Among those who have studied American history, the name of Colonel John S. Mosby conjures up an image of "Mosby's Rangers," a Confederate guerrilla band known for its highly effective harassment of Union troops during the American Civil War. Operating frequently by night and usually behind enemy lines, these rugged Southern horsemen, led by a young Virginian lawyer-turned-soldier, stole acres of federal livestock, ambushed cavalry columns, derailed trains, sent hundreds of prisoners to Richmond—even plucked a Union general from his bed—and generally gave fits to commanders of regular troops operating in northern Virginia. Their leader was a favorite of Lee, who once exclaimed, "I wish I had a hundred like Mosby!"
Not so well known, but equally colorful, is Col. Mosby's subsequent diplomatic career as U.S. consul in Hong Kong from 1878 to 1885. The result of machinations by Mosby's friends in the Hayes administration, who wished to put their often uncomfortably forthright and outspoken colleague at a distance from the day-to-day politicking of Washington, Mosby's appointment to the Foreign Service plunged the lawyer-soldier into a different kind of warfare. Mosby proved as effective in this engagement as in his earlier battles, and the result was a consular housecleaning that greatly improved the United States' reputation in China.
An Irregular in War and Peace
By the end of the Civil War, John Mosby had become well known in the North—the subject of frequent, if ill-informed, newspaper articles—and was becoming a Southern icon. But the decisiveness that had enabled him to exert his will so forcefully during the war did not serve him well in the war's immediate aftermath. Following the surrender at Appomattox, Mosby proclaimed that the war was over, the cause was lost, and national life must go on. He would, he announced, help heal the nation, not contribute to its continuing division.
Settling in Warrenton, Va., where he resumed the practice of law, Mosby was not shy about making public this unpopular view. By 1872 he had kindled a friendship with Ulysses S. Grant, and soon thereafter turned Republican. His embrace of the party of Lincoln, and his outspoken insistence that, for the South to advance, the past must be forgotten, caused many of his former compatriots to seethe. By the mid-1870s, his young wife having recently passed away and Southern hostility boiling around him, Mosby closed up his law practice in Warrenton and moved his now-motherless family to Washington.
To help ease his distress (and doubtless to distance themselves from a fellow who, uncomfortably for all, marched to a different drummer), some of Mosby's Republican friends—notably President Rutherford B. Hayes and Ohio Congressman James A. Garfield—conspired to arrange an appointment overseas. In December 1878, therefore, the 45-year-old widower, having placed his children with family and friends, found himself in San Francisco en route to Hong Kong, where he would become the new U.S. consul.
If both his friends and his enemies thought they were rid of him for a while, they soon found themselves mistaken. By the following April his name had begun to pop up in stateside newspapers. The story line: "Mosby charges consular corruption."
One of the first things Mosby had done on arrival was to examine the consular books, and it did not take him long to detect a bad odor. His predecessor, David H. Bailey, had apparently been bilking the government of many thousands of dollars annually. Just how he had been doing it became clear from conversations with American ship captains and dock workers. In his shipboard examination of emigrants to the United States (to ascertain that their emigration was voluntary, and not part of the nefarious "coolie traffic"), Bailey had been charging large fees for his service, then declaring expenses equal to the fees, and remitting nothing to the government. By this time Mosby knew that a whole shipload of emigrants could be examined very quickly, and that absolutely no expenses were involved.
Another of the former consul's lucrative practices had been the certification of opium shipments from Macao to the United States. While the certification was perfectly routine and legal, Bailey's fee—$10,000 per year for one shipper—was not. Mosby astonished a Macao shipper by charging him $2.50 for the same service.
