Wednesday, July 30, 2008

From the Shelves of the Paco Library

I’m not exactly a Civil War buff, but I do have a fairly large collection of books on the subject, and since a passel of Paco’s died in that war, fighting for the side that “came in second”, there’s a certain family interest, as well (the Paco in my direct line was captured at Gettysburg, and died in a federal prison camp).

The thing that has always fascinated me most is the personalities of some of the figures associated with that struggle, and there were few more fascinating than the Gray Ghost of the Confederacy, John Singleton Mosby.

No doubt, modern scholarship has added to our knowledge of the military operations of this famous Confederate officer, but the book for me has always been Virgil Carrington Jones’ Ranger Mosby, first published in 1944. John Singleton Mosby was commander of a force of Confederate partisans that conducted numerous successful raids in Northern Virginia, turning Loudon, Fauquier and Fairfax counties into an area that came quickly to be known as “Mosby’s Confederacy.” Mosby was mentioned more frequently in Lee’s dispatches than any other Confederate officer, and his efforts at disrupting Union supply lines were so successful that Grant eventually ordered that his men be hanged without trial, whenever captured (in retaliation, Mosby executed several Union soldiers, and subsequently proposed to Grant that their respective prisoners be treated humanely; Grant acceded to this request). One of Mosby’s most celebrated exploits was his capture of General Edwin Stoughton. Here is Jones’ description of the incident:

“At the brick home of Dr. Gunnell [Stoughton’s headquarters], sitting back a hundred yards or so from the main road past the courthouse, they stopped. Mosby gave a loud knock, and in a few seconds an upper window was raised and someone called down sleepily, ‘Who’s there?’

‘Fifth New York Cavalry with a dispatch for General Stoughton,’ replied Mosby.

The window was closed, a light flickered and footsteps could be heard coming down the stairs. The door was thrown back by Lieutenant Prentiss of Stoughton’s staff, dressed in shirt and long drawers, looking more like a farmer roused from his couch by chicken thieves than an officer in the United States Army facing a group of desperate Partisan raiders.

Mosby grabbed him by the shirt and poked a gun in his ribs. ‘Lead me to the general’s room,’ he said coldly…

Stoughton lay in a sound sleep, heavy covers accenting his figure in a sloping mound. Near at hand stood several empty champagne bottles, mute evidence of revelry the night before. Mosby walked to the bed and pulled down the quilts. Stoughton was on his side, snoring. Lack of covering caused him only to double his knees more closely against his stomach. But he kicked and raised on one elbow in sputtering confusion when the Partisan lifted his nightshirt and spanked him on the behind.

‘General, did you ever hear of Mosby?’ the figure bending over him asked.

‘Yes, have you caught him?’

‘He has caught you.’”
* * *

After the war, Mosby became that thing of anathema in the south, a Republican, and was a supporter of Grant’s election bid. He had a varied career after the war, working as a lawyer, in both private and government practice, and was U.S. consul in Hong Kong.

But it is his dash, courage and effectiveness as a cavalry officer that interest us most, and Ranger Mosby is a must for students of the “little wars” within the big war.


Anonymous said...

Hiding somewhere amongst the tomes at home is a book on Mosby written during his lifetime, or shortly after his death. Haven't read it in years but will have to search it out now.

Years ago I spent part of a summer taking my youngest brother on a tour of Civil War battlefields and got quite the education from him in the process. In our neck of the woods, Maryland and Virginia, boys seem to go through the CW phase in the same way girls go through the pony phase.


Paco said...

You're quite right about that, Retread. Or at least that's sure the way it used to be.

I have a second cousin who was in the Green Berets and was an expert diver and amateur archaeologist, and he personally dug up a lot of the stuff that's on exhibit at one of the civil war museums on the coast of North carolina (I think it might be Ft. Macon, but can't recollect exactly).

SwampWoman said...

Our home has more library space dedicated to the War of Northern Aggression than it does to World War II (and SwampMan has quite a bit of WWII history).

RebeccaH said...

My mother could remember her great-grandfather, who lost an eye and a leg fighting for the Confederacy in Texas. Every year, on Armistice Day, he would put on his Confederate uniform, and take part in the local parade along with the other veterans (many of whom were Confederates themselves). He was gone long before I was born, but I can remember his daughter, my great-grandmother in her 90s (she dipped snuff, unfortunately my most vivid memory of her).

If only young people could be persuaded that history isn't just books or entries on Wikipedia, our society might learn from it a little faster and with less hassle.

mojo said...

Alas, my family was on the winning side. Fat lot of good it did us.

Mosby sounds like a born survivor. Smart, imaginative and daring.

"L'Audace! Toujours l'Audace!"


"Surpise is something that occurs in the mind of your opponent."

Anonymous said...

I found the book I mentioned, titled Mosby's Rangers, written by James L. Williamson, who was one of Mosby's rangers from shortly after the capture of General Stroughton. Williamson includes an account of the capture written by Mosby himself and published in Belford Magazine in 1892, including even the spank. Heh.

Williamson attended reunions of the rangers and as the years passed he decided to collect recollections of his fellow rangers and published his history in 1896. A recently perfected method of including photographs along with the text allowed him to include portraits and maps, making it one of the best illustrated unit histories of the war.

It is full of those Victorian sentences that run on for line after line, with lots of subordinate clauses that are the stuff of nightmares when the assignment in English class is to diagram sentences. The appendix runs to 100 pages and some of the footnotes take up two-thirds of a page. Wonderful stuff.

rebeccah, my mother probably still has the Life magazine from 1963 that had pictures of the 100th anniversary gathering at Gettysburg. It included a few pictures of CW veterans who had lived long enough to attend the 90th anniversary reunion. My father took us to Gettysburg shortly after that 100th anniversary issue came out and I still remember thinking that only ten years before The Soldiers had been where I was walking. That made it real, not just dates and places I was expected to learn in school. In fact one of my brothers pinched a rock from a dry stone wall that day and we kids were convinced that it had been there during the battle. My mother used it as a door stop. She's probably still it, too.