John Singleton Mosby (1833–1916)


John Singleton Mosby was a Confederate colonel during the American Civil War (1861–1865). As a private in the 1st Virginia Cavalry, Mosby chose his commander, General J. E. B. Stuart, as his role model and mentor. Stuart and General Robert E. Lee came to value Mosby’s skills as a scout and raider. In June 1863 Confederate secretary of war James A. Seddon permitted Mosby to form and recruit soldiers for Company A, 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry (Partisan Rangers). The battalion expanded steadily to the size of a regiment (approximately 1,900 men served in the command during its existence) and Mosby was accordingly promoted to colonel. The raids of “Mosby’s Men” helped to demoralize Union cavalry and rally Southern support for the war. Wounded seven times, the combative Mosby disbanded his troops, rather than surrender, on April 21, 1865. After the war he resumed his career as a lawyer and turned Republican. Mosby served as U.S. consul to Hong Kong, and from 1904 until 1910 worked as assistant attorney general in the U.S. Justice Department. An excellent writer, Mosby devoted his latter years to letters, articles, and books defending the actions and reputation of his own command, the reputations of J. E. B. Stuart and Ulysses S. Grant, and arguing that slavery was the main cause of the war. Mosby died in Washington, D.C., in 1916.

Early Years

John Singleton Mosby

Mosby was born on December 6, 1833, in Powhatan County, Virginia, the second of eleven children. His parents were Virginia McLaurine and Alfred D. Mosby. A frail child who preferred Greek literature to sports, Mosby was bullied but always fought back and, by his own admission, always lost. In 1850, at age sixteen, Mosby entered the University of Virginia, excelling at English, the classics, and debate. He was an accomplished, if reckless, horseman. Although he claimed self-defense, at nineteen he was convicted of the nonfatal shooting of a medical student, George Turpin, and was expelled from college. (A man with a bad reputation, Turpin survived.) Mosby was sentenced to a year in jail and, deciding that justice had not served him well, he began reading law while incarcerated. His prosecutor, William Robertson, helped tutor him in law. Governor Joseph Johnson pardoned Mosby on December 23, 1853.

Mosby practiced law in Albemarle County from 1855 until 1858. On December 30, 1856, he married Pauline Clarke, the daughter of a prominent Kentucky lawyer and a woman as spirited and intelligent as her husband. By the time of the presidential election of 1860 Mosby and his young family were living in Bristol, Virginia. Mosby disliked the idea of secession and voted for the Unionist Democratic candidate, Stephen A. Douglas. Months earlier, Mosby had joined the Washington Mounted Rifles with the Union in mind. With the secession of Virginia in April 1861, however, the Rifles were called into Confederate service. Private Mosby looked to his company commander, West Pointer William E. “Grumble” Jones, for leadership and military insight. Once the Rifles were in Richmond and incorporated into the 1st Virginia Cavalry, Mosby found his new, permanent hero: J. E. B. Stuart.

War Years

Mosby's Dagger with Leather Sheath

At five feet eight inches tall, and weighing around 130 pounds, the slight Mosby and the hearty Stuart were physical opposites. They were, however, similar in their habits and outlook: both teetotalers, both innovative thinkers, both indefatigable. Mosby volunteered his services at Stuart’s call for scouts; his intelligence on the disposition of Union troops aided Stuart’s famed “Ride Around McClellan” in June 1862. By the winter of 1862–1863, Mosby and a few men, using Middleburg as a base, began harassing Union pickets. In a spectacular coup, Mosby captured Union Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton at Fairfax Court House on March 9, 1863. The stunt created a sensation in the national press and added to Mosby’s image as a “Gray Ghost,” attacking out of the mists. (He later denied that the accused spy Antonia Ford had helped him in the raid.)

Mosby argued that guerrilla warfare could contribute to the defensive efforts of the Confederate army, but Stuart and Lee felt that partisan ranger units (authorized by the Confederate Congress in 1862) had, by their own actions, fallen into disrepute. What Mosby envisioned was a unit free to come and go, a unit based on knowledge of its territory, and a generous spoils system. Confederate secretary of war James Seddon agreed with Mosby, and on June 10, 1863, approved a new command under Major Mosby: Company A, 43rd Battalion Partisan Rangers.

Mosby and his men boarded in homes of local residents throughout Loudoun and Fauquier counties. “Mosby’s Confederacy,” as the area and citizenry were known, made it possible for Mosby to wage successful guerrilla warfare. Ranger Alexander Hunter later observed that Mosby was not beloved by his men, but was instead feared and revered as “a force of nature.”

