January 7, 1864 (Thursday)
Though the main winter camps of the Confederate and Union armies in Virginia were still and weighed down with freezing temperatures and endless snow, not all was so still. The cavalry of both sides spread themselves thin trying to cover as much baron ground as they could. For the Federal troopers, however, Jeb Sturat’s Rebel cavalry was not the only concern. To the northwest, around the town of Warrenton, lay “Mosby’s Confederacy.”
John Singleton Mosby commanded the very loose-knit 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry. Technically they were part of the Confederate Army, but more than anything, they were Partisan Rangers. Unlike those operating in Tennessee and Missouri, Mosby’s band was accepted and even respected by the likes of General Stuart, and even Robert E. Lee. When talk came of completely disbanding the notion of Partisan Rangers, Mosby’s boys were always exempt. This was due in part to their effectiveness as scouts and diversions, as well as their relatively honorable means of waging their campaigns.
Warrenton was held by Col. John P. Taylor, commanding an entire division of Federal cavalry. The town was transformed into an armed bastion, complete with blockhouses and guards. As the town was almost wholly in favor of secession, the citizens were kept almost as prisoners, barring their path to inform Mosby of the happenings inside.
Taylor’s cavalry, however, were not confined to Warrenton. Daily they scoured the countryside for any hint of Mosby’s partisans. Typically, the only news they would hear was that of a Federal wagon train being attacked by the Rebels. They would grab the loot without hurting a soul, and scurry off into the night. By the time the Union troopers made their appearance, it was far too late.
Mosby rarely entertained the idea of pitched battles. What might have been the point in doing so? His strength was not in numbers, but in stealth, not in chivalrous saber charges, but in lightening strikes of a much different nature. And so they would attack by companies, hitting specific targets and beating a hasty return, often with arms and pockets full of Yankee loot, and just as often with Yankees in tow.
But they were not always thieves in the night. Mosby’s greatest adversary at this time was Federal Col. Henry Cole, of the 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade (known as Cole’s Battalion). On January 1st, they came from Harper’s Ferry, eighty men in search of Mosby. They rested at Rectortown, which just happened to be the place where Mosby had ordered his men to meet. When the Rebels arrived, however, they found the town occupied.
Gathering on the nearby hillsides, they waited for Cole’s men to leave the town. When they did, Mosby quietly divided his small force and pursued. And soon they were upon the Federals, charging with pistols blazing. Cole’s men took flight, casting off their sabers, pistols, bags, and anything they might weight them down and slow their retreat. Mosby’s men captured forty-one, wounded ten or so, and killed four.
A few days later, they were found and attacked by two Northern regiments. Mosby’s command was scattered, but mostly unscathed. A day later, Mosby retaliated, launching his own “attack” against Warrenton. Here, all twenty-five Rebels somehow trotted away with a prisoner and two horses each.
And then, late on the night of the 6th (the night previous to today), a band of Mosby’s men under the immediate command of Lt. “Fighting Tom” Turner crossed the road to Warrenton. Turner himself rode forward, to confront the two-man picket established by the Yankees. He knew that Col. Taylor’s Federal Division was encamped nearby, but wasn’t sure of the exact location or layout of the camp. He hoped to coax this information out of the pickets.
In an old fashioned stick up, Turner pulled his revolver on one of the Federals, as they other raced back to camp to sound the klaxon. It did not take much to convince the captured picket to talk, and soon Turner knew all he needed to launch his surprise.
He waited until just before sunrise. Fortunately for his men, the wind picked up and muffled the sound of the thirty-five Rebels. In short order, they could see the watchfires of other pickets. They spread out, trying to hit as many of the fires at the same instance. He hoped that the posted Federals would believe them to be their own comrades long enough so that they could mount an effective charge. That is just how it happened. With a word, the Rebels charged and a score surrendered. Not a man in Mosby’s command was injured, save for several with front bite from the bitter cold.
Soon Mosby would turn his attention back to Col. Cole’s command, gathering a force of over 100 to assail them.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p 12-15, 457; Mosby’s Rangers: A Record of the Operations of the Forty-Third Battalion by James Joseph Williamson; Mosby’s Rangers by Jeffery D. Wert. [↩]