John S. Mosby was a Virginia lawyer when the Civil War broke out in 1861. He was a member of a Virginia militia company at the time, and went off to war. His militia company became Company D of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, and Mosby saw some minor action at the First Battle of Bull Run in July of 1861. Mosby eventually was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and regimental adjutant. He disliked the administrative duties of adjutant, and resigned the post in 1862. He then joined the staff of General J.E.B. Stuart, who commanded the Confederate Cavalry for the Army of Northern Virginia. In January of 1863, Mosby received permission from Stuart to organize a guerilla unit to operate in northern Virginia. This was the beginning of what would be officially known as the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, but would be better known as Mosby’s Rangers.
Mosby conducted successful guerilla operations against the Union Army for the rest of the war. One of the more famous adventures of Mosby’s Rangers is the story of the capture of General Edwin Stoughton.
The Union’s Twenty Second Army Corps consisted of troops engaged in the defenses of Washington, DC. Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton was in command of the 2nd Brigade of Major General Silas Casey’s Division of the Twenty Second Corps. The brigade, consisting of five Vermont infantry regiments, was deployed at outposts in the Centerville-Fairfax, Virginia area, and Stoughton had his headquarters at Fairfax (known at that time as Fairfax Court house). Also in the area was a cavalry brigade under the command of Colonel Percy Wyndham. Wyndham frequently gave chase to Mosby’s Rangers but had little success against them.
Mosby’s independent command had only been operating for a few weeks by the late winter of 1863, but he was already making a name for himself. He began to formulate a bold plan. Through prisoner interrogations and information from a deserter from the 5th New York Cavalry, Mosby learned the locations and strength of the Union outposts in the area, and where the weak points in the lines were. His plan, as he put it, was to “penetrate the outer lines, and go right up to their headquarters and carry off the general commanding and Colonel Wyndham.”
It was a bold plan. Mosby was counting on that very attribute as the key to success. “The safety of the enterprise lay in its novelty; nothing of the kind had been done before” he wrote years later.
On the night of March 8th, 1863, with a light rain falling, Mosby and 29 men put the plan into motion. The first step was to pass between the Union encampments at Centerville and Chantilly, VA, without being spotted by Colonel Wyndham’s cavalry. The Union Army deserter from the 5th New York Cavalry knew where there was a break in the picket lines between the two towns, and brought the Rangers through safely without being seen. The first part of the plan was a success; the Union outer defensive perimeter had been breached.
The Rangers proceeded towards Fairfax Court House. Mosby wanted to reach the town by midnight to have sufficient time to complete the mission and return by daybreak. To avoid Union cavalry patrols on the road, the Rangers took to the woods a few miles outside of town, and entered Fairfax without incident.
Mosby’s men went into action. Guards on duty were taken by surprise and captured. The telegraph operator was seized, and the telegraph wires were cut. A group went to Colonel Wyndham’s quarters, but he had gone to Washington that evening. Others went to the stables and gathered horses. Mosby took five or six men and went to General Stoughton’s quarters, and knocked on the door.
A window on a floor above opened and the opener asked who was there. Mosby answered “Fifth New York Cavalry with a dispatch for General Stoughton”. A staff officer opened the door. “I took hold of his nightshirt, whispered my name is his ear and told him to take me to General Stoughton’s room” Mosby recalled. The officer had little choice, and complied.
General Stoughton was sleeping soundly when the raiding party entered his room. “There was no time for ceremony, so I drew up the bedclothes, pulled up the general’s shirt, and gave him a spank on his bare back, and told him to get up” Mosby recalled. Stoughton asked what was going on. Mosby told him he was a prisoner and to get dressed quickly. He then asked the general if he had ever heard of “Mosby”. Stoughton said yes. “I am Mosby” the Confederate commander replied.
With Stoughton captured, the raiders prepared to leave. No shots were fired during the raid, and no alarm had been raised, a stroke of luck for the Confederates as they were in the midst of several thousand Union soldiers. But they still had to get back to the Confederate lines. The Rangers had deceived the Federals into believing that a much larger Confederate force had swept into town, but as the raiders and their prisoners left town, the actual size of Mosby’s force became known, and prisoners outnumbered their captors. Many prisoners melted into the woods and escaped on the road out of town.
The raiding party made its way back, passing close by Federal picket lines, but escaping detection. With the telegraph lines cut at Fairfax, no one outside the town knew of the raid, and all the Rangers made it safely back to Confederate lines. In addition to General Stoughton, there were two other officers and 30 enlisted men brought back as prisoners, along with 58 horses.
General Stoughton was later freed in a prisoner exchange, but due to the humiliating circumstances of his capture, his military career was over. John S. Mosby had pulled off a daring, brilliantly executed raid, meeting the objectives of the mission (except for not being able to capture the absent Wyndham), and suffering no casualties. He was a hero in the south. Mosby continued to be a thorn in the side of the Union Army through the rest of the war. At the end, he simply disbanded the Rangers rather than surrender. He eventually went back to practicing law, became a friend to Ulysses S. Grant, joined the Republican party (to the dismay of many southerners) and held several U.S. Government jobs. He also wrote about his exploits during the war. John S. Mosby died in Washington, D.C. on May 30th, 1916. Sources:
- Dyer, Frederick. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion. Des Moines, Iowa: Dyer Publishing Company, 1908.
- Mosby, John S. “A Bit of Partisan Service” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel, editors. Vol. III, 1887-88. Reprint: Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle
- Mosby John S. Gray Ghost: The Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby. Originally published as The Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company 1917; Reprint with new introduction. New York: Bantam, 1992.U.S. War Department.
- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.