One of "Mosby's Men"

Mosby regarded traditional military order as impractical to his purposes. Having lost an adjutancy to politicking early in the war, Mosby appointed his officers. He never partook of the spoils himself, but the concept was popular, especially with young recruits. The constant threat of a Mosby attack on Union pickets and supply lines made the command a thorn in the sides of successive Union commanders. Many historians now believe that Mosby’s greatest contribution to the war was as a mythical, psychological presence in battleground Virginia.

Shortly after the formation of the unit, the rangers proved their worth as scouts and couriers. On June 17, 1863, Robert E. Lee began to move his army north into Pennsylvania, using Stuart’s cavalry to screen his right flank. Upon discovering that Union general Joseph Hooker‘s army was headed to Fairfax and Loudoun counties, Mosby infiltrated the Union camp near Aldie, capturing two of Hooker’s staff officers. Also captured was a crucial letter, indicating that Hooker had no notion of Lee’s plans and no intention of crossing the Potomac River. Thus far, Stuart’s screen was working.

Lee had not been specific about which route he wished Stuart to take to Gettysburg, and after scouting from June 16 to June 24, Mosby recommended that Stuart pass between Hooker’s corps and head to the still-passable Seneca Ford. When, on June 25, Mosby heard artillery fire as Hooker headed toward the Potomac River, he assumed that Stuart would simply turn around to avoid any unnecessary action or delay. Unknown to Mosby, Stuart forged on, resulting in his delayed arrival at Gettysburg. (After the war Mosby was incensed by criticism of Stuart’s judgment and, by implication, his own advice.) Mosby dispersed his own men, and did not gather them again until June 28, when he led a successful raid on Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and returned to Virginia.

Berryville Wagon Raid

Mosby added to his reputation as a raider in August 1864, after Confederate general Jubal A. Early withdrew before Union general Philip H. Sheridan, up the Valley of Virginia. In following Early from Winchester to Cedar Creek, Sheridan allowed his wagons to stretch out in a vulnerable line. In the Berryville Wagon Raid of August 13, 1864, Mosby’s rangers captured 200 men, burned or looted around forty wagons, and acquired 420 mules, 200 cattle, and 36 horses. Union general George A. Custer burned five civilian houses in reprisal. Then, on September 23, 1864, while Mosby was away nursing battle wounds, Union general Alfred A. Torbert ordered the execution of six captured Mosby men.

Mosby was convinced that Custer was behind the act. With the death of his mentor J. E. B. Stuart after the Battle of Yellow Tavern in May 1864, Mosby was left to make the case for his actions directly with Robert E. Lee, and asked permission to deal likewise with the enemy. Lee gave his permission, and in November Mosby had seven prisoners-of-war executed. On December 21, 1864, Mosby was ambushed near Rectortown by Union cavalry, who had no idea of his identity. Though Mosby was seriously wounded in the stomach, the injury was incorrectly reported as fatal in the New York Herald, much to Sheridan’s delight.

Ammunition for "Mosby's Men"

Returning to command in February 1865, Mosby and his unit operated for a while in eastern Virginia. Shifting back to “Mosby’s Confederacy,” he chose to disband his troops on April 21, 1865, in Fauquier County, rather than surrender. Because he was excluded from the parole offered the Army of Northern Virginia, Mosby had been negotiating with Union general Winfield Scott Hancock when Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered the negotiations canceled. But Grant had the orders rescinded, and on June 17, Mosby received his parole at Lynchburg. He resumed his law practice in Warrenton in September 1865.

Later Years

The war’s end left Mosby bereft of purpose. Yet, at thirty-two, his health was good, despite his seven wounds and the rigors of partisan campaigning. His zeal for justice was undiminished. While deploring Reconstruction rule, Mosby took a typically practical view of the need for the South to reconcile with the North. In May 1872 he visited President Grant at the White House, urging him to restore rights to former Confederates. Mosby agreed to personally endorse Grant, although not the Republican Party. Both men honored the terms of the visit.

Mosby's War Reminiscences

In the summer of 1876, after the birth of her eighth child, Pauline Mosby died, leaving six children and a crushed forty-three-year-old widower. Mosby never remarried. That same year he officially turned Republican, and in the years that followed he accepted a series of government posts.

From 1878 until 1885 Mosby served as U.S. consul in Hong Kong. There he found the sort of rampant corruption that was commonplace in the foreign service. Mosby’s attempts at reform proved a headache to successive Republican administrations. Returning to the states in 1885, Mosby lived in San Francisco and worked as a lawyer for Southern Pacific Railroad; one of Grant’s last acts before his death was to secure this position for his old friend. Mosby took to lecturing in New England, and wrote Mosby’s War Reminiscences and Stuart’s Cavalry Campaigns (1887). He attended only one reunion of his Rangers, in Alexandria, Virginia, in January 1895, preferring to look forward not back—unless he could right the wrongs of history.

