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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
- 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)