In Pursuit of the Grey Ghost


Serving in the cavalry during the Civil War must have been rather like riding a motorcycle: Adventurous, challenging, the wind in your face, and a wide variety of paths to follow. The chief difference was probably the proportion of the nearby population that was actively trying to shoot you…

The Civil War led to many thousands of heroic actions by dedicated and fearless soldiers who believed passionately in their cause. They were all Americans, before and after the war, but they were bitterly divided by their beliefs. The wisdom and tenacity of President Abraham Lincoln ultimately held the nation together, despite these divisions that are virtually unimaginable today (even in view of our own current political situation). In this report, I focus on one legendary leader, Colonel John Singleton Mosby—the “Grey Ghost”— and his partisan Rangers. My intent is not to glorify the “Old South” or to demonize the Union forces that attacked in Virginia. It would be just as easy to write a compelling story about Union heroism and Confederate treachery (and perhaps I will on another occasion). For now, I hope you enjoy these vignettes of bravery and daring.

On February 27, I set off to follow the hoof prints of Mosby’s Rangers. My trip ranged from Leesburg, Virginia to the Shenandoah Valley and followed what proved to be a series of extraordinarily scenic and fun-to-drive roads. Not a mile went by without an historic mansion, charming town, or battleground in evidence (not to mention the opportunity to exercise a 3.0-litre engine to its full potential). Hour by hour, it proved to be one of my most enjoyable journeys ever.

Despite being in the Dead o’ Winter, it was a beautiful day. As soon as the temperature reached 40 degrees, it was time to stow the top on my faithful BMW Z4 roadster, which is admittedly only a BMW motorcycle wannabe—but then, in this context even my much-missed R1200GS would have been only a thoroughbred equine wannabe.

John Mosby started life as a small, frail child who was frequently bullied at school. Although Mosby himself stated that he lost every such fight, other credible accounts indicate exactly the opposite. In one notorious bullying incident while a student at the University of Virginia, Mosby first warned and then shot and seriously wounded his attacker. He was sentenced to a year in prison for “unlawful shooting,” but became friends with the prosecuting attorney, who helped him study law. After reviewing the evidence, the Governor of Virginia pardoned Mosby, 9 months into his sentence. After his release, Mosby became a successful lawyer, married Pauline Clarke, and had the first two of what would eventually be eight children.

Although Mosby opposed secession and was not a defender of slavery, at the start of the Civil War he enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army, believing that his obligation was to his State. He quickly came to the attention of Colonel J.E.B. Stuart, who promoted him to First Lieutenant with scouting and strategic responsibilities. In 1863, Mosby was charged with raising and leading a group of “partisan rangers,” which was designated the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry. He began with a small group of only 15 men, but eventually his force grew to nearly 1,000.

Mosby’s Rangers became legendary in their own time for their bravery, brilliant strategies, and ability to cover great distances quickly. They quickly proved they could win victories over far larger opposing forces, as illustrated in this dispatch that Mosby sent to Stuart:

Maj. Gen. J.E.B. STUART.

March 3, 1863

Near Upperville, VA

GENERAL: Yesterday a Yankee cavalry force of about 400 men came up to Middleburg. As soon as I heard of it I hastily collected together 17 of my men and started in pursuit, having in the meantime ascertained that they had gone back. At Aldie I overtook their rear squadron, of 59 men, which I charged and routed, capturing 2 captains and 17 men, together with their arms; also 23 horses and accouterments. Two of my men were slightly wounded. I have sent all the prisoners but 2 on to Culpeper Court-House. A wounded captain was paroled.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,


One week later, at night Mosby and 29 of his men rode 10 miles behind enemy lines to the Union Army regional headquarters at the Fairfax County Courthouse in Culpepper, Virginia. Mosby himself awakened Union Brigadier General Edwin Stoughton by slapping his backside while he slept, which led to the following exchange:

Gen. Stoughton: “What’s the meaning of this? Do you know who I am?”

Col. Mosby: “Do you know Mosby?”

Gen. Stoughton: “Yes! Have you caught the villain?”

Col. Mosby: “I am Mosby.”

Mosby and his men made off with the general, 2 captains, 30 other prisoners, and 58 horses, without having fired a single shot. President Lincoln is said to have observed that he could create another general with a stroke of his pen but that he hated to lose so many horses. Gen. Stoughton (photo) was paroled 2 months later and immediately resigned from the Union forces.

Late in the war, President Abraham Lincoln and the leaders of the Union Army became more and more desperate to put an end to Mosby’s operations. Among others, a force of 1,000 cavalrymen led by Col. Marcus Reno went in search of the Rangers. On March 21, 1865, in Hamilton, VA during a driving thunderstorm, 12 of Mosby’s Rangers stood in the middle of an intersection (in front of the house pictured below) and blatantly opened fire on the Union troops as they marched through town. A company of the Pennsylvania Calvary immediately charged after them.

