My Favorite Confederates I: John Singleton Mosby

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

Dear Sam:

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 [2] 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

9 thoughts on “My Favorite Confederates I: John Singleton Mosby

  1. Ray O'Hara August 31, 2011 / 12:48 pm

    ” 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.”

    you just endorsed the “I was just following orders” defense. granted JSM was a small fish but at some point one has to stop and examine what they are really fighting for.

    Yes Mosby was an amazing guerrilla, he operated in the middle of the Union Army and as has been noted was never taken. He never engaged in atrocity or murder and from all accounts was an honorable man and as you pointed out he did his part for reconciliation and peace after the war.

    But like many in the WWII German Army such as Von Rundstedt ., their very apoliticalness is a crime, they had no excuse not to know better they just chose the “I was a simple soldier and just followed orders” and to me that is inexcusable

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 31, 2011 / 1:40 pm

      Read carefully, Ray. He was honest about why he fought. That’s not endorsing why he fought. And at least afterwards he tried to make things better.

      • Ray O'Hara August 31, 2011 / 10:28 pm

        I did read carefully. and you wrote this

        “That’s a Confederate I can believe in, and a man whose postwar actions deserve at least as much attention as his wartime efforts.”

        yes in defeat Mosby accepted defeat.

        • Brooks D. Simpson August 31, 2011 / 10:33 pm

          And I did not do this: “you just endorsed the ‘I was just following orders’ defense.”

          This isn’t usenet.

  2. Lyle August 31, 2011 / 1:45 pm

    I think he also said that defending slavery was about protecting property rights, which made the Confederate cause just (I paraphrase poorly). Whatever it was, I liked the comment. He was a terribly honest and factually orientated man, I think.

    Eric Wittenburg and David Petruzzi seemed to have exonerated J.E.B. Stuart’s “failure” in the Gettybsburg campaign largely on the words of Mosby.

  3. Ethan Rafuse August 31, 2011 / 4:37 pm

    He was also ahead of his time in condemning the corrupting influence of college football.

  4. Noma September 1, 2011 / 2:43 pm

    Thanks for posting Mosely letter to “Sam” (Sam who?). The frankness and honesty of Mosely’s letter is both impressive and compelling.

    What would the post war period have been like if there were more leaders like Longstreet and Mosely, who were willing to be cooperative with efforts for their rejuvenation?

    I think we have only to look to post-war Germany and Japan for the answer. And keep in mind that the Germans were not even allowed to put up statues of their Nazi “heroes.” It would have been much better for the South if they could have followed that model.

    But, instead, the South was ready to cut off its nose to spite its face. As Grant remarked in China, “I had great hopes for the South, but those hopes were wrecked.”

    Also, I can’t help but wonder how much the failure of Reconstruction inspired John Marshall in his plans for post-war Germany and Japan. What things did he do differently than how they were done in our Reconstruction era?


    Probably most readers are already familiar with this short excerpt of Mosely speaking about Grant, but for those who are not, it seems like it should be included:

    “In common with most Southern soldiers, I had a very kindly feelings towards General Grant, not only on account of his magnanimous conduct at Appomattox, but also for his treatment of me at the close of hostilities. I had never called on him, however. If I had done so, and if he had received me even politely, we should both have been subjected to severe criticism, so bitter was the feeling between the sections at the time. General Grant was as much misunderstood in the South as I had been in the North. Like most Southern men, I had disapproved the reconstruction measures and was sore and very restive under military government; but since my prejudices have faded, I can now see that many things which we regarded as being prompted by hostile and vindictive motives were actually necessary, in order to prevent anarchy and to insure the freedom of the newly emancipated slave.

    “I had strong personal reasons for being friendly with General Grant. If he had not thrown his shield over me in 1865, I should have been outlawed and driven into exile. When Lee surrendered, my battalion was in northern Virginia, a hundred miles from Appomattox. Secretary of war Stanton invited all soldiers in Virginia to surrender on the same conditions which were offered to Lee’s army, but I was excepted. General Grant, who was then all-powerful, interposed, and sent me an offer of the same parole that he had given Gen. Lee. Such a service I could never forget. When the opportunity came, I remembered what he had done for me, and I did all I could for him.

    “…Once he was giving a description of his ride on a donkey-back from Jaffa to Jerusalem. “That,” he said, “was the roughest rode I ever traveled.” “General,” I replied, I think you traveled a rougher road than that.” “Where?” he inquired. “From the Rapidan to Richmond,” I answered. “I reckon there were more obstructions on that road,” he admitted. I never saw the great soldier again. When a dispatch announced his death I felt had lost my best friend.”

    There is more here

    • Noma September 1, 2011 / 7:17 pm

      I mean of course, Mosby (not Mosely)!

  5. Rob in CT September 2, 2011 / 11:45 am

    That really is a great letter (not that I agree with 100% of it, mind). I especially love the bit about not being ashamed because one’s ancestors were slaveholders, pirates or thieves.

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