Meet John S. Mosby, "Gray Ghost" of the Confederacy

A New Jersey Yankee now living in the area of Virginia known as "Mosby's Confederacy" during the Civil War, curator Kathleen Golden shares what she finds so interesting about John S. Mosby—the ranger, fugitive, friend of President Ulysses S. Grant, diplomat, and inspiration for a 1950s television show—on his 180th birthday.

Although I was surrounded by Revolutionary War history as a kid growing up in New Jersey, I much preferred the Civil War. Whether it was the family road trip to Gettysburg or the stamp album I had featuring all of the generals that got me hooked, I now consider myself very lucky to work among Civil War objects. In the Division of Armed Forces History here at the National Museum of American History, the collections related to John S. Mosby are my favorite.

 

In this photograph, taken circa 1865, a clean-shaven Mosby stands in the center of a group of members of the 43 Battalion Virginia Cavalry. Albumen silver print photograph by David Bendann. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
In this photograph, taken circa 1865, a clean-shaven Mosby stands in the center of a group of members of the 43 Battalion Virginia Cavalry. Albumen silver print photograph by David Bendann. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

During the Civil War, "Mosby's Confederacy" encompassed 1,800 square miles, including today's Fauquier, Loudon, Clarke, Warren, and Prince William counties. It's been 150 years since Mosby formed the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry, more popularly known as "Mosby's Rangers," but there are still many ways to explore Mosby's story.

Mosby was a small town lawyer who joined the Confederate Army when his home state of Virginia seceded from the Union, and who became General Jeb Stuart's best scout, earning himself both a command and the nickname "Gray Ghost." He was so valuable to the Confederacy that many Union officers tried and failed to capture him (he, however, captured Union General Edwin Stoughton). Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, is said to have remarked, "I wish I had 100 men like Mosby."

Mosby-related sites about in Virginia. Left: Mosby’s grave in Warrenton, Virginia. Top: A Route 522 sign in Rappahannock County, Virginia, about one of Mosby’s Rangers being executed. Bottom: Mosby Heritage Area sign on Route 211 in Fauquier County, Virginia.
Mosby-related sites abound in Virginia. Left: Mosby's grave in Warrenton, Virginia. Top: A Route 522 sign in Rappahannock County, Virginia, about one of Mosby's Rangers being executed. Bottom: Mosby Heritage Area sign on Route 211 in Fauquier County, Virginia.

At the war's end, Mosby was a fugitive with a bounty on his head but received a pardon from President Ulysses S. Grant. A friendship based on mutual admiration rose up between the two, and Mosby became a Republican who worked to repair the fractured Union. Southerners, however, viewed this as a betrayal to their cause, and Mosby was shunned by the people who formerly revered him. Threats of bodily harm to him and his family forced Mosby to give up his law practice and leave his home in Warrenton, Virginia. He moved to Washington, D.C., where he continued to practice law and also worked as a diplomat.

This wool jacket and slouch hat both belonged to Mosby, who was wearing the hat when he was wounded by federal cavalry in December 1864. The style of hat came to be known as a Mosby hat.
This wool jacket and slouch hat both belonged to Mosby, who was wearing the hat when he was wounded by federal cavalry in December 1864

By the time of Mosby's death in 1916, the people of Virginia had softened their feelings towards him. He laid in state at the Fauquier County Courthouse in Warrenton, Virginia, and was buried in Warrenton Cemetery. The publication of Virgil Carrington Jones' book Ranger Mosby in 1944 led to renewed interest in the dashing cavalryman; in the 1950s came the television show The Gray Ghost, which aired in syndication from 1957-1958.

Carte-de-visit of John S. Moby
Carte-de-visit of John S. Moby

Today, the Mosby Heritage Area Association runs tours and educational programs to educate folks about Mosby's Confederacy. I visited some of these sites not long ago on a sunny Sunday afternoon. You can also visit the Stuart-Mosby Civil War Cavalry Museum in Centreville, Virginia.

But if you want to see some really cool objects used by Colonel Mosby, come to the National Museum of American History! His uniform and crutches are on display in The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.

Kathleen Golden is an associate curator in the Division of Armed Forces History. Even though she has lived in the state of Virginia longer than she lived in New Jersey, she still gets called a Yankee—affectionately, she thinks. Kathleen has previously blogged about Winchester the horseStubby the dog, and World War II hero Audie Murphy.

Posted at 5:05 am EST in Civil War 150,From the Collections

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