John S. Mosby banner


John S. Mosby

"Gray Ghost"


Mosby (fifth from left) with eleven of his Rangers

Between 1863 and 1865, a 125 square mile triangle of northern Virginia encompassing parts of Fauquier and Loudoun counties was so firmly under the control of Col. John S. Mosby's 43rd Virginia Cavalry that it became known simply as "Mosby's Confederacy." Mosby's guerrilla fighters were known as the "Partisan Rangers" or "Mosby's Rangers."

Supported by a fiercely loyal civilian population, Mosby and his guerrilla fighters blew up trains and bridges and harrassed General Philip Sheridan's supply lines so effectively that significant numbers of Union troops had to be diverted to guard against them. Captured weapons were sold to the Confederate army, and all too often Union stragglers were found hanging by the side of the road. Although Union penalities for sympathizers could be severe, civilians did all they could to help the Rangers melt invisibly into the landscape, providing food, lodging, and guidance through the web of country roads and paths.

Northern forces tried to retaliate against the nearly invisible Rangers. When Sheridan dispatched a force of 200 to hunt Mosby down, the Rangers killed or wounded all but two of Sheridan's men, and kept their guns. In March 1863, when a Ranger raid on Fairfax County Court House netted 33 men (including a sleeping General Edwin Stoughton) and 58 horses, Lincoln remarked, "I am sorry, for I can make brigadier generals, but I can't make horses."

Intelligence about the Union "Black Devils" movements was gathered by seemingly guileless young women and communicated through an elaborate system of lights in windows and letters under rocks. Many of the homes of the gentry functioned as safe houses, complete with secret rooms and escape tunnels. "Every farmhouse in this section was a refuge for guerrillas and every farmer was an ally of Mosby, and every farmer's son was with him or in the Confederate Army," said one Union observer of life in Mosby's Confederacy.

In turn, Mosby's Rangers helped with the planting and shared the spoils from their raids, allowing the "confederacy" to escape much of the hardships experienced by the rest of the South. Mosby also functioned as the principal enforcer of civil law, pursuing horse thieves, deserters, and destroying mountain stills (he felt they used up scarce grain). One resident wrote, "Old Fauquier County was now under the reign of a king, and had never during the memory of man been so cheaply and ably governed." Warfare was not the only thing on the Rangers' minds. They also provided many a dashing escort at plantation dances.

Mosby's actions in the "confederacy" prevented the Union army from blocking Southern access to supplies from the Shenandoah Valley. They were also one reason Grant restricted his 1864 campaign to Tidewater, avoiding the Shenandoah Valley.

Dubbed the "Gray Ghost" by his Northern opponents, Mosby kept his unit intact until the end of the war. Said Grant, "There were probably but few men in the South who could have commanded successfully a separate detachment in the rear of an opposing army and so near the border of hostilities as long as he did without losing his entire command."

Mosby surrendered his command in April 1865. Grant, a great admirer and later friend, engineered his parole, and Mosby returned the compliment by joining the Republican party and holding several government positions.