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John Singleton Mosby (December 6, 1833 – May 30, 1916) also known as the "Gray Ghost," was a Confederate cavalry battalion commander in the American Civil War. His command, the 43rd Battalion, 1st Virginia Cavalry was noted for its lightning quick raids, partisan or ranger-like tactics and his ability to successfully elude his Union Army pursuers and disappear with his men, blending in with local farmers and townspeople.

Early life and education

Mosby was born in Powhatan County, Virginiamarker, to Virginny McLaurine and Alfred Daniel Mosby, a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College and a member of an old Virginia family of English origin whose ancestor Richard Mosby, born in England in 1600, settled in Charles City, Virginiamarker in the early 17th century. J.S. Mosby was named after a paternal grandfather, John Singleton.

Mosby began his education at a school called Murrell's Shop. When his family moved to Albemarle County, Virginiamarker (near Charlottesvillemarker) about 1840, John attended school in Fry's Woods before transferring to a Charlottesville school at the age of ten. Because of his small stature and frail health, throughout his school career Mosby was the victim of bullies. Instead of becoming withdrawn and lacking in self-confidence, the boy responded by fighting back although — he said in his memoirs — he never won any fight in which he was engaged. Actually, the only fight he did not lose was because an adult stepped in and separated the combatants. The boy became, and remained his friend.

In 1849, Mosby entered the University of Virginiamarker, taking Classical Studies and joining the Washington Literary Society and Debating Union. He was far above average in Latin, Greek, and literature (all of which he enjoyed), but mathematics was a problem for him. In his third year, a quarrel erupted between Mosby and a notorious bully, George R. Turpin, a tavern keeper's son who was robust and physically impressive. Turpin was supposedly a medical student at the university, but he and his comrades attacked other students. In one case, Turpin took a knife to a small student, and in another, he almost killed a much smaller youth with a rock. When Mosby heard that Turpin had insulted him to a friend, Mosby sent Turpin a letter asking for an explanation — one of the rituals in the code of honor to which Southern gentlemen adhered. Turpin became enraged and declared that on their next meeting, he would "eat him [Mosby] up raw!" Mosby decided he had to meet Turpin despite the risk; to run away would be dishonorable.

On March 29 the two met, Mosby having brought with him a small pepper-box pistol in the hope of dissuading Turpin from an attack. When the two met and Mosby said, "I hear you have been making assertions ... ," Turpin put his head down and charged. At that, Mosby pulled out the pistol and shot his adversary in the neck. The distraught 19-year-old Mosby went home to await his fate. He was arrested and arraigned on two charges: unlawful shooting (a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $500 fine) and malicious shooting (a felony with a maximum sentence of 10 years in the penitentiary). After a trial that almost resulted in a hung jury, Mosby was convicted of the lesser offense, but received the maximum sentence — a year in the Charlottesville jail and a fine of five hundred dollars. Mosby later discovered that he had been expelled from the university before he was brought to trial. There is nothing to suggest that Turpin, for all of his former violence, was likewise expelled for his notorious past.

While serving time, Mosby won the friendship of his prosecutor, attorney William J. Robertson. When Mosby expressed his desire to study law, Robertson offered the use of his law library. Mosby studied law for the rest of his incarceration. Immediately after the sentence had been handed down, nine of the twelve jurors began a petition for his pardon. Two of the jurors were against the young man; one hated students of the university and found Mosby's trial an opportunity to make a statement to that effect. The other juror hated Mosby's father Alfred. In addition to this petition and others from the university, Mosby's parents submitted sworn statements by several physicians noting that given the frail state of Mosby's health, the twelve-month sentence might risk his life. Mosby was beginning to sicken as the weather grew cold, and he suffered in the small, unhealthful jail. On December 23, 1853, the governor pardoned Mosby, and in early 1854, his fine was rescinded.

Early career and marriage

After studying for months in Robertson's law office, Mosby was admitted to the bar and established his own practice in nearby Howardsvillemarker.

About this time, Mosby met Pauline Clarke, who was visiting from out of town. He was Methodist and she was Catholic, but their courtship ensued. Her father was an active attorney and well-connected politician. They were married in a Nashvillemarker hotel on December 30, 1857 and after living for a year with Mosby's parents, the couple settled in Bristol, Virginiamarker which was close to Clarke's hometown in Kentuckymarker. They had two children before the Civil War and another was born during it.

