The crowd in the pine grove applauded as the general took his seat. A vocal segment then erupted in three cheers as a diminutive, somewhat rumpled young man rose to take his place at the podium. He smiled slightly as he nodded to his opponent, who smiled in return. The new speaker was well known in these parts.
His adversary in today's debate, ex-Confederate general Eppa Hunton, had just spoken in behalf of Horace Greeley, the presidential nominee of both the Democratic and Liberal Republican parties. Although failing in his stated purpose of vindicating the unpopular Greeley before a Southern audience, General Hunton had struck a rich vein of sympathy in his attack upon the present administration's heavy-handedness in the South. This next orator, all knew, would speak for the administration—or at least for the Republican incumbent, Ulysses S. Grant, now running for a second term.
The month was August 1872, and the place, present-day Marshall, Virginia. Not a banner stirred in the afternoon heat as the speaker mopped his brow and surveyed the crowd. It was not yet clear to his listeners how this man, once a dedicated Confederate, had come to stump for the Confederacy's great wartime nemesis, but over the years they'd learned to expect the unexpected of him. He had, after all, made his name on unpredictability. He was the former partisan commander and onetime scourge of Yankee cavalry in northern Virginia, Colonel John Singleton Mosby.
Thoroughly at home in the no-holds-barred school of political oratory, Mosby launched almost at once into an attack upon Republican Greeley, who was, he knew, indefensible in the South. An "old political rake," he called him, representative now of the DemocratIc party, the "meanest, oddest lot of bummers and shysters" ever gathered together. The Democrats reminded him, he said, amid a growing chorus of laughter, of "Barnum's happy family." The candidate himself was a tool of Tammany, intoned Mosby, and the "scarecrow of both continents." He noted that Greeley had expressed the desire to "shake hands across the bloody chasm" dividing the nation. What candidate would not shake hands, shouted Mosby, even across a bloody chasm, if by so doing he could secure a vote? When the laughter died away, Mosby said that the Liberal splinter of Grant's own party was as bad as the Democrats, then went on to make a strong case for supporting Grant on his record—"the best platform a man can have." Mosby would stand for Grant, he vowed, because with all his faults, nobody had ever accused the president of deserting a friend or of violating a covenant.
The speech was well received, and would be heard again throughout Virginia that summer and fall. Some expressed the belief in later years that Grant, in his landslide victory that November, won the State of Virginia largely because of Mosby's exertions. One of the most curious things about the ex-partisan's work that year was that, side by side with his campaign for Grant the Republican, he was managing a Democrat's congressional campaign—the Democrat being none other than Eppa Hunton, his opponent in the August debate. He in fact exerted himself strenuously to see that Grant's party in Virginia put up no one against his friend. For John Mosby, however, inconsistency lay in the eye of the beholder. He had always been an irregular, and not only during his years in a gray uniform. Operating in hostile country or in a land of hostile ideas was all the same to him.
In 1860, with war clouds layering the horizon, Mosby had been a practicing lawyer in Bristol, a town tucked down in Virginia's boot-toe on the Tennessee border. He blossomed during this time as an outspoken anti-secessionist and Union Democrat—a supporter of the Illinois moderate, Stephen A. Douglas, for president. "Do you know what secession means?" he once asked a local newspaper editor. "It means bloody war, followed by feuds between the border states, which a century may not see the end of."
But when the sword of war was loosed upon Virginia, such reasoned stances fell by the wayside. "In the delirium of the hour," he explained, "we all forgot our Union principles and rushed to the field of Mars." His first months as a Confederate cavalryman were inauspicious. An acquaintance, William Blackford, wrote that in training, Mosby was about the most unmilitary man imaginable—a "slouchy rider," and an "indifferent soldier. There was nothing about him then," wrote Blackford, to indicate what he was to be."
