The American Civil War has always been one of my favorite subjects of study; so much so, it was my emphasis during undergrad school and during the first half of grad school until I switched focuses. I’ll admit that while I agree with the political agenda of the North, it was the dashing officers and men of the South who kept me turning pages during those long nights of study. And one held my interest longer and managed to spirit his way into one of my romance manuscripts…The Gray Ghost…John Singleton Mosby.
In April 1862, the Confederate Congress authorized the official formation of partisan ranger companies. These companies would be enrolled as units of the Confederate Army. Mosby’s rangers would become the most famous of these companies. Mosby’s exploits became legendary and he received high praise from J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee.
But it wasn’t always obvious John Singleton Mosby would earn the title legend. Born in Powhatan County, Virginia he was a sickly child often picked on by other children. This bullying continued through Mosby’s years at the University of Virginia. However, young Mosby never cow-towed to these bullies, but learned to fight back at a young age. During one confrontation, Mosby pulled a pistol and shot his adversary in the neck. He was arrested, served one year in jail, and was expelled from the university.
Mosby was released early, due to poor health. While incarcerated, Mosby befriended the prosecuting attorney, William Robertson. After his release, Robertson allowed him to use his law library and he continued to study law and was admitted to the bar in 1854.
|John S. Mosby before the War (courtesy of the National Archives)|
Mosby settled into life as a Virginia lawyer, a husband, and father, but as for most the clouds of war were gathering over his home. Mosby spoke out against secession, but a Virginian to his core, when war broke out he joined the Confederate army as a private in the “Virginia Volunteers.” It didn’t take long before J.E.B. Stuart singled Mosby out for his exceptional skill at gathering intelligence, and Mosby was promoted to First Lieutenant and assigned to Stuart’s cavalry scouts.
After being captured and being imprisoned for a year in Old Capitol Prison, Mosby was paroled and Stuart placed Mosby in command of the 43rd Virginia Cavalry. The 43rd would operate as a partisan unit, and Mosby was promoted to the rank of Major.
Mosby and his Rangers wasted no time conducting a campaign of lightening raids on Union supply lines and harassment of Union couriers. The fame of the unit grew with each success, and Major Mosby’s legend as “The Gray Ghost” was cemented with his ability to appear and disappear at will.
Mosby’s most famous raid occurred in March of 1863 inside Union lines at Fairfax County Courthouse with the capture of Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton. Mosby found Stoughton asleep in bed. Awakening the General with a slap to the backside, Mosby asked “Do you know Mosby, General?” The General replied “Yes! Have you got the rascal?” “No,” said Mosby. “He’s got you!”
|Mosby during the Civil War (courtesy of Library of Congress)|
Mosby’s men usually wore Confederate uniforms, though they frequently concealed them under captured Union overcoats that enabled them to get through Yankee lines at will.
By 1864, the Union was questioning how these guerrillas should be treated if captured. When Philip Sheridan took command of Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley in August of that year, General Grant told him. “Where any of Mosby’s men are caught hang them without trial.” One of Sheridan’s cavalry commanders, George A. Custer, executed six of Mosby’s rangers. In retaliation, Mosby had six captured troops from Custer’s brigade draw lots and go before a firing squad. These eye- for- an- eye executions continued for months until Mosby wrote Sheridan requesting a mutual end to the brutality and Sheridan agreed.
It is estimated no more than 10,000 men functioned as guerrillas in the Confederacy. It can be argued that they did more damage to the Union war effort than an equal number of front-line soldiers. They tied down several times their number of regular soldiers in guard duty and search and destroy missions.
Mosby was so celebrated it was recorded about Robert E. Lee that “while he was not in the habit of paying compliments, yet these papers will show that you [Mosby] received from him more compliments and commendations than any other officer in the Confederate army.”
Mosby’s Rangers continued their operations for weeks after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Mosby (now a colonel) refused to formally surrender. After several weeks, Mosby disbanded his men and they all went their separate ways. Mosby, due to the large price on his head, was forced to hide in Lynchburg. Pauline Mosby secured an official parole for her husband, from General Ulysses S. Grant personally in February of 1866.
Peace found John Mosby continuing to live the life of rebel and danger. He shocked his fellow Virginians by not only becoming a Republican, but campaigning for his great friend Sam Grant. He faced ridicule and death threats. When in May 1876 his beloved Pauline died in childbirth, at the same time someone attempted to assassinate him, John Mosby left Virginia.
President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Mosby as American Consul to Hong Kong (a strong suggestion from former President Grant). Mosby served in this position from 1878-1885. He then worked as the attorney for the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Francisco, California. Here he would meet and befriend a young George S. Patton. Some speculate Patton got some of his ideas of using tanks as iron cavalry from The Gray Ghost.
|Mosby in 1880 (courtesy of Dickenson University)|
Mosby then returned to public service as the head of the Department of the Interior’s General Land Office under McKinley, and the Lands Office in Montgomery, Alabama under Theodore Roosevelt. His last public office was as an attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice. He retired from Federal service at the age of seventy-six, but he didn’t retire from being a soldier. In 1914, taking a dim view of President Wilson’s neutrality stance, Mosby offered his services to King George V of Great Britain.
In 1915, the very university that expelled Mosby honored the Gray Ghost with a medal and written tribute. John Singleton Mosby died at the age of eighty-two on Memorial Day in his daughter’s home in Washington, D.C. He served both of his countries faithfully and before his death penned two memoirs about his service. Mosby only attended one reunion of Mosby’s Rangers, the first reunion in 1895.
Mosby never regretted fighting for the Confederacy, despite his personal views against slavery. In a 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…The South was my country.”
The Gray Ghost continues his haunt in my upcoming release HOME FIRES. Cord Matthews served as one of Mosby’s most celebrated and feared rangers (depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon a person was on). Just like his commanding officer, Cord leaves Virginia to escape memories of the woman he loves, but little does Cord realize he hasn’t left the woman or his former commander behind.
HOME FIRES releases this week, August 28th! Hope you’ll come along on this wild ride that makes one of Mosby’s raids seem like running through a field of daisies. :)
McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. McGraw-Hill, Inc: New York, 1992.
Kirsten Lynn writes stories based on the people and history of the West, more specifically those who live and love in Wyoming and Montana. Using her MA in Naval History, Kirsten, weaves her love of the West and the military together in many of her stories, merging these two halves of her heart. When she's not roping, riding and rabble-rousing with the cowboys and cowgirls who reside in her endless imagination, Kirsten works as a professional historian.