Civil War

Mosby during the American Civil War
Mosby spoke out against secession, but joined the Confederate army as a private at the outbreak of the war. He first served in William "Grumble" Jones's Washington Mounted Rifles. (Jones became a major and was instructed to form a more collective "Virginia Volunteers," which he created with two mounted companies and eight companies of infantry and riflemen, including the Washington Mounted Rifles.) Mosby was upset with the Virginia Volunteers' lack of congeniality, and he wrote to the governor requesting to be transferred. However, his request was not granted. The Virginia Volunteers participated in the First Battle of Manassasmarker.


John Singleton Mosby
After impressing J.E.B. Stuart with his ability to gather intelligence, Mosby was promoted to First Lieutenant and assigned to Stuart's cavalry scouts. He helped the general develop attack strategies. He was responsible for Stuart's "Ride around McClellan" during the Peninsula Campaign. Captured by Union cavalry, Mosby was imprisoned in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C.marker, for ten days before being exchanged. Even as a prisoner, Mosby spied on his enemy. During a brief stopover at Fort Monroemarker, he detected an unusual buildup of shipping in Hampton Roadsmarker. He found they were carrying thousands of troops under Ambrose Burnside from North Carolina on their way to reinforce John Pope in the Northern Virginia Campaignmarker. When he was released, Mosby walked to army headquarters outside Richmond and personally related his findings to Robert E. Lee.


In January 1863, Stuart, with Lee's concurrence, authorized Mosby to form and take command of the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry, Partisan Rangers. This was later expanded into Mosby's Command, a regimental-sized unit of partisan rangers operating in Northern Virginia. The Confederate government certified special rules to govern the conduct of partisan rangers. These included sharing in the disposition of spoils of war. Having previously been promoted to Captain (March 15, 1863) and Major (March 26, 1863) in the Provisional Army of the Confederate States, Mosby was soon promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on January 21, 1864 and to Colonel, December 7, 1864.

Mosby's group consisted of Fount Beatie, Charles Buchanan, Christopher Gaul, William L. Hunter, Edward S. Hurst, Jasper and William Jones, William Keys, Benjamin Morgan, George Seibert, George M. Slater, Daniel L. Thomas, William Thomas Turner, Charles Wheatley, and John Wild. He and his men carried out the Greenback Raid and attacked Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan's wagon train at Berryvillemarker.

Mosby is famous for carrying out a daring raid far inside Union lines at the Fairfax Countymarker courthouse in March 1863, where his men captured three high-ranking Union officers, including Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Stoughton. The story is told that Mosby found Stoughton in bed and roused him with a slap to his rear. Upon being so rudely awakened, the general shouted, "Do you know who I am?" Mosby quickly replied, "Do you know Mosby, general?" "Yes! Have you got the rascal?" "No, but he has got you!" His group also captured 30 or more sentries without firing a shot.


Mosby's successful disruption of supply lines and attrition of Union couriers caused General Ulysses S. Grant to tell General Philip Sheridan, "When any of Mosby's men are caught, hang them without trial." On September 22, 1864, Union forces that Mosby believed (not necessarily correctly) to be commanded by, and acting with the knowledge of, Union general George A. Custer, executed six of Mosby's men in Front Royal, Virginiamarker; a seventh (captured, according to Mosby's subsequent letter to Sheridan, "by a Colonel Powell on a plundering expedition into Rappahannock") was reported by Mosby to have suffered a similar fate. William Thomas Overby was one of the men selected for execution on the hill in Front Royal. His captors offered to spare him if he would reveal Mosby's location, but he refused. According to reports at the time, his last words were, "Mosby will hang ten of you for every one of us." After the executions, a Union soldier pinned a piece of paper to one of the bodies that read: "This shall be the fate of all Mosby's men."

