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Civil War Articles
Movement around Pope's Army
Timothy Webster, Pinkerton Man and Spy
The Third Day at Gettysburg
Colonel Patrick O'Rorke
Stanley at Shiloh: A Improbable 'Indiana Jones'
Ringgold Cavalry in Alleghenies
Special Order 191: Ruse of War?
15th Illinois Infantry
8th New Hampshire Infantry
Confederate Railroad
Shenandoah Campaign
Fredericksburg Campaign
Commanders and Censors
Unconventional Warfare
Sun Tzu and Overland Campaign
ACW Military Theory
Bear Creek Massacre
Nutmeggers on Antietam Creek
Nathan Bedford Forrest
The City Point Explosion
Dalton to Atlanta-Sherman vs. Johnston
The Maple Leaf Adventure
The Battle of Pea Ridge
History of 138th PA
The Battle of Franklin
Want of Nail: Confederate Ironclads
Battle of Wilson's Creek
Life and Death of the 10th NJ Inf
The Death of General Zook
Barrancas: The First Shots
Custer and the Battle of Waynesboro
Skirmish in the East Woods
The Battle Rainbow
The Mistake of All Mistakes
Stony Hill Tour
6th WI at Gettysburg
Witmer Farm
Barlow's Knoll
Wheatfield at Gettysburg

Kryn Miner Articles
Unconventional Warfare

Recommended Reading

Mosby's Raiders

Ranger Mosby

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Unconventional Warfare during the Civil War - John S. Mosby's campaign for the Shenandoah
Unconventional Warfare during the Civil War
John S. Mosby's campaign for the Shenandoah
by Kryn Miner

Since man picked up a weapon against his fellow being, he has always looked for a way to defeat his opponent in a more efficient and lethal way. It is our nature to seek out and exploit the weaknesses of our opponent thus maximizing our gain verses our risk. It's this thinking that brought about the evolution of unconventional warfare, or "Special Operations," and the men that mastered its effective use. From Roman generals like Tacitus to Men like Maj. Robert Rogers and Sir Thomas Gage history has provided us examples of this. These visionary men, who possessed the innate ability to see "outside" the realm of conventional thinking and tactics, developed exceptional solutions to the unique problems of asymmetric warfare they faced. Challenges such as inferior numbers, limited logistical systems, constrained conventional wisdom, and entrenched military dogma all plagued these men as they propagated their respective fights. Through the use of surprise, speed, audacity, and moral courage they were able to overcome substantial disparities and claim victory time and again from the hands of traditionally "superior" forces. During the years of 1862 through 1865 another such visionary man made his mark on the annals of the distinguished list of "Special Operators". John S. Mosby, or the Gray Ghost as he had come to be known, nearly turned the tide of the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley and in turn the battle torn state of Virginia.

To truly appreciate the deeds of Mosby we need to understand what made him and his band of Partisans effective... Home field advantage! Mosby was born in Edgemont, Virginia on December 6th 1833. He was the child of a well to do farm owner, Alfred D. Mosby. At the age of six his parents moved the family from his maternal grandfather's home to the family farm in Charlottesville, VA.[1] As a child, Mosby led a somewhat privileged life and, as a youth attended school regularly. As a young man he also attended college at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville and excelled in the staples of a classic education[2], eventually going on to practice law.[3] As with many men who aspire to greatness, one single event had a lasting impact on the man he was to become. In March of 1853 he shot and nearly killed a man named George Turpin for an alleged slanderous comment apparently made about the 19 year old Mosby.[4] Although he was initially found guilty, he was eventually freed for the offense after serving a short sentence.[5] The act was to have a lasting effect on Mosby. He saw it as a moral obligation to answer for the unjust attack on his good name. Later on he would feel the same way towards the Union, and it's aggression towards his way of life and beloved Shenandoah Valley. Having had the benefit of growing up in the place he would later conduct operations, Mosby had the distinct advantage over any adversary. His in-depth knowledge and working social ties within the community were keys to his success. This is one of the guidelines used today whenever building an effective guerrilla force. He knew the terrain and the people. This allowed him to continually maneuver in and around the occupying intruders at will. It also gave him a network of intelligence gatherers, and passive supporters to assist in his operations.

