VIENNA, Va., March 9, 2013 — It was late at night on March 8, 1863, in the sleepy little town of Fairfax Court House, Virginia, and a light rain was falling. This was good news to Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby, who with 29 of his 43rd Battalion of Cavalry, stole quietly into the town, looking for the house owned by one William Pressley Gunnell. It was easy to find as it was on the grounds of Truro Episcopal Church near the center of town.
While the Gunnell house at what is now 10520 Main Street was the target, Mosby and his men had carefully drawn plans to capture one Union General Edwin Stoughton, who was spending the night there as Gunnell’s guest. And it is said, the General had a well-known lady of the evening there with him.
Mosby had initially headed the 1st Virginia Cavalry, but it had changed to the leadership of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart who had received permission to put together a guerrilla unit.
Ultimately this would be come the 43rd Battalion of the Virginia Cavalry. However, it rapidly became known as Mosby’s Rangers and its leader the “Gray Ghost.”
Stoughton had been operating in the area for awhile, along with Col. Percy Wyndham, covering the Union outposts working in Northern Virginia. Mosby came up with a daring plan, he would bypass all the outposts and guards, going straight to their respective headquarters and carrying off both Stoughton and Wyndham.
In later years, Mosby would agree that it was an extremely unique plan, which he saw as the main reason for assuring its success. “The safety of the enterprise lay in its novelty; nothing of the kind had been done before,” he said.
Proceeding carefully but purposefully, he and his men passed between Union groups camped both at Centreville and Chantilly safely, not being observed by Col. Wyndham, whose cavalry was also bivouacked there. Mosby had received information from an Army deserter from the 5th NY Cavalry, advising him where a break in the picket lines of the two small towns was located, and the Partisan Rangers rode smoothly through undetected.
Mosby’s intent was to arrive at Fairfax Court House before midnight in order to effect the captures and get safely back to his own lines before the sun came up.
As they quietly approached, the guards on duty were quickly surprised and captured. A telegraph operator was on duty, and he became a prisoner and his lines were cut.
The second bunch who captured Wyndham went to his quarters, but he had gone into Washington City that evening and was not available for capture by the wily Confederates.
A second capture took as many horses as they could find, while Mosby hand picked five or six of his men and proceeded to the Gunnell house. Going upstairs, he came upon a staff officer who answered the door.
Mosby quickly announced himself as “5th New York Cavalry with a dispatch for General Stoughton.” He overcame the officer and demanded he be taken to Stoughton.
It was said that Stoughton (having enjoyed dinner and a few libations that evening) was sleeping soundly when the small group entered his room. Mosby’s own account says, “There was no time for ceremony so I drew up the bedclothes, pulled up the general’s shirt and gave him a spank on his bare back, and told him to get up.” Stoughton logically asked what was going on and Mosby told him he was now a legitimate prisoner and to put on his clothes. He then asked the good General if he had ever heard of John Mosby.
Stoughton, not understanding his predicament, said something to the effect of “Yes, I’ve heard of him – have you captured him?” And Mosby replied, “I am Mosby” and we have captured you.
Mosby’s men had captured two other officers, and some 30 other Yankee soldiers, along with 58 horses, and returned to their base. Lincoln later commented, “I can make another general any day, but I sure can’t replace those horses.”
Some time later Stoughton was freed in a prisoner exchange, but in light of his humiliating capture, it would seem his Army career had reached its end.
Not a shot had been fired, Mosby’s men had breached the perimeter of the Yankee lines even though the town was surrounded by several thousand Union soldiers, and The Gray Ghost became an instant hero in the South
That moment of glory for the South will be reenacted on Saturday March 9, 2013 in Fairfax City, Va. as part of the local Sesquicentennial commemoration.
It will begin at 10:30 a.m. and continue until noon, just outside the William Gunnell House on the Truro Church grounds, where a tour will take visitors to Stoughton’s bedroom there, as well as other interpretive stops at sites also related to Mosby,
At 2:00 p.m. the History Channel film screening of “John Singleton Mosby” will be shown inside the Old Town Hall (3999 University Drive). From 2:30 until 4:00 p.m., a Mosby Scholars Symposium will be held there with Don Hakenson, Gregg Dudding, David Goetz, Eric Buckland, Chuck Mauro and Tom Evans discussing the man known as the Gray Ghost. A reception will be held from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. with the Mosby authors present and available to sell and sign their books.
From 5:00 to 6:00 p.m., a movie screening of Mosby’s Combat Operations in Fairfax County, Va. will be held. For further information, please call 703-385-8414 or 703-591-0560.
Parking is free in the Old Town Fairfax garage behind Old Town Plaza, 3955 Chain Bridge Road, and all events are free to the public.
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