The pursued and pursuers would have passed by this scene, minus the newer house in the distance.

But when Reno and the Pennsylvanians reached this tree line at Katy’s Hollow, they found roughly 100 of Mosby’s forces waiting in ambush. The Union forces sustained heavy casualties, but the outcome of the Civil War was becoming clear by this time. This encounter proved to be the last skirmish fought in Loudoun County. President Lincoln, after listening impatiently to his officers explaining how Mosby just could not be captured, stated “Listen to you men, you speak of Mosby as though he is a ghost, a grey ghost.” The nickname stuck.

Oatlands Plantation was the largest plantation in the county and provided hundreds of horses to the Confederate Army. Mosby’s Rangers were frequent visitors, and John Mosby’s favorite horse, “Coquette,” was purchased here. This view is of the back of the mansion, which was not open for visitors on the day I stopped by.

Mosby’s Rangers were highly successful in part because they would “melt into the countryside” following each operation. As a partisan unit, the men could simply go back to their homes or to numerous safe houses in the area. Union forces searching for them would find only normal-looking villages and farms. One such safe house was “Welbourne,” which dates back to 1770. Welbourne was the home of Confederate Colonel Richard H. Dulany. Mosby and J.E.B. Stuart were frequent visitors here (as were, in later years, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, both of whom wrote stories that used Welbourne as the setting). On one memorable occasion, Union troops searched the mansion looking for Ranger John P. DeButts, a cousin of the Dulanys. He was there, all right—hiding in a bed beneath three of the family’s children who were pretending to be asleep! The ruse worked. If you’d like to experience this place yourself, it’s now an elegant bed & breakfast operated by Colonel Dulany’s great-great-grandson (see Welbourne B & B.)

In addition to their courage and cleverness, Mosby’s Rangers seemed to have a lot of good luck on their side. About 69 exhausted Rangers bedded down in the early hours of April 1, 1863 at Miskel’s Farm, only to be set upon at dawn by 150 soldiers from the 1st Vermont Calvary. The Vermonters, expecting an overwhelming victory, barricaded the gates behind them, trapping the Rangers inside the farm, and followed the footprints in the snow to the farmhouse and barn. John Mosby and several of his officers were staying in the house shown here (with subsequent additions, such as the front pillars). Mosby’s scouts managed to sound an alarm only minutes before the Union forces attacked. The Vermont cavalry charged with sabers, while Mosby’s men fought back with Colt 44-calibre revolvers—a technique that often allowed the Rangers to be successful against far greater numbers. (Mosby and all of his men carried two or even three of these six-shooters, rather than swords or carbines.) It worked again this time, and the Vermont men had to retreat—only to find themselves trapped by the gates they had barricaded on the way in. Just 44 of the Union cavalrymen made it back to their camp, with Mosby capturing 82 of them and most of their horses. The Miskel Farm house remains, but the rest of the farm is long gone, having been swallowed up by the Broad Run Farms housing development.

Today, along Highway 7 in Sterling, VA, Northern Virginia Community College dominates the view. On February 22, 1864, however, this was the setting for Anker’s Shop. Federal cavalry had been out searching for Mosby’s Rangers without success, and they returned to their base at the shop—only to find an equal-sized force of Rangers waiting to ambush them from the pine trees across the highway (which still exist). When all was said and done, the Union forces suffered 12 killed, including their commander, 25 wounded, and 70 captured, while Mosby’s men had 1 killed and 5 wounded. Mosby’s men also ended up with another 70 horses.

Mosby frequently used the 1851 Mount Zion Church near Gilbert’s Corner as a rendezvous spot for his men. On July 6, 1864, Federal cavalry troops were (once again) searching for the Rangers but were unaware that they were being shadowed by Mosby and his men all the way from Leesburg. On what is now Route 50, Mosby attacked and drove the Union forces back to the churchyard, inflicting heavy casualties and capturing another 55 soldiers. By the end of the fighting, over 70 percent of the Union forces were killed, wounded, or captured. Today, the Mount Zion Church stands peacefully, with little indication of the deadly struggle that surrounded it 149 years ago. There are both Confederate and Union soldiers buried in the cemetery, but, here in the heart of “Mosby’s Confederacy”, only the Confederate graves had flags.

It had rained heavily on the day before my visit, and all of the streams and rivers were running high and muddy, including Little River in Aldie. This bridge featured prominently in one of the first skirmishes fought by Mosby’s Rangers after their formation. Previously, the Rangers had harried Union forces on a few occasions, prompting Union Colonel Sir Percy Wyndham to send 200 mounted troops to capture Mosby and his men.   On March 2, 1863, these soldiers (many of whom were reported to be drunk) searched the town of Middleburg, turning out all of the citizens into the street, taking several boys and old men prisoners, confiscating personal property, threatening to burn the town, and generally behaving badly.

