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Wearing Of the Gray: Being Personal Portraits, Scenes and Adventures Of the War by John Esten Cooke

Wearing Of the Gray: Being Personal Portraits, Scenes and Adventures Of the War
by 
John Esten Cooke

VII. 
MOSBY. 

I

I was reading the other day a work entitled "Jack Mosby, the Guerilla," by a certain "Lieutenant- Colonel," of the United States Army. The book is exceedingly sanguinary. Colonel Mosby is therein represented as a tall, powerful, black-bearded, cruel, and remorseless brigand of the FraDiavolo order, whose chief amusement was to hang up Federal soldiers by their arms, and kindle fires under their feet — for what reason is not explained; and when not thus pleasantly engaged, he is described as cutting down the unfortunate bluecoats with a tremendous sabre, or riddling them with bullets from an extensive assortment of pistols in his belt. He has a sweetheart — for " Lieutenant-Colonel "enters into his hero's most private affairs — who makes love to Union officers, and leads them into the toils of the remorseless Mosby. That individual exclaims in moments of excitement, "Confusion!" after the universal fashion of Confederate States officers in the late war ; and in order to make the history of his life a full and comprehensive one, the minutest particulars are given of his well known scheme to burn the city of New York—a brilliant idea, exclusively belonging to this celebrated bandit, who is vividly represented in a cheap wood-cut as pouring liquid phosphorus on his bed at the Astor House. This biographical work is "profusely illustrated," beautifully bound in a yellow paper cover, and the price is" only ten cents." 

It may be said that this is, after all, a species of literature, " so-called," such as no person of character or intelligence ever reads. Such is doubtless the truth in regard to Lieutenant-Colonel's silly performance; but is it equally certain that there are no citizens of the Northern States, both fair-minded and cultivated, who regard Colonel Mosby in some such light as that in which he is here represented? I am afraid the number is considerable. He has been so persistently described as a desperado, such as infests the outskirts of civilization, that some impression must have been made by his traducers. Dr. Johnson said that almost anything could be accomplished by incessantly talking about it; and so many people have reiterated these charges against Colonel Mosby, that a belief in them has, beyond any doubt, fixed itself upon the minds of many fair .and candid persons. It is for this class, whose good opinion is worth something, that I propose to state the truth in relation to his character and career. Though in no manner attached to his command, the present writer occupied a position during the late war which enabled him to watch this officer's operations from the commencement almost to the end of the struggle; and what is here set down in relation to him may be relied upon as an honest statement by one who has no object in the world in making it except to record the truth. 

Without further preface, it may surprise some of my Northern readers to hear that this man, figuring in the popular eye as a ruffian and low adventurer, was born and bred, and is in character and manners, a gentleman. His family is one of standing and intelligence in Virginia, and he was educated at the University of Virginia, where he studied law. He commenced the practice, married, and would probably have passed through life as a "county court lawyer" had not the war taken place. When Virginia seceded he imitated other young men, and embarked in the struggle as a private in a regiment of cavalry. Here he exhibited courage and activity, and eventually became first-lieutenant and adjutant. When the miserable "reorganization" system of the Confederate States government went into operation in the spring of 1862, and the men were allowed to select their officers, Mosby — never an easy or indulgent officer — was thrown out, and again became a private. He returned to the ranks; but his energy and activity had been frequently exhibited, and General Stuart, who possessed a remarkable talent for discovering conspicuous military merit of any sort in obscure persons, speedily sent for him, and from that time employed him as a scout or partisan. It is proper to warn the reader here that a scout is not a spy. Mosby's duty was to penetrate the region of country occupied by the Federal forces, either alone or in command of a small detachment of cavalry; and by hovering in the woods around the Union camps, interrogating citizens, or capturing pickets or stragglers, acquire information of the enemy's numbers, position, or designs. If this information could be obtained without a collision, all the better; but, if necessary, it was the duty and the habit of the Scouts to attack, or when attacked, hold their ground as long as possible. In other words, there was inaugurated in the country occupied by the Federal forces a regular system of partisan warfare, the object of which was to harass the invading force, and in every way impair its efficiency. 