Whatever attitude problems Mosby may have had in the beginning, they did not last. The enduring Mosby persona was forged in the Confederacy's fiery baptism at First Manassas. The 27-year-old attorney now took to soldiering like a fish to water. He would doubtless have labored in obscurity, another unsung private or corporal in a gray mass of men, but for the entry of wildest chance: early in his career he was thrown together with a dashing young cavalry officer named James Ewell Brown Stuart, and from that day on, the Mosby star ascended.
Young Mosby soon discovered in himself an unsuspected talent: he was an intelligent and daring scout. Stuart came to regard him as an unusual asset, in part because Private Mosby's even temperament served as a foil to his own more ebullient style, but mostly because the young lawyer was aggressive—a doer in a sea of talkers. Taking advantage of an unusually convivial relationship, Mosby convinced Stuart in June of 1862 to undertake what became Stuart's most celebrated feat: the daring ride around McClellan's 110,000-man army during the Peninsular campaign.
But the newly minted scout was chafing to do something on his own, and in January of 1863 he got his opportunity. Stuart detached him for extended duty behind Federal lines on the very outskirts of the enemy capital. His assignment was to harass the Union rear around Washington so strenuously that a large force would have to be detached from the front to deal with him. It was here that Mosby truly hit his stride.
For over two years he and his band (which embraced unsavory types as well as professional soldiers, and which eventually grew to 800 men) did all they could to disrupt supply lines and harass the rear of Federal columns, mostly in northern Virginia. Mosby's men attacked wagons and camps, stole cattle and mules, kidnapped officers (one Vermont brigadier from his bed), and shipped hundreds of Federal cavalrymen to Libby prison in Richmond. His rise in rank was meteoric. "Hurrah for Mosby!" wrote Lee. "I wish I had a hundred like him."
Northern newspapers and Union dispatches picked up the refrain: Mosby was a will o’ the wisp, untouchable, a Gray Ghost, as he later came to be known. His proudest claim was that by his harassment of Sheridan's army in late 1864 he provided the Confederacy with six extra months of life. This may have been true, since Sheridan, fiercely beset by Mosby and other guerrilla groups, was unable to free up enough men to send to Grant, who sat impotent before Petersburg all winter. He had been such a memorable thorn in the side of Federal armies in northern Virginia that in the days following Appomattox, he was hunted, a price upon his head. Mosby wisely did not surrender until the "dead or alive" order had been rescinded—more than two months after Lee's surrender and some seven weeks after Johnston's. Thus the origin of his claim that he was the last Confederate officer to surrender.
Following the war the ex-Confederate colonel, with a wife and three small children, did his best to become a responsible citizen in an occupied South. He returned to the practice of law, now in northern Virginia, which had served as backdrop to the greatest drama of his life. He became active in politics, once even making a brief run for Congress. But he had acquired a taste for action, and gradually reverted to the partisan style, adopting unpredictability as his modus vivendi.
In 1869, with the race for the first postwar governorship of Virginia left to two New York carpetbaggers—disgraceful to a Virginian—Mosby horrified his neighbors by coming out strongly for one of them. In the next race for governor he would throw his weight behind a 24-karat Virginia Conservative. In between, he would support the Republican Grant.
When in 1872 he met Grant for the first time, he found not a former enemy but a brother soldier. In a cloud of Grant’s cigar smoke, the two men hit it off at once. Mosby’s subsequent campaign on behalf of the Republican president was born of a genuine, almost schoolboyish enthusiasm at the prospect of a rapprochement between Grant and goodwilled Southerners. When the dust of the president’s huge election victory had settled, the ex-Confederate found himself not only a welcome guest at the White House—with entrée to Grant’s circle of backroom cronies—but also firmly rooted as the president’s unofficial advisor on the Southern Question.
Thus did Mosby become a bridgebuilder, a peacemaker in a land consumed by muted war. Never a man to let past enmities get in the way of opportunity, he began to seize the Republican party by the ears in an attempt to turn it to the good of the South. He started by quarrying out dozens of Federal jobs for Virginians. Despite this success, his increasing coziness with the Northern Republicans disturbed many in the South.
