Small and frail as a boy, John Singleton Mosby was often the target of much larger bullies. Many years later, he’d write in his memoirs. He never won a fight. Seems that he never backed down from one, either.
Like fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee, Mosby opposed secession. When it came, he left the Union along with his home state of Virginia.
Mosby participated in the 1st Battle of Manassas (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, JEB 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 were not a traditional army unit. “Mosby’s Rangers” shared in the spoils of war but had no camp duties, and lived scattered among civilian populations.
Known for lightning raids on 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. So successful were they that parts of Virginia’s Piedmont region are known to this day, as “Mosby’s Confederacy”.
In Early March 1863, a Federal brigade was stationed near Fairfax Court House south of Washington. Mosby received word that two ranking officers, Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton and Colonel Sir Percy Wyndham, were headquartered in the town itself.
“Sir” Percy Wyndham was an English officer and adventurer, a professional soldier and veteran of the Italian Risorgimento, the French Navy and the Austrian Army’s 8th Lancers Regiment. In October 1861, the Englishman came to America, to offer his services in the American Civil War.
For some time now, Wyndham had chased Mosby’s rangers across the Virginia countryside. There was a special kind of hate between these two men. Sir Percy had even gone so far as to call the man, a horse thief. Mosby retorted “The only horses he had every stolen had Union troopers on their backs armed with two pistols and a saber.”
With his nemesis in sight, Mosby’s Rangers formed up for a raid on the night of March 8, 1863.
As it turned out, Wyndham was away that night, visiting in Washington city. General Stoughton was asleep in his quarters in the home of Dr. William Gunnell.
The “Gray Ghost” and a small detachment entered the Gunnell home in the small hours of March 9. Mosby’s rangers quickly overpowered a handful of sleepy guards, and crept upstairs to where the General slept.
Let Mosby’s own words, paint the picture:
“There were signs in the room of having been revelry in the house that night. Some uncorked champagne bottles furnished an explanation of the general’s deep sleep. He had been entertaining a number of ladies from Washington in a style becoming a commanding general”.
Entering the chamber, Mosby lifted the general’s nightshirt and slapped his bare backside, with a sword. Confused, Stoughton 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, “he has caught you. Stuart’s cavalry has possession of the Courthouse;. Be quick and dress.”
That night, John Singleton Mosby and 29 rangers captured a Union General, two Captains, 30 enlisted men and 58 horses, all without firing a shot. On hearing the story the next day, President Lincoln lamented: “I can make another Brigadier in 5 minutes, but I can’t replace those horses“.