Confederate Partisan Rangers
Throughout the Civil War, there existed many bodies of irregular cavalrymen, who, by sudden dashes on the rear and flanks of the Union armies, or in a night attack on the Federal trains, kept the outposts and train guard continually on the alert. As much of the rationing of the Confederate armies was through captured stores, these irregular bands often brought substantial aid to their starving comrades in the shape of Federal provision wagons, captured intact.|
These independent partisan bands were far from being guerrillas, bushwhackers, or "jayhawkers," as were those of the type of Quantrill, who, during his brief career, left a trail of fire and blood through the disputed territory of Kansas and Missouri. The leaders of the best of these partisans were men whose personalities had much to do with their success, and as their fame increased with their annoying operations against the Union armies, the latter had strict orders to kill or capture them at any cost.
Three of these brilliant, fearless, and daring Southern raiders became especially noted and feared, and in the history of the Confederate irregular cavalry, the names of Turner Ashby, John H. Morgan, and John S. Mosby stand in a class by themselves. The first two were killed during the war, but Mosby, whose death or capture was probably more desired by the North than that of either of the others, survived every engagement, fighting stubbornly for the Confederacy, even after Lee had surrendered at Appomattox.
Ashby was a handsome man, a daring soldier, and a superb horseman. At the outbreak of the war, he received a commission as captain of a band of picked rangers, working in conjunction with the main operations of the Confederate armies, but unhampered by specific instructions from a superior. He was rapidly promoted. As colonel of a partisan band he was a continual menace to the Federal trains, and moved with such rapidity as oftentimes to create the impression that several bodies of mounted troops were in the field instead of but one. Failing upon an isolated column of army wagons at dawn, he would strike a Federal camp thirty miles away by twilight of the same day. His men were picked by their leader with great care, and although there is reason to believe that Southern writers surrounded these troopers with a halo of romance, there is no disputing that they were brave, daring, and self-sacrificing.
Ashby himself was looked upon by many officers and men in the Union armies as a purely mythical character. It was said that no such man existed, and that the feats accredited to Ashby's rangers were in reality the work of several separate forces. Much of the mystery surrounding this officer was due to his beautiful white horse, strong, swift, and a splendid jumper. He and his horse, standing alone on a hill or ridge, would draw the Union troops on. When the latter had reached a point where capture seemed assured, Ashby would slowly mount and canter leisurely out of sight. When his pursuers reached the spot where he had last been seen, Ashby and his white charger would again be observed on the crest of a still more distant hill.
Only once during his spectacular career in the Confederate army was Ashby outwitted and captured, but even then he made his escape before being taken a mile by his captors--a detachment of the First Michigan Cavalry.
The Confederate leader was surrounded before he was aware of the presence of the Union troops, and the latter were within fifty rods of him when he saw several of them pushing along a cross-road which afforded the only avenue of escape. Nevertheless, Ashby made a dash for freedom. Vaulting into the saddle, the daring rider raced to beat the foremost Union trooper to the open road. Sergeant Pierson, who was in command of the little body of flankers, rode the only horse which could equal the speed of Ashby's fleet charger, and he and the Southerner reached the road crossing together--Pierson far in advance of his comrades. As Pierson neared Ashby, the latter fired at him with his revolver, but the Union trooper did not attempt to return the fire and Ashby himself replaced his weapon in the holster.
As the two men, magnificently mounted, came together, Ashby drew a large knife and raised it to strike. Pierson was a bigger and stronger man than Ashby, and reaching over, he seized Ashby's wrist with one hand while with the other he grasped the partisan leader's long black beard. Then, throwing himself from his horse, Pierson dragged the Confederate officer to the ground, and held him until the remaining Union troopers reached the scene of the struggle and disarmed Ashby.
The white horse had instantly stopped when Ashby was pulled from his back, and the captive was allowed to ride him back to the Union lines, slightly in advance of his captors, Sergeant Pierson at his side. The detachment had gone but a short distance when the mysterious white horse wheeled suddenly to one side, bounded over the high plantation fence which lined the roadside, and dashed away across the fields. Before the Union troops could recover from their surprise, Ashby was again free, and it was not long before he was once more reported by the Federal scouts as standing on a distant hill, engaged in caressing his faithful horse.
Only a few weeks later, this famous horse, which had become so familiar to the Union troops, was shot and killed by a sharpshooter belonging to the Fifth Michigan, who was attempting to bring down Ashby. Not long after, while leading his men in a cavalry skirmish, at Harrisonburg, during "Stonewall" Jackson's famous Valley campaign, Ashby met his own death, on June 6, 1862. As he fell, his last words to his troopers were: "Charge men! For God's sake, charge!"
Next to the gallant Ashby there was no partisan leader whose death created a greater loss to the South than John Hunt Morgan. He was a slightly older man than Ashby and had seen service in the Mexican War. When the call to arms sounded, he was one of the first to organize a company of cavalry and pledge his support to the Southern cause. He was fearless and tireless, a hard rider, and a man of no mean ability as a tactician and strategist. Morgan's men were picked for their daring and their horsemanship, and until the day of his death, he was a thorn in the flesh of the Union commanders.
Starting before daybreak, Morgan and his troopers would rush along through the day, scarcely halting to rest their weary and jaded horses. When, worn to the very limit of endurance, the exhausted animals refused to go farther, the cavalrymen would quickly tear off saddle and bridle, and leaving the horse to live or die, would hurry along to the nearest farm or plantation and secure a fresh mount.
