Honorable Violence


Most historians agree that a tendency toward physical violence could be more associated with antebellum Southern society than any other region at the time (Wyatt-Brown, p.366). Notions of honor certainly influenced people's perceptions of justice. A public support of Mosby, for instance, upon his shooting of fellow U.Va. student Robert Turpin in 1852, helped clear the young man's name. In fact, it can be asserted that the incidence of conviction and harsh penalty for crimes in the antebellum South was less than other regions "simply because of indifference toward violence itself" (Wyatt-Brown, p.368).

Mosby's inclination toward physical action was tempered by his intellectual abilities, but certainly not subordinated. If the Turpin incident taught Mosby anything, it was that the Southern code of honor supported his naturally hot temperament. When the Civil War broke out, he rushed to defend Virginia, and in so doing perpetuated the code of honor -- in hibernation during peacetime, yet in full bloom during war. War banded men together in a common cause. "The necessity for discipline strengthened character. ... War was a way to put aside luxuries and idleness, vices that weakened resolve" (Wyatt-Brown, p.39-40).

The elements of war were in themselves ennobling, to be sure, but Mosby's manner of fighting caused him to stand out. Operating with small numbers, swiftly attacking larger forces, carrying off as many horses and men as possible, and retreating into the woods offered an even more dangerous -- and therefore appealing -- notion of fighting that instilled greater honor upon the men willing to undertake such courageous missions. A Baltimore Sun article in 1898 upon the occasion of a reunion of Mosby's men described the scene: "Thrilling tales of charges made on dark nights; of comrades left dead on the field; of signal victories and reverses, went around. The men who told them, though all touched heavily by the hand of time, still retained the fighting eye of the soldier that even time failed to dim" (10/25/1898). Years later, one Mosby obituary noted that the partisan ranger and his men "had no regard for death. If they saw a body of Union troops they would charge pellmell into them regardless of numbers." This kind of reckless courage and ultimate dedication provided Mosby the approbation of Southern society.

In the Southern code of honor, violence in the name of self-defense was clearly justified. Deliberate and pre-meditated murder of prisoners of war, however, stepped beyond these bounds. On Sept. 22, 1864, frustrated Union soldiers hanged or shot six of Mosby's men they recently captured. Mosby included a Richmond Times-Dispatch account of the incident in his Memoirs: "Two of their prisoners the Yankees immediately hung to a neighboring tree, ... The other four were tied to stakes and mercilessly shot through the skull, each one individually" (p.302).

Such murders were outside the bounds of the Southern notion of honor. Revenge killings, however, were not. Within two months, Mosby executed the same number of Union soldiers in retaliation. In a Nov. 11, 1864 letter to Major Gen. P.H. Sheridan, the commanding Union officer in the Shenandoah Valley, Mosby wrote: "Hereafter any prisoners falling into my hands will be treated with the kindness due to their condition, unless some new act of barbarity shall compel me, reluctantly, to adopt a line of policy repugnant to humanity" (Memoirs, p.303).

A particular code of wartime ethics seemed to be at work in order to uphold the notions of Southern honor. Killing one's enemies on the battlefield was justified through a larger perspective of self-defense. Cold-blooded executions were cowardly, and therefore dishonorable. Revenge killings, on the other hand, were an unfortunate but necessary evil in order to maintain one's own sense of honor. Mosby made it clear he did not wish to execute the Union prisoners, but he likewise could not abide leaving his dead men unavenged.

Wyatt-Brown offers a telling example of how to live and die honorably, through the words of the ancient Norse hero Beowolf in a speech to King Hrothgar: "Better is it for each one of us that he should avenge his friend, than greatly mourn. Each of us must expect an end of living in this world; let him who may win glory before death, for that is best at last for the departed warrior" (Wyatt-Brown, p.42). Is it any surprise, then, that Mosby became irascible later in life at his failure to die on the battlefield? His eventual death in 1916, at the age of 81, was not a traditional heroic ending. "From the standpoint of fame, far better would it have been for Corporal Kane's revolver to have cast its bullet a shade higher that night in the Lake home [in which Mosby barely survived]. Then, perhaps, Mosby's name would have stood with such heros as his beloved Stuart, with [Gen. Nathan Bedford] Forrest, ... and others" (Jones, p.309). Mosby himself found such little satisfaction with his later years he once remarked: "I wish that life's descending shadows had fallen upon me in the midst of friends and scenes I loved best" (Jones, p.309). Such a death, in his view, would have maintained both his heroic and honorable status at their peak.


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

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

Further Reading

Return to Home