Predictably, Mosby rejected the prevailing sentiments of his fellow veterans and their Lost Cause arguments. He railed against those who blamed Stuart or James Longstreet for the failures of Gettysburg, thus pitting himself against the likes of Charles Marshall and Jubal Early. Mosby also devised his own tortured theory that the battle was doomed by the actions of generals Henry Heth and A. P. Hill, a theory dismissed by historians. In the end, the contents of Lee’s letterbook appear to vindicate Mosby’s belief that Lee had adequate information prior to Stuart’s arrival at Gettysburg; the results were the consequence of Lee’s judgments.

Although he himself had kept a slave throughout the conflict, Mosby was adamant that slavery was not incidental to the war. In a letter of 1894 he insisted, “I always understood that we went to War on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about. I never heard of any other cause of quarrel than slavery.”

Letter from John Mosby

As late as 1902 he mused, “in retrospect slavery seems such a monstrous thing that some are now trying to prove that slavery was not the cause of the war.” Mosby thought this was humbug. He was unrepentant in his admiration of Grant, or for turning Republican, writing the year before his death that “my animosity toward the North has long passed away.”

Vigorous and opinionated, Mosby kept up a stream of private correspondence, as well as letters and articles to newspapers. In April 1897 a carriage accident cost him his left eye, but slowed him not a bit. In April 1898, at sixty-four, Mosby offered to raise a battalion or regiment for the war in Cuba, but was turned down. When Mosby lost his California job in 1901, President William McKinley made him special agent in the General Land Office in the U.S. Interior Department, where he actively enforced federal fencing laws in the Midwest. President Theodore Roosevelt sent him to Alabama to watch for trespassers on government land. Finally at seventy, via his friend, the publisher Joseph Bryan, and his brother-in-law, Charlie Russell, Mosby found work as assistant attorney general in the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. While there Mosby finished his Stuart’s Cavalry in the Gettysburg Campaign (1908). Deaths of students resulting from football injuries at the University of Virginia prompted him in 1909 to write authorities at his old school, protesting that football was “murder.” He offered his services in World War I (1914–1918) to King George V of England, and took a dim view of President Woodrow Wilson.

Colonel John S. Mosby and Some of His Men

In January 1915 Mosby received a medal and a written tribute from the University of Virginia, which touched him deeply. To the end he remained loyal to those he believed were fair-minded, such as Stuart and Grant. He refused to cater to Southern sympathies and admitted of himself that there was “no man in the Confederate Army who had less of the spirit of knight-errantry in him, or took a more practical view of war than I did.” He died in a Washington, D.C., hospital on May 30, 1916, aware to the end that it was Memorial Day. He was buried in Warrenton Cemetery on June 1, 1916, a steely-eyed warrior from the age of romance.

Major Works

  • Mosby’s War Reminiscences and Stuart’s Cavalry Campaigns (1887)
  • Stuart’s Cavalry in the Gettysburg Campaign (1908)
  • The Memoirs of John Singleton Mosby (incomplete; published posthumously, 1917)

