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John Mosby: Hero or horse thief?

Posted on Friday, June 16, 2017 at 10:10 am

Mosby! John Singleton Mosby is the fourth most honored name in Confederate history, the first three, of course, being Lee, Jackson, and Stuart. In northern Virginia, highway signs proclaim “Mosby Heritage Area.” In Fairfax, little children learn their ABCs at Mosby Woods Elementary School. A portion of US 50 is designated the John Mosby Highway. In total, thirty-five markers and monuments around Virginia honor him, and the Gray Ghost Winery bears his war-time nickname.

He was the commander of the 43rd Battalion, often known as “Mosby’s Rangers” or “Mosby’s Raiders.” They operated over a wide area of northern Virginia, confounding their Union opponents with lightning fast guerrilla raids and then disappearing into the woods. They drew no Confederate supplies, but fed themselves from local farmers, not all of whom were willing donors. The sudden appearance of heavily armed men is a great persuader. Many books and articles have analyzed Mosby’s military genius but few have touched on his legal status.

First, we must consider a larger legal issue, the status of the Confederate States of America, which considered itself a legitimate nation, with its own legislature, currency, postal service, army, and navy. The north continued the opinion that the South was still part of the United States, but in a state of rebellion. Legal scholars will debate this question for years to come. The more immediate question is – was the 43rd Battalion a legitimate part of the Army of the Confederacy, under its command and control and subject to that army’s rules, regulations, and system of justice?

These issues arose in the case of John W. McCue, who at Croom, Maryland robbed a convenience store, wounded the store clerk, and killed a detective called to the scene of the crime. He claimed to be one of Mosby’s men performing his duty as a Confederate soldier. However, the Army of Northern Virginal was 200 miles away and not one of Mosby’s officers was anywhere near Croom. Further, McCue was not in uniform and told the court he had come to Croom “to rob and see what we could make.” McCue was convicted of robbery and murder and sentenced to life in prison. A whole host of Confederate generals and members of the First Families of Virginia petitioned President Andrew Johnson for McCue’s release. Johnson passed the problem on to Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, who declared that Mosby’s men were not soldiers at all, merely a “party of highwaymen,” and that the notables who supported McCue were evidence that Virginia’s aristocracy had descended into “unmanly and even depraved conduct.” The legal basis for these opinions rose not from Judge Holt but from the official pronouncements of the Confederacy’s Adjutant and Inspector General, Samuel Cooper, who issued two documents relevant to the legitimacy of Mosby’s Rangers.

“General Orders No. 47 April 23, 1863. The following Regulations respecting the rights of ‘Partisan Rangers,’ under the Act of April 21, 1862, provides that for any arms or munitions captured from the enemy by partisan rangers and delivered at such place as may be designated by the commanding general, the rangers may be paid their full value in such manner as the Secretary of War may prescribe. Second, The terms “arms and munitions of war” will include all small arms and artillery, ammunition, infantry accoutrements, and cavalry equipment, and also cavalry and artillery horses. The animals referred to will be appraised by competent officers, under the orders of the commanding general, and will be paid for when delivered up, by any quartermaster, who will take receipts from the parties entitled to receive compensation, and afterwards account for the property, as in the course of ordinary purchase. The rest of the property specified will be paid for in accordance with Paragraph II, General Orders No. 20.”

In plain English, Confederate Partisan Rangers are entitled to take anyone’s horses, at any time, for any reason, without compensation, sell them to the Confederate quartermaster, and pocket the money. General Orders No. 47 legalized and rewarded horse thieves.

The next General Orders belies Lee’s claim that Mosby was under the same regulations as the rest of the army. This first 180 words of this G.O. speak of ordinary command and control, but the final sixteen words exempt Mosby from the rules of war accepted by all civilized nations.

“General Orders No. 82. June 12, 1863. The second section of the act entitled An act to organize partisans rangers, provides that such partisan rangers, after being regularly received into service, shall be entitled to the same pay, rations, and quarters, during their term of service, and subject to the same regulations, as other soldiers. The irregularities reported to this department as having been committed by such corps, renders it proper that these corps shall be placed under stricter regulations than those heretofore adopted. The generals commanding the departments in which they are serving are hereby authorized to combine them into battalions and regiments, with the view of bringing them under the same regulations as other soldiers, in reference to their discipline, positions, and movements; and the same officers will recommend any further measures for their organization as an integral part of their command, which will, in their opinion, promote their efficiency and the interests of the service. The general of the department will recommend field officers for the organization that may be made, to be submitted for the consideration of the President. Such partisan corps as are serving within enemy lines are, for the present, exempt from this order [emphasis added].”

General Orders Nos. 47 and 82 clearly place Mosby and his men outside the “regulations as other soldiers … in reference to their discipline” and explicitly grant them the power to plunder whom they please and keep the proceeds. It is little wonder that Judge Holt considered them brigands, not soldiers. Modern hero worship has sanitized Mosby’s Rangers.

But there is more to the story.

Is this judgement of Mosby as a horse thief fair? Historians of the Confederacy have raised several vital points. The Confederate Congress passed the Partisan Ranger Act, which was signed by President Jefferson Davis. The Rangers operated under the authorization of what most Southerners regarded as a legitimate government. Further, local lore in “Mosby’s Confederacy” has a kindly remembrance of him. Quite the opposite held true in Georgia and North Carolina, where Confederate Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s men ran wild with theft and violence. Decades later Wheeler’s name was still reviled.

Another factor contradicting Joseph Holt’s opinion is how prisoners from Mosby’s battalion were treated. They were not shot, but went to Union prisoner of war camps, treated as de facto legitimate soldiers.

William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” The Civil War rages on.

-By Thomas P. Lowry


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