This was not his first attempt at bridgebuilding. He had always shown an interest in the other side of a question, and a willingness to deal amicably with adversaries. At the age of nineteen, sentenced to a year in jail for shooting a fellow student at the University of Virginia, he began, from his cell, to badger the Commonwealth's Attorney who had put him there into helping him with—of all things—the study of law. His charm must have been considerable, because the prosecutor not only lent him law books to study while in jail, but took him into his office as soon as he was freed and tutored him until he was admitted to the bar.
During the war, he made friends with a number of Federals he had captured, and after the war continued the relationships. Although he could nurse a grudge as well as anyone, he could also be remarkably forgiving. As his life moved along, however, his forgiveness seemed to be directed north, while his enmities piled up in Dixie.
It was during Grant's second term that Mosby began to pay the price exacted of peacemakers. A Southern paper complained that he was "the most serviceable partisan Grant [had] in Virginia," and that his object was to "disorganize." Great pressures began to build against him for his outspoken Republican stands—with sometimes near-explosive results—and he became wary of using his pipeline to power. "I would call in person to see you," he wrote to the president in May 1875, "but my appearance at the White House would occasion a great deal of newspaper criticism."
In May of 1876, he suffered the death of his wife Pauline, and a few weeks later lost a newborn son as well. Despite this double blow, or perhaps because of it, he immersed himself in the presidential campaign then raising steam. He had by now joined the Republican party, and was actively campaigning on behalf of the reform governor of Ohio and candidate for President, Rutherford B. Hayes. The month after Hayes's nomination, Mosby wrote to beg the Ohio man to show some active interest in the South. "Mr. Greeley captivated the South by a few kind words," he told the nominee. "Why cannot you do the same and thus heal up the wounds of war?"
In August, to reinforce his argument, Mosby mailed Hayes a copy of a letter recently published in the New York Herald. The letter, evidently written in answer to an attack upon the Republican ticket by a former Confederate comrade, had been lauded by the Herald as an "able political manifesto." The reader might have seen in the opening paragraph what was coming, for here Mosby reminded his correspondent that although he had once been a Confederate soldier, he had ceased to be one about 11 years previously, when he became a citizen of the United States.
"The sectional unity of the Southern people," Mosby had written, "has been the governing idea and bane of their politics. So far from its being the remedy for anything, it has been the cause of most of the evils they have suffered. So long as it continues, the war will be a controlling element of politics; for any cry in the South that unites the confederates re-echoes through the North, and rekindles the war fires there.
"I concur with you," he continued, "in a desire for a change in the policy of the national government towards the South, but that can only come from a change in the attitude of the Southern people towards the administration." Then, using a two-word expression that he is credited with coining, he asked his correspondent, rhetorically, "Suppose Hayes is elected with a solid South against him?"
"Four years ago," he went on, "I urged the Southern people, if they really desired peace and reconciliation, to bury their passions and resentments, and support the man who was not only the representative of an overwhelming majority of the North, but was the most powerful of our foes. I have seen no cause to change my opinions or to regret my course. Many things have since occurred which no one deplores more than I do. The responsibility is with those who adopted the fatal policy—‘Anything to Beat Grant.'
"You speak," he concluded, "of the bitter hostility of the North toward the South. Well, four years of hard fighting is not calculated to make men love each other; neither is an everlasting rehearsal of the wrongs which each side imagines it has suffered going to bring us any nearer to a better understanding. Peace can only come with oblivion of the past."
In a Philadelphia Times interview in October he returned to this theme, namely that Southerners, by rejecting Grant, had become their own worst enemy. "[Grant] has only returned their fire," he said. "Of all men he was the most magnanimous. The attempt to solidify the Southern political forces," he predicted, "is going to make a solid North against the South."
By November, after Hayes's hotly contested election ("His Fraudulency, the President," was a common Democratic epithet), Mosby's outspoken views and belligerent ways had provoked his Virginia neighbors to such a point that he was forced to close up his home in Warrenton and move out.
His six children were installed with friends closer to the Potomac, and he himself opened a new law office in Washington. It was in this office that a New York Herald reporter caught up with him in December.
