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»Guerrilla Action

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"TwoDays with Mosby"

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Text from Harper’s Weekly

January 21, 1865, page 43 (1-4)

I was up at reveille. Orders to inspect the camp of dismounted cavalry near Harper’s Ferry had been in my pocket two days, awaiting an escort through the fifty miles of guerrilla infested country which lay between me and that distant post. This was the day for the regular train, and a thousand wagons were expected to leave Sheridan’s head-quarters, on Cedar Creek, at daylight, with a brigade of infantry as guard, and a troop of cavalry as outriders.

An hour’s ride of eight miles along a picketed line across the valley brought me to the famous "Valley Pike," and near the head-quarters of the army. Torbert was there, and I awaited his detailed instructions. Unavoidable delay ensued. Dispatches were to be sent, and they were not yet ready. An hour passed, and, meantime, the industrious wagon-train was lightly and rapidly rolling away down the pike. The last wagon passed out of sight, and the rear-guard closed up behind it before I was ready to start. No other train was to go for four days. I must overtake this one or give up my journey. At length, accompanied by a single orderly, and my colored servant, George Washington, a contraband, commonly called "Wash," I started in pursuit of the train.

As I had nearly passed Newtown I overtook a small party apparently of the rear-guard of the train, who were lighting their pipes and buying cakes and apples at a small grocery on the right of the pike, and who seemed to be in charge of a non-commissioned officer.

"Good-morning, Sergeant. You had better close up at once. The train is getting well ahead, and this is the favorite beat of Mosby."

"All right, Sir," he replied with a smile, and nodding to his men, they mounted at once and closed in behind me, while quite to my surprise I noticed three more of the party whom I had not before seen in front of me.

An instinct of danger at once possessed me. I saw nothing to justify it, but I felt a presence of evil which I could not shake off. The men were in Union blue complete, and wore on their caps the well-known Greek cross which distinguishes the gallant Sixth Corp. They were young, intelligent, cleanly, and good-looking soldiers, armed with revolvers and Spencer’s repeating carbine. I noticed the absence of sabres, but the presence of the Spencer, which is a comparatively new arm in our service, reassured me, and I thought it impossible that the enemy could as yet be possessed of them.

We galloped on merrily, and just as I was ready to laugh at my own fears, "Wash," who had been riding behind me and had heard some remark made by the soldiers, brushed up to my side, and whispered through his teeth chattering with fear,

"Massa, secesh sure! Run like de debbel!"

I turned to look back at these words, and saw six carbines leveled at me at twenty paces distant, and the Sergeant, who had watched every motion of the negro, came riding toward me with revolver drawn and the sharp command, "Halt. Surrender!"

We had reached a low place where the Opequan Creek crosses the pike, a mile from Newtown. The train was not a quarter of a mile ahead, but out of sight for the moment over the west ridge.

High stone-walls lined the pike on either side, and a narrow bridge across the stream was in front of me and already occupied by the three rascals who had acted as advance-guard, who now coolly turned round and presented carbines also from their point of view.

I remembered the military maxim, a mounted man should never surrender until his horse is disabled, and hesitated an instant considering what to do, and quite in doubt whether I was myself or some other fellow whom I had read of as captured and hung by guerrillas; but at the repetition of the sharp command, aided by the somewhat disagreeable presence of the revolver immediately in my face, I concluded I was undoubtedly the other fellow, and surrendered accordingly.

My sword and revolver were taken at once by the Sergeant, who proved to be a rebel lieutenant in disguise, and who remarked, laughing as he took them.

"We closed up, Captain, as you directed; as this is a favorite beat of Moseby’s, I hope our drill was satisfactory."

"All right, Sergeant. Every dog has his day, and your happens to com now. Possibly my turn may come to-morrow."

"Your turn to be hung," he replied.

It was not long before I was ushered into the presence of the great modern highwayman, John S. Mosby, Lieutenant-Colonel, C.S.A.

