Confederate Veteran John Mosby Knew the Lost Cause Was Bull
The chief of Mosby’s Rangers wrote of his disgust at Civil War revisionism
John S. Mosby, known as the “Gray Ghost,” was a Virginian who became legendary for his leadership of Mosby’s Rangers—a band of Confederate guerrilla fighters that harassed the Union Army and went toe-to-toe with George Armstrong Custer in the Shenandoah Valley.
Mosby is still highly regarded as a strategist and tactician and is studied to this day by practitioners of unconventional warfare. He lived a long life, dying early in the 20th century, and was also a lawyer, a diplomat and author who wrote about his experiences during the war.
For much of that time he was controversial figure.
Despite being one of the Confederacy’s most decorated war heroes, Mosby hated the “Lost Cause” narrative that romanticizes the Confederacy and downplays or ignores the role of slavery in precipitating the war. Mosby opposed secession, disliked slavery and would become embroiled in bitter feuds with fellow Confederate veterans who pushed the Lost Cause.
Americans today continue to wrestle with how best to commemorate the bloody conflict that tore the country apart and cost the lives of more than 600,000 Americans. The removal of Confederate flags and monuments in April, which six southern states recognize as Confederate History Month, has fueled tempers.
Few figures exemplify the complexities and contradictions of the Civil War’s legacy more than Mosby.
He was a gunman and a scholar. As a young man, he was dismissed from the University of Virginia for shooting and wounding a fellow student but studied law while incarcerated—and became a lawyer. Ironically, the prosecutor in his case, William Joseph Robertson—who Mosby befriended—provided him with books and aided him in his studies.
Despite’s Mosby opposition to secession, he nevertheless enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861 out of loyalty to friends and family in his home of Virginia. He fought in the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861.
In 1862, he became a scout for Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart. Mosby was captured by Union cavalry, but kept careful notes as a captive. Upon returning to Confederate lines, he reported his findings directly to Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Under Stuart, he continued to conduct raids behind Union lines and in 1863 was authorized by Lee and Stuart to raise a guerrilla army in Northern Virginia, in a region which would come to be known as “Mosby’s Confederacy.” Mosby’s Rangers were despised by the Union Army.
“The families of most of Mosby’s men are know[n] and can be collected. I think they should be taken and kept at Fort McHenry or some secure place as hostages for good conduct of Mosby and his men,” Gen. Ulysses S. Grant once told Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan while growing frustrated with Mosby’s attacks on Union supply lines. “When any of them are caught with nothing to designate what they are hang them without trial.”
Mosby was among the final Confederates to surrender, turning himself in to the Union on June 17, 1865. In the early post-war days, Union authorities regularly harassed and arrested him on trumped up charges until his wife and children appealed directly to Grant, who issued a handwritten exemption from arrest, in January 1866.
Mosby and Grant would form an unlikely friendship. “Since the close of the war, I have come to know Colonel Mosby personally and somewhat intimately,” Grant later wrote. “He is a different man entirely from what I supposed.”
Meanwhile, Mosby became active in the Republican Party and campaigned for Grant. He fought for reconciliation and tried to secure similar pardons for other Confederate veterans, but many of his ex-Confederate comrades weren’t interested—they saw him as a traitor.
He received death threats, anti-reconstructionists burned his childhood home to the ground and there was at least one assassination attempt. Years later, he wrote to his friend and associate Ben Chapman that there was “more vindictiveness shown to me by the Virginia people for my voting for Grant than the North showed to me for fighting four years against him.”
Pres. James Garfield later appointed Mosby to the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong. After returning from China he spent 16 years in California working as a lawyer for the Southern Pacific Railroad before returning to Washington in 1901.
Mosby also wrote about the Civil War. His retelling of America’s most destructive conflict would drive a wedge between him and Lost Cause proponents.
The Lost Cause narrative didn’t merely seek to selectively glamorize aspects of the Southern war effort, but turned several Confederate commanders into scapegoats for battlefield defeats. One of those scapegoats was Mosby’s former commander and mentor J.E.B. Stuart, who some Lost Cause writers blamed for alleged incompetence that cost Lee the Battle of Gettysburg.
Mosby defended his old commander from those charges. “He made me all that I was in the war … But for his friendship I would never have been heard of,” Mosby wrote.
Mosby went on several war-related speaking tours in the north and south, but grew frustrated after a January 1895 reunion of Mosby’s Rangers in Alexandria, Virginia. In particular, he believed that too many southerners wrongly and self-servingly insisted that slavery wasn’t the root cause of the war.
Mosby had a complicated personal history with slavery, which extended to his views about the war. He personally and vocally opposed slavery and secession, but he came from a family that owned slaves. Mosby owned a slave during the war named Aaron Burton who afterwards moved to New York, where he lived as a free man. According to Mosby biographer Kevin Siepel, Mosby and Burton stayed in contact into the 1890s.
“While I think as badly of slavery as Horace Greeley did I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders, it was our inheritance—neither am I ashamed that my ancestors were pirates and cattle thieves,” Mosby wrote to Chapman in 1907. “People must be judged by the standard of their own age.”
Mosby became particularly disgusted with George Christian, a fellow Virginian and member of the Grand Camp of Confederate Veterans of Virginia who wrote extensively about the war. In the same letter to Chapman, Mosby complained at length regarding revisionism by Christian and other Confederate veterans.
“I wrote you about my disgust at reading the Reunion speeches: It has since been increased by reading Christian’s report. I am certainly glad I wasn’t there. According to Christian the Virginia people were the abolitionists and the Northern people were pro-slavery,” he told Chapman.
“He says slavery was ‘a patriarchal’ institution—So were polygamy and circumcision. Ask Hugh is he has been circumcised. Christian quotes what the Old Virginians said against slavery. True, but why didn’t he quote what the modern Virginians said favor of it … why didn’t he state that a Virginia Senator was the author of the Fugitive Slave law—and why didn’t he quote The Virginia Code that made it a crime to speak against slavery, or to teach a negro to read the Lord’s prayer.”
Mosby realized that he was swept up in history and that his loyalty to friends and family made him fight for a cause that he didn’t entirely support. Nonetheless, he loved his Rangers and was proud of their battlefield exploits.
“War loses a great deal of its romance after a soldier has seen his first battle. I have a more vivid recollection of the first than the last one I was in,” Mosby wrote in 1887. “It is a classical maxim that it is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country; but whoever has seen the horrors of a battlefield feels that it is far sweeter to live for it.”
The American Civil War, like all wars, was complicated. So were the men who fought it. But it’s not so complicated that we can’t see it for what it was—a war over slavery. We dishonor the memory of all who died if we lie about what the Confederacy was or about the evils of slavery. The best way to honor the past is to learn from it.