Fighting for Glory, Not For Spoils – Mosby’s Greenback Raid

October 14, 1864 (Friday)


In the legends that surround John Singleton Mosby, few are quite as legendary as the Greenback Raid. It was, more or less, your typical train robbery, though, no doubt, the story grew in the telling. The fact surrounding it are available in any number of books about Mosby and his men, but my favorite telling is from John Henry Alexander’s Mosby’s Men. His writing is beautifully humorous and almost makes Mosby’s place in the war fully separate from the war itself (which, of course, it was not). It’s almost fantasy, but it’s a book that should be read – it’s one of my favorites. Here is an excerpt of Alexander’s take on the Greenback Raid:

Presently I heard the train coming and I hurried around waking up the boys. I then went back to my place and watched and listened to the thumping of my heart. Nearer and louder came the sounds and quicker beat my pulses. Directly the headlight of the engine shot around a curve not far off, and as the engine rushed almost under me, it seemed, my heart well-nigh choked me. And then there was a tremendous thump and the shriek of the steam and the sound of a single shot and then—”the deluge.” “Board her, boys!” rang out the Colonel’s crisp, steady tones. That brought me back to sense and braced me. The conductor of the train seemed to take in the situation more promptly than any of us, and never for a moment lost his nerve. He jumped off between his train and us, swinging a lighted lantern, and cried out that he surrendered the train. Down the bank we rushed.


As I ran up the steps on the platform of a coach a tall Ranger was standing with his pistol poked through the door ajar, calling on somebody to surrender. Being short and slim, I slipped under his arm and jumped in. On the first seat sat a soldier with a lady beside him, who, as I stopped, assured me that her “husband was a sick man.” Just behind them sat a gentleman, across whose portliness stretched a gold watch chain. He must have noticed that it fascinated my gaze, for he promptly presented it to me, without detaching from it a beautiful gold watch. Of course I could not accept such munificence without some inquiry into the condition of his finances. The generous old man responded to this with the offer of his pocket-book, but I had barely noticed its plump appearance, when a long lank arm reached over my shoulder and appropriated what my modesty might have declined. By this time the boys were crowding into the car. As I moved down the aisle I felt a gentle touch on my arm and a sweet voice asked if I would “protect them.” Of course I would, and took my seat between as pretty a pair of cherubs as ever made a fool of a soldier boy. And I stayed there, too, until the looting of the car was completed.

After the looting the cars were to be burnt, but they had to be emptied of certain valuables. First, of course, came the ladies, who were disposed as comfortably as practicable with their baggage which was gathered from the car. You may be sure that my fair proteges received every needed attention, not only from myself but from other gallants whom their beauty attracted. I believe they were the belles of the occasion; and I am sure that they really enjoyed the affair, and doubtless had many stories to relate of their flirtations that night with Mosby’s “Guerrillas.”

The occupants of one car were immigrants who could not understand even enough English to learn how to get out of a fire. They sat immovable under every inducement to “change base.” Finally, when the situation was reported to the Colonel, his eye fell on a big bundle of newspapers which had been intercepted, and he ordered that they be set afire and thrown into the car. This gave rise to the only comical feature of the occasion. When the fire brands fell into the aisle, the dumb creatures didn’t stand on the order of their going, but went tumbling heels over head out of the windows.

We ourselves barely escaped a stampede. Cab Maddux had been left with the horse detail back in the woods. Now Cab was nothing if not enterprising, and as he saw the lights and heard the sounds, he just couldn’t stand it. So here he came, rushing across the field. When he came up, it was with some cock and bull story about the Yankees coming. Nothing can be more demoralizing to a cavalryman than to be attacked away from his horse, and for a moment or two the situation was more than threatening. The Colonel, however, promptly got control of affairs, and when he satisfied himself that it was a false alarm, maybe Cab didn’t get a roasting. It wound up with a threat of that direst of all punishments to a Mosby man—to be sent back to the regular service.

Reunion of Mosby's men in the 1920s.
Reunion of Mosby’s men in the 1920s.