It was at this time that I first saw Mosby, and his appearance was wholly undistinguished. He was thin, wiry, and I should say about five feet nine or ten inches in height. A slight stoop in the neck was not ungraceful. The chin was carried well forward; the lips were thin and wore a somewhat satirical smile; the eyes, under the brown felt hat, were keen, sparkling, and roved curiously from side to side. He wore a gray uniform, with no arms but two revolvers in his belt; the sabre was no favourite with him. His voice was low, and a smile was often on his lips. He rarely sat still ten minutes. Such was his appearance at that time. No one would have been struck with anything noticeable in him except the e)w These flashed at times in a way which might have induced the opinion that there was something in the man, if it only had an opportunity to "come out." 

I am not aware that he gained any reputation in the campaign of 1862. He was considered, however, by General Stuart an excellent scout and partisan; and the General once related to the present writer with great glee, the manner in which Mosby had taken nine men, deployed them over several hundred yards, and advanced, firing steadily upon a whole brigade of Federal cavalry, which hastily retired under the impression that the attacking force was heavy. Such things were common with Mosby, who seemed to enjoy them greatly; but in the spring of 1862 the tables were turned upon the partisan. General Stuart sent him from the Chickahominy to carry a confidential message to General Jackson, then in the Valley. He was resting at one of the wayside stations on the Central Railroad while his horse was feeding, when a detachment of Federal cavalry surprised and captured him — making prize also of a private note from Stuart to Jackson, and a copy of Napoleon's "Maxims" accompanying it. Mosby was carried to the Old Capitol, but was soon exchanged; and chancing to discover on his route down the bay that General Burnside was going soon to reinforce General Pope in Culpeper, he hastened on his arrival with that important information to General Lee, who telegraphed it, doubtless, to General Jackson at Gordonsville. It is probable that the battle of Cedar Run, where General Pope was defeated, was fought hy Jackson in consequence of this information. 

