Northerners believed that slavery was wrong and wanted to abolish (eliminate) it. They also contended that the Federal government had the authority to pass laws that applied to all citizens of the United States. But a large part of the South's economy and culture had been built on slavery, and Southerners resented Northern efforts to halt or contain the practice. In addition, they argued that the Federal government did not have the constitutional power to institute national laws on slavery or other issues. Instead, white Southerners argued that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. Finally, America's westward expansion worsened these disputes, since both sides wanted to spread their way of life—and their political ideas—into the new territories and states.

By the spring of 1861, these bitter differences had caused a dramatic split in the country. At that time, a number of Southern states seceded from (left) the United States to form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. The U.S. government, however, declared that those states had no right to secede and that it was willing to use force to make them return to the Union. In April 1861, the two sides finally went to war over their differences.

When the war began, Mosby promptly joined Virginia's Confederate army as a private. During the first six months of his service, however, Mosby did not make much of an impression on his superiors. Bored with routine military duties, he showed little initiative or interest in advancing to a higher rank. "We all thought he was rather an indifferent soldier," admitted one Confederate officer who knew Private Mosby.

Mosby becomes a ranger

By the spring of 1862, Mosby was spending most of his time helping Confederate colonel William E. Jones with paperwork and other administrative affairs. Desperate to escape these routine duties, he occasionally managed to grab an assignment to go scout enemy positions.

Within a few months, the detail and accuracy of Mosby's scouting reports caught the attention of General Jeb Stuart (1833–1864; see entry), a dashing cavalry officer in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Impressed by Mosby's scouting abilities, Stuart used the young Virginian whenever he could. In fact, Mosby's scouting reports proved vital in helping Stuart execute a famous reconnaissance (exploration and spying) mission around Union troops in the summer of 1862. After the mission was completed, Mosby could barely contain his enthusiasm. "My dearest Pauline," he wrote to his wife. "I returned yesterday with General Stuart from the grandest scout of the war. I not only helped to execute it, but was the first one who conceived and demonstrated that it was practicable. Everybody says it was the greatest feat of the war. I never enjoyed myself so much in my life."

Mosby's experiences on the reconnaissance mission convinced him that he could better serve the Confederacy as the leader of one of the guerrilla units that were popping up across the South. These guerrilla or ranger companies used violent raids and sabotage (destruction or vandalism of property) to strike against Union outposts and supply lines. Loosely connected with the Confederate Army, they were supposed to operate under the direction of the South's regular military commanders. In many cases, though, these guerrilla companies functioned with little supervision from the army.

At first, Stuart resisted Mosby's requests for permission to start a new guerrilla group that would operate behind enemy lines in northern Virginia. But in December 1862, Stuart finally approved the request. On January 1, 1863, Mosby officially became the captain of a nine-man guerrilla group that eventually became the most effective ranger company in the entire South.

"Mosby's Confederacy"

Mosby spent the first two months of 1863 adding new recruits to his band. Then, as springtime arrived in northern Virginia, Mosby launched a series of raids that rocked Union forces throughout the region. Sometimes they ambushed (lied in wait to attack) Union patrols or captured Union horses and other supplies. At other times they destroyed Union railroads or cut telegraph lines. On a number of occasions, he and his men even struck on the outskirts of the Federal capital of Washington.

Mosby's most daring escapade of 1863 came in March, when he traveled into Northern territory and captured a Union general, thirty-two other Federal soldiers, and fifty Union horses. According to Mosby, the Union general was sound asleep in his bedroom when he walked in. Mosby promptly drew the covers back, pulled up the general's nightshirt (a long shirt worn in bed), and swatted him on the rear with the blunt side of his sword blade. As the general bolted upright in bed, Mosby said, "Do you know Mosby?" The still-sleepy Union commander responded, "Yes, have you captured him?" Smiling, Mosby answered, "No, but he has captured you."

Mosby's raids angered Union commanders in the region, but they seemed helpless to stop his band. The Union's inability to catch "Mosby's Rangers," as they came to be called, was due in no small part to pro-Confederate feelings in northern Virginia, which Mosby's guerrillas continued to use as a base of operations. In fact, most people who lived in that area were so sympathetic to Mosby and his fellow guerrillas that a few counties came to be known as "Mosby's Confederacy." "The people of Mosby's Confederacy were overwhelmingly pro-Virginia, pro-Confederacy, and therefore pro-Mosby," wrote William C. Davis in Civil War Journal: The Leaders. "They opened their homes, silos, barns, hayricks, and cellars to Mosby's men, and they fed and hid them. Without this informal civilian volunteer infrastructure, Mosby could not have operated."

In June 1863, Mosby formally organized his rangers into the Forty-third Battalion of Virginia Cavalry. By this time, many men were asking to join Mosby's company. They were drawn by his spectacular successes and the idea of serving the Confederacy without putting up with lots of military rules and regulations. But even as the size of his band grew—an estimated one thousand guerrillas rode with Mosby at one time or another during the war—the Virginian never gave up control. In fact, he was known as a tough disciplinarian who commanded complete respect, even though he was one of the smallest men in the entire company.