December 6, 1833
John Singleton Mosby is born at his grandfather's house in Powhatan County, the second of eleven children of Virginia and Alfred Mosby.
John Singleton Mosby enrolls at the University of Virginia at age sixteen.
John Singleton Mosby shoots a medical student, George Turpin, after an argument. Although he claims self-defense, Mosby is expelled from the University of Virginia and sentenced to one year in the local jail for unlawful shooting.
December 23, 1853
Governor Joseph Johnson pardons John Singleton Mosby, who has served a year in jail for shooting a man. Mosby is later reimbursed for his court-imposed fine.
After reading the law while in jail, under the tutelage of his prosecutor, John Singleton Mosby practices law in Albemarle County.
December 30, 1856
John Singleton Mosby marries Pauline Clarke, the daughter of a prominent Kentucky lawyer.
After signing up to serve in the state militia, John Singleton Mosby is persuaded by friends to join the Washington Mounted Rifles, commanded by William E. "Grumble" Jones. The unit reports to Richmond in June and is assigned to the 1st Virginia Cavalry under J. E. B. Stuart.
February 13—April 23, 1862
John Singleton Mosby serves as adjutant of the 1st Virginia Cavalry. In April, Fitzhugh Lee replaces William E. Jones as company commander and accepts Mosby's resignation.
April 1862
Confederate general J. E. B. Stuart appoints John Singleton Mosby, now ranked as private, as a staff courier and scout.
March 1863
John Singleton Mosby is promoted to major.
June 10, 1863
Confederate secretary of war James Seddon permits John Singleton Mosby to form and recruit for Company A, 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry (Partisan Rangers). This permission comes despite the preference of J. E. B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee that Mosby's new command stay within the regular cavalry.
August 13, 1864
John Singleton Mosby and his Rangers capture 200 men and some forty wagons from Union general Philip Sheridan's supply train. The Berryville Wagon Raid hurts Sheridan's pride, and provides both real goods and a morale boost to the Confederate command.
November 1864
After his successful Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Union general Philip H. Sheridan turns against John Singleton Mosby's partisan rangers. His troops burn thousands of haystacks and hundreds of buildings, seize horses and cattle, and confiscate crops.
December 21, 1864
John Singleton Mosby is critically wounded in a Union cavalry ambush near Rectortown after returning from a Ranger wedding. Mosby is whisked away to a doctor and safety before Union troopers discover his identity. He is reported dead by the Union and Confederate press, to the glee of Union general Philip H. Sheridan.
January 1865
John Singleton Mosby is promoted to colonel, retroactive to December 1864.
January 30, 1865
John Singleton Mosby is honored in Richmond with a resolution of thanks adopted by the Confederate Congress and a reception hosted by the General Assembly.
February 1865
Recovered from his last wounding, John Singleton Mosby returns to his command.
April 21, 1865
Virginia's most famous partisan ranger, John Singleton Mosby, "disbands" his Confederates several weeks after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. He refuses to use the word "surrender."
June 17, 1865
John Singleton Mosby is paroled at Lynchburg.
September 1865
John Singleton Mosby resumes his law practice in Warrenton.
May 10, 1876
Pauline Clarke Mosby, wife of John Singleton Mosby, dies at age thirty-nine.
Appointed U.S. consul to Hong Kong by president Rutherford B. Hayes, John Singleton Mosby serves until July 1885, when president Grover Cleveland replaces him with another appointee.
John Singleton Mosby works in San Francisco as an attorney for the Southern Pacific Railroad.
John Singleton Mosby's War Reminiscences and Stuart's Cavalry Campaigns is published.
January 16, 1895
John Singleton Mosby attends his first and last Ranger reunion in Alexandria.
April 23, 1897
John Singleton Mosby loses his left eye and fractures his skull in a carriage accident in Charlottesville.
President William McKinley appoints John Singleton Mosby to work in the Department of the Interior's General Land Office, where he is charged with enforcing federal fencing laws in the Midwest.
April 1903
President Theodore Roosevelt assigns John Singleton Mosby to the Land Office in Montgomery, Alabama, where he is assigned to guard government land from trespassers and poachers.
John Singleton Mosby serves as an attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, in Washington, D.C. He retires at age seventy-six.
John Singleton Mosby completes Stuart's Cavalry in the Gettysburg Campaign.
January 1915
The University of Virginia honors John Singleton Mosby with a written tribute and a medal.
May 30, 1916
John Singleton Mosby dies at age eighty-three in a Washington, D.C., hospital.
June 1, 1916
John Singleton Mosby is buried in Warrenton Cemetery in Warrenton.
John Singleton Mosby is the subject of a CBS television series, The Gray Ghost. Protests against the series' insensitive subject matter (in the wake of the controversial school enrollment of the so-called Little Rock Nine and other Civil Rights issues) resulted in its cancellation.
John Singleton Mosby is among the first inductees into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame.
  • Ashdown, Paul, and Edward Caudill. The Mosby Myth: A Confederate Hero in Life and Legend. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 2002.
  • Keen, Hugh C., and Horace Mewborn. 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry: Mosby’s Command. Lynchburg, Virginia: H. E. Howard, Inc., 1993.
  • Mosby, John Singleton. The Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby. Edited by Charles Wells Russell. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1917. Available as a digital edition at: http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/mosby/mosby.html.
  • Mosby, John Singleton. Mosby’s War Reminiscences and Stuart’s Cavalry Campaigns. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1887.
  • Sutherland, Daniel E. A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
  • Wert, Jeffry D., Mosby’s Rangers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.
APA Citation:
Coski, Ruth Ann. John Singleton Mosby (1833–1916). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/mosby-john-singleton-1833-1916.
MLA Citation:
Coski, Ruth Ann. "John Singleton Mosby (1833–1916)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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