Leaving town, these members of the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry meandered into Aldie, encountered the 1st Vermont Union Cavalry and, thinking they were Mosby’s men, promptly broke into a disorderly retreat! The Pennsylvanians left Aldie, while the Vermonters stayed to water their horses and make coffee. Having learned of the incidents in Middleburg, Mosby and about 20 of his Rangers galloped toward Aldie in pursuit. Approaching this bridge over Little River, Mosby’s horse panicked, took the bit in his mouth, and ran straight toward the Union forces with Mosby unable to stop him. The Grey Ghost unceremoniously jumped off of his horse into the river.

Meanwhile, at the Aldie Mills, the startled Union force of about 60 cavalrymen didn’t realize that fewer than two dozen Rangers were charging them. They broke in all directions, some of them diving into the mill’s flour bins to hide. The Rangers captured about one-third of the 1st Vermont Cavalry troops, including several ghostlike men pulled out of the flour by a mud-coated Mosby, along with 23 of their horses. The mills still exist and are open to the public during warmer months. (If you look carefully, you’ll see that my faithful Z4 is now looking much cleaner than before—courtesy of a quick wash using water from the millrace!)

Walking down this picturesque alley, I didn’t realize that the wall to the right is holding a million gallons or so of water for feeding the merchant mill’s twin overshot water wheels.

This smaller “country mill” was used to make plaster. The historic complex also includes a granary, storage building, miller’s house, and the Mercer House, named after Charles F. Mercer, the founder of Aldie.

In addition to this relatively small skirmish between Mosby’s men and the Vermont cavalry, Aldie was the scene of a full-scale Civil War battle that, counterintuitively, was part of the Gettysburg campaign. As Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was marching toward Maryland, J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry and Mosby’s Rangers were charged with screening their movements from the Federal forces. Union General Alfred Pleasonton (photo) was smarting from criticism by General Joseph Hooker for his inability to thwart Stuart’s cavalry and determine the location of Lee’s army. Perhaps in desperation, Gen. Pleasonton ordered a full division of troops to Aldie, where the Little River Turnpike, Snickersville Turnpike, and Ashby’s Gap Turnpike all intersected. Simultaneously, the 2nd and 3rd Virginia Cavalry brigades, comprising 2,000 men, were moving from Upperville to Aldie.

Fierce fighting soon broke out. Confederate sharpshooters stationed behind the stone wall in this photo devastated the 1st Massachusetts infantry unit, which lost 198 of its 294 men. The peaceful-looking fields shown below were the scene of horrific carnage. Although the Battle of Aldie was technically considered a draw, it prevented Gen. Pleasonton’s efforts to find Lee and enabled Lee’s army to continue to move unobserved into Maryland and then on to Gettysburg.

I was so engrossed in finding and photographing all of these Civil War sites that the shadows were already quite long by the time I went in search of the Ebenezer Baptist Churches. My favorite Evil Twins, Garmin and Google, led me down this major thoroughfare, which managed to reverse the effects of my recent Z4 wash! Soon enough, however, I found the church cemetery.

I had previously encountered these historic churches on a blisteringly hot motorcycle ride in April 2008 (see Bridges To Nowhere). The old stone church, on the left, was built in about 1804, on the site of an earlier 1755 meeting house. Baptists being Baptists (sorry Cathy and Kim!), a rancorous debate broke out in 1833-1834 between the “New Baptist” members and the “Old” or “Primitive Baptists.” The result was construction of the newer Greek Revival church in 1855 for the New Baptist congregation. Both structures have been maintained in excellent condition and are used for services twice a year.

And as for Mosby’s Rangers? Well, on October 14, 1864, Mosby and his men loosened the railroad tracks near Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, with the intent of derailing a Baltimore & Ohio train. Did I mention that, under the laws of the Confederacy, “partisan ranger” troops were authorized to keep any spoils of war that they ran across? Well, the derailment worked perfectly, and the Rangers relieved the train passengers of their money and belongings, including $173,000 in Union Army payroll currency! Mosby told the passengers he hoped that, in the future, Union General Stevenson would do a better job of guarding the trains, as he should have been. The next day, Mosby and his men met at the Ebenezer Churches and divided up the payroll, which came to a then-astronomical $2,100 per man (excluding Mosby himself, who would not take a share). The men were so grateful that they took up a collection and bought “Coquette” for Col. Mosby. (You do remember Coquette, right, the horse from the Oatlands Plantation? Try to keep up here; otherwise you’ll risk misinterpreting the gift to Mosby!)