At night, far from their starting-point, the dust-covered troopers threw themselves, yelling and cheering, on the Union outposts, riding them down and creating consternation in the camp or bivouac. Then, with prisoners or perhaps captured wagon trains, the rangers rode, ghostlike, back through the night, while calls for reenforcements were being passed through the Federal lines. By dawn, Morgan and his weary horsemen would have safely regained their own lines, while oftentimes the Union troops were still waiting an attack at the spot where the unexpected night raid had been made. Morgan's famous raid through the State of Ohio exerted a moral and political influence which was felt throughout the entire North.
On their raids, Morgan's men were usually accompanied by an expert telegraph operator. They would charge an isolated telegraph office on the railroad communications of the Union army, and, capturing the operator, would place their own man at the telegraph key. In this way they gained much valuable and entirely authentic information, which, as soon as known, was rushed away to the headquarters of the army.
At other times, Morgan's operator would "cut in" on the Federal telegraph lines at some distant point, and seated on the ground by his instrument, would read the Union messages for many hours at a time. This service to the Confederate leaders was of inestimable value, and creating a feeling among the Union signal-men that even cipher messages were not entirely safe from Morgan's men.
As Morgan was promoted from grade to grade, and the size of his command increased accordingly, he became more and more of an annoyance and even a terror to the North. His troopers were no longer mere rangers, but developed into more or less trained cavalry. Yet even then, his command showed a partiality for sudden and highly successful attacks upon Union outposts and wagon trains. The death of Morgan occurred near Greeneville, Tennessee, on September 4, 1864, when, being surrounded, he was shot down in a dash for life.
Colonel John S. Mosby, with his raiding detachments of varying size, was probably the best known and the most anxiously sought by the Union forces of any of the partisan leaders. Mosby's absolute fearlessness, his ingenious methods of operating, as well as his innate love of danger and excitement, all combined to make his sudden descents upon the Federal lines of communication spectacular in the extreme.
His almost uniform success and the spirit of romance which surrounded his exploits, drew thousands of recruits to his leadership, and had he desired, he could have commanded a hundred men for every one who usually accompanied him on his forays. But he continued throughout the war using small detachments of from twenty to eighty men, and much of his success was probably due to this fact, which permitted sudden appearances and disappearances. From beginning to end of the war, Mosby's raiders were a constant menace to the Union troops, and the most constant vigilance was necessary to meet successfully his skillfully planned stratagems.
On March 8, 1863, Mosby performed one of the most daring and effective feats of his career. In this case, as well as in others, it was the supreme boldness of the act which alone made it possible. Even with their knowledge of Mosby's methods, the Union officers could hardly conceive of such an apparently rash and unheard-of exploit being successful.
With a small band of carefully picked men, Mosby rode safely through the Union picket-lines, where the sentries believed the party to be Federal scouts returning from a raid. Upon reaching the vicinity of Fairfax Court House, Mosby entered the house used as headquarters by General Edwin H. Stoughton, woke the general, and demanded his surrender. Believing that the town had surrendered, the Union leader made no resistance. Meanwhile, each trooper in Mosby's little command had quietly secured several prisoners. Stoughton was forced to mount a horse, and with their prisoners Mosby and his cavalcade galloped safely back to their lines.
It was with similar strokes, original in conception and daring in execution, that Mosby kept thousands of Federal cavalry and infantry away from much-needed service at the front. After he became well established as a partisan ranger, his men were never organized as a tactical fighting body, and never had, as with other troops, an established camp. Through his trusty lieutenants, the call would be sent out for a designated number of men "for Mosby." This was the most definite information as to their mission that these volunteers ever received. In fact, they always moved out with sealed orders, but at the appointed time and place the rangers would assemble without fail. That Mosby wanted them was sufficient.
Many of these men were members of regular cavalry regiments home on furlough, others were farmers who had been duly enlisted in the rangers, and were always subject to call, still others were troopers whose mounts were worn out, and whose principal object was to secure Northern horses. The Union cavalry always claimed that among Mosby's men were a number who performed acts for which they were given short shrift when caught. Of course, the nature of the service performed by these rangers was subversive of discipline, and it is quite possible that many deeds were committed which the leader himself had absolutely nothing to do with and would not have sanctioned. But this is true with all warfare.
Mosby's expeditions often led him far within the Union lines, and the command was often nearly surrounded. On such occasions Mosby would give the word and the detachment would suddenly disintegrate, each trooper making his way back to his own lines through forests and over mountains as best he could. Frequently his men were captured. But Mosby seemed to bear a charmed life, and in spite of rewards for his capture and all manner of plans to entrap him, he continued his operations as a valuable ally to the main Confederate army.
Of course much of his success was due to the fact that he was ever operating in a friendly country. He could always be assured of authentic information, and wherever he went was certain of food, fresh horses, and means of concealment.
In 1864, Mosby was shot during one of his forays, and was left, apparently dying, by the Union troops, who failed to recognize him, in the house where he had been surprised. Learning soon after that the wounded Confederate was the famous leader of Mosby's rangers, the troops hastily returned to capture him or secure his dead body. But in the meantime, Mosby's men had spirited him away, and within a short time he and his men were again raiding Federal trains and outposts.
Until the very end of the war he kept up his indefatigable border warfare, and it was not until after the surrender at Appomattox, that Mosby gathered his men about him for the last time, and telling them that the war was over, pronounced his command disbanded for all time.
Source: "The Photographic History of the Civil War, Volume 2" Article by Charles D. Rhodes, Captain, General Staff, United States Army
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