At the onset of the war Mosby had enlisted into the 1st Virginia Cavalry.[6] This unit was led by a then Col. JEB Stuart. Although Mosby was opposed to the dissolution of the union he felt a moral obligation to stand and defend his native home of Virginia.[7] Although only a private upon his enlistment Mosby quickly became a shining star in the unit and quickly drew notice of its commander. This relationship would eventually blossom into one of unwavering trust and commitment, on both parties. This again is a major factor in the application of Mosby's type of unconventional campaign, "undying loyalty to your mission, your commander and his intent."

By June of 1862 Mosby was a full Lieutenant operating on Stewart's staff as his adjutant.[8] He was continually selected to conduct various scouting parties and reconnaissance missions for Stewart. One such mission was across federal lines and proved to be the capstone to Mosby's burgeoning career. He had discovered a hole in McClellan's line that allowed Stewart to ride 1200 cavalry in behind the union army's line.[9] This action forced McClellan to retreat back along the VA Peninsula[10] and secured Mosby's reputation as a trustworthy officer. Shortly after this action Mosby was captured by union troops and then paroled. This was a grievous mistake the Union would regret for the next three and a half years.[11] He felt that the biggest vulnerability of the Union was its underbelly. The Union combat and field trains were ripe targets that begged to be attacked. He said, of the Union supply system, "A small force moving with celerity and threatening many points on a line can neutralize a hundred times its own number."[12] In this statement he had, in essence, stated a focal point of the theory of "Relative Superiority."[13] This theory states that; a small force given proper mission parameters and using speed, surprise and violence of action can defeat a larger, numerically superior force within a given span of time. Eventually Mosby's ability to conduct small scouting parties and raids with resounding success earned him the opportunity of his career.

On January 1st 1863, then Lieutenant, John S. Mosby along with nine confederate Cavalry troopers from the 1st Virginia set out on a mission to reconnoiter the upper Fauquier county region and, when feasible, attack pickets and supply trains in the area.[14] By this time he was sending his intelligence reports directly to Gen. Stewart's HQ. His actions were an immediate success. As he had suggested, the attacks were instrumental in containing the Union's progression through the upper Shenandoah Valley. The war of Mosby's Confederacy had begun. Over the next twenty eight months Mosby conducted various raids on wagon trains of supplies and suttlers, encamped Union forces, and various key strategic targets and personnel located in the area. Each time he would attack and simply fade into the wilderness. It was this hit and run tactic that earned him the name "Gray Ghost" among the Union forces that faced him. He had been successful in killing or capturing over a hundred Union pickets, soldiers and sympathizers. He also had a knack for penetrating deep into Union lines and capturing high ranking officers while they slept. This skill was one of his most potent and useful weapons, Psychological Warfare. It can be safely assumed that not a single Union officer with any significant importance slept well when in "Mosby's Confederacy" for fear of being awakened by the barrel of a colt revolver wielded by Mosby himself. One of the most notable of these kidnappings was the Fairfax Courthouse Raid on March 9th, 1863 when Mosby captured fifty eight horses and thirty three Union soldiers, among them Brigadier General Edwin Stoughton.[15] Lincoln himself commented on the raid, saying "I'm sorry… For I can make brigadier generals but I can't make horses" in an attempt to lighten the situation.[16] The raid earned Mosby his Captain's Bars and the gratitude and acknowledge of General Lee himself.[17] No other Confederate officer during the war is mentioned more in Lee's papers then John S. Mosby. Mosby's plan to disrupt the Union Operation at its most vulnerable point was having some good successes. But, he knew it was time to escalate the campaign and move towards dealing more crippling blows to the Union.

