Inglorious Warfare: Fighting the Gray Ghost

A talk given July 5, 2014 at Mt. Zion Church, Aldie, Virginia at the 150th anniversary of the skirmish between John S. Mosby and his Partisan Rangers and a scouting party under the command of Major William Hathaway Forbes

I’m here tonight to talk about the men of the Independent Cavalry Brigade whose job it was between July 1863 and July 1864 to stop John Singleton Mosby and his Partisan Rangers. I would like to start with a broad brush and then narrow down to the 150 men out on scout exactly one hundred and fifty years ago, ending with their commanding officer, Major William Hathaway Forbes. It hardly needs saying here in the heart of Mosby’s Confederacy that they had been given one of the most thankless jobs available to a Union soldier and they knew it. Mosby’s genius for “harassing from the rear” humiliated the Union Army in general and those tasked with “stopping” him in particular. “Inglorious Warfare” was the term used by the brigade’s commanding officer, Colonel Charles Russell Lowell. His men called it police work. They spat the words out with contempt and felt gypped. After all, what would have constituted “stopping” Mosby? They did twice wound him. They did (for a time) restrict the Rangers’ area of operation. They did (for a time) destroy Ranger safe houses. But they did not capture or kill Mosby although on July 6th they came as close to doing so as was ever likely. Like the Hydra who grew multiple heads to replace the one whacked by Perseus, Mosby had a way of rising again and again.

But first a bit about the men. They were a motley crew and the vast majority were entirely unprepared for the job before them. The core of the Independent Cavalry Brigade was the Second Massachusetts Cavalry, a late regiment, formed after the first flush of volunteering. Its privates were not the eager patriots of 1861. Some had escaped prison by volunteering. Many had joined for the commission paid their families. Even more because there was no work for them and hundreds like them in the many small factory towns across New England. And so they were largely townies, strangers to both horse and gun, had never hunted, perhaps not even slept out in the woods before. Many would have been happier on sea than land. Many had a knack for heavy machinery but had no more idea how to track an animal or man than fly to the moon.

Their officers were idealistic, young and inexperienced. There had been considerable pressure brought to bear on Colonel Lowell to “look after” certain well connected young men who stubbornly insisted on doing their duty despite being under experienced. Lowell had done his best to avoid these child soldiers and political appointees—the myopic nephew of a close advisor to the governor, and the underage son of a powerful western Massachusetts abolitionist—but the pickings were slim and in the end he preferred to get his regiment into the field and then weed out the incompetent officers.   As it would turn out some of these seemingly hopeless cases matured into valuable officers.

What many of these scrawny city kids, officers and men, lacked in experience, they made up for in stamina. Disease was the bigger killer of men than battle, and the farm boys fell much faster to the childhood illnesses of measles, mumps, & chicken pox to which the townies were immune. And they were scrappy, having learned to fight and defend themselves in dark alleyways. Most significant, these men had extensive support structures having volunteered in packs of anywhere from four to fourteen, and as such these packs represented a town or a factory or another social unit. They brought with them into the regiment all the attachments from home as they bunked with neighbors, friends, work mates and fought beside men they had known their whole lives. Even if their commitment to the war had almost nothing ideological about it, their sense of connection to their company was deep, reinforced by the knowledge that whatever they did in the field had the potential to be reported home by any number of different letters written home by any number of different comrades… Thus a dense mix of loyalty, devotion, duty and potential shame motivated these soldiers.

A key element of the Second Massachusetts Cavalry was some 350 men, roughly a third, who were Californians consisting of Company A, an elite hand picked hundred of the cream of Californian manhood, and a California Battalion of some 250 other volunteers, also choice. Most of these men originated from Massachusetts or Maine but they took seriously, and were proud of, their years in the west which had been arduous, intensely physical, lonely, with a high failure rate as they searched for gold, and then fell back on ranching and logging. The Californians felt that stopping Mosby was a poor use of their skills. Some saw it as the latest and most hurtful twist of the knife of misuse imposed upon them by the effete east coasters who controlled their fate. They had volunteered to fight a proper war, and had drawn the short straw. The Major commanding the California Battalion, De Witt Clinton Thompson, had been the Sheriff of San Francisco and he went to enormous lengths pulling all sorts of strings in a futile effort to get his battalion seconded away on special assignment.

Representing the dregs of the brigade were two regiments of New Yorkers. One of the colonels was largely away on convalescence debilitated by a recurrent case of venereal disease, and the other was under investigation for nefarious activities with both the women of the area, and also the younger members of his own regiment. Not surprisingly the men of these regiments were largely ill-disciplined, and suffered low morale. The rest of the Brigade would have preferred to do without them.

