May 30, 1863 (Saturday)
The Confederate Raider, John Singleton Mosby, and 200 of his men, had gathered the day before in Fauquier County, Virginia, their eyes and newly-acquired howitzer trained upon the Orange & Alexandria Railroad that the right wing of the Union Army of the Potomac had been using as their supply line. Expecting General Lee to make some kind of move around his right flank, General Joe Hooker had extended his pickets up the Rappahannock River beyond the Railroad crossing. Mosby was determined to disrupt things as much as possible.
On the morning of this date, the Rebels were at Greenwich, a small crossroads ten miles north of Catlett’s Station – their intended target. After the relatively short ride, they arrived at the tracks around 8am, and immediately set about getting things ready.
They cut the telegraph wires and removed a rail from the ties, waiting to send the next train rolling off the tracks. With the howitzer rolled into position, they waited for the whistle.
Not long later, they could see the plume of smoke in the distance and soon, the chuffing of the engine could be heard on the wind. At full speed, she came, having no inkling what lay in wait. When her front wheels found themselves without rails to guide, she skidded and bucked, finally coming to a stuttering halt.
For fear of Raiders such as Mosby, the Federals had been attaching strong companies of guards to each train. This one in particular had, perhaps, 100 (or less) on board. Seeing them quickly filing out of the coaches, Mosby’s howitzer opened upon them with grapeshot and many of Mosby’s men charged towards the stopped train. Having no real idea what was going on, the entire guard fled.
Mosby then found himself the new owner of a still very serviceable train. Unable to take it with him, he ordered his men to clear all eleven cars. The plundering began in earnest.
The boys grabbed, according to John Scott, one of Mosby’s Rebels, “morning papers, several bags with the United States mail, boxes of oranges and candy, leather for boots, and nearly every one got a fresh shad.” With as much as they could carry now draped about them, Mosby sent a shot from the howitzer through the engine and set fire to the cars.
All knew that their freedom would not be long lasting. About a mile on either side of the rails lay camps of the Federal Cavalry. The sound of the howitzer would certainly arouse suspicion, and if it didn’t the growing column of smoke surely would.
And as suspected, Col. William Mann of the 7th Michigan Cavalry heard the commotion. He knew that Mosby was in the area, but never knew him to have a cannon. Thinking it was, instead, Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry, he quickly called up troopers from New York, Vermont and his own Michigan regiment. The New Yorkers were sent wide to cut off the fleeing Rebels, while the rest dashed across the line near Catlett’s Station.
By this time, Mosby, his men, and their howitzer had left the scene, scrambling two or three miles north towards Haymarket. The New Yorkers, seeming to know Mosby’s route of return, had gotten in front of him, blocking his escape. The Rebels halted, unlimbered the howitzer and sent a shell into their ranks. This scattered the foe and Mosby continued on, hoping the road before them was now cleared.
The Federals scattered, but quickly reformed on a hill near the road. Rather than attacking, their commander quietly let Mosby’s men go by. A Lieutenant by the name of Elmer Barker from New York, a young and plucky fellow, asked his commander why he was allowing the Rebels to escape. The reply came that he could do nothing with such a small force.
Unable to let this stand, Lt. Barker ignored his commanding officer and called “by the fours from the right, trot, march!” and rode quick after Mosby. Most of the command followed the trail of discarded items plundered from the train, including many decreasingly-fresh shad. After a few miles, they caught up with Mosby’s troopers.
To buy his boys more time, Mosby wheeled around and sent a shot from the howitzer into their ranks. This scenario repeated for several miles, Mosby always keeping just a bit ahead of the Federals.
Immediately, Mosby received the charge by some twenty-five Yankees led by Elmer Barker. When they came within close range, the Raiders let loose the howitzer, sending canister into the oncoming Federals, killing three instantly and wounding seven others.
With their spirits up, Mosby’s Rebels charged into the gathering Federal line, commanded by the wounded Lt. Barker. For a time, Barker’s line held, but the weight of the Rebel attack broke his men, who when tumbling back. Twice more, the Federals attempted to take the hill and the howitzer, but twice more did Mosby’s men deny it.
But finally, Mosby knew that he was whipped and that getting away meant abandoning the howitzer. He and his boys faced around, atop a hill overlooking the road below, where the numbers of Federals were quickly increasing.
As the Rebels were readying themselves for another charge, more Federal cavalry, this time Vermonters with Col. Mann, hit the Confederates hard on their flank. And again the howitzer made the Yankees pay dearly in blood. But it was the last of the ammunition. With the gathering Federals coming closer, the fight devolved into a brutal hand-to-hand brawl. “Though overpowered by numbers,” said Mosby of his men in a letter to Jeb Stuart, “many of the enemy were made to bite the dust.”
Among the gouging and pummeling, Mosby was wounded by a saber, and Lt. Sam Chapman, who had been in command of the gun, was captured. Another officer, B.E. Hoskins, an Englishman, who had crossed the pond to serve in the Confederacy after seven years in the British Army, was mortally wounded.
Mosby lost one or two killed and several wounded, and the Yankees suffered similarly. The howitzer was lost, but the Rebels consoled themselves with the knowledge that it was originally the Yankees’ anyway – having been taken at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in 1861. Soon after this running fight towards Greenwich, Jeb Stuart promised Mosby another such gun if he could make the Yankees pay just as dearly for it.
That night, as was usual, Mosby’s men dispersed and waited for further orders to gather in preparation of the next raid.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part 1, p1117-1119, Part 2, p861; The Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby by John Singleton Mosby; Partisan life with Col. John S. Mosby by John Scott; Reminiscences of a Mosby Guerilla by John W. Munson. [↩]