History Lesson: The Legend of the Gray Ghost

Hey Y’all,

I’m here “behind the lines”, so to speak, in Northern Virginia. Down in my neck of the woods in Southside Virginia, we tend to think of NOVA as “Occupied Virginia”. Depending on what part of Virginia (and what part of the South) you are from, there tends to be an endless debate on what places are, what place were, and what places no longer are “the South”. Generally speaking I consider my native state to be very much “the South” but just not as “South” as my adopted state of Mississippi. But within my home state certain areas do seem to be culturally lost to “Sherman’s Suburban March”.

I blame Washington, DC. But then again it’s always safe to blame DC.

In Virginia, a good rule of thumb is that you’re in the South in any county or town where you can easily find sweet tea at a restaurant. So pretty much any place Fredericksburg south is pretty safe. Yet even above this line there remain some Southern enclaves that capture the spirit of old Northern Virginia: Old Town Alexandria, nearly all of Fauquier County, Manassas Battlefield, and the horse and wine country around Middleburg (where I’m standing in my cartoon).

I lived and worked in the history field in Northern Virginia for a few years, so I know some of these places and the still very-much-Virginian folks who live there. Nevertheless, there were times when I felt like a foreigner in my own native state. At times like this, I always remembered the local Civil War hero John Mosby…the “Gray Ghost”.

Who’s that you ask?…

Despite rumors to the contrary, there's still a few trees and actual Virginians in NOVA

John Singleton Mosby was not your typical Confederate hero. He didn’t believe in secession, reluctantly joined the cause (yet fought furiously when he did), was branded an outlaw, and later served the very enemy that once ordered him hanged. He was both hated and beloved by Northerners and Southerners at different points of his life. He was one of a kind.

Mosby was born in Powhatan County, VA about thirty miles west of Richmond. He was from a well-to-do family and had the connections to enter the University of Virginia. Mosby was short and scrawny and was the constant target of bullies. He never backed down from a fight even though he probably lost 99% of them. When one bully insulted his honor, the future Gray Ghost entered the South Will Blog Again hall of fame by challenging his tormentor to a duel. The bully showed up and decided to pummel the little man instead. Mosby did what anyone who’s read Andrew Jackson’s guest posts would do and shot his attacker with a pistol.

Mosby was arrested, tried, convicted, and jailed. He was also expelled from the University. He could have quit right there and ended up a vagrant or career criminal. Yet Mosby had an iron will and gift of charm, two traits that would serve him well as a partisan leader. He befriended the prosecutor that put him away and even borrowed his law books to study. Mosby’s sentence was commuted and he ended up passing the bar…a true “jailhouse lawyer”.

Mosby learned the law in jail. Insert lawyer joke here.

Mosby’s legal career was soon interrupted by war clouds. Unlike many gentlemen’s sons, Mosby vehemently opposed slavery and secession. He had an independent political streak that made him seem contrarian and even “pro-Yankee”. Nevertheless when Virginia seceded from the Union Mosby joined the army. He enlisted as a private.

He soon found his way as a junior officer and currier in the Confederate cavalry. Mosby’s pluck and initiative caught the attention of J.E.B. Stuart. While under Stuart’s command Mosby participated in the famed ride around George McClellan’s Army. Their mission was officially reconnaissance, but their real purpose was to have fun, embarrass Yankees, and get to wear cool capes and feathers in their hats. Mosby would thus learn a lot from Stuart.

Eventually Mosby ended up on detached duty and it was here where he began his partisan career. Much of Northern Virginia was occupied by Federal forces. Mosby’s job was to create a partisan ranger force to distract the Union Army, destroy their supplies, capture food, ammunition, and weapons for the Confederacy, and provide intelligence to the main army. Essentially Mosby’s job was to be a gigantic pain in the britches to the blue coats. And Mosby had plenty of practice at being a problem.

Mosby recruited his men from the local counties and from sympathizers in Maryland. The bulk of his men came from what even today is known as “horse country”. These Rangers could ride fast, shoot straight, strike quickly, and then disappear back into the countryside. They lived off the land and with the protection of the local populace. They were good at their job and quickly became a huge problem to the Union command. Various colonels and generals were sent into “Mosby’s Confederacy” to seek out and destroy the guerillas, and capture their leader. Some of them failed miserably.

