The Civil War: the legend of the Grey Ghost rides on

John Singleton Mosby, the Confederate Grey Ghost, headed up the Partisan Rangers which swept down in daring raids on the Union forces. Photo: Mosby (center with feather) & his men

VIENNA, Va., January 4, 2012 – If you will admit you were a youngster in the 1950s, you are familiar with one of the bravest and most intriguing Confederate cavaliers, whose daring exploits became a weekly program in the then-new medium of television.  “The Grey Ghost” became instantly popular even on the small black and white TV sets as kids gathered around to watch Col. John Singleton Mosby play havoc with the Yankee forces.

Red scarf flying, mounted on his trusty steed, Mosby was a man small in stature, (5’7” tall and 130 lbs.), a fact that made him the target of bullies all through his young life. Rather than becoming withdrawn and quiet, he responded by fighting back against the bigger kids, although he would concede that he “never won any fight in which he was engaged.”

He was born in Powhatan County, Va., on December 6, 1833, part of a family of Old Virginians and moved to Charlottesville, VA when he was ten years old. He attended several private schools and finally matriculated at the University of Virginia as all “better class boys” in Virginia usually did. He excelled in Latin, Greek and literature, though having problems with mathmatics. His education there ended after an altercation with a fellow student erupted during his third year.

Sentenced to Jail for Fighting

His fight was with the resident bully, George R. Turpin, a tavern keeper’s son, and when they met on the field of honor, Mosby shot Turpin in the neck with a small pepperbox pistol. Even though his trial almost resulted in a hung jury, Mosby went to jail for a time.

While incarcerated, he became a friend of the prosecuting attorney William J. Robertson and expressed his hope to study law. Robertson offered him the use of his own law library, and Mosby studied law while he completed his imprisonment. Governor Joseph Johnson was prevailed upon to pardon Mosby in 1854 and his fine rescinded. He returned to school only to find he had been expelled before his trial even began.

He was later admitted to the bar and began his own law practice in nearby Howardsville, Va., where he met Pauline Clarke, a Kentucky girl, and in 1857 the two were married.

Beginning of Military Career

While practicing in Bristol, Va., he was one of the first men to enlist in the Confederate forces, and taking as his heroes Gen. Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion, he sought an opportunity to emulate them. He was put in Col. William E. “Grumble” Jones’ Washington Mounted Rifles and sent to put together a group of “Virginia Volunteers.” This would be the forerunner of his Partisan Rangers, whose hit and run tactics and activities, just barely acceptable according to the normal code of war, would make him a folk hero, beginning with the Battle of First Manassas.

He was promoted to First Lieutenant and assigned to the cavalry scouts of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart where he was active in Stuart’s well known “Ride around McClellan.” He and Stuart were almost the same age.

Time in Old Capitol Prison

Grey Ghost Image: Brady-Handy

The Yankees captured him and he spent ten days in the Old Capitol Prison before being exchanged; even while in prison he was gathering intelligence and making plans to best the Yankees. After his release, he went straight to the Confederate headquarters just outside Richmond and reported his findings and observations to Robert E. Lee himself.

By January of 1863, he had sufficiently impressed his superiors that he was promoted to captain in March of that year and to major two weeks later. He was placed in charge of the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry, Partisan Rangers. His hit-and-run activities and success in obtaining important information, led to the valley part of Virginia being known as “Mosby’s Confederacy.”

One of the hard-riding cavalrymen of the time, Mosby was said to have gone through a succession of horses.  One favorite was “Raven,” as black as his name; there was a bay named “Captain,” and “Dandy” was described as a “fat, dapple gray gelding.” 

Following the payroll robbery which took place between Harper’s Ferry and present day Jefferson County, Va. on October 12, 1864, Mosby declined to take any portion of the $172,000 in profits; so his men put together a purse and presented him with “Croquette,” which later became his favorite, according to Mosby chronicler, Virgil Carrington Jones.

The Stoughton affair

Probably the most dramatic action of Mosby, which has become an active part of Civil War lore, is absolutely true. It seems that on March 9th, 1863, Mosby and 29 of his men stole silently into the town of Fairfax Court House in Northern Virginia, about 3 1/2 miles from where I live. Union General Edwin H. Stoughton had spent the evening having a pleasant dinner at the home of Confederate spy Antonia Ford, a few blocks away from the Dr. W.P. Gunnell home where he was to spend the night.