By July 1864 the brigade had spent a year fighting Mosby. The year represented a steep learning curve as they had had a hard time adjusting to “police work” until they reckoned it was adjust or perish. Initially the brigade’s Colonel bemoaned their fate, writing “we take no interest in wars or rumors of war …” He believed that his real place was in the Army of the Potomac commanding a “brigade of five regiments in Gregg’s division,” meaning part of the Regular Army, the elite within the larger Volunteer force. Other officers also felt that advancement would not come to them unless they were attached to a real army. And the men complained that fighting Mosby wasn’t “real war.” They wanted to be “in the field.”

At first all the Federals knew was that they were loathed as an occupying force by the large majority of the Virginians they encountered. Letters are littered with comments such as how “the young ladies” of one town “looked like they could bite the head off a ten penny nail” or the way a beautiful young lady looked as “savage as a meat-ax,” while another muttered “Oh! If hate could kill!”

They stood out like sore thumbs, understood nothing about the geography or the people, and their every move was reported back to Mosby. As such, they knew they were playing a mugs’ game. They did not want to die on picket, or on scout, or by ambush. There was no glory in that. And sadly this is what happened. Not often, but it took only one or two such ambushes to seriously deplete the regiment, destroy morale and require months of recovery.

All the wiliness of guerrilla warfare, all the canny and crafty plotting that made Mosby so successful was reduced to its lowest possible interpretation by these men as they masked both their frustration and fear of The Gray Ghost. “Mosby is more keen to plunder than to murder…” they wrote home, explaining “He always runs if he can.” These Union soldiers groused, “They don’t want to fight but rob trains is their game.” And their Colonel referred to Mosby as “an old rat” with “a great many holes.” But this grousing masked their helplessness.

Mosby’s irregular warfare struck the men as a form of brigandism deserving of the status of pirate instead of combatant. In one sense they had a point, trains that brought the pay for Union soldiers, stealing horses, running off with barrels of whiskey and huge supplies of beef “liberated” from sutler wagons was certainly not warfare a la Napoleon, Wellington, and the Knights Templar. And yet, these northerners were not as far from piratical behavior as they claimed. Among the officers most had a ship captain grandfather or great-grandfather who had made a tidy fortune as a privateer in the Revolution or War of 1812. Their letter of marque was proudly framed. Perhaps for this reason, perhaps from close analysis of Mosby’s tactics, the Brigade’s Colonel Lowell came to recognize that “Mosby is an honorable foe.” And he wanted to be sure the rules of war—the right to due process—applied to the Partisan Rangers. Partly because he took Mosby seriously, Lowell, as the commander of the cavalry in the defenses of Washington, began to rationalize the department in an effort to reduce the odds of disaster. He put in place a massive systemization of the method by which escorts of paymasters, resupply of horses, new recruits, even sutler wagons (not technically the responsibility of the army), moved between Washington and the army in the field. This dramatically reduced the number of embarrassing attacks. A complex system of patrol, picket and vedette duty kept the roads more or less clear of Rangers. With their base of operation much further into Virginia than previous federal troops, Lowell’s men established a much stronger presence and were able to respond much more quickly. Things went quiet. Lowell was consistently able to report “everything quiet in this vicinity.” Success amounted to the title of one of the most popular songs among Union soldiers “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight.”

But to many of the privates, quiet did not mean success. It meant boredom. Further they interpreted the quiet to mean they weren’t needed. There is only one private who left a record showing that he “got it.” Samuel Backus, a Californian, only 19, wrote home, “We have to do all this to keep from being taken by surprise by the rebs, who are always ready to take advantage of any chance that presents itself to pounce on us.” Backus recognized that the arduousness of their labors was appropriate to the dangers they faced.

But for most of the men the thanklessness of the task was grinding them down. As winter set in, picket duty was “just killing men” who suffered from exposure and exhaustion. And the more contempt they had for Mosby, the less they were able to value their own efforts. As Rebels became “so scarce about here as $20,000 gold pieces,” many of the privates felt that Lowell’s system of eternal vigilance was overkill. Others recognized that it was an unobtainable ideal. During an especially cold winter, desertion rates began to mount.

And yet as they found their footing in the area, they did begin to figure out how to play a craftier game of counter-guerilla warfare. They owed much to a deserter from Mosby, Charlie Binns, whom they captured and persuaded to lead scouting parties to a variety of hideouts. His intelligence helped the brigade to understand how the Rangers relied on the local population, and whom among them were their strongest supporters. This meant the Federals could begin to strategize how to separate the Rangers from the civilian population that supported them: one of the most basic tenets of anti-guerrilla action.