An Augean Stable
Mosby's immediate superior at the State Department was Assistant Secretary of State Frederick W. Seward, son of Lincoln's renowned Secretary of State. Mosby wrote to Seward about his discoveries. He did so nervously, because former consul Bailey was a crony of Fred Seward's cousin (and U.S. minister to China), George F. Seward. Complicating the situation was George Seward's alleged involvement in shady speculative transactions in China—in violation of the Burlingame Treaty of 1868, under which Americans pledged not to meddle in Chinese affairs. Seward was, in fact, so strongly suspected of illegal activities that a congressional committee had recently recommended his impeachment, and Bailey, who had been nominated to the consul generalship in China following his departure from Hong Kong, was in Washington as a witness in his behalf. It was not a good time for Bailey's honesty to be brought into question and, as Mosby knew, it was never a good time to tangle with the Sewards.
Other U.S. diplomats in the Orient had taken the Sewards on and not survived. John C. Myers, sent to China in 1876 as consul general, had noticed that George Seward lived above his means, and communicated his suspicions to State. He was promptly sent home. G. Wiley Wells, an ex-congressman from Mississippi, had met a similar fate when he demonstrated excessive zeal in matters pertaining to George Seward.
As Mosby awaited a reply to his letter to Fred Seward, he began to look harder at his fellow consuls in the Orient. Among ship captains, the name of David B. Sickels, U.S. consul at Bangkok, was often mentioned pejoratively. Sickels, in fact, no longer even lived in Bangkok: he had moved to Singapore, leaving the consulate under the charge of a former Hong Kong vagrant named Torrey.
In March 1879, Mosby wrote to General T.C.H. Smith, a Hayes intimate, urging the president to act on the matter. "Nearly all the American consulates out here have a horrible reputation," he explained to Smith. The American consuls, he said, were a "scaly set," and a "disgrace to the country." He felt "humiliated every day," he wrote, at being obliged to deal with them. "If the president does not clean out this Augean stable," Mosby told Smith, "it will be the subject of congressional investigation. Better let his administration get the credit of it than the Democratic Party."
Apparently Fred Seward ignored Mosby's letter: Bailey was confirmed as consul general in China and George Seward escaped impeachment. Mosby confided to G. Wiley Wells, according to the New York Sun of Oct. 7, 1879: "I am in for the war, and intend either to purge the public service of these scoundrels or go out myself."
Mosby was unlikely to be removed from his post, being far more dangerous prowling about congressional corridors than bottled up on Hong Kong Island. But efforts were made to silence him, and this brought the press out. "The [new] consul," noted the China Mail in July 1879, "has evidently made up his mind to place things consular upon an entirely new platform." Colonel Mosby, said the Mail, was "a man amongst men," and a "consul among consuls."
The Press Turns Up the Pressure
Back home, the press had begun to run with the story of consular corruption and Mosby's efforts to stop it. The National Republican noted in September 1879: "The latest revelations in the matter of Bailey . . . only emphasize the unfortunate position in which the State Department is placed by its efforts to shield Seward and Bailey.” The Republican added pointedly: “It is very strongly charged that the department shields Bailey because Minister Seward must stand or fall by the former."
The Hartford Evening Post of Sept. 29 suggested that the State Department would have to ease up on Mosby. It had come to light that the ex-guerrilla was being censured less for the substance of his charges than for his refusal to observe channels of authority, and especially for his new insistence upon writing directly to President Hayes. Mosby, argued the Post, could not be dismissed for such infractions. “If Mosby should be turned out because of his activity in the matter, “said the paper, "it would incline people to think that he was sacrificed because of his zeal in pursuit of a corrupt official. . . . People would honor Mosby for the course he has taken, and, coming home with a fistful of facts, he would become an exceedingly troublesome customer for the Seward family."
Not all of Mosby’s growing press coverage was supportive. He was ridiculed in a letter published in the National Republican for having “organized himself into a widespread smelling committee,” to sniff through all the consular corners of the East. He was accused of trying to make a reputation out of a “cloud of fragrant scandal.” It was alleged, according to the Cincinnati Commercial of Oct. 2, 1879, that he had annoyed the president to the point that Hayes had told him he was “no longer in the partisan ranger business." He was accused of violating "official etiquette" and of behaving "just as he would in a Virginia bar-room," just as he had earlier been accused of bringing the "manners of the saddle into the salons of the diplomats" (in The Press of April 8,1879).
