When I was an undergraduate student ay the University of Virginia, I spent a lot of time in Alderman Library. It was a rich repository of material, and I also enjoyed exploring the building. There was a representation of William Faulkner’s office, for example: Faulkner had been the university’s writer in residence years before. I also enjoyed the reading rooms, especially a rather posh one on the east wing.
One of the things I enjoyed looking at was a portrait of John Singleton Mosby. Mosby, who grew up in Albemarle County, was a student at UVA before the Civil War; most people are aware of his career as the namesake of Mosby’s Confederacy. Looking over Mosby’s military career, he was more irritant than anything else, although his activities did inhibit Union efforts to consider overland approaches in Virginia supplied by rail. Had he succeeded in capturing Ulysses S. Grant in the spring of 1864 on one of Grant;’s travels between the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac and Washington, he might have made a more significant contribution to the outcome of the war. However, much like Nathan Bedford Forrest, Mosby’s antics and importance are exaggerated by his devoted admirers; however, while I think the Confederacy failed to take advantage of Forrest’s talents as an independent commander as part of a more integrated defensive strategy in the West, I think Mosby accomplished a fair amount given the resources at his disposal, and that should be enough.
But it was not Mosby’s wartime career that I found attractive: it was his postwar career. Like many former Confederates, he engaged in the usual war of words about who in gray was responsible for Confederate defeat; but, unlike many of his former comrades, he also did what he could to assist Reconstruction, to the extent that he worked with none other than President Grant to try to steer a middle course, especially in Virginia. Mosby even became a Republican in the process. This did not come without cost. As he later remarked, “There was more vindictiveness shown to me by the Virginia people for my voting for Grant than the North showed to me for fighting four years against him.” Had white southerners instead followed Mosby’s lead, Reconstruction might have been a more constructive experience for all concerned. Unlike other Confederates, Mosby was honest as to why he fought, and what the Confederacy was all about: “I am not ashamed of having fought on the side of slavery—a soldier fights for his country—right or wrong—he is not responsible for the political merits of the course he fights in.”
That’s a Confederate I can believe in, and a man whose postwar actions deserve at least as much attention as his wartime efforts.
Note: Here’s the text of Mosby’s letter about why he fought:
June 4th 1907
I suppose you are now back in Staunton. I wrote you about my disgust at reading the Reunion speeches: It has since been increased by reading Christians report. I am certainly glad I wasn’t there. According to Christian the Virginia people were the abolitionists & the Northern people were pro-slavery. He says slavery was “a patriarchal” institution – So were polygamy & circumcision. Ask Hugh is he has been circumcised. Christian quotes what the Old Virginians – said against slavery. True; but why didn’t he quote what the modern Virginians said [struck: about] [inserted: in] favor of it – Mason, Hunter, Wise &c. Why didn’t [struck: t] he state that a Virginia Senator (Mason) was the author of the Fugitive Slave law – & why didn’t he quote The Virginia Code (1860) [strikeout] that made it a crime to speak against slavery, or to teach a negro to read the Lord’s prayer. Now while I think as badly of slavery as Horace Greeley did I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. It was our inheritance – Neither am I ashamed that my ancestors were pirates & cattle thieves. People must be judged by the standard of their own age. If it was right to own slaves as property it was right to fight for it. The South went to war on account of slavery. South Carolina went to war – as she said in her  Secession proclamation – because slavery wd. not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding. The truth is the modern Virginians departed from the teachings of the Father’s. John C. Calhoun’s last speech had a bitter attack on Mr Jefferson for his amendment to the Ordinance of `87 prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territory. [struck: Jo.] Calhoun was in a dying condition – was too weak to read it – So James M. Mason, a Virginia Senator, read it in the Senate about two weeks before Calhoun’s death – Mch. 1850. Mason & Hunter not only voted against The admission of California (1850) as a free state but offered a protest against [inserted: it] wh. the Senate refused to record on its Journal Nor in the Convention wh. Gen. Taylor had called to from a Constitution for California, there were 52 Northern & 50 Southern men – but it was unanimous against slavery — But the Virginia Senator, with Ron Tucker & Co. were opposed to giving [inserted: local] self-government to California. Ask Sam Yost to give Christian a skinning. I am not [strikeout] ashamed of having fought on the side of slavery – a soldier fights for his country – right or wrong – he is not responsible for the political merits of the course he fights in.
The South was my country. Yours Truly Jno: S. Mosby