As they began to capture Rangers, to dismantle hideouts, and to push the Rangers deeper into the back country, the men of the Independent Cavalry Brigade fancied that they were getting the edge on Mosby. But every clever move by Lowell’s men was countered by Mosby’s upping the ante. Over the winter the stakes kept rising. When the Federals figured out how to have a second, hidden picket that could respond to an attack, the Rangers then began to pick off more men. The Federals figured out how to stretch a thin wire about neck height across the road to knock Rangers off their horses, but this then caused the Rangers to plot with even greater stealth resulting in the massacre of a scouting party of Californians and the death of the Regiment’s favorite captain. Death, madness, capture, these were the fates of a considerable number of the Independent Cavalry Brigade. Men widely recognized as courageous were shot at point blank range, stripped not only of weaponry but all clothing. Perfectly well-liked young men were persuaded to drink too much and in that condition they were relieved of their horse or gun, only to face court martial and death when they returned to their regiment.

The truth of the matter was that the Federal learning curve was a gentler parabola than the toll such arduous duty was taking on the men. Physically, they were worn down by exposure. Morally, the anxiety of constant vigilance and also boredom combined with constant temptations, (some petty, some grave) was proving destructive. In small parties on patrol, vedette, picket and escort duty, the men found themselves constantly exposed to temptation. Drinking, whoring, gambling, illegal trade in horses and guns, or simply the innocent desire for a home cooked meal proved irresistable. Although the preponderance of Virginian womanhood loathed their occupiers, April saw one wedding between a Californian and a Virginian.

As the men got to know local people, and began to understand the nature of their lives, what had been black and white now mottled into shades of gray. It was this personalizing of their work that made it “police work” instead of “warfare” and ate away at their self-respect. Major Forbes complained after arresting a civilian whom he quite admired, “If we’ve got to be soldiers, Heaven send us soldiers’ work to do…” They had come to feel that the Virginian countryside was “hateful”. Almost to a man, greater experience did not change the near unanimous longing to be liberated from their duty.

In this mood, as the weather turned to full summer, it got hot. The fighting moved further south and very little was happening in this part of northern Virginia. “All Quiet,” again. A combination of boredom and the fetid heat of early July made the men both restless for action and lulled into inertia. After horseraces celebrating the 4th of July, Major Forbes set out with 150 men on a three day scout intended to show the Federal uniform and keep Mosby’s men, hidden in their haylofts, stills, and other backcountry hideaways.

On the second day disaster struck. What was to have been yet another lazy three-day scout of the Virginia countryside, ratcheted into madness announced by the shell of a twelve pound howitzer exploding above them: Mosby had acquired an artillery piece and it’s baptism couldn’t have gone better. Tomorrow we are going to hear a lot about this skirmish, so I will not even attempt to tell you about it, except to focus in on one small part of the field as the shell exploded too high, causing the federals’ horses to panic. As they bucked and bolted, the blue line broke. “Form in the trees!” shouted Union Major William Hathaway Forbes. It’s the sort of order no commander wants to give. Worse, the men had dropped their reins in order to manage with both hands their new, much heavier Spencer repeating rifles. Unable to dismount to use these carbines, and flailing to find their reins, the men of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry could only hope that somewhere in the mad dash of their horses they might regain sufficient control and reach the woods fast enough to dismount and fire upon their pursuers. But all bets were off, and in this race for the trees, the skirmish underwent a transformation.

In the midst of chaotic flight it lost all military or even historical value and the men found themselves in the part of war that doesn’t make it into the history books: a bloody nonsensical melee. As the federals turned to make a stand, the two lines, blue and gray, crashed into each other. What followed was savage hand-to-hand combat with Rangers and Federals hopelessly entangled. Forgotten was any larger cause, whether it was emancipation, union or states rights, or even any possible strategic advantage. It was only a fight for survival.

Amid this roiling mass of men and horses, the two commanders, Mosby and Forbes, found themselves face to face. Forbes’s first saber lunge cut through Mosby’s coat. As he tried to drive his second thrust home, another Ranger interceded, took the blow in his shoulder, and Forbes’s sword ricocheted twenty feet in the air. (Mosby always referred to this moment as the closest he came to death.) Now, less than five feet away, Mosby fired at Forbes whose horse, at that very moment, thrust his head up, took the bullet, and fell dead. Forbes’s leg was now pinned under the horse’s corpse, and in seconds several Confederate sabers were at his neck. He had no choice but to surrender. In less than two minutes combat, two commanders on opposite sides had nearly killed each other and, failing to do so, had instead planted the seed of a friendship that would endure for the rest of their lives.

