American Civil War
by LTC JD Lock
The Civil War…or “War of Rebellion”…found a total of 428 units officially and unofficially designated as Rangers during the conflict with the majority being Ranger-style units in name only. With few exceptions, nearly all of these organizations were Confederate. Given the nature of the war in the South and the type of operations it was forced to conduct, it can be readily seen why they were forced to attempt such an unconventional and partisan style of warfare. Unfortunately for them, most of the Ranger units proved to be ineffective and their contributions to the war effort relatively obscure.
The only long-term major exception to this fact was Mosby’s Rangers of the Confederate army. Officially designated the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, Mosby’s partisan Rangers were lead by John Singleton Mosby, who believed that by resorting to aggressive action, he could compel his enemies to guard a hundred points and thus expend valuable troops and resources needed elsewhere. These Rangers were particularly active in Virginia and Maryland for a twenty-eight month period from 1863 to 1865 and maintained an excellent reputation within the Confederate army. This type of reputation was the exception rather than the norm when it came to Confederate Ranger units, for their own officers usually described them as being no better than robbers and plunderers.
Within the South, a real debate about the legitimacy and effectiveness of partisan- or guerrilla-style forces had arisen. Early attempts to establish such units met with official disapproval from many including Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee. It was believed that guerrilla warfare not only drained the strength of Regular forces, but the units organized would prove to be undisciplined mobs that roamed the countryside terrorizing and victimizing civilians and inviting reprisals from Federal forces. Brigadier General Henry Heth characterized such organizations as composed of nothing more than “notorious thiefs [sic] and murderers, more ready to plunder friends than foes.”
Military necessity and the overwhelming onslaught of Union armies, resulted in such units being assembled throughout the South as a form of self-defense. To many Southerners looking for inspiration and someone to emulate, they did not have to look very far to cite as a renowned historical example Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox of South Carolina.
As the war progressed and the number of partisan commands grew with it, the Confederate government, in the end, sanctioned the formation of such commands as an attempt to provide them legitimacy. In April 1862, the regulation was codified by the Confederate Congress and signed into law on the 21st by Davis, to authorize the creation of partisan Ranger commands. This law authorized Davis to “commission such officers as he may deem proper with authority to form bands of partisan rangers, in companies, battalions, or regiments, either as infantry or cavalry.” As a further inducement to enroll, and to assuage, somewhat, the hardships of joining such a unit, the Confederate Congress, in essence, authorized such units to plunder and to pilfer and to receive payment for the “full value” of any arms and munitions seized as a result of their operations.
Six regiments, nine battalions, and a number of independent companies of partisan Rangers had been formed in eight states by September 1862. Unfortunately, much of what had been argued against their formation began to take place as numerous protests about the partisan units inundated the Confederate government. Reluctant to disband the units, the War Department, in June 1863, ordered commanders to combine partisan Ranger units into battalions or regiments. In addition, they were to be placed “under the same regulations as other soldiers in reference to their discipline, position, and movements.”
Despite the success of some of the partisan units, such as Mosby’s Rangers, complaints from military authorities and civilians still continued to flood the Confederate Congress in regard to the “irregulars” thievery and undisciplined ways. Lacking the support of most of his senior commanders, to include Lee and cavalry commander Brigadier General Jeb Stuart, in regard to this issue, the Secretary of War ultimately conceded that the experiment had been a failure and drafted a bill to repeal the authority for the formation of the partisan units and to consolidate them into the organizations of regular battalions and regiments.
On 17 February 1864, the bill was enacted into law. Only two partisan commands were exempted from the reorganization and allowed to retain their identity as an independent command. These two exceptions were the commands of John McNeill and John Singleton Mosby. On 1 April, Lee informed the adjutant and inspector general of the Confederacy, Samuel Cooper:
I am making an effort to have Col Mosby’s battalion mustered into the regular service. If this cannot be done, I recommend that this battalion be retained as partisans for the present. Lt Col Mosby had done excellent service, & from the reports of citizens & others I am inclined to believe that he is strict in discipline & adds protection to the county in which he operates.
Mosby first voiced the concept of a Ranger-style cavalry unit in December 1862. Following a raid against Burnside’s Army of the Potomac, Brigadier General Jeb Stuart and his cavalry withdrew to Loudoun County in northern Virginia for a few days of rest and rehabilitation…R&R.; As they rested, Mosby…an enlisted member of his command…approached Stuart to discuss with him an idea that he’d been considering for quite some time.
During the winter months, armies usually limited their maneuvers and bivouacked in winter quarters. Mosby, on the other hand, wanted to continue operations and conduct guerrilla forays in Loudoun County during those months of “hibernation,” until the cavalry returned in the spring from the vicinity of Fredericksburg. With nothing but “unlimited confidence” in his junior enlisted subordinate, Stuart approved his request.