He stood a little apart from his men, by the side of a splendid gray horse, with his right hand grasping the bridle-rein, and resting on the pommel of his saddle—a slight, medium-sized man, sharp of feature, quick of sight, lithe of limb, with a bronzed face of the color and tension of whip-cord. His hair is a yellow brown, with full but light beard and mustache of the same; a straight Grecian nose, firm set expressive mouth, large ears, deep gray eyes, high forehead, large well-shaped head, and his whole expression denoting energy, hard service, and love of whisky. He wore top-boots, and a civilian’s over-coat, black, lined with red, and beneath it a complete gray uniform of a Confederate Lieutenant-Colonel, with its two stars on the side of the standing collar, and the whole surmounted by the inevitable slouched hat of the whole Southern race. His men were about half in blue and half in butternut.

Mosby, after taking my horse and quietly examining my papers, presently looked up with a peculiar gleam of satisfaction on his face.

"Ah, Captain B____! Inspector-General of ___’s Cavalry! Good-morning, Captain! Glad to see you, Sir! Indeed there is but one man I would prefer to see this morning to yourself, and that is your commander. Were you present, Sir, the other day at the hanging of eight of my men as guerrillas at Front Royal?"

I answered him firmly, "I was present, Sir; and, like you, have only to regret that it was not the commander instead of his unfortunate men."

This answer seemed to please Mosby, for he apparently expected a denial. He assumed a grim smile, and directed Lieutenant Whiting to search me.

My gold hunting-watch and chain, several rings, a set of shirt-studs and sleeve-buttons, a Masonic pin, some coins, and about three hundred dollars in greenbacks, with some letters and pictures of the dear ones at home, and a small pocket Bible, were taken. My cavalry-boots, worth about fifteen dollars, were apprised at six hundred and fifty in Confederate money; my watch at three thousand dollars, and the other articles in about the same proportion, including my poor servant "Wash," who was put in and raffled for at two thousand dollars, so that my entire outfit made quite a respectable prize.

"Wash" was very indignant that he should be thought worth only two thousand dollars Confederate, and informed them that he considered himself unappreciated, and that, among other accomplishments, he could make the best milk punch of any man in the Confederacy.

When all this was concluded Mosby took me a little one side, and returned to me the pocket Bible, the letters and pictures, and the masonic pin, saying quietly as he did so, alluding to the latter with a significant sign:

"You may as well keep this. It may be of use to you somewhere."

I thanked him warmly for his kindness as I took his offered hand, and really began to think Mosby a gentleman and a soldier, although he had just robbed me in the most approved manner of modern highwaymen.

Immediate preparations were made for the long road to Richmond and the Libey. A guard of fifteen men, in command of Lieutenant Whiting, was detailed as our escort, and, accompanied by Mosby himself, we started directly across the country, regardless of roads, in an easterly direction toward the Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge.

We were now in company of nine more of our men, who had been taken at different times, making eleven of our party in all, besides the indignant contraband "Wash," whom it was also thought prudent to send to the rear for safe-keeping.

I had determined to escape if even half an opportunity should present itself, and the boys were quick in understanding my purpose, and intimating their readiness to risk their lives in the attempt. One of them in particular, George W. M’Cauley, commonly known as Mack, and another one named Brown, afterward proved themselves heroes.

At Howettsville on the Shenandoah, nine miles below Front Royal, we bivouacked for the night in an old school-house.

Our party of eleven were assigned to one side of the lower floor of the school-house, where we lay down side by side with our heads to the wall and our feet nearly meeting the feet of the guard, who lay in the same manner opposite us, with their heads to the other wall, except three, who formed a relief guard for the sentry’s post at the door.

Above the head of the guard along the wall ran a low desk, on which each man of them stood his carbine and laid his revolver before disposing himself to sleep.

A fire before the door dimly lighted the room; and the scene as they dropped gradually to sleep was warlike in the extreme, and made a Rembrandt picture on my memory which will never be effaced.