With the approval of Lee, in 1864 Mosby renewed his campaign after a short lull during the dead of winter. This time he set his sights on not only the supply trains of the encroaching Union army but it's supply life line, the network of railroads they controlled that connected the Army in the west to the Army of the Potomac and Washington D.C. itself. He attacked rail stations and trains near Duffield Station, WV; Martinsburg and Winchester; Manassas Gap near Piedmont, between the Plains and Rectortown; Fauquier; and other key locations.[18] He continually harassed and forced the Union to commit more troops to the region with the usual raids on supply trains and outposts. Once again he focused on a key target within the realm of SOLIC, or Special Operations / Low intensity Conflict, the systematic targeting of PKI or Public key Infrastructure. The Union needed these railroads to operate in the region, and more so to supply Union forces in the west. The simple act of attacking them forced the Union command to address the issue with an infusion of combat forces to protect the vulnerable rail system. Mosby did not need to be overly successful, and in fact was not much of the time, with his raids. He only needed to force his opponent to react to his actions, with an escalation of critical manpower and resources. This was the single biggest impact he had on the war's outcome. Had the Confederate command embraced this and implemented it on a larger scale across the campaign they could have drastically increased their chances of a favorable outcome. Although the concept was not new, Lee and Davis did not realize, or rather accept, the concept of asymmetrical warfare. Lee's traditional "set piece battle" mindset was not conducive to winning a war of attrition, which was what essentially the war evolved into. Although he appreciated Mosby and his efforts, he didn't fully see the potential in them. This can be noted in his order that all partisan units be disbanded and assimilated into the regular Confederate forces.[19] Modern historians, such as Robert L. Kirby, have realized the impact such Irregular efforts could have had on the war, and have posed the question of why Lee didn't realize the potential.[20]

In growing response to the Mosby threat Union commanders sought to deploy several tactics to level the field. Although none were overly effective, the only one that had any impact on the Gray Ghost's operations was the deployment of large groups of Union cavalry. In the latter part of 1864 several units of Union horse were operating in the region. They were assigned the mission of destroying Mosby and his Rangers. Elements of the 2nd US Cav, New York's 13th Cav and elements of the Illinois 8th Cav were actively conducting patrols through the valley. One such unit was under the command of the infamous Col. George A. Custer, who only a year before had made his mark on the war with his daring Cavalry ride at Gettysburg against the confederate Stewart. Mosby wrongfully held Custer accountable for the execution of several Rangers and when engaged by him, held a firm "no parlay" policy towards the Union troopers.[21]

All in all, the Union campaign to rid the Shenandoah of Mosby and his Rangers was largely futile. Although they were able to capture or kill Mosby's men in small numbers, Mosby's command had grown in size and now was comprised of some 779+ men.[22] The Union had unknowingly assisted Mosby by violating a key tenant of fighting an insurgency. They had alienated the local population and did nothing to win support within the public opinion for their cause. For every one Ranger they captured or killed, they inadvertently caused the enlistment of two more, only fortifying Mosby's influence over the region. Frustrated, Union commanders began to order the burning of farms and internment of "service" aged males. All of these responses and their piece meal application did nothing to garner support for their cause. By mid 1864 Mosby and his men had forestalled any real measure of response to his campaign. Mosby's biggest enemy was his own convoluted chain of command that did not realize his potential at the operational command levels. Although Mosby had by this time, made regular reports to both Stewart and General Lee himself, he was regarded, by mid level commanders, as a sideline attraction within the bigger context of the war. A new Union commander had assumed command of the Army of the Union and was marching towards the Fledgling nation's capital, Richmond and that was where the Confederate focus lay. By late November General Sheridan, Union commander in the region, had come to realize that Mosby was doing more to thwart Union efforts, with his second and third order effects, than anyone of the traditional Confederates he currently faced. He is quoted as saying "I will soon commence work on Mosby… Heretofore I have made no attempt to break him up… as I would have employed ten men to his one, and for the reason that I have made a scapegoat of him for the destruction of private rights. Now there is going to be an intense hatred of him in that portion of this valley which is nearly a desert. I will soon commence on Loudon County, and let them know there is a God in Israel."[23] With that statement General Sheridan began to conduct what was to become the "Burning Raid" in which the Union systematically destroyed any and every farm, homestead, and potential support asset of Mosby in the valley. In all more than 2000 families were left homeless and without food. The destruction was said to be on a biblical scale as observed by Ranger J. Marshal Crawford.[24] In this slash and burn campaign Sheridan had finally dealt a substantial blow to Mosby and his Rangers. His response was a key component in defeating an insurgency. He broke the will of the indigenous people's will to fight and/or support the insurgent forces. He denied Mosby the one critical advantage he had over the Union forces time and again, the land itself and the people who lived there. This effort was bolstered by an influx of Union forces that occupied, in force, all of the critical assets that could support Mosby. In this he denied him his intelligence network, logistical support, and the support of the indigenous community, three critical elements required in conducting an insurgency such as his. This finally brought about the second and third order effects Sheridan sought. Mosby was more of a liability than an asset to the people.