With my daylight disappearing quickly, I rattled off to Rector’s Crossroads, the favorite gathering spot for Mosby’s Rangers. There used to be a blacksmith’s shop here, but now an 1893 general store stands on the site. It was in Caleb Rector’s House, shown here behind the spring house, that Mosby’s 43rd Virginia Cavalry officially came into being, on June 10, 1863. Thirty years later, John S. Mosby came back to this area for a visit and asked if he could sit in the parlor of the Rectors’ home for a while. Mrs. Rector agreed and returned some minutes later to find him there with tears in his eyes. The old stone house is now the headquarters for the Mosby Heritage Area Association and is open on weekdays.

Remember Alfred Pleasonton, the hapless Union calvary commander who was under intense pressure to break through J.E.B. Stuart’s forces and learn the whereabouts of Robert E. Lee’s army? Well, he still hadn’t succeeded. He made another attempt near Rector’s Crossroads, leading to the Battle of Upperville, with Mosby’s Rangers providing scouting and other assistance to the main Confederate forces. Much of the fighting occurred across an old stone bridge at Goose Creek. Ultimately, Stuart’s men successfully prevented the Union troops from proceeding, and Lee’s army crossed the Potomac River into Maryland unobserved.

The question was, could I find the Goose Creek Bridge? Before Route 50 was built, the bridge carried all of the old turnpike traffic as recently as 1957, but it had not been used since. My first attempt led to a private drive with such prominent “No Trespassing” signs that even I couldn’t ignore them. My second try, however, led to a narrow dirt road that paralleled Goose Creek. Could the bridge be far ahead?

I’m convinced, incidentally, that some day my Z4 and I will come to the same fate as this Ford Probe—that is, broken down and abandoned in the middle of nowhere, on a semi-nonexistent road that they shouldn’t have been on in the first place!

On this day, however, my luck held out. As the sunlight was well and truly disappearing, I discovered that the old bridge is still there in all its glory.

As I motored away, aware of the flood warnings in this area following the prior day’s heavy rains, I was not reassured to see this sign… Fortunately, after a couple of more stops in a fruitless effort to take photos in the dark, I made it home just fine. But I’d missed several other key Mosby sites, and I vowed to return as soon as possible and complete the tour.

Six days later on March 5, I was back in Virginia. My first goal was to find the site of the January 10, 1864 Loudoun Heights ambush, which was one of the few Mosby operations that went wrong. Based on recommendations from Benjamin Franklin “Frank” Stringfellow, who was one of J.E.B. Stuart’s scouts, Mosby decided to mount a surprise nighttime attack on the 2nd Maryland Cavalry Battalion of Major Henry A. Cole (photo), one of his chief adversaries. Mosby led about 100 Rangers, along with Stringfellow and 10 of his men, through 12 inches of snow to Maj. Cole’s Loudoun Heights encampment. The plan was for Stringfellow and his men to sneak into Cole’s headquarters (the farmhouse shown below) and to capture Cole and his officers. Stringfellow would then signal Mosby, whose men would ride into the camp and decimate the Union troops, most of whom were sleeping.

All did not go well. For unknown reasons, Stringfellow and his men did not attempt to capture Maj. Cole and instead charged into the camp, firing their weapons. From across the field, Mosby and his men mistook them for an attacking Union force and fired back. For a few minutes, the two sets of Confederates blazed away at each other, awakening the Union troops who were then ordered to shoot anyone on horseback. The battle raged on chaotically for about an hour before Mosby and most of his men succeeded in escaping—but he had lost 7 men killed, including two of his top officers, and his own younger brother had been wounded. Mosby never forgave Stringfellow for botching the plan—or himself for relying on a non-Ranger.

On the day of my visit, one would never suspect that this peaceful meadow and surrounding woods were the scene of such horrific fighting.

The success of Mosby’s Rangers in harassing Union troops, supply lines, and communications prompted General Ulysses S. Grant to order the infamous “Great Burning Raid” of November 1864. His goal was to destroy all of the local farming, milling, and other food production in an effort to deprive Mosby’s men of the support they were receiving from Virginia residents—and thus greatly inhibit the Rangers’ ability to wage war on the Federal forces. Union General Philip Sheridan had mixed feelings about the order. On the one hand, he was only too happy to comply; his “Valley Campaign” against the Confederates under Gen. Jubal Early had been disrupted repeatedly by Mosby’s attacks. On the other hand, he recognized the massive civilian damage that would result. Some historians believe that Sheridan purposely waited until after the Presidential election of 1864 to implement the raid, given the possibility that former Union General George McClellan would defeat Lincoln and negotiate an armistice with the Confederates.