My object, however, is not to write a biography of Colonel Mosby. It is fortunate that such is not my design; for a career of wonderful activity extending over about three years could not be condensed into a brief paper. I shall speak of but one or two other incidents in his career ; and one shall be his surprise of Brigadier-General Stoughton at Fairfax Court-House in the winter of 1862. This affair excited unbounded indignation on the part of many excellent people, though President Lincoln made a jest of it. Let us not see if it was not a legitimate partisan operation. It was in November, I believe, that Mosby received the information leading to his movement. The Federal forces at that time occupied the region between Fredericksburg and Alexandria; and as General Stuart's activity and energy were just causes of solicitude, a strong body of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, was posted in the neighbourhood of Fairfax Court-House and Centreville. Colonel Wyndham was in command of the cavalry, and Acting Brigadier-General Stoughton, a young officer from West Point, commanded the whole district, with his headquarters in the small village of Fairfax. Mosby formed the design of capturing General Stoughton, Colonel Wyndham, Colonel Johnson, and other officers; and sent scouts to the neighbourhood to ascertain the force there. They brought word that a strong body of infantry and artillery was at Centreville; Colonel Wyndham's brigade of cavalry at Germantown, a mile from Fairfax; and toward the railroad station another brigade of infantry, Fairfax thus appeared to be enclosed within a cordon of all arms, rendering it wholly impossible even to approach it. Those who know the ground, as many of my readers doubtless do, will easily understand how desperate the undertaking appeared of penetrating to the town, and safely carrying off the Federal commandant. It was one of those schemes, however, whose very boldness is apt to cause them to succeed. Men rarely guard against dangers which they do not dream it possible can threaten them. Mosby doubtless based his calculations upon this fact; at any rate he decided upon the movement, and with twenty-nine men set out one dark and drizzling November night for the scene of operations. Newspaper writers of the day stated that the party were dressed in Federal uniforms. This is not true. There was no sort of advantage in any such precaution. The party had to steal off with their captures, if any were made, or cut their way through, and on that black night no uniform was discernible. Mosby approached Germantown by the Little River turnpike; but fearing Wyndham's cavalry, obliqued to the right, and took to the woods skirting the Warrenton road. Centreville was thus, with its garrison, on his right and rear, Germantown on his left, and Fairfax, winged with infantry camps, in his front. It was now raining heavily, and the night was like pitch. The party advanced by bridle-paths through the woods, thus avoiding the pickets of the main avenues of approach, and the incessant patter of the rain drowned the hoof-strokes of the horses. A mile from Fairfax the gleam of tents greeted them in front, and finding the approaches barred in that direction they silently obliqued to the right again, crossed the Warrenton road, and gradually drew near the town on the southern side. Again the woods and the rain served them. Their advance was undiscovered, and at last they were close upon the place. An infantry picket was the only obstacle, but this was soon removed. The sleepy vidette found a pistol at his breast, and the picket was compelled to surrender without firing a shot. The way was then clear, and Mosby entered the town at a gallop. His object was to capture the Federal officers known to be in the place, burn the public stores, and carry off as many horses as possible. His party was accordingly divided for these purposes, and Mosby himself proceeded to General Stoughton's residence. It was afterwards said that a young lady of the place, Miss Ford, had supplied him with information, and now led him personally to the house. This, Colonel Mosby stated to the present writer, was entirely a mistake; he received information neither from Miss Ford nor any one else, except his own scouts. To accompany him, however, in his visit to General Stoughton, he found an orderly at the door, who was taken charge of by one of the men, and then mounted to the general's bedchamber, the occupant of which was fast asleep. At Mosby's unceremonious "Get up, General, and come with me!" the sleeper started erect, and demanded:" Do you know who I am, sir?" apparently indignant at such want of ceremony. "Do you know Mosby, General?" was the reply." Yes," was the eager response," have you got the rascal?" "No, but he has got you! "And to the startled" What does this mean, sir?" of General Stoughton, Mosby replied," It means that General Stuart's cavalry are in possession of the Court- House, sir, and that you are my prisoner." This disagreeable state of affairs slowly dawned upon the aroused sleeper, and he soon found himself dressed, mounted, and ready to set out — a prisoner. Several staff officers had also been captured, and a considerable number of horses — Colonels Wyndham and Johnson eluded the search for them. Deciding not to burn the public stores which were in the houses, Mosby then mounted all his prisoners — some thirty-five, I believe, in number, including about half-a-dozen officers — cautiously retraced his steps, passing over the very same ground, and stealing along about down under the muzzles of the guns in the works at Centreville, so close that the sentinel hailed the party, swam Cub Run, struck southward, and at sunrise was safe beyond pursuit. 

II. 