Later that day, Stuart and his command departed, leaving Mosby behind with a nine-man detachment. Years later, Mosby was to state that Stuart “made me all that I was in the war, but for his friendship I would never have been heard of.” He was “the best friend I ever had.”
Mosby’s original intent had never been to organize as an independent partisan command but, unknown to him, Stuart’s withdrawal to Fredericksburg would be the start of twenty-eight months of attacks, ambushes, and raids against the Northern forces within the region. The area in which Mosby would operate was a 100-mile stretch of territory that ran between the Federal capital of Washington, D.C., and the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. The region in which Mosby and his Rangers would ultimately operate would encompass the counties south and west of Washington, south of the Potomac River, and those in the northern portion of the Shenandoah Valley at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Much of this area was hills and wooded mountains interspersed with fertile farmlands, which would prove to be very conducive to guerrilla warfare.
Based in southern Loudoun County and in the northern and western portion of Fauquier County, Mosby and his men would eventually strike eastward into Culpeper, Fairfax, or Prince William Counties. Operations would also take him westward into Warren, Clarke, Jefferson, and Frederick Counties. Much of this region would become known as “Mosby’s Confederacy,” for many of his men would be quartered with their parents while others would reside with family or friends. By Mosby’s definition, his Confederacy encompassed the roughly 125 square miles that was bordered by a line that ran south along the Blue Ridge Mountains from Snickersville to Linden at the Manassas Gap, east through Upper Fauquier to The Plains, north along the Bull Run Mountains to Aldie, and west back to Snickersville. Mosby’s philosophy was simple. “If you are going to fight, then be the attacker.” He was never one who could stand still to receive a charge. Most of his men also adhered to this philosophy of warfare. On one occasion, Mosby had ordered one of his newly promoted lieutenants, Harry Hatcher, to make a demonstration with some men against a force of Federal soldiers. Hatcher proceeded to ride forth with his men in an attack that dislodged the Union force from behind a fence. When questioned by Mosby as to why he had disobeyed his orders, Hatcher reminded Mosby that “[y]ou told me to make a demonstration to get them from behind the fence, and if that didn’t mean charge ’em, I don’t know what it did mean.” For most his Rangers, the commander’s intent was clear. Even Mosby, apparently, needed to be reminded of that once in a while.
Union operations between the two capitals, or down the Shenandoah Valley, exposed their communications and supply lines to the type of guerrilla operations Mosby had planned. He believed that the Federals’ rear would be the most vulnerable section of their lines. Mosby was certain that “[a] small force moving with celerity and threatening many points on a line can neutralize a hundred times its own number.” As for the benefit of such insurgent groups, Mosby would later write, “The military value of a partisan’s work is not measured by the amount of property destroyed, or the number of men killed or captured, but by the number he keeps watching.”
Mosby’s success seemed to result in the Union cavalry remaining in camp for a week or so. This additional time allowed Mosby to plan and conduct what would prove to be possibly his most notable and audacious raid. The order had been issued to assemble on 8 March 1863 at Dover Mill, just west of Aldie in Loudoun County. In groups of two and three, twenty-nine of Mosby’s riders arrived amid the drizzle of a miserable day.
With the men assembled by dusk, Mosby mounted his horse and announced, “I shall mount the stars tonight or sink lower than plummet ever sounded.” The men followed, not knowing that their objective was to penetrate Union lines to capture Colonel Percy Wyndham, the commander of a cavalry brigade, who was reported to be camped in his headquarters at Fairfax Court House. The mission was a vendetta for Mosby. Frustrated by Mosby’s recent successes and his own command’s failure to stop the Confederate Rangers’ forays around his capital, Wyndham had resorted to calling Mosby “a common horse thief” and had threatened to burn the homes of those he believed supported the partisans. Taking Wyndham’s comments rather personally, Mosby had decided to “put a stop to his talk by gobbling him up in bed and sending him off to Richmond.”
Proceeding eastward on the Little River Turnpike, the Rangers moved in a cold rain through the pitch black of night and fields of mud. Leading the column between the flickering Union campfires to the Warrenton Turnpike, Lieutenant James F. “Big Yankee” Ames…a Union deserter from the 5th New York Cavalry…was able to avoid the challenge of any pickets and turn northward toward Fairfax. A mile and a half from the courthouse, they veered again, this time eastward to avoid the campfires of Vermont infantry troops. Unfortunately, in the process of their maneuvering, the column had split and nearly half of the Rangers had become disoriented in a pine forest between Centreville and Chantilly. It was 0200 before the column had reunited and entered Fairfax.
Quietly moving through the town and capturing sentinels, the raiding party quickly cut the telegraph wires and secured the horse stables and various other buildings. Arriving at the building he thought housed the Union cavalry commander, Mosby was informed that his information was incorrect and that Colonel Wyndham was housed in a building on the other side of town. A squad was quickly dispatched to the second site only to learn that their quarry had been unexpectedly summoned and had spent the night in Washington, D.C, rather than with his troops in the field.