As the war came to a close Mosby had become more of a curse then a blessing to the people of the Shenandoah Valley. They knew all too well that it was because of him that Sheridan unleashed his hell on earth and a great deal of animosity was held on his behalf. The people of the Valley simply wanted their lives to return to normal and the war to end. Long gone were the sentiments of Confederate solidarity and independence. To that end, and under the direction of Robert E. Lee himself, who had just six days earlier surrendered at Appomattox, Col. John S. Mosby quietly agreed to a suspension of hostilities to confirm Lee's surrender. In a letter to General Morgan he stated:

"I am ready to agree to a suspension of hostilities for a short time in order to enable me to communicate with my own authorities or until I can obtain sufficient intelligence to determine my future action" [25]

He eventually confirmed the report and agreed to surrender the command of his partisan rangers to Col. James Kidd at 11:30 am on the steps of Millwood.[26] The two then went inside and ate dinner together. Two days later on April 18th, 1865 another meeting was convened to further discuss the surrender. Unlike the first meeting this one was far less civil and ended in a stalemate of sorts, with Mosby and his detachment walking away from the "Mexican standoff" that the meeting caused. Announcement of Union cavalry in the woods caused the meeting to end abruptly under the threat of a gunfight.[27] On the 21st of April Col. Mosby ordered a meeting of his men to bid them farewell. He gave a speech in which he commended them on their service to Virginia and him. After this, the men signed paroles and officially disbanded the 43rd Bn of Virginia Cav. Mosby himself spent several weeks eluding capture by Union forces and was finally paroled by U.S. Grant himself in mid June.[28]

A lot can be said about the 128 pound man that became the "Gray Ghost". Historians have written volumes regarding the man, his accomplishments, and the way he went about it. As an amateur historian, I am intrigued as to how this man, with no formal military education, specialized training, or experience conducted such a successful long term campaign. Our military spends years training our junior and senior officers to conduct this type of warfare, and still only a few are able to grasp its fundamentals, much less it's subtle nuances that make it effective. We have a saying in the Special Operations community, "some men pick the job and then some jobs pick the man."I think in this case, it can safely be said it's both. Mosby proved that, unlike much of the techniques and tactics of warfare which are trendy and time specific to an era, the application of unconventional warfare is timeless.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2008 Kryn Miner.

Written by Kryn Miner. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Kryn Miner at:

About the author:
Born in Ticonderoga, NY Mr. Miner grew up in NYC. A former member of the U.S. Army's Special Operations community, he is a recognized author and subject matter expert in the field of Force Protection and Anti-Terrorism, with over twenty years in the field. He has written for publications on the topic for several internationally recognized Organizations such as the National Tactical Officers Association. Holding an AA in Political Science with a minor in history from The State University of NY at Columbia Greene, and is working towards his BA in History from Fordham University with the goal of a Master's in Military History. He is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa & Alpha Sigma Lambda National Honor Societies. He lives in the Hudson Valley with his Wife of 14 years and their 4 children.

Published online: 04/20/2008.
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