But why was it called the Greenback Raid? Well, I’ll declare, I well-nigh left Hamlet out of the play. Before the cars were set afire such things as appeared valuable were taken out. As an officer whom West Aldridge had ordered out stepped upon the ground, bearing an innocent looking satchel, Charley Dear courteously relieved him of his baggage. As he parted with it, he charged Charley to be careful with it, as it contained greenbacks. “Greenbacks, greenbacks!” shouted Charley as he made his way toward the Colonel. An investigation revealed a great roll of uncut sheets of the “long green,” and Charley’s eyes were not the only ones that assumed the dimensions of saucers at the ravishing sight.

About this time West Aldridge came up with a similar fairy-tale, and substantial exhibits to bring it into the realm of fact. In his final clean-up of a car he noticed a large dark object on the floor between two seats, covered with a handsome gum blanket. There was no response to the investigating kick that he gave it, but the lifting of the blanket revealed a Yankee officer, crouching and clinging to a forlorn hope that he might be overlooked. So tenaciously did he embrace it that West’s call on him to come along was unheeded until it was emphasized by the click of his revolver in his ear; and then as Major Ruggles rose to his feet and yielded to his fate, he managed to drop his poncho into the place where he had hidden. He moved off with great reluctance, as one who had left his heart behind him. These peculiarities of behavior recurred to West’s mind after he had turned over his prisoner at the car door, and impelled him to return and get that precious poncho. I think he must have been afraid of snakes, for he investigated it again with his foot before picking it up, and found it to be a heavy tin box. As he bore it away it suggested treasure to his excited imagination. The first thing was his horse, and then he sought Colonel Mosby.

“What have you got?” a voice inquired as he was making his way around the crowd.

“Gold; a safe of gold!” he gasped, and his eyes glittered wildly in the star light.

“Come here, boy,” and the voice was low and stern and metallic. “You don’t have to find Mosby, or tell anybody about this. Let’s you and I strike for Loudoun with the stuff.” That suggestion brought West to his equipoise. I would not have liked to be the object of the contempt that flashed from his eyes, nor to be the one to whom he hissed back, “And be a thief?” The man to whom he said it was one of the desperadoes of the command, but he only answered, “Well, you are a damned fool!” and stood out of his way as he went on toward Colonel Mosby.

Col. Mosby
Col. Mosby

Before this find was published and while the fire and smoke from the burning train were going up toward the abode of the Recording Angel (and I wonder how he wrote up that night’s transaction), Major Ruggles remarked in taunting tones, as he stood on the bank among the boys, that he had contributed upward of two hundred thousand dollars to that fire. “Look here, Major,” West replied, and he pulled back the gum and tapped the box with a caressing hand. The Major’s countenance fell.

When the contents of the tin box and the satchel were added together they amounted to the handsome sum of over one hundred and sixty thousand dollars. I had as well add here that the next day at Bloomfield they were impartially divided out among the boys who were on that raid, so that each one received about $2,200 in crisp new greenbacks, in uncut sheets of various denominations. My old haversack never bore such contents before; and to tell the truth, my eyes have never fallen upon such a sight since. Some of our prisoners informed us that even a larger amount of money than this, belonging to another paymaster, was missed by us and consumed with the burnt train. Possibly this was true and probably it was said to make us feel bad.

The only man who did not participate in this division was Colonel Mosby himself. No sort of solicitations from his men could induce him to take a share. His emphatic response was that he was fighting for glory, not for spoils. I have always wondered what he took us for? But so sensitive on this point was he, that he would not even permit Mrs. Mosby to accept a purse of gold which the boys subsequently made up and tendered her.

After the train had gotten well afire, we gathered up ourselves and the things which we had saved from the wreck, and took our departure; some of us not without regard for the “girls we left behind us.”

And while that was all Alexander wrote about the raid itself, he mentioned an antidote that happened shortly thereafter (and because of the raid).

After the Greenback raid, the boys were pretty flush. Among other means which two of them took to get the good of their money before they died, they sent across the Potomac for engagement rings for their best girls. Now it happened that they sent by the same blockade-runner and he brought back two handsome bands which were exact “twinses.” In due course and with all proper ceremony they were set as seals to the pure and endless love which they were intended to symbolize. The swains soon made an unexpected call together upon a certain lady, and you can imagine the satisfaction with which they discovered both rings on the same finger. Some embarrassment arose in the adjustment of relations, but as neither fellow could identify his property, the girl remained mistress of the situation and of the rings.

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Fighting for Glory, Not For Spoils – Mosby’s Greenback Raid by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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