“It was not an act of revenge, but a judicial sentence to save not only the lives of my own men, but the lives of the enemy. It had that effect. I regret that fate thrust such a duty upon me; I do not regret that I faced and performed it.” – John S. Mosby, in retaliation to George Custer’s savagery
I’m only in my early 30s, but when I was a young child, my great grandmother (the keeper of the Confederate family flame) would describe to me, with much admiration and respect, the adventures and exploits of The Gray Ghost – Virginia’s own John Singleton Mosby, as well as, his dashing and brave cavaliers, Mosby’s Rangers.
Mosby was a man of the noblest qualities – a gallant soldier, a punishing adversary (to the American Empire) and a man who believed in the ideals of honor and chivalry. However, when confronted with the absolute barbarity of Yankee atrocities – spurned on by their own impotence and incompetence at defeating the elusive Ghost – Mosby understood and applied Lex talionis (“The Law of Retaliation”).
By summer 1864, Lt. Col. John S. Mosby was already infamous throughout the American Empire and deified across Dixie. Much to the chagrin of the occupying Yankees, Mosby and his band of partisan rangers operated behind Union lines in what would be called, “Mosby’s Confederacy” – a sizable chunk of Northern Virginia. The Gray Ghost and his men raided supply trains, captured men (including high level Union officers) and other war making materials. In fact, Mosby’s exploits are one of the most successful raiding and guerrilla campaigns in all of American history – not that our public (or even private) schools teach that anymore about our ancestors.
Mosby received permission to harass the Yankees in the northern (described as the “lower”) Shenandoah Valley and upper Piedmont region of Virginia from General J.E.B. Stuart in early 1863. Mosby provided not only symbolic and logistical support for the Confederacy, but his fearless raids captured hundreds of prisoners, thousands of horses and cattle and supplies.
The Union response to this shadowy and successful raider was a mixture of fear and unbridled rage. At any moment, Mosby and his men could spring upon a hapless Yankee garrison or supply train – day or night, it did not matter, they would be attacked, killed or captured and the Gray Ghost and his men would slip away into the countryside. With that meaningful threat, the eternal Yankee, with his bloodlust and cruelty, decided that the rules of war no longer applied to Mosby, his men and even their families.
That Mosby’s Rangers had been fellow Americans a few short years ago seemed to mean very little to the vengeful American Empire. Many of the most well known Union officers despised the slippery Mosby for his achievements in the Old Dominion. The thankfully-now discredited former American icon, Brigadier General George Custer, considered Mosby a “scoundrel” and battled him throughout Mosby’s Confederacy. The consummate drunk and butcher, General Ulysses S. Grant, wrote to the equally deranged sociopath, General Philip Sheridan, regarding Mosby and his men:
The families of most of Moseby’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. When any of them are caught with nothing to designate what they are hang them without trial.
In August 1864, Sheridan launched a campaign to drive out Confederate forces defending the Shenandoah Valley and begin his shameless scorched-earth tactics. Sheridan once said, after he set the farmland and crops of the Valley ablaze, “If a crow wants to fly down the Shenandoah, he must carry his provisions with him.” At the beginning of Sheridan’s wretched offensive, Mosby immediately began attacking Sheridan’s supply trains, cavalry detachments and other ripe targets of opportunity. Yankee forces spent significant time and effort to stop The Gray Ghost – when that failed, the invaders turned to vicious cruelty.
Captain Samuel Chapman, an ordained minister and nicknamed Mosby’s “Fighting Parson,” and a force of approximately 100-120 Rangers attacked a Union Army wagon train near Front Royal, Virginia on September 23rd, 1864. Chapman thought the wagon train had no cavalry escort and would be a simple mission. However, as he was dividing his men into two columns for the attack, a brigade of Union cavalry under the command of Colonel Charles Lowell, Jr. appeared.
Captain Chapman’s Rangers were in danger of being trapped and destroyed, and he ordered the two columns to escape. The Yankees were too quick and nearly surrounded the Rangers, but the Fighting Parson’s men were able to battle their way out and escape. The Union cavalry gave chase and unfortunately took six doomed prisoners before ending the pursuit.
