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Night Riders

Scholars take a look at the life of John Singleton Mosby.

In the middle of the night on March 9, 1863, in the Fairfax Courthouse, Col. John Singleton Mosby of the Confederate Army woke up a sleeping Brig. Gen. Edwin Stoughton by slapping him on the rear end.

"Who has the audacity to awaken me like this?" Stoughton exclaimed. Mosby asked the Union general if he knew of Mosby. Stoughton then answered, "Yes, have you caught him?" to which Mosby replied, "No, Mosby’s caught you."

Dave Goetz, Mosby scholar and owner of Mosby’s Confederacy tours, related the famous exchange to the audience at a roundtable discussion held by the Fairfax Museum and Visitor’s Center Sunday, July 10. At the discussion, which was part of the museum’s Catch the History Spirit lecture series, Goetz and other Mosby scholars examined Mosby’s life and legacy.

The raid that followed, where Mosby captured Stoughton and a bunch of Union soliders without firing a shot, helped cement Mosby’s renown and that of the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry, or Mosby’s Rangers.

"The word ‘genius’ is overused," said Don Hakerson, president of the Stuart-Mosby Historical Society. "But John Singleton Mosby had no military background and went on to become the grandfather of guerilla warfare. That takes a certain genius."

MOSBY WAS BORN in Edgemont, Va. In December 1833, and after a sickly childhood attended the University of Virginia. After shooting a fellow student, Mosby went to jail, where he studied law. After he was released in 1853, he became an attorney, and at the outbreak of the Civil War, joined the Confederate Army. After a brief position in the Washington Mounted Rifles, Mosby joined the staff of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, who let him form Mosby’s Rangers in 1862. Mosby’s Rangers undertook their first raid on Union troops, for which they became famous, in Chantilly. Mosby was known popularly as the "Gray Ghost."

"If there was one word to describe Mosby, that word would be ‘ubiquitous,’" said Hakerson. "He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere."

Mosby’s ranger tactics are studied today by modern U.S. Army Rangers, said Hakerson. Union soldiers were "scared to death" of Mosby throughout the Civil War, he said, but the ones who were captured often described how well he treated them.

"(Mosby) had a tremendous moral compass," said Goetz. "Whether you agree with him or not, he made decisions quickly and … went on his gut instinct with what he knew was correct." In many ways, Mosby followed his moral compass rather than following other people, said Goetz.

SCHOLARS DESCRIBED how Mosby, a nonreligious man himself, married a Catholic woman at a time when it was not socially acceptable to do so. He served in the Confederate Army but became a Republican after the war, when most Southerners were Democrats. His postwar friendship with former union general Ulysses Grant earned him the consternation of his peers as well. He was a feared and respected figure, said Goetz, but as a soldier he was a "lousy saddle," always slouching and showing up late for drill.

Dr. Kenneth McTee, a Mosby scholar and retired dentist whose grandfather William was a Mosby’s Ranger, told stories about the men he had met as a child, such as Mosby Ranger scout John Russell. Russell, said McTee, used to lead McTee around the house and barnyard on horseback.

McTee related a story about how Mosby, after serving as consul to Hong Kong, was on a West Coast beach drawing in the sand with a stick. A boy came up and asked what he was doing, and Mosby told the boy he was outlining his old Virginia battles during the Civil War. Mosby began mentoring the boy, said McTee, who grew up to be General George Patton.

"Yes, people said (Mosby) was a great judge of humanity," said McTee.