Friday, April 1, 2016

Civil War Guerrilla Partisans: Mosby's Rangers

Perhaps one of the most famous Confederate commanders was the Gray Ghost as John Singleton Mosby was known. Mosby was the commander of the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry. They were partisan rangers and not a typical unit of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Mosby's rangers conducted hit-and-run raids on the rear of the Union armies in northern Virginia; then melted into the surrounding countryside. Detachments were scattered throughout the region and were a persistent, nagging threat to Union soldiers. Many of the battalion's actions went unrecorded. The most fruitful way to research the Gray Ghost's troops, is to read the unit histories of Union regiments that served in Virginia.

My first cousin three times removed, Matthew Wilson Jennings enlisted in Company F on 17 September 1864 for the duration of the war. The company elected Walter Frankland captain. He had been with Mosby since February 1863 and was the battalion's quartermaster. Soon after the company completed its organization, Mosby sent them to scout the Shenandoah Valley with Brigadier General William Chapman, commander of 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, Cavalry Corps.

Walter Frankland; photograph from A Southern Spy in Northern Virginia: The
Civil War Diary of Laura Ratcliffe,
by Charles V. Mauro

The Union Army had recently executed six of Mosby's rangers in Front Royal, Virginia, and his men were enraged and looking for revenge. They ran into elements of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry near Opequon. After a brief but intense fight, Chapman's men had taken 23 prisoners across the Shenandoah river to the safety of Loudoun County. One of the Pennsylvania prisoners, Private John Zinn, observed his captors seemed very riled by something and talked continuously of hanging and shooting the prisoners. Regardless, of the vengeful chatter, the group of prisoners were delivered to the provost marshal at the courthouse in Culpeper, Virginia.

Mosby's next target was the Manassas Gap Railroad, which the Union army was rebuilding in order to use it as a supply route. General Chapman and his men marched to Salem, Virginia, to destroy a federal camp and tear up the railroad. They continued harassing the railroad for some weeks, attacking, destroying, and disbanding in order to disappear.

A detachment of Mosby's rangers; photograph from an online gaming site

Exasperated Union officials determined to take the war to southern citizens in retaliation. The decision was made at the highest levels:

"The Secretary of War directs that, in retaliation for the murderous acts of guerrilla bands, composed of and assisted by the inhabitants along the Manassas Gap Railroad, and as a measure necessary to keep that road in running order, you proceed to destroy every house within five miles of the road which is not required for our own purposes, or which is not occupied by persons known to be friendly. All males suspected of belonging to, or assisting the robber bands of Mosby, will be sent, under guard, to the provost marshal at Washington, to be confined in Old Capitol Prison..."

The next Union plan to protect the railroad called for building forts within sight of each other all along the railroad. Still the rangers remained active. Company F captured several prisoners near Newtown around this time. In one of their most famous raids, the "Greenback Raid," they captured a valise containing $172,000 meant to pay Union troops. Finally, the Yankees conceded defeat and began resupplying their army via an alternate route through Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Next, came the downfall of Company F's commander. After a botched raid, in which several Confederate soldiers were killed and wounded, and about which there is much controversy, Mosby relieved William Frankland of command even though Frankland's men had petitioned Mosby to keep him. It was about this time, my ancestor, Matthew Wilson Jennings went absent without leave not to appear again in the records.

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