Mosby would attack out of nowhere then melt into the countryside

The most humorous of these failures was a Vermonter named Edwin Stoughton. Stoughton was a young twenty-something West Point grad who had the reputation of being rather pompous and disliked. West Point grads being rather sparse in the large army, Stoughton was breveted up to a rank he normally wouldn’t have held for a couple of decades. According to later Union testimony his promotion was never officially approved. Some folks thought Stoughton underqualified apparently. (Don’t worry, he’ll prove why)

The young general swore to get Mosby and send retribution against the local populace. And he did so in that preening arrogant know-it-all way that folks in Vermont tend to swear such things. Rather than wait to be captured and hanged Mosby decided to bring the war to his enemy’s camp. In a scene right out of ACT II of Braveheart, Mosby and a few men road behind the Union lines to Fairfax Courthouse. They found the general’s headquarters and marched to his bedroom.

According to one account Mosby smacked the general on his backside rather rudely waking him up. The astonished general was asked if he knew Mosby. The general replied that he was looking for Mosby and asked “if you found the rascal”. Mosby replied that “it is I that have found you”. The general was hauled off a prisoner in his nightgown. It was quite and embarrassment and done in the theatrical way that made each and every Mosby attack spectacular.

Lincoln to his credit remarked that he was more distraught over the loss of a good horse than such a pompous fool like Stoughton. After a brief stint in prison, Stoughton returned home and left the army, no doubt a little humbler.

Some people just ask for it

Mosby’s men raided, and pillaged with great aplomb. Even though their attacks led to reprisals against the local population, most of the civilians loved and respected Mosby. He became a Robin Hood figure to the community. Unlike the partisan fighters in Missouri, Mosby stuck to military targets and generally treated his prisoners well. He even used his law degree to settle local disputes. A mere lieutenant colonel, Mosby was the highest ranking Confederate authority in the region. No other man with such a rank had so great a responsibility.

US Grant once ordered him hanged if captured. Yet Mosby was never captured despite a few close calls. He was even wounded a few times and had some narrow escaped from death. In the end he disbanded his men rather than surrender melting away in the same countryside that they first appeared out of. In the end his military achievements were a mere footnote to the bloody war. Yet  his dash that became legendary.

After the war Mosby became a controversial figure. He accepted Reconstruction and worked with the restored Federal government and the Republican party. He even served under the Grant Administration as an ambassador and became good friends with the man who once outlawed him.

Thus Mosby lost some of the hero-worship he achieved during the war. His legacy was considered “tarnished” and he did not receive the same degree of acclaim (such as statues and biographies) others of his generation received until much later into the twentieth century. Yet Mosby’s exploits on the battlefield would live on. While living in California later in life, Mosby was a frequent visitor to the Patton family. The Pattons were Virginia ex-pats who had served in the Confederate Army with distinction. Mosby doted on their young boy and bounced him on his knee telling the young man stories about his days as a daring partisan leader. The boy, George S. Patton would grow up and lead his own men into daring attacks against the German Army in World War II. George Patton was known for having a bit of theatrics himself.

Some kids really do listen to what you say

Mosby’s spirit lives on in others ways. There are historic and land conservation groups that use “Mosby’s Confederacy” as a boundary to preserve the scenic landscape and history that remains in Northern Virginia. His name and image appear on roadside markers, museums, antique stores, driving tours, and even a winery.

In rural Northern Virginia there still remains some wonderful small tight-knit rural communities. Many of the townspeople are descendents of the men the road with Mosby while others from the men who were sent to capture him. Today they live side by side in peace, “old guard” and “new guard” Virginian. Meanwhile the new “occupier” looms in the distance…the occupation of “progress”. As any Civil War buff can tell you, it’s disheartening to see historical landmarks bulldozed, battlefields paved, small towns become “McMansioned”, and little by little the landscape, culture, and population being subverted to generic suburbia.

Yet every so often as I drove past the stone walls, hills, and farmsteads that served as Mosby hideouts I could catch a glimpse of the legend. For whenever a true Virginian, whether he or she be 10th generation or 1st generation is under siege, the spirit of Mosby will be there. Save your state.

The Gray Ghost Signal: Saving Northern Virginia

– Southern Blogger


One Comment on “History Lesson: The Legend of the Gray Ghost”

  1. England cut down Sherwood Forest too.

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