After informing General Robert E. Lee and Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon of his intention to respond in kind, Mosby ordered seven Union prisoners, chosen by lot, to be executed in retaliation on November 6, 1864, at Rectortown, Virginiamarker. The soldiers charged with carrying out the orders hanged three men. Finding this method unduly slow, they shot two more in the head and left them for dead (remarkably, both survived); the other two condemned men managed to escape. On November 11, 1864, Mosby wrote to Sheridan as the commander of Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley, requesting that both sides resume treating prisoners with humanity. He pointed out that he and his men had captured (and returned) far more of Sheridan's men than they had lost. The Union side complied. With both camps treating prisoners as "prisoners of war" for the duration, there were no more executions.


Several weeks after General Robert E. Lee's surrender, Mosby simply disbanded his rangers, as he refused to surrender formally. Mosbys' Rangers however were the carriers of the surrender orders and documents to Appomattox Court House.


Mosby and his former lieutenant John S.
After the war, Mosby became an active Republican, saying it was the best way to help the South. Mosby went on to become a campaign manager in Virginia for President Grant. In his autobiography, Grant stated, "Since the close of the war, I have come to know Colonel Mosby personally and somewhat intimately. He is a different man entirely from what I supposed. He is able and thoroughly honest and truthful."
Mosby's friendship with Grant, and his work with those whom many Southerners considered the enemy, made Mosby a highly controversial figure in Virginia. He received death threats, his boyhood home was burned down, and at least one attempt was made to assassinate him. The danger contributed to the President's appointing him as U.S. consul to Hong Kong (1878–1885). Mosby then served as a lawyer in San Franciscomarker with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Later he worked for the Department of the Interiormarker, first enforcing federal fencing laws in Omahamarker, then evicting trespassers on government-owned land in Alabamamarker. He also worked as assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justicemarker (1904–10). He knew a young George S. Patton III and enjoyed making "Battle plans" with Patton in the sand. He died in Washington, D.C.marker and was buried in Warrenton Cemeterymarker.

Many years after the war, Mosby explained why, although he disapproved of slavery, he fought on the Confederate side. While he believed the South had seceded to protect slavery, he said, in a 1907 letter, that he had felt it was his patriotic duty to Virginia. "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."

Monuments and memorials

  • The area around Middleburgmarker, from where Mosby launched most of his behind-the-lines activities, was called "Mosby's Confederacy", even in the Northern press. Such was the fame of his unit that after the war, reunions of "Mosby's Rangers" always drew many times the number of men who actually served in the unit.
  • The John Singleton Mosby Museum was founded at Warrentonmarker, Virginia, in his honor.
  • There are 35 monuments and markers in Northern Virginia dedicated to actions and events related to Mosby's Rangers.
  • John Mosby Highway, a section of US Route 50 between Dulles Airportmarker and Winchester, Virginiamarker, is named for Colonel John Singleton Mosby.
  • Some sources give Mosby credit for coining the term "the Solid South." He used it in an 1876 letter to the New York Herald, supporting the candidacy of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes for president.
  • Herman Melville's poem "The Scout Toward Aldie" was about the terror a Union brigade felt upon facing Mosby and his men.
  • Virgil Carrington Jones published Ranger Mosby (1944), and Grey Ghosts and Rebel Raiders (1956). He also wrote the late-1950s television program, Ranger Mosby.
  • Mosby Woods Elementary School in the Fairfax County Public Schoolsmarker system is named in his honor.
  • Lee McGiffin wrote Iron Scouts of the Confederacy (1993), which told of two teenage boys who enlisted with Mosby's Rangers.
  • The post office branch for zip code 22042 (in Northern Virginia's Falls Church area) is referred to by the USPS as the Mosby branch.

Film and television

Computer Game



  2. Longacre, p. 107.
  3. Barefoot, p. 212
  4. Boyle, p.161.
  5. Boyle, p. 155.
  6. Boyle contains details of sources on these events.
  7. Boyle includes the text of Mosby's letter to Sheridan.
  8. Grant, Ulysses Simpson, Personal memoirs of U.S. Grant ...Volume 2 of Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. C.L. Webster & Co., 1885. p. 142.
  9. Letter, Assistant Attorney General John S. Mosby to Captain Sam Chapman (June 4, 1907).
  10. School website. The website incorrectly refers to Mosby as a general.
  11. IMDB.
  12. Mosby's Rangers on DVD.

Further reading

External links

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