"Mosby is a good talker," remarked the reporter. "Not very fluent, perhaps, but what he says is generally worthy of attention. His intelligence is far above the average of what may be found in Congress, which is not, after all, much of a compliment."
"My idea," explained Mosby, after a few remarks defending Hayes's claim to the presidency, "was to build up a party in the South opposed to the sectional disunion democracy. The South for the last ten years has suffered under many evils and grievances, and the cause of it all has been the attempt to make a Solid South. It has driven the white men of the South into one political party in alliance with the Northern Democracy. The governing idea of the Southern politicians," he concluded, "is revenge."
When asked about his personal troubles, he made clear that the weapon of choice against Republicanism in the South was "social ostracism." He recounted first how he had been forced to remove his children from their home, and then cited a second example: having once obtained a Federal job in Richmond for one of his former officers, he was told by the unhappy fellow that one could not accept such a job and live in Richmond. “That is the spirit of the South," concluded the once renowned Confederate. "To say so will make them howl in Virginia, but let them howl."
"The South," he said in another place, "has imitated Saturn in devouring his own children."
Earlier in December he had tried to act as go-between for Governor Wade Hampton of South Carolina, who needed a favor from outgoing President Grant, but who dared not darken a white House door. Although Mosby had suffered previously from such attempts at brokerage, he tried again. Exactly as before, however, word of Mosby's role leaked out, and his dispatcher was showered with Southern outrage, chiefly Virginian. Back-pedaling before the press, Hampton said he had not realized how "odious" Mosby was to the Virginia people. "My political experience," said Mosby, summing up, "suggests the fable of 'belling the cat'—one man to incur all the danger and risk while others keep under cover."
Hayes had no sooner been inaugurated than Mosby was at his elbow, urging the new president to pursue a beneficent policy toward the South. Many were quick to vilify him for putting himself forth as a Southern spokesman. "Have nothing to do with Mosby," was the overall tone. A Philadelphia man wrote, "Neither Republicans nor Democrats here or in the South like Mosby." The president apparently listened with only one ear, however, because Mosby remained a welcome guest at the White House. Hayes even agreed to the continuance of Grant's practice of making political appointments in Virginia along lines suggested by John Mosby.
With the end of Reconstruction came the end of an era for Mosby. With the assistance of President Hayes and Ohio's powerful congressman James A. Garfield, he was in late 1878 awarded a Federal job himself, although it was not quite what he had had in mind. He had pictured himself an assistant attorney general in the U. S. Justice Department in Washington. As the new year opened, however, he found himself boarding a ship in San Francisco to assume the duties of U.S. consul at Hong Kong. It is tempting to speculate on the Ohioans' reasons for easing this well intentioned pot-stirrer out of the country.
He spent over six years in the British colony, stirring pots during his entire stay, and building a solid stateside reputation as a reformer of the consular service in the Orient. He continued, however, to agitate in the arena of domestic politics as well, and Garfield became the sounding board for many of his ideas. In November of 1880, after telling the now president-elect "not to insult his Southern friends" by taking a Democrat into his cabinet, he advised Garfield to take "the most liberal policy towards the South consistent with justice. "You now have a grand opportunity to nationalize the South," he said. “You should direct your policy toward building a new Republican party at the South.”
"Do not commit yourself to Southern leaders," he warned Garfield later the same month, "until they have given hostages for their good faith. Otherwise they will use you and abuse you as they did Hayes. I know them well."
In 1885 he returned home. Taking up a dreary position as a railroad attorney for the Southern Pacific, he justified his action as being dictated by his poverty, not his will. Hemmed in now by corporate horizons every bit as confining as those of Hong Kong island, he attempted to spread his wings as a writer and speaker. His efforts turned naturally to the one topic he knew well: the great fratricidal war of his youth.
