The Mark of Gentility


The ideas of primal honor held white Southerners to a code that encouraged the defense of their homeland as well as a public display of their allegiance through oath-taking. But another aspect of Southern honor in the 19th century included gentility, or the refinement of an individual, largely through a focus on classical education. The two forms of honor, the former ancient and masculine while the latter modern and feminine, combined different yet complementary notions. Whereas in the middle ages one's valor on the battlefield comprised the most significant benchmark for determining honor, early America witnessed a development of gentility as a peacetime marker for its most esteemed citizens (Wyatt-Brown, p.26).

Mosby was raised in a society which placed a high premium on gentility, or personal refinement, to express one's public station. Becoming a gentlemen involved a quality education, consisting of a breadth of knowledge about ancient Greek and Roman texts (Wyatt-Brown, p.93-95). The proponents of this classical learning admired these civilizations as much for their stoic concerns for bravery and courage as for their philosophical achievements.

When war broke out, Mosby already had received a fairly respected position in society as an attorney. His pride in his classical scholarship, however, did not leave him when he took to the saddle. Frequent literary allusions to classical figures and events signify both Mosby's willingness to be depicted as an intellectual, but also the compatibility between his literary and military characters. Biographer Virgil Carrington Jones took notice, describing Mosby's dual nature: "He could lead his men into the jaws of death one moment and talk of birds and poetry the next" (p.13).

When South Carolina first seceded from the Union, Mosby expressed his support of the Union, and encountered someone who disagreed. "Very well, I shall meet you at Philippi," Mosby responded (Memoirs, p.16). When Virginia entered the Civil War, he described his fellow comrades as "greatly excited. Our people had been reading about war and descriptions of of battles by historians and poets, from the days of Homer down, and were filled with enthusiasm for military glory" (p.29). Once when constructing a bridge for Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, Mosby remarked, "It may not have been so good a bridge as Caesar threw over the Rhine, but it served our purpose" (p.118). Describing Union Gen. George Stoughton, Mosby mused that "he dressed before a looking-glass as carefully as Sardanapalus did when he went into battle" (p.176).

After the war, Mosby wrote a letter to his friend and scout John Russell, reconsidering the effect of Union Gen. Sheridan's threat to imprison women and children in sections of Northern Virginia might have had on their activity: "Homer's heros were not paralyzed when Helen was carried off to Troy; it only aroused their martial ambition. Sheridan knew that if he did anything of the kind it would stimulate the activity of my men, so he didn't try it. As for our lieutenant-colonel, who, as Major Richards says, married in that section, I think that if Sheridan had captured his wife and mother-in-law and sent them to prison ... he would have felt all the wrath and imitated the example of the fierce Achilles when he heard that Patroclus, his friend, had been killed and his armor had been captured. 'Now perish Troy,' he said, and rushed to fight" (p.373).

From these passages, one can discern how one's classical education, signifying refinement, did not contradict one's notions of primal honor, in which defense of women, children and territory were of upmost importance. Literary allusion to classical figures allowed Mosby to take his place among elevated society before and after the Civil War. Likewise, such allusion during the war reinforced Mosby by furnishing examples of the stoic military tradition.


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

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

Further Reading

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