In response to an article about the Southern holocaust that occurred during the so-called “Civil War,” I wish to bring forth testimony from a Southern hero who was shunned by the South—or most of it—after he went with Grant in 1872 and Hayes in 1876, finally becoming a member of the Republican Party in that year. Previously, Col. John Singleton Mosby had been a Conservative in Virginia, the name by which the Democrat Party was known in that State. However, this was a vast change from his politics before the war as Mosby’s whole family had been Henry Clay Whigs making him, politically, closer to Abraham Lincoln than Jefferson Davis. Indeed, Mosby blamed the Democratic Party for the election of Lincoln and the resultant secession crisis because the Democrats had fielded two candidates, one aligned with the South and the other a “unionist.” This situation had split that party’s vote and resulted in Lincoln’s victory though he received no votes from the South as the Republican Party was purely sectional and did not appear on any Southern ballot.

Colonel John Mosby was perhaps the greatest partisan warrior in American history and was considered a hero in Virginia and the South during and immediately after the war. Mosby hated slavery though he himself owned slaves and came from a slave holding family. He blamed “the peculiar institution” for the war; he also had strongly rejected secession believing that there were other remedies available to the South for their problems. Nonetheless, when Virginia “went out,” Mosby went with his State, rising from a mere private of cavalry to a man of legendary status who was so hated by the Yankees that Stanton revoked the parole offered to him by Grant and declared him an outlaw after Appomattox. Eventually, Grant stepped in and reinstated his parole and later personally protected him from the harassment he constantly suffered directly after the war. As a result, Mosby felt personal gratitude for Grant’s actions to himself and “sectional gratitude” for his courtesy toward his defeated foes.

In 1872, Mosby chose to support Grant in his bid for a second term when he was challenged by radical Republican Horace Greeley then running as a Democrat! As a result of Mosby’s efforts, Grant carried Virginia and through the years the two became affectionate friends. In his memoirs, Grant’s admiration for the little warrior-lawyer was unmistakable and, indeed, the last thing the then dying former President did just before his death was arrange for Mosby to obtain employment with the Southern Pacific Railroad because he had been so utterly rejected in the South for his attempts at national reconciliation and in the North for his efforts during the war that he was virtually unemployable! At that time, John Mosby truly was a man without a country.

Mosby believed – and stated! –  that it would be best if both sides of the conflict “consigned all wrongs, real and imagined, to oblivion” so that there could be national healing. And for that reason, though he did write and speak extensively about the war, he said very little about the atrocities committed against the South and her people. But finally, after years of remaining silent about that which he had personally witnessed in Virginia – and especially in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 – Mosby realized that he could no longer accept not just the actions of the United States military but the false “history” of the matter being presented to the American people, North and South.

In a lengthy article in The Richmond Times of February 10th, 1895, entitled “Sheridan’s Difficulties,” the headline stated: “Colonel John S. Mosby Tells of the Pure Wantonness of the Federal Commanders.” Using the communiqués among the federal high command regarding the orders given to Sheridan by Grant to rebuild the Manassas Gap railroad as a supply line for Sheridan to use to move to Grant at Petersburg, Mosby revealed the atrocities that were committed in that effort, atrocities that became decidedly worse after Mosby had prevented the rebuilding of the road at Lee’s command. Had he not been able to do so – alone and without any other Confederate forces – Richmond would have fallen in October of 1864. However, his successful and entirely legitimate efforts were later used as an excuse by the Federals for the devastation of the Shenandoah Valley and other areas in northern Virginia.

In his article, Mosby produced proof that his efforts against the railroad — ordered by Gen. Lee — resulted in the adoption of “the Washburn plan,” a strategy initiated in July of 1864 by General Cadwallader Washburn, commander of the Department of West Tennessee as a means to deter Confederates from firing into his trains. Washburn ordered the arrest of forty “of the most prominent and bitter secessionists” twenty of whom would then each day be placed on each of the trains that departed Memphis “in the most conspicuous positions, one being placed on each side of the engineer.” Mosby’s source for this information was an article carried in the July 12th Philadelphia Inquirer under the headline, “General Washburne’s Plan for Protecting Railroads Against Guerrillas.” About this “strategy”–  considered a war crime by the Federal’s own General Order 100, also known as the Lieber Code – Mosby stated:

“Halleck, the same Halleck who wrote a book on the laws of war*, replied:‘Your plan of putting prominent citizens on trains is approved and you will carry it into effect. They should be so confined as to render escape impossible and yet be exposed to the fire of the enemy.’”

[*Halleck’s book included General Order 12 which declared that attacks on non-combatants was coming into disuse among civilized nations.—vhp]

Mosby then pointed out:

“In other words, his soldiers should be protected by putting non-combatant citizens between them and my men. In the fiercest heat of war, no enemy ever accused me of doing such a thing. It was just the same as if Grant had arrested a lot of Virginia men, women and children and placed them in front of his lines to keep the Confederates from firing at them. This was a purely military road; it was as legitimate war to prevent the rebuilding of it, or to pull up the track and destroy the trains as to fire artillery at the soldiers. These are the risks soldiers must run. I would be willing to submit, not only this question of the ethics of war, but of my military operations to the board of professors at West Point.”