The skill and boldness exhibited in the conception and execution of this raid conferred upon Mosby just fame as a partisan officer, and the regular organization of his command commenced. He was made captain, then major, then lieutenant-colonel, and colonel, as his force and his operations increased. From the solitary scout, or humble partisan, operating with a small squad, he had now grown to be an officer of rank and distinction, entrusted with important duties, and eventually with the guardianship of the whole extent of country north of the Rappahannock and east of the Blue Ridge. The people of the region speak of it, with a laugh, as "Mosby's Confederacy," and the name will probably adhere to it, in the popular mind, for many years to come. Let us pass to these latter days when "Colonel" Mosby gave the Federal forces so much trouble, and aroused so much indignation in Custer, Sheridan, and others, whose men he captured, and whose convoys he so frequently cut off and destroyed. The question of most interest is — Was Colonel Mosby a partisan officer, engaged in a perfectly legitimate war-fare, or was he a mere robber? The present writer regards any imputations upon the character of this officer, or upon the nature of the warfare which he carried on, as absurd. If the Confederate States army generally was a mere unlawful combination, and not entitled to be regarded as "belligerent," the case is made out; but there was no officer in that army who occupied a more formally official position than Mosby, or whose operations more perfectly conformed to the rules of civilized warfare. Virginia was invaded by the Federal forces, and large portions of her territory were occupied and laid under contribution. Especially was the country north of the Rappahannock thus exposed. It was a species of border- land which belonged to the party which could hold it; and to protect it from the inroads of the Federal forces, Mosby instituted a regular system of partisan warfare. His headquarters were generally near Upperville, just east of the ridge, and his scouts speedily brought him intelligence of any advance of the Federal cavalry. As soon as he was informed of their approach, he went to meet them, hovered near them, took his moment, and attacked them, his superior skill and knowledge of the country almost uniformly routing the force opposed to him. Another important part of his duty was to cut off and capture or destroy the trains of his adversaries. These things were exceedingly annoying, and made the Federal commanders whose movements were thus crippled quite furious against the author of their embarrassments — but no person with the least knowledge of military affairs will stigmatize the destruction of wagon trains as the work of a brigand. In the same manner the railroads supplying the Federal forces with commissary and other stores were destroyed wherever it could be done. Detached parties out foraging were, if possible, captured. Camps, picket posts, vedette stations, were surprised, when practicable, and prisoners seized upon. To harass, annoy, injure, and in every manner cripple or embarrass the opposing force, was the object of Colonel Mosby, as it has been of partisan officers in all the wars of history. The violent animosity felt toward him was attributable solely to the great skill, vigour, and success of his operations. The present writer has a tolerably full acquaintance with the military record of Colonel Mosby and his command, and he states, in all sincerity, that he can find in it nothing whatever that is "irregular" or unworthy of an officer and a gentleman. Mosby carried on a legitimate partisan warfare under a regular commission from the President of the Confederate States, and was in command of a regularly organized body of cavalry. He announced clearly his intention of disputing military possession of the country north of the Rappahannock, of harassing, retarding, or crippling any force invading Virginia, and of inflicting as much injury as possible upon his opponents. One single act of seeming cruelty is charged against him, the hanging of seven of Custer's men— but this was in retaliation for seven of his owil which had been executed by that officer. This retaliation was in accordance with the rules of warfare in every country, and his superiors disavowed the course of General Custer, and directed such proceedings to cease. 

We have expended too much space upon this point. Colonel Mosby can afford to wait to have justice done him. He was respected by Jackson, Stuart, and Lee, and the world will not willingly believe him to have been a bandit.

III.

What was the appearance and character of the actual individual? What manner of personages were "Mosby and his men," as they really lived, and moved, and had their being in the forests and on the hills of Fauquier, in Virginia, in the years 1863 and 1864 ? If the reader will accompany me, I will conduct him to this beautiful region swept by the mountain winds, and will introduce him — remember, the date is 1864 — to a plain and unassuming personage clad in gray, with three stars upon his coat-collar, and two pistols in his belt. 

He is slender, gaunt, and active in figure ; his feet are small, and cased in cavalry boots, with brass spurs ; and the revolvers in his belt are worn with an air of "business" which is unmistakable. The face of this person is tanned, beardless, youthful-looking, and pleasant. He has white and regular teeth, which his habitual smile reveals. His piercing eyes flash out from beneath his brown hat, with its golden cord, and he reins in his horse with the ease of a practised rider. A plain soldier, low and slight of stature, ready to talk, to laugh, to ride, to oblige you in any way — such was Mosby'', in outward appearance. Nature had given no sign but the restless, roving, flashing eye, that there was much worth considering beneath. The eye did not convey a false expression. The commonplace exterior of the partisan concealed one of the most active, daring, and penetrating minds of an epoch fruitful in such. Mosby was born to be a partisan leader, and as such was probably greater than any other who took part in the late war. He had by nature all the qualities which make the accomplished ranger; nothing could daunt him ; his activity of mind and body — call it, if you choose, restless, eternal love of movement — was something wonderful; and that untiring energy which is the secret of half the great successes of history, drove him incessantly to plan, to scheme, to conceive, and to execute. He could not rest when there was anything to do, and scouted for his amusement, charging pickets solus by way of sport. On dark and rainy nights, when other men aim at being comfortably housed, Mosby liked to be moving with a detachment of his men to surprise and attack some Federal camp, or to "run in" some picket, and occasion consternation, if not inflict injury. 

