John Singleton Mosby was a father, a lawyer, a soldier, and a diplomat. He was born on December 6, 1833 in Powhatan County, Virginia. Mosby studied at Hampden Sydney College beginning in 1847 and later attended the University of Virginia. He was expelled from UVA after being convicted of unlawful shooting and spent time in jail. While there, Mosby studied the law and, after being pardoned, was admitted to the Bar.
Mosby opened a law practice in Howardsville, VA where he met Pauline Clarke. They were married on December 30, 1857 in Nashville and settled in Bristol, VA. They had eight children, six of whom survived to adulthood. Pauline died shortly after the birth of their last child, on May 10, 1876. That son died the following month. Mosby never remarried.
Once Virginia seceded from the United States in 1861, Mosby enlisted as a private in the Washington Mounted Rifles, which eventually became the Virginia Volunteers. Accompanying him as his body servant was Aaron Burton, who was enslaved by Mosby’s father.
In 1862, Mosby was serving as a scout for J.E.B. Stuart when he was captured and taken to Capitol Prison in Washington, DC. Ten days later, he was part of a prisoner exchange and sent south. In early 1863, J.E.B. Stuart, with General Robert E. Lee’s concurrence, authorized Mosby to form and take command of the 43rd Virginia Cavalry. He remained with this unit throughout the duration of the war.
In March 1863, Mosby captured Union General Edwin H. Stoughton, who was asleep in the Gunnell House next to Truro Church in what is today Old Town Fairfax, VA. He escaped with Stoughton, two officers, a guest of Percy Wyndham, the postmaster, telegraph operator, a photographer, and 15 privates, as well as 55 horses.
For the remainder of the war, Mosby and his men, “Mosby’s Rangers,” were involved in numerous skirmishes and raids all over northern Virginia—exploits that would earn Mosby the nickname as the “Gray Ghost.” He was wounded three times.
After the war, Mosby was often harassed by occupying Union forces and was eventually arrested on petty or trumped up charges. In 1866, he met with Ulysses S. Grant and secured a handwritten exemption from arrest and guarantee of safe conduct. Mosby later served as Grant’s presidential campaign manager in Virginia and brought federal patronage jobs to the state after the election. He later campaigned for Rutherford B. Hayes.
For his work with Grant and supporting reconciliation after the war, Mosby was often treated as a turncoat by his fellow Virginians. In 1877, a would-be assassin even took a shot at him when he left a train in Warrenton. Later in life, Mosby spoke out against slavery while defending his involvement in the Civil War. Mosby kept in touch with Aaron Burton, who lived in Brooklyn, and sent money to him.
In 1878, Mosby was appointed US Consul in Hong Kong, where he served for seven years. After returning to the United States, he served in various government jobs and retired from the Justice Department at age 76.
In 1898, he tried to secure a commission to fight in the Spanish-American War, but was rebuffed by Secretary of War and former Michigan governor Russell A. Alger, who remembered Mosby’s treatment of Michigan Union troops during the Civil War. Mosby did train a California unit, called Mosby’s Hussars, but the war ended before they could deploy.
Mosby died on May 30, 1916 before his memoirs were completed.
Further Reading on Mosby
- John Singleton Mosby (1833–1916) in Encyclopedia Virginia
- Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby in Documenting the American South
- Mosby’s Rangers: a record of the Operations of the Forty-Third Battalion of Virginia Cavalry from its organization to the surrender, by James J Williamson
- Rebel: The Life and Times of John Singleton Mosby, by Kevin H. Siepel