President Lincoln was reelected, of course. Subsequently, Sheridan’s orders for the Burning Campaign included “You will consume and destroy all forage and subsistence, burn all barns and mills, and their contents, and drive off all stock in the region … . This order must be literally executed, bearing in mind, however, that no dwellings are to be burned and that no personal violence be offered to the citizens.” Grant’s original orders had also stated “All male prisoners under fifty can fairly be held as prisoners of war, not as citizen prisoners.”

In the course of only 5 days, these orders were indeed carried out by 5,000 calvary troops under General Wesley Merritt, leaving Loudoun County burned and blackened for years to come. Ida Powell Dulany’s diary indicated that “we could mark the progress of the Yankees, in every direction dense columns of smoke arising one after another, from every farm through which they passed. … At night we could look out and see the whole country illuminated by immense fires.” Thousands of cattle, sheep, pigs, and horses were taken or slaughtered, virtually all crop stores were destroyed, and many hundreds of barns and mills were burned (along with at least one distillery for good measure).

Over the years, most of the structures that were destroyed in the Great Burning Raid were either rebuilt or razed. The ruins of Pott’s woolen mill still stand, however, and serve as mute testimony to the destruction. Ironically, the wife of the mill’s owner in 1864, Mrs. Nathan Neer, had invited the Union officers to have a meal with her in exchange for not burning their mill. After the meal, the mill was burned anyway.

Oh, and Mr. and Mrs. Neer’s house was also burned, despite Gen. Sheridan’s order to spare dwellings.

Col. Mosby became famous for escaping Union efforts to capture him. Following the capture of Gen. Stoughton in 1863, Mosby and his wife Pauline stayed in this house for 2 or 3 months as the guest of its owners James and Elizabeth Hathaway. Its isolated location and fine furnishings provided a safe and comfortable haven in-between raids—and, in fact, the Mosbys’ third child was conceived here during this period.

However… a Union sympathizer informed Captain William Boyd’s 1st New York Cavalry of Mosby’s whereabouts, and on the night of June 9, 1863, James Hathaway answered his door only to be pushed aside as Boyd’s men swept in. In an upstairs bedroom, they discovered Pauline Mosby and her two frightened children, along with part of a grey uniform—but no Col. Mosby. In the prior photo, did you notice the magnificent black walnut tree standing near the back of the house? Yep, that’s right: Hearing the ruckus downstairs, Mosby had climbed out a rear window onto a branch of the tree and hidden in the tree for between 30 minutes and 2 hours, until the Union cavalry left. As the story goes, he then climbed back through the window and back into bed, sleeping peacefully for the rest of the night! (Just in case you’re wondering, the black walnut at Hathaway House is now approximately 250 years old, making it the seventh oldest such tree in Virginia…  Mosby’s branch fell off approximately 40 years ago.)

On the day of my visit to the remote “Hathaway House,” as it became known, Mosby’s good luck must have rubbed off on me. I discovered that the house is for sale and that the realtor was holding an open house that day! She welcomed me to look all through the house and around the property, including the original 1840s house on the farm, which now serves as a guest house. Boy, did I ever want to buy this historic property and move in… It’s been thoroughly renovated and is beautiful throughout. Now about that eight-figure asking price… (I have the realtor’s contact information, in case you’re interested. I think Dave Lynch and his wife would be right at home here!)

My incredible good luck continued as I moved on to Rectortown (not to be confused with Rector’s Crossroads, which had to change its name to Atoka to avoid exactly such confusion). The town has a number of historic dwellings and other buildings from the 1700s and early 1800s, including Woodward’s Store, where Mosby hid out on at least one occasion.

Rectortown features in Civil War history for multiple reasons. It served as a large Union campground in 1862, and Gen. George S. McClellan made his headquarters here after the Battle of Antietam. On November 7, 1862, however, McClellan received the news here that he was relived of his command by orders of President Lincoln, who was displeased with the general’s lack of aggression following Antietam. (With his wit as acerbic as ever, Lincoln once referred to the entire Army of the Potomac as “General McClellan’s bodyguard.”)

On January 1, 1865, a detachment of 80 of Union Col. Cole’s cavalry entered Rectortown in search of Mosby’s Rangers. They failed to find Mosby, but the Rangers found them and discreetly followed them out of town, then rode ahead and attacked from their flank. When all was said and done, three-fourth’s of Cole’s detachment had been killed, wounded, or captured, along with 50 horses, while the Rangers suffered only two casualties.

This building started out as Rectortown’s post office and general store. It expanded as a granary and became an important stop on the Manassas Gap Railroad, the tracks for which run immediately behind (and are still used today by Norfolk Southern). The structure housed Confederate prisoners during the Union forces encampment here. Later, Mosby used it as a rendezvous spot, prison, and temporary headquarters on numerous occasions.

