John Singleton Mosby was a Virginia lawyer, when Civil War broke out in 1861. Like fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee, Mosby opposed secession. When it came, he left the Union along with his home state of Virginia. Small and frail as a boy, Mosby was often the target of much larger bullies. He’d write in his memoirs that he never won a fight. It seems that he never backed down from one, either.
Mosby participated in the 1st Battle of Manassas (1st Bull Run) as a member of the Virginia Volunteers Mounted Rifles, later joining James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart as a Cavalry Scout. A natural horseman and gifted tactician, information gathered by Mosby aided Stuart in his humiliating ride around McLellan’s Army of the Potomac in June, 1862.
In 1863, Stuart authorized Mosby to form and take command of the 43rd Battalion of the Virginia Cavalry, a regiment sized unit operating out of north central Virginia. These “Partisan Rangers”, 1,900 of whom served between January 1863 and April 1865, were under the authority of Stuart and Lee and subject to their commands, but they were not a traditional army unit. Mosby’s Rangers shared in the spoils of war, they had no camp duties, and lived scattered among civilian populations.
Mosby himself would often reconnoiter a target himself, in disguise. Known for lightning raids of the Virginia countryside, Mosby’s 43rd Cavalry would be called together to strike a specific target, dispersing afterward and making themselves next to impossible to run to ground. He was the “Gray Ghost”, so successful were his Rangers, that parts of Virginia’s Piedmont region are known as “Mosby’s Confederacy”, to this day.
Late on the night of March 8, 1863, Mosby’s Rangers formed up for a raid on Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia. Union Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton was sleeping in his headquarters there, some sources say he was “sleeping it off”. The Gray Ghost entered the Union General’s headquarters in the small hours of March 9, his rangers quickly overpowering a handful of sleepy guards.
Entering the chamber where the General slept, Mosby lifted his nightshirt and slapped his bare backside with a sword. The general sputtered awake, demanding “What is the meaning of this”. “General, did you ever hear of Mosby”, came the question. Stoughton replied, “Yes, have you caught him?” “I AM Mosby,” said the Gray Ghost, “and I have caught you. Stuart’s cavalry has possession of the Courthouse; be quick and dress.”
John Singleton Mosby and 29 Rangers had captured a Union General, two Captains, 30 enlisted men and 58 horses, without firing a shot. On hearing the story the next day, Lincoln lamented. “I can make another Brigadier in 5 minutes, but I can’t replace those horses”.