But George Seward remained under a cloud, and editorial sentiment came down largely on Mosby's side. "It is probable," declared the Philadelphia Times on Sept. 26, 1879, "that the case against [Seward] would have been dropped sure enough but for the accident of our getting one honest man into a Chinese consulate. Col. Mosby is that man."
At this time Fred Seward decided to press Mosby on the Bangkok issue, asking him to make the charges against the men at Bangkok more specific. Mosby answered serenely that he personally had preferred no charges against Sickels or Torrey. The charges, he explained in a dispatch to Seward on Oct. 18, 1879, were being brought by the master of the Alice C. Dickerman, an American merchant vessel. He had, however, expressed an opinion of these men, Mosby told Seward, and would gladly repeat it. "I believe," he told Seward, "that I said Sickles [sic] was an idiot and . . . Torrey . . . was about as fit to be in the consular service as . . . Capt. Kidd. I have no apologies to make for having expressed this opinion."
At the end of October 1879, pleading overwork and poor health, Fred Seward turned in his resignation. "The friends of Mr. Seward," wrote the Cincinnati Gazette, "indignantly repel the insinuation thrown out . . . that the charges pending against his cousin, the minister to China, influenced his resignation." Mosby had a different take on it, writing to his Virginia friend E. M. Spilman in January 1880 that he had finally had to "turn" on Fred Seward, and "expose him along with the others whom he was trying to protect." Explained Mosby: "If he had remained in office until Congress met, I would have had him impeached. He saw what was coming, and got out of the way."
Years later Mosby related that after he had discovered Fred Seward trying to "shield the rascals," he had written privately to Hayes. "Hayes," he asserted in a May 1902 letter to John W Daniel, "discharged him [Seward] from the State Department."
Outreforming the Reformers
Mosby continued his agitation for reform, now through one of his most powerful patrons, Ohio Congressman James A. Garfield. He pressed Garfield to have President Hayes act immediately on Bangkok. "I regret," he told the former Union general in a letter dated March 18, 1880, "that the president did not take the advice I gave him when I first came here as all the scandal would have been avoided and he would have got great credit for reforming the service."
Fred Seward's successor was John Hay, a man who would one day write a memorable chapter in American diplomacy, but who would prove no friend to Mosby. The official attitude toward Mosby remained unchanged. He continued to be treated as a crackpot, and to be harassed in subtle ways, such as by denial of funds for chair or boat hire, or by ignoring his requests for furlough. Petitions for money to purchase law books fell upon deaf ears, despite similar allowances made to his predecessor. Mosby wrote to Garfield that Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman, in a move smacking of petty revenge, even removed one of Mosby's sisters from a Civil Service position.
Garfield assured the Virginian that despite what he had been hearing, President Hayes found no fault with Mosby's conduct. Newspapers all over the country, smelling the blood of a second Seward in the offing, were, in fact, stirring in his behalf. Note was taken of a reported disagreement between Hayes and Secretary of State William M. Evarts over how George Seward's inevitable resignation should be handled. Evarts allegedly wanted to hold Seward's resignation until his impeachment should again become imminent, while Hayes wanted to install a new man in Peking at once. "Mr. Evarts," commented the Washington Post in March 1880, ". . . seems infatuated with the idea of being the special defender . . . of all the legally unconvicted violators of law that disgrace his department, especially those bearing the name of Seward."
In the event, the president had his way, and it was shortly announced that George F. Seward, after many years of meritorious service, etc., etc., had resigned his post in Peking. Mosby again set his sights on the Bangkok consulate, where, in the words of a U.S. Navy ship captain quoted in a dispatch from Mosby to John Hay, things were going on "that would disgrace a Modoc Indian."
Mosby was by now being depicted as a man who outreformed the reformers. "Col. Mosby," remarked the San Francisco Chronicle in April 1880, "seems just now to be a particularly sharp thorn in the side of our mild and virtuous 'Civil Service reform' administration. . . . [He] seems to be one of those restless, inquisitive spirits who feel that they have a mission to look into things, and get at their true inwardness. Instead of being content to draw his pay, take things easily, and shut his eyes and ears, . . . he keeps a bright lookout, and is always wanting to understand the working of the machinery."