Misinformation (or Yankee lies) led to invader malice: Charles McMaster, a lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, had been one of the Federal casualties during the skirmish with Chapman’s partisans – he had been killed by a bullet to the head. Some of the Union cavalrymen thought McMaster had been killed after he had surrendered. By most accounts – this wasn’t true, McMaster had been killed in combat. But, when this falsehood reached the Federals occupying Front Royal, the Yankees were outraged. When Lowell’s command arrived at Front Royal with the six Rangers – the Yankees called for revenge for Lieutenant McMaster’s demise.
Besides Lowell, senior officers present included Brigadier Generals Wesley Merritt, who would go on to become the consummate American Empire military officer – surviving the war and then fighting Indians and later becoming military governor of the Philippines, and the vile and contemptible George A. Custer. In retaliation for McMaster’s death, Merritt cruelly ordered the execution of the six Confederate POWs. Though many, including Mosby himself, would blame Custer for the executions, Lowell wrote that it was Merritt who gave the order. Note that: Custer and the other senior officers made no attempt to stop the executions and went along with it, so in Mosby’s view (and rightfully so) they shared responsibility and culpability for the war crime. Also, some of Custer’s men participated in the executions.
Three of the prisoners were taken out and shot immediately. Another aspect of this tragic tale of Yankee callousness is 17 year old Henry Rhodes of Front Royal. Rhodes was not a member of the Rangers, but dreamed of joining up with his heroes. He had grabbed a horse and joined in the retreat with some of the Rangers and was captured. Rhodes’ mother begged for her son’s life to no avail; in perhaps the most brutal event of the day, one of Custer’s henchmen murdered Rhodes in front of his pleading mother.
Two other prisoners were interrogated and promised their lives would be spared in exchange for the location of The Gray Ghost, but to spite the Yankee invader and because of their honor, they refused to give up their commander. They were then executed by hanging. As the noose was tied around his neck, Ranger William Overby shouted in defiance, “Mosby will hang ten of you for every one of us!”
The American Empire placed a sign on one of the executed POWs, “Such is the fate of all of Mosby’s men.”
When Mosby himself heard about the executions, he was furious and determined to retaliate. He proposed to General Robert E. Lee that he would execute an equal number of Custer’s men for those Rangers executed by the Yankees. Lee and Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon approved the proposal.
On November 6th, Mosby gathered the Rangers at Rectortown, Virginia. Nearly 500 of his men made the rendezvous, all wanting to be part of the planned revenge. Present also were 27 Union prisoners that had been captured in Mosby’s raids from the previous weeks – most from Custer’s command.
Unlike the sheer wanton cruelty of the Union invaders, as retribution for his executed men, Mosby called out for the prisoners to draw a slip of paper out of a hat, with marks on them – seven with marks for death. As the hat was passed down the line of prisoners, a drummer boy selected a marked slip. Unlike the depraved Yankee officers, one of Mosby’s men informed the Ghost, and it was determined that they would redraw the last slip and spare the young man’s life.
The seven were taken a few miles away to an area near Berryville, Virginia, by a Ranger detachment under the command of Lieutenant Ed Thompson. Three of the seven were hanged and two were shot. The two who were shot were wounded, but not fatally. Two other prisoners managed to escape – due to the Rangers lack of bloodlust to run down the fleeing prisoners and callously kill them. A note was left on one of the hanged men that stated: “These men have been hung in retaliation for an equal number of Colonel Mosby’s men, hung by order of General Custer at Front Royal. Measure for measure.”
One letter specifically written by Mosby on November 11, 1864 to General Sheridan, “Six of my men who had been captured by your forces, were hung and shot in the streets of Fort Royal, by order and in the immediate presence of Brigadier-General Custer. Since then another shared a similar fate.” Mosby wrote, “seven of your men were, by my order, executed on the Valley Pike – your highway of travel.”
Although only three had actually been executed, Mosby believed he had accomplished his purpose. Mosby wrote a letter to Sheridan explaining what had happened and his reasons for retaliating. He declared that he would treat any men captured as prisoners of war unless more of his men were executed and he was forced to “adopt a course of policy repulsive to humanity.“
The Yankees stopped executing captured Rangers.