For Confederate History Month, I will be posting every day some of the historical tidbits related to the Civil War that I have run across while doing research. Today’s entry is a Washington Post article printed Aug. 22, 1905, about an upcoming reunion of Mosby’s Rangers.
(The main character in my historical fiction novel Shades of Gray is based on Col. John S. Mosby and his Rangers).
MOSBY CALLS TO ARMS
Veteran Raiders Plan Attack on Fredericksburg.
Only a Handful of the Old Cavalrymen Will be in Attendance, For Their Ranks Are Growing Thin—Command Was a Terror to the Union Armies and a Byword in the South—Had Best Horses.
Grizzled veterans of the Forty-third Virginia Battalion, Army of Northern Virginia—“Mosby’s Men,” as they were known and feared in the sixties, from the Long Bridge to the Carolinas—will gather around the camp fire at Fredericksburg, Va., next Thursday for their annual reunion, and stories will be told of combats of times gone by, midnight raids, attacks and pursuits, to make the hair of the old survivors’ grandsons stand on end.
In the winter of 1862-63, soon after Lee had hurled Burnside, stunned and shattered, back from Fredericksburg, and the two armies lay glaring at each other across the waters of the Rappahannock, “Mosby’s Men” had their small beginning. The great captains were idle, and a young cavalryman serving with Stuart thought it an auspicious time to put into execution a plan that had long been buzzing in his brain.
Lee had abandoned the part of Virginia lying north of the Rappahannock and east of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the enemy, and Mosby, the youthful trooper, asked his leader to let him take a small squad of men, go up into that country, and do things to the enemy. Stuart readily assented, for he had much faith in the initiative of the young Virginian. He remembered that it was this same Mosby who, the previous summer, had suggested to him his famous ride around McClellan, which ushered in that unfortunate general’s Iliad of woes.
Simply Swiped the General.
So Mosby went up into Fauquier and Loudoun counties. He was an utter stranger there, and for a couple of months devoted himself to learning the land, occasionally stirring up an outpost and getting himself thoroughly disliked. He was “getting his hand in.” Then one morning he found himself famous. He did not, like Byron, awake to find himself so, for he hadn’t been to bed all night. In those dark hours, when all good young men are asleep, Mosby, with two dozen equally irregular young troopers at his back, penetrated far within the enemy’s lines, reached Fairfax Court House about 2 o’clock a.m., and there, surrounded by thousands of the enemy and with all the Army of the Potomac between him and safety, stole a sleeping general from the bosom of his brigade. He likewise brought away several scores of prisoners and horses. Mr. Lincoln, when informed of this impudent theft of a brigadier, dryly remarked that he wasn’t worried about losing a general—he could make another in five minutes; but it was different with the horses.
The daring of this deed dazzled the eyes of the Southern cavalry. Mosby could now pick his men, for, though the dangers were far greater than in the regular service, there was about this debonair company of free fighters a fascination that made every soldier long to join them. But no “pull,” political or military availed. The examination of the applicant was conducted in the first fight after the making of the application; the interrogatories came whirling from the guns of the enemy, swarming about the applicant’s ears in a manner calculated to discourage his ambition and unnerve his right arm.
Tried Out by Shot and Shell.
If his answers spoke back, swift and true, from the muzzle of his navy 6. and he kept within view of his watchful leader, the end of the fight found him one of Mosby’s men—if he wasn’t one of the angels. But it did not suffice merely to become one of the command. Their leader knew that in work so dangerous and responsible a high standard must be maintained, and that his rule concerning it, in order to be effective, must be inflexible. Hence, when a trooper fell away from that high standard, there was no probation, no purgatory of repentance. It was “back to the regular army,” and there was not a man among them but would have cheerfully faced any danger rather than have that sentence pronounced against him.
From the day of the Fairfax adventure to the close of the war, Mosby’s battalion was an irritating gadfly, forever worrying the Army of the Potomac. There was probably no Southern officer who was so universally execrated by the public and press of the North as its leader. Jackson might destroy a whole army corps, Lee might terrify Pennsylvania with impending invasions. But Lee and Jackson stopped fighting sometimes, and sometimes too the Union armies dealt them staggering blow for blow. But this ubiquitous, perpetual, pestilent, shifting, slippery fellow was impossible. Darting out from nowhere with his flight of midnight daredevils, he would sweep up a picket post in his clutches, terrify a company, startle a regiment, and flutter a division. And then, when the long roll had hurried a couple of frightened soldiers from their slumbers into fighting rank, they found nothing but the place where the picket post had been. Mosby was gone, gone with it in his pocket, swallowed up in the darkness whence he had shot forth.
Mosby Always Some Place Else.
This sort of thing made him very unpopular with the Union armies. Your veteran soldier much prefers being shot at, and even killed, to being startled out of a sound sleep at 2 a.m. and compelled to form for fight and then get no fighting. Mosby “got on the nerves” of every soldier within a hundred miles of him.