By the spring of 1880, Bailey and Sickels had resigned. President Hayes had, as Mosby told Garfield in May, "at last swept the China coast." A crop of respectable men now took up station in the East. "The president's new appointments in China," Mosby wrote to Garfield in October, "are all first-rate men."
His immediate objectives accomplished, Mosby began to press President-elect Garfield for more widespread reform. “The State Department needs overhauling and renovating," he wrote to Garfield in November. "It above all needs an able law officer—some of its decisions on law questions would 'make the angels weep.'" He hoped to resign shortly, he added, and enlisted the president-elect’s aid in regaining a “foothold at the bar." In particular, he wrote to Garfield, "I shall ask you to give me the position of assistant attorney-general for which many friends urged my appointment."
Irony and Fulfillment
The following summer (1881) Mosby's long-term hopes were dashed by an assassin's bullet in Washington. After Garfield’s death, he stayed on in the Orient, immersing himself over the next four years in the boiling issues of Chinese immigration to America and the opium trade. He sallied forth from time to time on other Far East issues that he felt merited attention, from the perceived arrogance of Spanish authorities at Manila to perceived weaknesses in the distribution of U.S. naval forces in the Pacific. He pushed for an increased American involvement in China, arguing (not unlike George Seward before him) for a ground-floor American role in Chinese railroad-building and other internal projects.
In late 1881, Ulysses S. Grant appears to have prodded President Chester A. Arthur to name Mosby consul general at Shanghai. But Mosby, according to papers in the National Archives, got wind of the plan and balked, replying through a stateside spokesman that he would prefer something at home, or a first-class post in Europe. In 1884 he received what he considered an even greater honor: the powerful Chinese viceroy Li Hung-chang offered him command of an army in the field. But because he did not wish to fight against the French, Mosby also turned down this opportunity, according to a subsequent article in the Brooklyn Eagle.
In 1885, Democrat Grover Cleveland entered the White House, and Republican Mosby was soon advised of his pending replacement. He dashed off a letter to Grant, requesting assistance in getting started back home. But in late July, just as he was about to embark for San Francisco, a cable arrived announcing Grant's death. The 51-year-old Mosby sailed for the United States with a heavy heart and without a prospect in the world.
Mosby didn't know it, but his request for assistance had reached Grant literally on his deathbed. And the dying man had, in his last days, dictated a telegram to be sent at once to Grant's friend Leland Stanford, California's new senator and president of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Grant’s plea for the ex-Confederate partisan fighter was not refused, and Mosby, when he stepped onto the pier at San Francisco, found a job awaiting him in the legal department of the Southern Pacific. He would spend the next 16 years as a railroad lawyer—not the sort of salvation he'd envisioned, but, as he later put it, his poverty dictated his circumstances, not his will.
Disappointed, Mosby had at least landed on his feet, and would spring into action again. At the age of 64 he was drilling a light cavalry unit in Oakland, Calif., for service against Spain. (As it turned out, "Mosby's Hussars" never saw action.) A little later he again burst into print as a Land Office special agent and personal emissary of President Theodore Roosevelt, wading into the volatile range-fencing crisis in Colorado and Nebraska. And, in perhaps the greatest irony of his life, the one-time ravager of Union supply trains and rustler of Union mules capped his career with six years as an attorney in the Department of Justice.
In his retirement years Mosby received a medal from the University of Virginia (from which he had been expelled years before for shooting a fellow student in self-defense) and, subsequently, an invitation to speak on campus. He was deeply moved, feeling that the greatest injustice of his life had been righted. "I now feel that I am a rich man," he told a friend, Mrs. Charles W Kent, years later, with "something more valuable than gold."
John Mosby died in Washington, D.C., at the age of 82, on Memorial Day 1916. He is buried in Warrenton, Va.