Did I mention my good luck? While I was taking photos, an older gentleman approached me and told me quite a bit about the place. Before long, J. Randolph Embrey, 82, invited me into an old warehouse across Maidstone Road to see his collection of pre-internal-combustion farm equipment—and what a collection it is! Mr. Embrey served in the Korean War with the U.S. Marines, getting shot a total of nine times in the process, and returned to live and work in Rectortown ever since. The photos below show Mr. Embrey, along with elements of his collection, including an apple sorter, a rare Conestoga wagon jack, and a horse-drawn potato harvester.

But my good luck was only beginning. After touring the farm equipment, Mr. Embrey asked if I’d like to see his “other museum.” I of course said yes, although I didn’t know what or where it was. Well, it proved to be the historic general store and granary that I had just been photographing! Before I knew it, he led me inside the building. This section was the general store and post office, and Mosby formed Company C of his 43rd Virginia Cavalry here on December 7, 1863.

When he bought the building some 20 years ago, Mr. Embrey discovered this grain winnower in the basement. He carefully dismantled the heavy equipment piece by piece, moved it upstairs, reassembled and renovated it, and hooked it up to an electric motor for display. It works perfectly, with the twin grain receptacles shuffling back and forth to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The general store also served as a telegraph station back in the days, and there are a number of old telegraph keys and related equipment lying around.

Mr. Embrey claimed that this still was not original to the store… I think I believe him!

The Mosby Heritage Area Association’s wonderful Sampler Motoring Tour mentions that “There is said to still be graffiti from soldiers on the walls inside.” It’s there, all right. If you look carefully at the center of this photo, you’ll see a soldier’s charcoal sketch, said to be of General Ambrose E. Burnside who was given command of the Union forces after McClellan’s firing. (And, of course, the General’s flamboyant fascial hair became the origin of the expression “sideburns.”)

In the general store, this small inscription on the wall provided a substantial amount of historic sleuthing fun for my wife Nancy and me. It was written by a William H. R. Chambers, who served under Col. Joseph Thoburn and General James Shield of the Union Army. We were able to determine that Private Chambers was born in Jefferson County, Ohio, became a farmer, and enlisted on October 6, 1861 in Wheeling, VA (now West Virginia) at age 21. He was 5′ 10″ tall, which was about 2 1/2 inches above normal for Civil War soldiers. His unit fought in dozens of major and minor battles during 1861-1865. Private Chambers was probably at the Rectortown Union campground sometime in May-June 1862 during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Their division was central to the Battle of Port Republic but “lost heavily,” with 1,002 Union casualties out of 3,500 men fighting. There is no record of Private Chambers mustering out of the Union army; nor could we locate any Civil War or genealogical death record for him. Sadly, the Civil War led to many an unmarked grave.

Colonel Thoburn was born in Ireland in 1825, came to the U.S. in 1826, and became a physician in Wheeling, (West) Virginia. Following the bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861, Thoburn enlisted in the (Union) 1st Virginia Infantry as a surgeon and served at the Battle of Phillippi (the first infantry action of the Civil War) and, in fact, had to treat his wounded commanding officer. Thorburn became the commander of the reorganized 1st Virginia Infantry in 1861, leading his men through numerous battles in Virginia. He later headed a full division but died heroically at the pivotal Battle of Cedar Creek.

And General James Shield? He was also born in Ireland (in 1810), came to the U.S. in 1825, and became a lawyer and politician. He is the only person to have ever served as a U.S. Senator from three different States. While he was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives in 1837, he and Rep. Abraham Lincoln, despite being from different parties, collaborated on a plan to save the Illinois State Bank from financial collapse. Following the bank’s collapse in 1842, however, they found themselves on opposite sides of the issue. To achieve political gains, Lincoln wrote an anonymous letter to a prominent newspaper, under the pen name of “Rebecca,” which among other insults stated “Shields is a fool as well as a liar. With him truth is out of the question” and “If I was deaf and blind, I could tell him by the smell.” To compound the matter, Mary Todd and her friend Julia Jayne subsequently wrote two additional letters from “Rebecca,” portraying Shields in a very poor light. (To be fair, Shields’ own law partner described him as “exceedingly vain and very ambitious, and like most ambitious men, on occasions, quite egotistical…” (Photos, from L to R: Shields, Lincoln, Todd, and Jayne.)