Triumphs and setbacks

From mid-1863 through early 1865, Mosby's Rangers continued to steal Union supplies, destroy Union communication lines, and ambush Union patrols with great effectiveness. Mosby recognized that he was a hunted man, and he barely escaped death in a couple of battles with Union pursuers. But he never gave any thought to quitting his guerrilla activities. "The true secret was that it was a fascinating life, and its attractions far more than counterbalanced its hardships and dangers," he later admitted.

Mosby's leadership enabled his band of guerrillas to avoid disaster on numerous occasions. But in early 1864, his fortunes took a turn for the worse. On January 10, eight of Mosby's Rangers—including his two best lieutenants—were killed by Union cavalry forces outside of Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Then, in May 1864, Mosby learned that his close friend Jeb Stuart had been killed in battle outside of the Confederate capital of Richmond.

In August 1864, Mosby faced his greatest challenge yet when Union cavalry under the command of General Philip Sheridan (1831–1888; see entry) entered northern Virginia. Sheridan's mission had two primary elements. First, he had been ordered to destroy fields and farms in the area so that they could not be used by Confederates. Second, he had been instructed to clear northern Virginia's Shenandoah Valley of the troublesome Confederate cavalry and guerrilla units that had used it as their home for the previous few years.

Battling Sheridan

Over the next few months, Mosby's Rangers and regular Confederate cavalry under the command of Lieutenant General Jubal Early (1816–1894) repeatedly struck against Sheridan's invading army. Mosby's raids on the Union Army's supply lines were so effective that Sheridan admitted that "Mosby has annoyed me considerably." But Sheridan diverted large numbers of troops to protect his supply lines. He then continued with his brutally effective demolition of the Shenandoah Valley.

In September, Mosby suffered a gunshot wound that forced him to the sidelines for a few weeks. During his absence, Sheridan's cavalry captured seven of Mosby's men and executed them. They killed their captives because they believed that a Union cavalryman had earlier been murdered while trying to surrender. Before leaving, the Union troops pinned a note on one of the bodies that indicated that death would "be the fate of all Mosby's guerrillas caught hereafter."

Mosby decided that he had to take firm action to put a halt to such executions. In October, Mosby's Rangers derailed a train outside Harpers Ferry and stole more than $170,000. Union cavalry under the command of Major General George A. Custer (1839–1876) gave chase, but over the next two weeks Mosby captured thirty of his pursuers. On November 6, the guerrilla leader ordered all of the prisoners to pull a piece of paper out of a hat. The seven men who selected papers with marks on them were to be killed in revenge for the executions of his men a few weeks before. When Mosby saw that one of the unlucky drawers was a teenage drummer boy, he spared his life. But he forced the other prisoners to draw again to see who would take his place. Of the seven condemned Union prisoners, four actually lived (two survived their gunshot wounds, and two escaped). But Mosby felt that he had made his point. If any more of his rangers were executed, he would execute the same number of Union prisoners.

By late October 1864, Sheridan had swept Jubal Early's cavalry out of the Shenandoah Valley and burned many of the farms and crops in northern Virginia. He never fully crushed Mosby and his raiders, but ultimately the guerrillas could do little to stop Sheridan, as he pushed his way through the region. In December 1864, Mosby was wounded once again. Rumors of his impending death swirled around the Confederacy until February 1865, when he made an appearance in Richmond.

Mosby joins the Republican Party

By the spring of 1865, the Confederacy was tottering on the brink of defeat. On April 9, the largest of the remaining rebel armies surrendered, and the other Confederate forces quickly followed suit. Instead of formally surrendering, however, Mosby disbanded his company of rangers on April 21.

After the war, Mosby returned to his law practice. The size of his family continued to grow (he and his wife eventually had eight children), and he became increasingly involved in politics. During the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry), Mosby decided to join the Republican political party. This decision shocked and angered many of Mosby's Southern friends, since the party was viewed as an organization of Northerners and abolitionists. But Mosby refused to budge from his decision. Over the next several years he served in Republican administrations in a variety of positions, including assistant attorney in the Department of Justice. He died in 1916 at the age of eighty-two.

Where to Learn More

Carter, Samuel. The Last Cavaliers: Confederate and Union Cavalry in the Civil War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.

Col. John Mosby and the Southern Code of Honor. [Online] (accessed on October 15, 1999).

Jones, Virgil Carrington. Ranger Mosby. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944. Reprint, McLean, VA: EPM Publications, 1987.

Longacre, Edward C. Mounted Raids of the Civil War. South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1975. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Ramage, James A. Gray Ghost: The Life of Colonel John Singleton Mosby. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1999.

Siepel, Kevin H. Rebel: The Life and Times of John Singleton Mosby. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1997.

Wert, Jeffry D. Mosby's Rangers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.