The Tradition of Chivalry


The code of honor did not exist solely within antebellum Southern culture. It sprung, rather, from an ethic "deep in mythology, literature, history, and civilization. ... It is one in which a ritual, tragically common in the American South but at one time more widespread in the Western world, helped a community to overcome its fears and reassert its primal values" (Wyatt-Brown, p.3,4).

In medieval times, the knight upheld society's honorable virtues. To actively defend one's ethical code, one must be at war. Modern times unfortunately provide few instances for this opportunity. The Civil War, however, took place at a time when these notions of primal honor still survived. Mosby tapped into an ancient, romantic heroic ideal through his daring wartime raids and self-conscious "virtuous" conduct. Others ascribed to this belief as well, especially after the war. The close of the Civil War sealed off further possibility to actively uphold the chivalric code of honor. This fact, however, merely served to heighten the importance of creating a postwar example of Mosby to keep such notions of honor active.

Support of his mother state Virginia urged Mosby to fight, but age-old examples of gallant knighthood reinforced his actions during the war. Allusions to classical figures also supported Mosby's claim as a part of a greater historical continuum. Mosby described chasing some Yankees, who reportedly rode into the small town of Middleburg, Va.: "Women and children came out to greet us -- the men had all been carried off as prisoners. The tears and lamentations of the scene aroused our sentiments of chivalry, and we went in pursuit" (Memoirs, p.158). A skirmish fought late in the war between Mosby's men and Union soldiers under Capt. Blazer "passed anything that had been done in the Shenandoah campaign and recalled the days when Knighthood was in flower" (Memoirs, p.370). Mosby frequently told the story of a wounded young soldier on the battlefield -- who refused water, instead instructing the bearer to take it to his colonel -- as a "model of chivalry" and therefore worthy of emulation (Daniels, p.37).

After the war newspapers merely enlarged the myth surrounding Mosby. In a January 1895 clipping, one article gushed about Mosby's military spirit "too restless to be totally confined to strict discipline. ... The more we hear of him the prouder the Southern people may feel of such a knightly soldier." One writer, George Cary Ellington, described Mosby as a "gallant and chivalric spirit," while noting Mosby's modesty prevented him from acquiring "that boyish vanity which has distinguished most of the world's great cavalry leaders" (5/2/1897). By his death in 1916 one obituary referred to him as "the last of the dashing figures of the war between the states."


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

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

Further Reading

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