In their rage over not being able to get the railroad “up and running,” Halleck wrote to Superintendent McCallum:

“The Secretary of War directs that in retaliation for the murderous act of guerilla bands composed of and assisted by the inhabitants along the Manassas Gap Railroad, and as a measure necessary to keep that road in running order, you proceed to destroy every house within five miles of the road which is not required for our own purposes, and which is not occupied by persons known to be friendly. The women and children will be assisted in going north or south, as they may select.”

To this, Mosby added as a postscript in his article: “The people whose houses were ordered to be burned were no more responsible for my acts than Mr. Lincoln. J. S. M.”

A movement of troops, even to stripping all of the guards on the Potomac and sending them to the Manassas Gap as well as the further movement of large bodies of cavalry designed to drive Mosby south resulted in the opposite: the wily guerrilla commander moved north. In response to this unexpected outcome Mosby then pointed out:

“Halleck had written a book on The Art of War, and as he had laid down no such rule in a case of that sort (that is, that Mosby should do the opposite of what his stratagems were designed to bring about), he considered it  (Mosby’s response) a violation of all the usages of war.”

Obviously, much of the cry of “foul” raised by the Union regarding John Mosby’s actions in the war were directed not at any alleged atrocities, but rather, because he refused to follow their well conceived stratagems and thus frequently made them look foolish and as a result, defeating their plans.

The article proceeds to cover Mosby’s clear and concise evaluation of Sheridan’s Valley campaign in which he points out with facts and figures that it did nothing to hasten the fall of Richmond and that Sheridan’s “reputation” was more a matter of good press than any actual military genius. Indeed, of the struggle between Sheridan and Early, Mosby noted:

“. . . If Sheridan and Early had fought no battles in September and October the conditions would not have been materially changed from what they were in December. General Sheridan has described with much detail the devastation of the country he occupied, where he exhibited to the world the spectacle of “the strength of civilization without its mercy.(Gen. David) Hunter had already damaged the Valley. He left before his work was complete. But he carried off the statue of Washington from the college he endowed, and showed less sensibility than Alaric when he confronted the image of Pallas Athene[*].

[*Here, he was making historical note of a barbarian who refrained from destroying a statue of Athena, goddess of Wisdom because he perceived its intrinsic beauty and value and was moved to protect it on that basis. On the other hand, “Black Dave” Hunter was not sufficiently elevated to refrain from stealing a statue of Washington from a center of learning. Hunter, a Virginian by birth, eventually, as Mosby pointed out, “closed his life a suicide.”]

Mosby then went on to codify the “rules of war” that had been in force since the Enlightenment for it was a damnable lie that the so-called “Lieber Code” was the first effort to produce laws pertaining to the civilized execution of warfare:

“It may be conceded that the destruction of provisions, and whatever immediately contributes to the support of an army, is allowable to an enemy. But it is a fundamental principle “that nothing is allowable against an enemy but what is necessary, and nothing is necessary which does not tend to procure victory and bring the war to a conclusion.”

It is at this point he makes his case against Sheridan and the Union army, accusing them of “pure wantonness” in the prosecution of the war:

“After destroying all the wheat and corn in a country, to burn mills where there is nothing to grind is pure wantonness. All the barns were burned no matter whether there was forage in them or they were empty. The destruction of implements of husbandry to prevent the planting of crops simply because there is a possibility of their being useful to an enemy, can no more be justified than killing defenseless women and children. It is true that there is a chance that the crops that are allowed to be sown may be useful to the enemy; and it is equally true that if the war lasts long enough, as did the Thirty Years’ War, children may grow up, and women may become the mothers of soldiers. The injury inflicted is certain and permanent. There is only a possibility of its weakening the resources of the enemy; the benefit is too remote and contingent. The war did in fact, close before another crop could have been reaped in the Shenandoah Valley.

“All damage, therefore, which is done to an enemy without any corresponding advantage accruing to the belligerent is an abuse of a natural right of the latter. Thus, indeed, a belligerent is entitled to capture all the property of an enemy which is calculated to enable him the better to carry on hostilities, and if he cannot carry it away conveniently, to destroy it. A belligerent, for example, may destroy all existing stores of provisions and forage, which he cannot conveniently carry away, and may even destroy the standing crops, in order to deprive his enemy of immediate subsistence, and so reduce him to surrender. But a belligerent will not be justified in cutting the olive trees and rooting up the vines; for that is to inflict desolation upon a country for many years to come, and the belligerent cannot derive any corresponding advantage therefrom. When the French armies desolated with fire and sword the Palatinate in 1674 and again in 1689, there was a general outcry throughout Europe against such a mode of carrying on war; and when the French Minister, Louvol, alleged that the object in view was to cover the French frontier against invasion from the enemy, the advantage which France derived from the act was universally held to be inadequate to the suffering inflicted, and the act itself to be, therefore, unjustifiable.