I had taken care to place myself between M’Cauley and Brown, and the moment the rebels began to snore and the sentry to nod over his pipe, we were in earnest and deep conversation.

M’Cauley proposed to unite our party and make a simultaneous rush for the carbines, and take our chances of stampeding the guard and escaping; but on passing the whisper quietly along our line, only three men were found willing to assent to it. As the odds were so largely against us, it was in vain to urge the subject.

The march began at an early hour the next morning, and the route ran directly up the Blue Ridge. We had emerged from the forest and ascended about one-third of the height of the mountain, when the full valley became visible, spread out like a map before us, showing plainly the lines of our army, its routes of supply, its foraging parties out, and my own camp at Front Royal as distinctly as if we stood in one of its streets.

We now struck a wood path running southward and parallel with the ridge of the mountains, along which we traveled for hours, with this wonderful panorama of forest and river, mountain and plain before us in all the gorgeous beauty of the early autumn.

"This is a favorite promenade of mine," said Mosby. "I love to see your people sending out their almost daily raids after me. There comes one of them now almost toward us. If you please we will step behind this point and see them pass. It may be the last sight you will have of friends for some time," and, looking in the direction he pointed, I saw a squadron of my own regiment coming directly toward us on a road running under the foot of the mountain, and apparently on some foraging expedition down the valley. They passed within a half mile of us, under the mountain, while Mosby stood with folded arms on a rock above them.

Before noon we reached the road running through Manassas Gap, which place was held by about one hundred of Mosby’s men, who signaled him as he approached, and here, much to my regret, the great guerrilla left us, bidding me a kindly good-by.

We were hurried through the gap and down the eastern side of the Blue Ridge, and by three o’clock reached Chester Gap, after passing which we descended into the valley, and move rapidly toward Sperryville on the direct line to Richmond.

Our guard was now reduced, as we are far within the Confederate lines, to Lieutenant Whiting and three men, and our party of eleven prisoners had seven horses among them. There was also a pack-horse carrying our forage, rations, and some blankets. To the saddle of the pack-horse are strapped two Spencer carbines, muzzle downward, with their accoutrements complete, including two well-filled cartridge-boxes.

I called Mack’s attention to this fact as soon as the guard was reduced, and he needed no second hint to comprehend its full significance at once. He soon after dismounted, and when it came his turn to mount again, he selected, apparently by accident, the poorest and most broken-down horse of the party, with which he appeared to find it very difficult to keep up, and which he actually succeeded in some mysterious way in laming.

He then dropped back to the Lieutenant in charge and modestly asked to exchange his lame horse for the pack-horse, and being particularly winning in his address, his request was at once granted without a suspicion of its object, or a thought of the fatal carbines on the pack-saddle. I used some little skill in diverting the attention of the Lieutenant while the pack was readjusted; and as the rain had begun to fall freely no one of the guard was particularly alert.

I was presently gratified with the sight of Mack riding ahead on the pack-horse, with the two carbines stills trapped to the saddle, but loosened, and well concealed by his heavy poncho, which he had spread as protection from the rain. These carbines are seven-shooters, and load from the breech by simply drawing out from the hollow stock a spiral spring, and dropping in the seven cartridges, one after the other, and then inserting the spring again behind them, which coils as it is pressed home, and by its elasticity forces the cartridges forward, one at a time, into the barrel at the successive movements of the lock.

I could see the movements of Mack’s right arm by the shape into which it threw the poncho, and while guiding his horse with his left, looking the other way and chatting glibly with the other boys, I saw him distinctly draw the springs from those carbines with his right hand and hook them into the upper button-hole of his coat to support them, while he dropped in the cartridges one after another, trotting his horse at the time to conceal the noise of their click, and finally forcing down the springs, and looking round at me with a look of the finest heroism and triumph I have ever beheld.