Disappointed, Mosby opted to make the best of it. An interrogation of some prisoners soon revealed an even greater prize, for it was learned that the commander of the Vermont infantry brigade, Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton, was headquartered in town. The son of a wealthy family, Stoughton had been the youngest general in the army a year before at the age of twenty-four. On this particular night, he had hosted a champagne party and had retired to bed to sleep off the effects of his revelries.
Mosby and some of his men walked to the brick home of Dr. William Presley Gunnell, where Stoughton was staying for the evening. A knock on the front door brought the head of one of the general’s staff, Lieutenant Prentiss, out of a second-story window. Upon being informed that there was a “dispatch for General Stoughton,” the lieutenant came down and opened the door.
Grabbing the startled Union officer, Mosby and his men forced their way into the house. Convincing with a bit of coercion that Prentiss lead them to his commander’s bedroom, the Confederates found the young twenty-five-year-old general sound asleep. Accounts differ as to what happened next. Witnesses state that Mosby simply shook the general awake while Mosby’s memoirs have him removing the covers, lifting the nightshirt, and unceremoniously spanking the Federal general’s backside.
In either case, the general found himself rudely awaken with a group of strangers gathered around his bed. Confused and demanding to know who was present, the general was asked by the twenty-nine-year-old Confederate lieutenant…who was wearing a captain’s uniform during this raid, “General, did you ever hear of Mosby?”
“Yes, have you caught him?” queried the Union officer.
“No, but he has caught you,” came the response. “Stuart’s cavalry has possession of the Court House; be quick and dress.” Allowing the general to dress, though he was a bit slow about it, the group moved back to the town square with their captives by around 0330. With scores of dazed and confused Union soldiers scattering about the town trying to gain some semblance of order and trying to determine what was happening, Mosby and his men began to ride out of town with their thirty Union soldier captives and a large number of Union horses.
The column had only traveled a few hundred feet when the command, “Halt! The horses need rest!” was bellowed from a second-story window. Answered by silence, the voice continued, “I am commander of the cavalry here and this must be stopped.” Realizing that he was addressing rebels below him, Colonel Robert Johnstone, commander of the 5th New York Cavalry, quickly ducked back in the window of the house as two of Mosby’s men broke through the front door. Encountering Mrs. Johnstone in the hallway, the men were delayed just enough to allow the naked colonel to escape through the back door and unceremoniously conceal himself under an outhouse on the grounds.
The Confederates continued their withdrawal along the same route they had entered for approximately a half-mile when Mosby left the highway and began to move cross-country to throw off his pursuers, whom he knew would soon be following. The terrain was harsh and, with no moonlight, it was difficult to see. The column began to get strung out and prisoners began to escape, disappearing into the darkness. Encountering Warrenton Pike, Mosby turned over command of his column to William Hunter, who moved out at a fast trot with the group while Mosby and a second Ranger formed a rear guard.
Fleeing through the night, the raiders skirted the Federal camps located in Centreville and continued on, the clatter of their hooves, if heard, probably mistaken as that of Union cavalry. Encountering the swollen Cub Run, the Rangers, with some degree of difficulty, were able to swim their horses across. Taking the lead on the far shore, Mosby and a second Ranger led the raider force across the Bull Run creek and through the field of battle that had been bloodied in July l861 and in August 1862 as the new day’s sun was commencing to rise. Mosby’s raid had netted one Union general, two captains, thirty enlisted men, and fifty-eight horses. Not a shot had been fired nor a man killed or wounded.
The “Stoughton Raid” was proclaimed by Jeb Stuart as “a feat unparalleled in the war.” As a result, Federal camps and headquarters began to feel a sense of insecurity and vulnerability to the partisans’ roving patrols. This accreditation of Mosby’s prowess even made its way to the very highest levels of Washington where a belief surfaced that the president and his cabinet might be the Confederate Ranger’s next target. Acting on those fears, the Union army ensured that the link across the Potomac between Washington and Virginia, the Chain Bridge, was obstructed each night for a week with the removal of its flooring planks.
Lincoln, though, rather than fearful for his safety, was amused by the incident stating “he didn’t mind the loss of the Brigadier as much as the horses. For I can make a much better General in five minutes, but the horses cost one hundred and twenty-five dollars apiece.”
By the time the unit was disbanded on 21 April 1865, service in Mosby’s Rangers had demanded a price be paid, and that price had usually been in blood. Though precise figures will never be attainable, it is believed that 35 percent to 40 percent of the command were casualties of the war with at least eighty-five men killed, mortally wounded, or executed. At least one hundred men were wounded and 477 captured. Of those captured, sixteen are known to have died in captivity. Interestingly enough, despite all the hardships and all the adversity, only twenty-five members of the battalion deserted. Surely such a low figure under such adverse circumstances is a testimonial to Mosby’s style of leadership and his command philosophy.