After tricking the officer on guard at the front of the Gunnell House, Mosby entered, bounding up the stairs, and charging into the bedroom where Stoughton was sleeping. (Whether or not he was alone is a matter of further research and conjecture.) Mosby quickly pulled up the sleeping general’s short nightshirt, and awoke him with “a spank on his bare back.” 

Stoughton was upset at being awakened thusly and asked his assailant why he had done that. Never at a loss for words, Mosby asked Stoughton, “Have you ever heard of Mosby?”  The general replied, “Yes, have you caught that rascal?”  And Mosby replied, “I am he and I have caught you.”  Mosby added that “Stuart’s cavalry has possession of the Court House; be quick and dress.” 

Acting swiftly and under cover of darkness, Mosby’s men had captured three Union officers, including two captains and the general, 30 enlisted men and 58 horses, all without a shot being fired.

When President Lincoln received the report, he was said to have remarked that “I can always make another general, but I’d hate to lose those horses.”

Union authorities arrested Antonia Ford the next day since it was obvious how Mosby knew where Stoughton was staying, and it had been fairly common knowledge that she and the General were intimately involved. One Yankee soldier said, “If Ford is arrested tomorrow, she can thank Stoughton for it.”

Mosby made Lieutenant Colonel on January 21, 1864 and Colonel on December 7 of that year. Mosby was wounded several times, but each time was able to recover and return to duty.

Retaliation by Yankees

He remained a serious thorn in the side of the Yankee forces, and it was General Philip Sheridan who announced that “when any of Mosby’s men are caught, hang them without trial.”  It was only a short time later that General George A. Custer executed six of the Mosby men near Front Royal, Va. In retaliation, Mosby saw to it that at least one Yankee was executed for every Grey Ghost man caught. Sometimes it was more than one.

Several weeks after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Mosby disbanded his men in Salem, Va.  Ever the rebel, he refused to formally surrender! He was basically on the run from that time with a bounty of $5,000.00 for his capture. Finally at the end of June, Ulysses S. Grant took notice of the case, and familiar with Mosby’s talents and exploits, paroled him. In later life, Grant and Mosby were friends, in that curious way of wars making friends of enemies. Mosby even campaigned for Grant’s presidential run!

Helped in Grant’s Election

His life was not easy after the War; many felt his friendship with Grant was a mark against him, resulting in death threats and the burning of his home.  Mosby said, “There was more vindictiveness shown to me by the Virginia people for my voting for Grant than the North showed me for fighting four years against him.”

In many respects, Mosby shared sentiments on the war with Lee. He was not in favor of slavery and believed that the South had seceded  to protect the “curious institution.”  However, he felt he had a patriotic duty to Virginia, saying “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.”   He is quoted as saying, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.”

He held various governmental positions after the war, including being consul to Hong Kong, and for a time rented a house, which may still be seen near Logan Circle in Washington, D.C.  It is a small Empire style home, built in 1875, now nestled between two huge office buildings. Although he never owned the house, its tenacity must have come from the Grey Ghost as it has survived the last 20 years of high rises, where anything old is ripe for being torn down.

Mosby died on May 30, 1916 and is buried in Warrenton, Va.   The television show about his exploits ran in 39 segments in 1957-1958 on CBS.

The ride Continues

Mosby’s DC home today

The Grey Ghost lives on in Northern Virginia, where there are 35 markers or monuments dedicated to events related to Mosby’s Rangers, and an entire section of U. S. 50 between Dulles Airport and Winchester, Va. is named for him.

A historical marker is on Rt.123 in Fairfax City, a bronze marker is in front of Truro Episcopal Church there, erected by the Fairfax Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and markers also denote the Gunnell House where Gen. Stoughton was unceremoniously captured.

There is an elementary school and a subdivision in Fairfax County bearing his name, and the U. S. Post Office in Falls Church is referred to as the “Mosby Branch.”  There is a museum dedicated to him in Warrenton, Va. and many of his rangers are buried beneath a large marker in the cemetery there.

And so the Grey Ghost rides on in history.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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