I nodded approval, and fearing he would precipitate matters, yet knowing that any instant might lead to discovery and be too late, I rode carelessly across the road to Brown, who was on foot, and, dismounting, asked him to tighten my girth, during which operation I told him the position of affairs as quietly as possible, and requested him to get up gradually by the side of Mack, communicate with him, and, at a signal from me, to seize one of the carbines and do his duty as a soldier if he valued his liberty.

Brown was terribly frightened and trembled like a leaf, but went immediately to his post, and I did not doubt would do his duty well.

I rode up again to the side of Lieutenant Whiting, and, like an echo from the past, came back to me my words of yesterday, "Possibly my turn may come to-morrow."

I engaged him in conversation, and, among other things, spoke of the prospect of sudden death as one always present in our army life, and the tendency it had to either harden or ameliorate the character according to the quality of the individual.

He expressed the opinion which many hold that a brutal man is made more brutal by it, and a refined and cultivated man is softened and made more refined by it.

We were on the immediate flank of Early’s army. His cavalry was all around us. The road was thickly inhabited. It was almost night. We had passed a rebel picket but a mile back, and knew not how near another one or their camps might be.

The three rebel guards were riding in front of us and on our flanks, our party of prisoners was in the centre, and I was by the side of Lieutenant Whiting, who acted as rear-guard, when we entered a small copse of willow which for a moment covered the road. The hour was propitious. I gave the fatal signal and instantly threw myself from my saddle upon the Lieutenant, grasping him around the arms and dragging him from his horse, in the hope of securing his revolver, capturing him, and compelling him to pilot us outside of the rebel lines. At the same instant Mack raised one of the loaded carbines, and, in less time than I can write it, shot tow of the guard in front of him, killing them instantly; and then coolly turning in his saddle, and seeing me struggling in the road with the Lieutenant, and the chances of obtaining the revolver apparently against me, he raised the carbine the third time; and as I strained the now desperate rebel to my breast, with his livid face over my left shoulder, he shot him as directly between the eyes as he could have done if firing at a target at ten paces distance.

His hold relaxed, and his ghastly corpse fell from my arms.

"Golly, Cap," said Mack, "I could have killed five or six more of them as well as not."

Brown had only wounded his man in the side, and allowed him to escape.

Our position was now perilous. Not a man of us knew the country, except its most general outlines. The rebel camps could not be far away; the whole country would be alarmed in an hour; darkness was intervening; and I doubted not that, before sundown, even blood-hounds would be on our track. One half our party had already scattered, panic-stricken, at the first alarm, and every man for himself, scouring the country in every direction.

But five remained, including the faithful Wash, who immediately showed his practical qualities by searching the bodies of the slain, and recovering therefrom, among other things, my gold hunting-watch from the person of Lieutenant Whiting, and over eleven hundred dollars in greenbacks, the proceeds, doubtless, of their various robberies of our men.

"Not quite nuff," said Wash, showing his ivories from ear to ear. "Dey vally dis nigger at two tousand dollars. I tink I ought to git de money."

We instantly mounted the best horses, and, well armed with carbine and revolver, struck directly for the mountain on our right; but, knowing that would be the first place we should be sought for, soon changed our direction to the south, and rode for hours directly toward the enemy as rapidly as we could ride, and before complete darkness intervened we had made thirty miles from the place of our escape; and then turning sharp up the mountain we rode as far as horses could climb, and, abandoning them, pushed on on foot through the whole night to the very summit of the Blue Ridge, whence we could see the rebel camp-fires, and view their entire lines and positions, just as daylight was breaking over the Valley.

The length of this weary day, and the terrible pangs of hunger and thirst which we suffered on this barren mountain, pertain to the more common experience of a soldier’s life, and I need not describe them here.

We had to go still further south to avoid the scouts and pickets, and finally struck the Shenandoah twenty miles to the rear of Early’s entire army, and there built a raft, and floated by night forty miles down that memorable stream, through his crafty pickets, until the glorious old flag once more hailed us a welcome.


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