Col. John Mosby and the Southern code of honor

The study of Col. John Singleton Mosby, C.S.A. (1833-1916), the leader of the Civil War's most successful guerrilla command, presents important cultural findings of a man who truly became a legend in his own time. Through his own efforts to publicize himself as well as an eager Confederate press, the wartime image of Mosby emerged as a gallant knight, a defender of women and children, an inheritor of an ancient line of noble warriors. Union supporters meanwhile branded Mosby no more than a horse thief. At the close of the Civil War, Mosby simply disbanded his men rather than surrender their unit to the Union army. After the war, however, a new image of Mosby emerged -- one who supported reconciliation with the North.

In the 19th century one's public image remained of upmost importance. Through a series of self-conscious acts, men and women created their character in the public eye to reinforce beliefs held in the existing society. Acting according to a particular code of honor was stressed, especially in the South. Fighting in the Civil War created an opportunity to manifest one's personal honor and set it on display.

This project will argue that Mosby self-consciously created a persona that upheld the various characteristics that marked Southern honor -- a focus on outward appearance, a tendency toward revenge and violence, and an adherence to one's word -- an image the rest of the South was only too happy to accept and promote. The North, however, maintained different notions of honorable behavior, based not only on the circumstances of war but also on larger cultural distinctions. Often overlooked in the popular myth, Mosby's detractors used honor as a weapon against him, calling his surprise attacks cowardly and dishonest.

Mosby's importance as a cultural object only can be truly understood in the context of the Southern code of honor's decline throughout the 19th century. As American society continued to become more concerned with class consciousness, secularism and egalitarianism, the code of honor slowly began to unravel. But the myth did not. The importance of Mosby as a representative of this lost "honorable" code of living has survived his historical and regional context. Despite efforts by critics to de-mystify Mosby, his legend survives to this day as a prototypical American hero -- fiercely independent, innovative in his practice yet stubborn in his ideals.

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

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

Further Reading