The peculiar feature of his command was that the men occupied no stated camp, and, in fact, were never kept together except on an expedition. They were scattered throughout the country, especially among the small farm-houses in the spurs of the Blue Ridge; and here they lived the merriest lives imaginable. They were subjected to none of the hardships and privations of regular soldiers. Their horses were in comfortable stables, or ranged freely over excellent pastures; the men lived with the families, slept in beds, and had nothing to do with "rations" of hard bread and bacon. Milk, butter, and all the household luxuries of peace were at their command; and not until their chief summoned them did they buckle on their arms and get to horse. While they were thus living on the fat of the land, Mosby was perhaps scouting off on his private account, somewhere down toward Manassas, Alexandria, or Leesburg. If his excursions revealed an opening for successful operations, he sent off a well mounted courier, who travelled rapidly to the first nest of rangers; thence a fresh courier carried the summons elsewhere; and in a few hours twenty, thirty, or fifty men, excellently mounted, made their appearance at the prescribed rendezvous. The man who disregarded or evaded the second summons to a raid was summarily dealt with; he received a note for delivery to General Stuart, and on reaching the cavalry head-quarters was directed to return to the company in the regular service from which he had been transferred. This seldom happened, however. The men were all anxious to go upon raids, to sbare the rich spoils, and were prompt at the rendezvous. Once assembled, the rangers fell into column, Mosby said "Come on," and the party set forward upon the appointed task — to surprise some camp, capture an army train, or ambush some detached party of Federal cavalry out on a foraging expedition. 

Such a life is attractive to the imagination, and the men came to have a passion for it. But it is a dangerous service. It may with propriety be regarded as a trial of wits between the opposing commanders. The great praise of Mosby was, that his superior skill, activity, and good judgment gave him almost uninterrupted success, and invariably saved him from capture. An attack upon Colonel Cole, of the Maryland cavalry, near Loudon Heights, in the winter of 1863-64, was his only serious failure; and that appears to have resulted from a disobedience of his orders. He had here some valuable officers and men killed. He was several times wounded, but never taken. On the last occasion, in 1864, he was shot through the window of a house in Fauquier, but managed to stagger into a darkened room, tear off his stars, the badges of his rank, and counterfeit a person mortally wounded. His assailants left him dying, as they supposed, without discovering his identity; and when they did discover it and hurried back, he had been removed beyond reach of peril. After his wounds he always reappeared paler and thinner, but more active and untiring than ever. They only seemed to exasperate him, and make him more dangerous to trains, scouting parties, and detached camps than before. 