The War Department at Washington, irritated at repeated failures of the regular troops to deal with him, offered extraordinary inducements to any one who would abate this nuisance. And from time to time squadrons of picked men headed by some brave and seasoned old soldier who had agreed to exterminate Mosby’s men, would sally forth in quest of their quarry. They would scour all Northern Virginia in vain, for Mosby was always somewhere else. He never consulted their convenience as to time or place. Then, some day, when they had grown careless, they would find him.
The usual result of these discoveries is naively set forth in a dispatch from a general from whose camp there had set out a few days before a dauntless colonel, who, with 500 determined spirits at his back, had “taken the contract to clean out Mosby,” as the dispatch stated. The doughty colonel, so the document informs the department, had met Mosby that morning with about 200 men, and forthwith had slipped the leashes on his 500 exterminators. “Two of the colonel’s men escaped and came in.” That is all the general says about the fight.
Had Uncle Sam’s Best Horses.
The reasons Mosby’s men were never “at home” when thus called upon was that except when engaged in active service they did not retain their organization, but scattered around among the many farmhouses of the fertile region. Many of them had their homes there. Others lodged at places known to their chief. He kept scouts ever flitting like phantoms along the Federal lines and when from their information, he determined to strike a blow, the call went forth as though on wings to such of his troopers as he desired to take with him. Where an hour before there had been along the countryside quiet young men, engaged in peaceful pursuits or making love to the girls of the neighborhood, there now rode out a squadron of veteran cavalry, equipped as no soldiers on either side were, a deadly missile in the hands of a soldier who knew well just how and whither to hurl it. No time was lost after the assembling. On swift horses, the best the United States government could furnish, they galloped behind their leader, swept down upon the enemy, a yelling, shouting, death-dealing cyclone of horse and man, drove their blow home, and were away before the astonished fugitives could hurry up support.
This method of warfare was condemned by the North as being wholly wanton. There seemed to be no system in the wiping out of an isolated picket post, a wild foray that resulted in the destruction of a hundred wagons, or a reckless raid that flung the commissary’s railway cars into the ditch. But Mosby was aware that food and supplies were absolutely essential to the soldier in the field, and hence when he aimed a blow at a wagon train he knew it would land on his enemy’s stomach. Hungry soldiers will not fight.
An Ally with Mystery.
At that time the hysterical stage of the war was passed and soldiers thought less about bullets and more about breakfast. Nothing could effectively upset the plans of a commander than to have things happen to his supply trains, and Mosby saw to it that every one of them that came through his country was heavily guarded, or else fell into his hands. Of course, if he compelled them to detach forces to guard them he had also achieved one of his objects, since their offensive force was weakened to that extent.
Mosby’s men also made allies of darkness and mystery. The very fact that his movements were so erratic kept the enemy in a state of unpleasant [unreadable] all along his lines, for it seemed to be that Mosby always stuck where he was least expected. And under the shades of night the excited imagination of the panic-stricken enemy always magnified their numbers many times. In the [unreadable] of fear 2 and 2 are not 4 but [unclear] and darkness ever multiplies by the [unreadable].
Thus by playing upon the imagination and fears of his enemies Mosby accomplished a hundred fold what he could have achieved with the same number of men in the regular army. The pickets, the thrifty sutlers, the insufficient guard, were really captured by their own fears before Mosby had even called upon them to surrender. And the people and the press of the North, as well as the gossip around the Union camps, all were his unconscious allies, since they increased his efficiency by increasing the terror in his name.
Made Sheridan Go Hungry.
In 1864, Sheridan started up the Shenandoah Valley, determined to do short work of that region. He had 75,000 men and opposed to him were Early with barely one-fifth of that number. He set about his work at once, and it looked as though it was a matter of but a few days to [unreadable] when one day he halted. Sheridan missed his dinner because Mosby had eaten it. With 300 men he had captured one of Sheridan’s largest wagon trains near Berryville and that magnificent host of 75,000 veterans sat down [unreadable] for a space of some weeks until their general could arrange about getting his meals regularly.
Of course Sheridan wouldn’t admit that he had been halted indefinitely by a band smaller than his own rear guard, but the facts of history [unreadable] the feelings of even a major general.
While there never was a body of men so completely vitalized and dominated by one person as this body, yet Mosby encouraged independent leaders in his officers. One Maj. Blazer had [unreadable] harrying the Valley, and there came [unreadable] Mosby the cry of the afflicted [unreadable] “Richards,” said he to one of his captains, “take companies B and [unreadable] over into the Valley and stay until you whip Blazer or Blazer whips you.”
A week after, Richards returned with Blazer and what was left of Blazer’s men. In his report, Mosby gave credit for the planning and execution of the campaign to his captain.
Ten or fifteen years ago the survivors of this historic command had their first reunion at Alexandria with 150 attending. Since then they met annually at the various towns that are scatted throughout the country wherein they once followed [unreadable] strenuous enough to satisfy the exacting advocate of that cult. Each year sees their numbers dwindling so it is not expected that more than a hundred will respond to the reunion at Fredericksburg next week.
REUNION OF GRIZZLED SCOUTS