Of course the skirmish needed to play itself out, and tomorrow you will hear how it became the “perfect rout” — a spectacular example of Mosby’s brilliance, his “bravest and largest capture,” as the Washington Evening Star reported. Neither the dry, analytic accounts of warfare found in the history books, nor the thrilling derring-do recounted around campfires, quite captures the way that war’s randomness incomprehensibly threads itself through the lives of the men who undergo it. The trauma of war usually works as a toxic substance in soldiers. Demons are unleashed that cannot be subdued and the qualities of civil society are lost. And yet on occasion, as in this case, the reverse also occurs. Sadly, although Forbes and Mosby left substantial written archives, neither left an exact account of what passed between them in those two minutes in the woods outside Mt. Zion Church. We know that they had stalked each other for over a year, so each knew the other the way a hunter knows his prey, and yet they had never actually met. Although Mosby mostly mocked the Union officers he captured, in Forbes’s case he arranged for Forbes to spend his captivity in the relatively benign confines of Virginia prisons (only after a failed escape attempt was Forbes sent further south to the notorious stockade jails in Georgia and S. Carolina). At war’s end Mosby confirmed his legendary status as The Gray Ghost by refusing to surrender. And yet in 1866, Forbes and his father, an extremely influential industrialist and financier of the Union war effort arranged a pardon, he went to Boston to meet them. In 1872 Mosby became a Republican, in fact, was Grant’s campaign manager in Virginia. Vocal in rejecting the “lost cause” version of the South’s part in the war, Mosby, with the same cold clarity that had made him so brilliant a commander, insisted that of course slavery lay at the heart of the quarrel between North and South. His outspokenness cost him: he received countless death threats, and his family house was burned down. Then in 1878 after an attempt was made on Mosby’s life, Forbes’ father, on the executive committee of the Republican Party persuaded President Hayes to appoint Mosby to the United States Consulate in Hong Kong. At that time they met in Washington and, charmed by Forbes’ daughter, Mosby told her, “Miss Forbes, you have done something your father was never able to do. You have captured Mosby.”

On Mosby’s return from China, Forbes arranged a position for him in California on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Forbes died in 1897 at the relatively young age of 57 from the lingering effects of his time in Confederate prisons, or so his family believed. Mosby wrote his father a letter of condolence: “For the generosity you have shown me I shall always cherish a deep gratitude.” To others Mosby explained “The news came to me like the tolling bell that announces a brother’s death for to me, he and his father were more than kind.” In 1913, Mosby’s 80th year, some fifteen years after Forbes’ death, all four of Forbes’ sons came to see him. Mosby entertained these now mature sons, arranging for his lieutenants to take them over the old battlefields and to visit the site of their father’s capture. Their generosity once again, softened the harshness of Mosby’s post-war years.

It is hard to understand the enduring connection between Forbes and Mosby. What did they see in the other? Mosby came from old Virginia stock but not great wealth. Sickly as a child, frail as a young man, he gained stature on horseback, and proved a genius at irregular warfare. And yet his own troops recognized him as a hard man with a cold and unsentimentally analytic mind. “cold as an iceberg, and to shake hands with him was like having the fire itching symptoms of a congestive chill” was how one of his more loyal men described him. Others saw him as “cold, indifferent, and utterly selfish.”

Not so, Forbes. The descendant of one of the most successful and powerful China Trading families, Forbes was swathed in the privilege of great wealth and would, after the war, marry the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson establishing a dynasty that merged two of the chief characteristics of New England, the pragmatic yankee trader and the high-minded divine. But despite the silver spoon in his mouth, Forbes was blessed with a first class temperament. He was an exceedingly well-liked man for no particular reason except he made people feel good. And it was this quality rather than great intellect behind his success after the war investing in and then becoming the first president of the Bell Telephone Company.

Why did Mosby who had refused to surrender, take the hand of friendship offered by his old enemy? How was it that Forbes, whose health was broken by his time in Confederate prison, held no grudge? And why were they, though not unique, a rarity among veterans? Was it their fundamental qualities of character that made the difference? One so realistic as to be freed from pride and sentiment, the other all generosity? Or was it the actual shared moment just yards from here when each man felt the hot breath of fate? History doesn’t attempt to answer these questions.