The great secret of his success was undoubtedly his unbounded energy and enterprise. General Stuart came finally to repose unlimited confidence in his resources, and relied implicitly upon him. The writer recalls an instance of this in June, 1863. General Stuart was then near Middleburg, watching the United States army — then about to move toward Pennsylvania — but could get no accurate information from his scouts. Silent, puzzled, and doubtful, the General walked up and down, knitting his brows and reflecting, when the lithe figure of Mosby appeared, and Stuart uttered an exclamation of relief and satisfaction. They were speedily in private consultation, and Mosby only came out again to mount his quick gray mare and set out, in a heavy storm, for the Federal camps. On the next day he returned with information which put the entire cavalry in motion. He had penetrated General Hooker's camps, ascertained everything, and safely returned. This had been done in his gray uniform, with his pistols at his belt — and I believe it was on this occasion that he gave a characteristic evidence of his coolness. He had captured a Federal cavalry-man, and they were riding on together, when suddenly they struck a column of the enemy's cavalry passing. Mosby drew his oil-cloth around him, cocked his pistol, and said to his companion, "If you make any sign or utter a word to have me captured, I will blow your brains out, and trust to the speed of my horse to escape. Keep quiet, and we will ride on without troubling anybody." His prisoner took the hint, believing doubtless that it was better to be a prisoner than a dead man; and after riding along carelessly for some distance, as though he were one of the column, Mosby gradually edged off, and got away safely with his prisoner. 

But the subject beguiles us too far. The hundreds of adventures in which Mosby bore his part must be left for that extended record which will some day be made. My chief object in this brief paper has been to anticipate the sanguinary historians of the "Lieutenant-Colonel" order; to show that Colonel Mosby was no black-browed ruffian, but a plain, unassuming officer of partisans, who gained his widely-extended reputation by that activity and energy which only men of military ability possess. This information in regard to the man is intended, as I have said, for Northern readers of fairness and candour; for that class who would not willingly do injustice even to an adversary. In Virginia, Mosby is perfectly well known, and it would be unnecessary to argue here that the person who enjoyed the respect and confidence of Lee, Stuart, and Jackson, was worthy of it. Mosby was regarded by the people of Virginia in his true light as a man of great courage, decision, and energy, who embarked like others in a revolution whose principles and objects he fully approved. In the haid struggle he fought bravely, exposed his person without stint, and overcame his opponents bj superior military ability. To stigmatize him as a ruffian because he was a partisan is to throw obloquy upon the memory of Marion, Sumter, and Harry Lee, of the old Revolution. As long as war lasts, surprise of an enemy will continue to be a part of military tactics; the destruction of his trains, munitions, stores, and communications, a legitimate object of endeavour. This Mosby did with great success, and he had no other object in view. The charge that he fought for plunder is singularly unjust. The writer of this is able to state of his own knowledge that Colonel Mosby rarely appropriated anything to his own use, unless it were arms, a saddle, or a captured horse, when his own was worn out; and to-day, the man who captured millions in stores and money is poorer than when he entered upon the struggle. 

This paper, written without the knowledge of Colonel Mosby, who is merely an acquaintance of the writer, and intended as a simple delineation of the man, has, in some manner, assumed the form of an apology for the partisan and his career. He needs none, and can await without fear that verdict of history which the late President of the United States justly declared "could not be avoided." In the pages which chronicle the great struggle of 1862, 1863, and 1864, Colonel Mosby will appear in his true character as the bold partisan, the daring leader of cavalry, the untiring, never-resting adversary of the Federal forces invading Virginia. The burly-ruffian view of him will not bear inspection; and if there are any who cannot erase from their minds this fanciful figure of a cold, coarse, heartless adventurer, I would beg them to dwell for a moment upon a picture which the Richmond correspondent of a Northern journal drew the other day. 

On a summer morning a solitary man was seen beside the grave of Stuart, in Hollywood Cemetery, near Richmond. The dew was on the grass, the birds sang overhead, the green hillock at the man's feet was all that remained of the daring leader of the Southern cavalry, who, after all his toils, his battles, and the shocks of desperate encounters, had come here to rest in peace. Beside this unmarked grave the solitary mourner remained long, pondering and remembering. Finally he plucked a wild flower, dropped it upon the grave, and with tears in his eyes, left the place. 

This lonely mourner at the grave of Stuart was Mosby. 

John Esten Cook, Wearing Of the Gray: Being Personal Portraits, Scenes and Adventures Of the War (New York: E. B. Treat & Company, 1867), 113-119.

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