Needless to say, James Shields was not amused. He demanded that the editor reveal who wrote the letters. When the editor consulted with the future President, Lincoln asked him to name himself as the writer of them all, to protect Mary Todd whom he planned to marry. Furious, Shields twice demanded that Lincoln retract the letters, with Lincoln refusing both times. It was too much, and Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. Lincoln accepted and, as was his right, chose “cavalry broadswords of the largest size.” He reasoned that his exceptional reach would give him a substantial advantage over the shorter Shields, and he had the strength to wield a heavy weapon. He was apparently unaware that Shields had extensive experience with swords from his prior military training in Ireland and that he had taught fencing in Quebec for a number of years…

On September 22, 1842, they met on Bloody Island, Missouri for the duel. (Dueling was illegal in Illinois.) As the two men faced off, Lincoln demonstrated his superior reach by easily cutting a branch from a tree that was above Shields’ head. But before the duel began, mutual friends arrived and persuaded them to call it off, in part by noting that Lincoln had been protecting Mary Todd and Julia Jayne. In time, the two apparently reconciled their differences, and, as President, Lincoln signed off on Shields’ appointment as a Brigadier General. In subsequent years, Lincoln preferred never to refer to “my scrape with Shields.”

See what comes of reading the “writing on the wall” at Rectortown? A monumental story that I had never heard before. Imagine how different our history might have been if the duel had not been called off and the experienced Shields had seriously wounded or even killed Lincoln in 1842!

Okay, we’re almost finished with Rectortown, but not quite yet. A fascinating story of the breakdown in the treatment of prisoners of war in Virginia in 1864 is available at Mosby’s Partisan Rangers Clash with Custer’s Union Cavalry, by John F. Wukovits (the first cousin, as it turns out, of one of my wife’s close friends). Early in General Sheridan’s attempt to quash the Confederates in Loudoun County, Mosby’s Rangers pulled off a daring raid on his supply lines at Berryville, VA. Quoting from Wukovits’ article, “It was over in a matter of minutes, with Mosby’s victorious men capturing over 200 prisoners, 700 horses and mules, 200 cattle, and 100 supply wagons. In this manner, was Mosby serving notice that Federal troops had best be on guard in his personal territory.”

The attack so angered Ulysses Grant that he “ordered Sheridan to hunt down the families of Mosby’s men. ‘I think they should be taken and kept at Fort McHenry, or some other secure place, as hostages for the good conduct of Mosby’s men.’ Grant then ominously added ‘When any of Mosby’s men are caught, hang them without trial.’ ” [Emphasis added.] Only days later, young Brigadier General George S. Custer—yes, that General Custer—was happy to comply and promptly hanged or shot six of Mosby’s Rangers who were being held prisoner. A seventh, who was only 17, was dragged to his death behind Union Cavalry horses… in front of his mother. Gen. Custer also ruthlessly ordered the burning of a number of civilian homes in an area that he suspected of aiding the Confederates. In the midst of these attacks, Custer and his men were surprised by Mosby’s Rangers and routed.

Mosby later learned of the execution of his captive men and was so angered that he ordered seven Union prisoners to be hanged. At Rectortown, he held a “death lottery,” wherein 27 captives had to pull slips of paper from a hat to see if they were among the seven to be killed. When a drummer boy was one of those selected, a Union officer pleaded with Mosby to spare him and select someone else. Mosby agreed, and, ironically, that same officer drew the next death lot from the hat. The captives were moved as close as possible to Gen. Custer’s headquarters. Two managed to escape, three others were hanged, and the remaining two were shot (but survived). Mosby then sent a letter to Gen. Sheridan, writing that the executions were in retaliation for those of his own men and stating that thereafter “any prisoners falling into my hands will be treated with the kindness due to their condition, unless some new act of barbarity shall compel me, reluctantly, to adopt a line of policy repugnant to humanity.” In response, Sheridan ordered that Mosby’s men were to be treated appropriately as prisoners of war, and the hangings ended.

With thoughts of the horrific nature of war spinning in my mind, I continued on my tour. I found the Greengarden mansion without difficulty, despite its remote location. It was owned by Major Adolphus E. “Dolly” Richards, who served as one of Mosby’s two battalion commanders, and the Rangers used it as a safe house. One night in 1865, Richards had to hide under his own floorboards to escape from a Union search party.

As I drove back down the mountain from Greengarden, it occured to me that the view must be nearly identical to what Mosby and his men would have seen. Of course, they could direct their horses off the road at any time, while I needed to keep my Z4 in place. On the other hand, I had a comfy seat, a heater, and XM radio!

The hamlet of Paris, VA was also easy to find, just off of Route 50. The Ashby Inn has been serving guests for practically forever, including George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, Stonewall Jackson, and (of course) Col. John Mosby.