By 1887 he had packaged a series of newspaper features into a book called Mosby’s War Reminiscences. He also began a years-long literary effort to burnish the reputation of his friend and idol Jeb Stuart, tarnished by the questions surrounding his tardy arrival at Gettysburg. Through invitations brought about by an active pen, he was now brought into closer contact with his former adversaries. Invited several times to lecture in New England, he found himself feted by the families of former prisoners, and was sought out by the likes of James Russell Lowell, the Oliver Wendell Holmeses—father and son—and the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He came to love New England. Following a trip to Boston he wrote to his son Beverly: "I never before met such liberal minded people as the descendants of the Puritans. They were so kind," he said of the Boston veterans, "I was sorry I ever captured them."
To a Virginia friend he commented, "I was never half as well treated in Virginia as I was in Connecticut." To another: "I confess that my animosity toward the North has long passed away."
His attitude toward such gatherings in the South was far different. In 1895, after attending his men’s' first reunion since the War, he vowed it would be his last. "It is like taking ipecac," he observed. Claiming to have little taste for the "gush" of such occasions, he never attended another. To ex-ranger Ben Palmer he tried to explain why. "The gatherings in the South," he said, [are] in [no] sense reunions—they are nothing but political meetings where demagogues go to spout and keep alive for their own benefit the passions of the war. If my men would have a real camp or bivouac in the woods where I could meet them and talk over the old days it would give me great pleasure to be with them. But I do not want to listen to Bloody Shirt speeches."
To another ex-ranger he declared in 1909 that not only were the speeches at such assemblies not to his taste, but that his men's reunions were plainly "political conventions in the guise of social gatherings. I prefer healing the wounds of the war," he said. "I do not enjoy making them bleed afresh."
He was astounded by the discovery in 1907 that a group of ex-Confederates planned to erect a monument to Captain Henry Wirz, superintendent of the infamous Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia. Perhaps prisoners were treated as badly in the North as in the South, he confided to his brother Willie, but nobody proposed building monuments to the Northern "brutes" responsible.
"I want the memory of all the brutes," he said, "North and South, to sink into oblivion. By erecting a monument to Wirz the Southern people endorse his acts."
He who had been of a slave-holding family now spoke out on slavery. The South's toleration of slavery, he said, had been due to simple ignorance among Southern whites—a result, he thought, of the lack of free and widespread education. "If there had been free schools in the South," he said, "there would have been no war—the Southern people would have abolished slavery." On the subject of Reconstruction, he once told an Alabama man, "If ·there had been no Reconstruction, Birmingham would still be a cotton patch."
He admitted that he had been guilty of treason in bearing arms against the United States. And he was bothered by the widespread denial of the charge among ex-Confederates, as though it were something dishonorable. "Treason," he told his grandson, "is a legal and technical but not necessarily a moral offense. When I hear Confederates deny that they were guilty of treason I tell them that the difference between us is that I am proud of it and they are ashamed."
"At Hong Kong," he continued, "an Englishman once remarked to me how much he regretted the failure of the Confederate cause. Much to his surprise I replied that although I was a Confederate soldier and my family were slaveholders, yet I thought that it was much better for our whole country that slavery was abolished and the Union restored. 'Then,' he said, 'you admit that you fought on the wrong side.' I answered, ‘I do not—I may have fought on the side that was wrong, but I fought on the right side.'"
To Sam Chapman, one of his former rangers, he continued in this vein. "Let Southern soldiers," he said, "get rid of the idea that their honor rests on the right of secession, or the righteousness of the pro-slavery cause. I prefer to let its ghastly memories pass away." He admitted having once been infected by the madness, and that he had run off "in pursuit of a phantom," but, he added, "time [had] cured many delusions." In a lighter vein he once remarked: "I have always said that the quickest way for southern people to get even with the Yankees is to marry them."
John S. Mosby, Confederate warrior and American peacemaker, died on Memorial Day, 1916, at the age of 82. He died peacefully, and, with his wife, two infant sons, and others of his family, is buried on the brow of a hill in Warrenton, Virginia—the town that had once rejected him.
He no doubt rests in peace, for the brow of a hill is a place he always liked to be.