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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: ‘Gray Ghost’ is What They Called Him

By Tom Morrow

One of Robert E. Lee’s most dependable commanders during the Civil War was John Singleton Mosby. Unless you’re a serious student of history, the name may not be well-known to you – that is unless you’re were a 1950s TV fan.

The TV show’s music gave a good indication of who he was. Young people across America were singing the opening theme music: “Gray Ghost is What They Call Me, John Mosby is my name.” The show’s 39 episodes ran from 1957 to 1958, starring Tod Andrews.

The real Mosby was, indeed, at times a “ghost” to Union forces. He was born Dec. 6, 1833. Mosby was a Confederate army cavalry battalion commander. His command, the 43rd Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, known as “Mosby’s Rangers” or “Mosby’s Raiders,” was a partisan ranger unit noted for its lightning-quick raids and its ability to elude Union Army pursuers and disappear, blending in with local farmers and townsmen.

In the beginning, Mosby spoke out against secession but joined the Confederate army as a private at the outbreak of the war. He participated in the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) in July 1861.

In January 1863, J.E.B. Stuart authorized Mosby to form and take command of the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry. This was later expanded into Mosby’s Command, a regimental-sized unit of partisan rangers operating in Northern Virginia.

The 43rd Battalion operated officially as a unit of the Army of Northern Virginia, subject to the commands of Robert E. Lee and Stuart, but its men lived outside of the norms of regular army cavalrymen.

Mosby’s men had no camp duties and lived scattered among the civilian population. Mosby required proof from any volunteer that he had not deserted from the regular service, and only about 10 percent of his men had served previously in the Confederate Army.

In March 1863, Mosby conducted a daring raid far inside Union lines near the Fairfax County courthouse. He and his men captured three Union officers, including Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Stoughton. Mosby wrote in his memoirs that he found Stoughton in bed and roused him with a “spank on his bare backside.” Upon being so rudely awakened the general indignantly asked what this meant. Mosby quickly asked if he had ever heard of “Mosby.” The general replied, “Yes, have you caught him?”

“I am Mosby,” he said. “Stuart’s cavalry has possession of the Court House; be quick and dress.” Mosby and his 29 men had captured a Union general, two captains, 30 enlisted men, and 58 horses without firing a shot. Mosby was formally promoted to the rank of captain two days later, on March 15, 1863, and major on March 26, 1863.

The partisan rangers proved controversial among Confederate army regulars, who thought the rangers encouraged desertion as well as morale problems in the countryside as potential soldiers would favor sleeping in their own (or friendly) beds and capturing booty to the hardships and privations of traditional military campaigns. Mosby was thus enrolled in the Provisional Army of the Confederate States and soon promoted to lieutenant colonel on January 1864, and to colonel later that year. Mosby thus carefully screened potential recruits, and required each to bring his own horse.

On Nov. 11, 1864, Mosby wrote to Gen. Philip Sheridan, 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 captives as “prisoners of war” for the duration, there were no more executions.

Ironically, after the war, Mosby became a Republican and worked as an attorney and supported his former enemy’s commander, U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. He also served as the American consul to Hong Kong and in the U.S. Department of Justice.

Many years after the war, Mosby befriended the Patton family in California and spent time at their ranch with their young son, George, recreating Civil War. Years later during World War II, General George S. Patton would use tactics he learned from his childhood idle.

Throughout his life, Mosby remained loyal to those he believed fair-minded, such as J.E.B. Stuart and President Grant, but refused to cater to Southern sympathies. He died of complications after throat surgery in a Washington, D.C. hospital on May 30, 1916, noting the day he was dying was Memorial Day. He is buried at the Warrenton Cemetery in Warrenton, Virginia.

“War Loses Its Romance” is an inscription of a quotation by Mosby at Veterans Memorial at the Lackawanna County Courthouse in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

The area of northern central Virginia in which Mosby operated with impunity was known during the war and ever since as Mosby’s Confederacy. The legend of “Gray Ghost” lives on.