While Mosby’s Rangers traveled through Paris frequently, I was looking for one safe house in particular—that of Dr. Albin Payne. Ranger Lewis Powell was sheltered here, although it seems he was somewhat unreliable and Mosby had his doubts about him. Powell left the Rangers early in 1865 and became part of John Wilkes Booth’s conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln. Those who have read Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer will recall that the conspirators also planned to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. On the same night that Lincoln was shot, Powell entered Seward’s house in Washington and attacked him with a knife, wounding him and several others in the house. Powell was later captured and hanged at the Old Arsenal Penitentiary (now Fort Leslie McNair). In an odd twist of fate, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton initially requested assistance from Mosby’s Rangers in searching for Booth, but later retracted the request. Nearly 2 weeks after the assassination, Booth encountered Lieutenant William Jett of the Rangers near Port Royal, VA, and Jett initially provided assistance. Later that same day, however, Jett led Federal detectives and cavalry searching for Booth directly to his hiding place at Garrett’s Farm, where Booth was shot and killed.

Anyway, I couldn’t determine which house was Dr. Payne’s and resorted to taking pictures of three different ones for later identification. And then an Angel of Mercy appeared, asking if I could sign a petition regarding an ineffective test for Lyme Disease. I couldn’t, since I’m not a resident of Virginia, but Angel soon guided me to the correct house. It’s the little white one shown below (not the larger white one in the background). I neglected to get my Angel’s name, but I thanked her and continued on.

Before long, I managed to startle a huge flock of geese, who launched halfheartedly into the air, changed their minds, and settled back down.

My last goal was to find the Mt. Carmel Church, midway between Paris and Berrys, VA. It was built on land donated by Thomas Lord Fairfax, after a local woman had nursed him through an illness. The ten acres allocated for this purpose were surveyed by a young George Washington. The church was built in about 1765 and was used frequently by both Union and Confederate troops passing through the area. Now, remember “Dolly” Richards, who hid beneath his own floorboards at Greengarden? Well, the very next night he ambushed a Union scouting expedition of 200 men who had been searching for the Rangers. Despite being severely outnumbered, Richards and his Rangers killed, wounded, or captured almost three-fourths of the entire Union force, while only one of the Rangers was wounded. The one wounded Ranger was Charles Dear. Quoting from the Stuart-Mosby Historical Society, “Charlie Dear … joined Mosby in 1863 when he was just 16 years old and was wounded by gunfire twelve times, slashed with sabers, beaten black and blue in the hand-to-hand melee at Mt. Carmel Church and had his horse, Old Thunder, roll over him during the war. He died when he was 82. Charlie packed multiple lives into two years [with Mosby] and then rambled on for another sixty-four.” Mosby later characterized this raid as “the most brilliant thing my men ever did.”

My pursuit of Mosby’s Rangers was over for now, although dozens or, more likely, hundreds of other sites are out there for the finding. What was the impact of Mosby’s operations on the Civil War? I will quote shamelessly from the excellent Wikipedia article on the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry:

It is difficult to evaluate the contribution of Mosby’s raids to the overall Confederate war effort. In his memoirs, [former Ranger] John Munson stated that if the objective was simply ‘to annoy the enemy,’ they succeeded. … Munson says that due to Mosby’s comparatively tiny force ‘It was necessary for the Federal troops to guard every wagon train, railroad bridge and camp with enough active and efficient men to prevent Mosby from using his three hundred raiders in one of his destructive rushes at any hour of the day or night… General Grant at one point reported that seventeen thousand of his men were engaged in keeping Mosby from attacking his weak points, and thus away from active service on the firing line. Finally it was not safe to send despatches by a courier unless a regiment was sent along to guard him.’

(“Fire in the Valley” painting by John Paul Strain.)

John S. Mosby survived the Civil War, despite having been seriously wounded on three different occasions, and lived to be 83. After the Confederate surrender, Mosby was pardoned by Ulysses S. Grant, and, against all odds, Mosby became the Virginia campaign manager for President Grant—an activity that brought him numerous death threats. He served as the U.S. Consul in Hong Kong and also in the Interior and Justice Departments. In yet another of those odd twists of fate, in his later years Mosby became a friend and mentor to a very young George S. Patton, who loved nothing more than to hear stories of Mosby’s adventurous raids and clever strategies. Is it too much to imagine that Patton’s own extraordinary successes during World War II, which were instrumental in helping the Allies defeat Hitler’s Germany, owed much to Mosby’s influence? Like Mosby, Patton became famous for his ability to move his troops stealthily and rapidly, to inspire greatness in others, and to devise unusual and strikingly effective strategies. And he also wore a pair of six-shooters throughout his time in the army…

If you’ve stuck with my story all this way, then I commend you (and suggest that you seek counseling). It was a memorable tour and a fascinating look back at the history of the U.S. during its darkest hours.

Rick F.

PS: I promise that the next trip report will be shorter!


Written by Rick

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.