“A belligerent prince who should, in the present day, without necessity, ravage an enemy’s country with fire and sword, and render it uninhabitable, in order to make it serve as a barrier against the advance of the enemy, would be justly regarded as a modern Attila.”

Thus did John Singleton Mosby clearly identify the atrocious methods of warfare conducted in his theater of action, northern Virginia. In the article he wrote, Mosby judged the actions of his enemies by the standards of what belligerents were permitted (and not permitted) do in a civilized society in the waging of warfare. And, in fact, much of what Mosby dealt with in Virginia relates directly to that situation. However, all through the war, he witnessed—albeit to a much lesser degree than in other areas of the South—wantonness with regard to the treatment of civilians and even Southern soldiers by the enemy. His own need to retaliate for the willful murder of seven of his men proved that the behavior of the Union army virtually from the first shots fired was altogether contrary to the carefully constructed “rules of warfare” that were in use by modern civilized states at that time. It is ironic that efforts to hang Mosby during and even after the war were predicated on what the Union called his “crimes and depredations.”

The use of John Mosby as the witness in this case is particularly potent because of Mosby’s post-war attempts throughout his long life—he died at age 82 in 1916!—to foster true reconciliation and reunion between the warring sections. That a man who had sacrificed so much personally in that attempt to finally have to admit that the United States had indulged—and probably would continue to indulge—in warfare unbefitting a civilized nation is a far more potent testimony to these atrocities than would have been the case with an “unreconstructed” former Confederate of the likes say, of General Jubal Early who despised Mosby because of his efforts to bring about an end to the sectional strife. Mosby ended his article with the followiing statement which was true then and remains so:

“In his Memoirs General Sheridan repudiates the humane maxims of Grotius and Vattel*, and lays down an ethical code for the government of armies in war that abolishes all distinctions heretofore recognized between combatant and noncombatant enemies. If the United States should adopt it, then Napoleon’s saying, “Scratch a Russian (and) you will find a Tarter,” will not apply alone to the subjects of the Czar. In contrast with these pitiless doctrines that suggest the picture of the Infernal Court and “The iron tears that rain down Pluto’s cheek,” are the humane rules of international law as expounded by Professor Twiss, of Oxford, in his work on Rights and Duties in Time of War.” [*authors of books on the laws of war used at West Point and other military academies long before Dr. Lieber’s work.]

It is one of those interesting paradoxes that John Mosby was accused throughout – and after – the war of crimes against humanity and his life forfeit had he been captured during the conflict itself. Indeed, for several years after the war, efforts were ongoing by the Federal Government and others to bring Mosby “to justice” by virtue of imprisonment or execution. Yet, for a period of almost thirty years after the guns fell silent, the man said little or nothing about the events he had witnessed because he truly wished for reconciliation between the sections and believed that the endless recounting of evils prevented that desired consequence. Finally, however, he could not fail to see that keeping silent about what had happened that he, himself, had witnessed only encouraged a type of warfare that had devastated the South and was continued on in the Plains Indian wars that followed after Reconstruction. Unfortunately, even Mosby’s unchallenged testimony was not enough to change the narrative; that is, that today, the South remains the villain in an illegal and treasonous war waged upon it by its own government and fellow countrymen. It would seem that we are all still waiting for justice including this true hero of the South who must wait with his fellow heroes beyond the Great River.

Valerie Protopapas

Valerie Protopapas is an independent historian and the former editor of The Southern Cavalry Review, the journal of The Stuart-Mosby Historical Society.


  • Larry Vandevander says:

    From Virginia to Nuremburg, the Yankee never changes. Deo Vindici.

    • Baron says:

      I was just reading that Americans at Dachau tortured and mutilated Germans to get confessions. The Germans found “guilty” that weren’t immediately executed were released years later…

      U.S. Federal government is one of the most evil organizations on the planet.

  • scott thompson says:

    the fart blossom of violent 48ers that grew into the noxious weed here were glad to do it. lincoln buying German-language newspapers in the midwest? to what end? heh… and with enough slave driver propaganda to the krauteating newcomers desiring central govt industrial-worker paradise, how easy it must have been.

  • Lafayette Burner says:

    When push comes to shove? Or complexities of political positions of Virginians? Or Virginia’s complicated history?

    I’m trying to recall where, but believe it was Lee in conversation with Davis who said if someone still believes in the Union that doesn’t make them a traitor. Lee’s statement appears to apply to Mosby, and also perhaps a lesser well known Samuel Price. Price was the Lt Gov of Confederate Virginia and President of the 1872 Constitutional Convention in WV. It’s surprising that WV convention was dominated by Confederate delegates. The criterion: “did you draw the sword and throw away the scabbard for Virginia?” There were only 11 Republicans and one pro-Union Democrat at that Convention. The other WV delegates (Confederates) jokingly referred to them as the “Twelve Apostles.”

    Virginia’s political positions are hard to get a handle on and write about. I suspect that war is a primary complicating factor; politicians then had more skin in the game perhaps?

  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    Thank you. Well done.

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