Mosby and the North


Supporters of the Union cause in the Civil War obviously did not respond favorably to Mosby's guerrilla warfare. The Confederate ranger certainly supplied the Federals with plenty to worry about. Mosby proudly included dispatches from prominent Union officers that detailed their apparent dismay at the need to reinforce their units to guard against his ambushes. Biographers of Mosby select similar reports from the Union army, usually referring to an embarrasing episode with the partisans. These dispatches create an impression of the Union army as a dimwitted, comical lot constantly being foiled by Mosby's wiles. Mosby and his Southern biographers, however, do not detail how Mosby the individual was seen through the eyes of the North.

As strongly as Gen. Robert E. Lee and the South spoke of Mosby's daring and dashing style, Northern soldiers responded with charges that Mosby was cowardly. Although the North did not share the Southern code of honor to as great of an extent, soldiers in the Civil War, like those today, maintained a base expectation about the rules of conduct. Mosby, many Union soldiers believed, did not follow these basic rules, and therefore could not be respected like other soldiers, Northern or Southern. During this period in the North, social and cultural factors led people to de-emphasize the more ancient, 'primal' honor symbolized by dueling and violence, and promote simple, civic virtue as a sign of a more 'respectable' form of honor (Wyatt-Brown, p.20).

The North, with its competing notion of honor, allowed Union soldiers to condemn Mosby for his roguish ways. Fighting from behind the lines, surprising the enemy at picket-posts and attacking at dark were all associated with a dishonorable manner of waging war, thy believed. Allyne Cushing Litchfield, a Union soldier fighting in Northern Virginia, wrote several letters to his wife, calling Mosby and his men "among the worst of Bushwackers," and vowing to "catch them if possible" (5/29/1863). Another Union soldier, Albert Martin, wrote about Mosby's rangers: "I suppose there (sic) correct name would be Guerrillas or Highway Robbers" (8/12/1863). John A. Clark indicated there is "no honor to be expected in following [Mosby] for you cannot reasonably expect a fight with him on any fair ground" (8/10/1863).

One of the most colorfully malicious descriptions of Mosby appears in the journal of Nathan Webb, who recounted an unexpected encounter with the partisan chieftan's wife, Beverly, at her home: "She said she had a husband in the Southern Army who was doing wonders for their cause and whose name was terror to the Yankee herde. ... Says I, 'Please Madam whom may your indoubtable Chevalier be?' ... Drawing herself up to full heighth, her eyes flashing, her arms gravely folded, and stepping back a step she says, 'I have the distinguished honor of being the wife of the gallant Major Mosby.' 'Oh,' says I, 'I thought that you were at least the wife of some brave and often lauded Officer, but instead, I find you the spouse of that plundering, prowling, thieving, bushwacking Mosby -- The man who never showed himself brave to fight (unintelligible), who never once has tried to work good his boast of superiority and chivalry, who relies on surprises, and overwhelming numbers to carry out save fear for robbery or burning -- The man who who ties the wives of his neighbors up by the thumbs to extort from them a hiding place, ... who steals the rations from the family's (sic) of the poor whites, driven with their army by sick cutthroat vagabonds as he, who tortures the fair ignorant negro to force from him the position of the pickets of a camp, ... -- The man who approaches a picket post in our uniform and under the guise of the 'Officer of the Day' falls upon the picket and not ever looking him that he may (unintelligible) the death of a soldier, but like a villian that he is, wantonly and deliberately cutting his throat and riffing his jackets up to the picture of his wife or to the lock of hair of his sweetheart" (4/27/1863).

Webb paints a picture of Mosby that directly contradicts the Southern image of Mosby as a "gallant knight," and instead turns him into no more than a common thief. From this encounter it is clear that Mosby's mythic status rested primarily on a Southern public that supported not only the Confederate cause, but an ethical code that supported the guerrilla tactics Mosby employed. To many Northerners, it seems, Mosby lost respectability in their eyes because he failed to fight on "equal" terms.


Biography | 'Primal' honor | Appearance | Oath-taking

Gentility | Chivalry | Mosby and the North | After the war

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