March 8, 1863 (Sunday)
Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry was not the only Rebel cavalry on the hunt in Virginia. The partisan rangers under John Singleton Mosby were a small band, but seemingly everywhere. Unlike their more official counterparts, they had no permanent, or even semi-permanent, camp. Their members would stay in houses, dress in normal clothes and gather for duty when they could. And much to the chagrin of the Yankees on the outskirts of the Army of the Potomac, they could gather for duty quite often.
One of the most chagrined was General Edwin H. Stoughton, who commanded a brigade of Union infantry at Fairfax Courthouse. Actually, the brigade itself was five miles south. Stoughton should have been with them, of course, but instead, he decided to stay at Fairfax. Also there was Col. Percy Wyndham, commander of the Union cavalry that had dogged Mosby throughout much of the winter.
This left two high ranking Federal officers virtually alone in a town. There was but a small detachment of guards to keep them company, and a band to entertain them. Of course, Fairfax Courthouse itself was practically surrounded by Federal cavalry and infantry. Both Stoughton and Wyndham felt so secure that the former’s mother and sister stayed with him in the town.
It was through a Union deserter-turned-partisan that Mosby heard of this strange arrangement. James Ames had been a Sergent in the 5th New York Cavalry, but had deserted when Lincoln emancipated the slaves. Mosby was naturally cautious of the man, but before long, Ames proved himself. This latest bit of news – that the two highest Federal officers in the area were practically begging to be captured – would be mere icing on Mosby’s cake.
Quickly, Mosby drew up a plan. While both General Stoughton and Col. Wyndham were within a few blocks of each other, there were two regiments of Union cavalry at Germantown (a few miles to the northwest), another at Chantilly (a bit farther out), and a mess of infantry at Centreville (eight miles west). He told none of his men of the plan, figuring that they’d find it suicidal. But that was the beauty – that was the safety of it. Nobody would suspect a thing.
For such an expedition, Mosby did not need many men. In fact, too many and they would become a liability. And so in the afternoon of this date, he and twenty-nine rangers, including Ames, gathered at Dover, just west of Aldie, for a wonderful home-cooked meal. Afterwards, Mosby, who was often flowery in speech, said to his host, “I shall mount the stars tonight, or sink lower than plummet ever sounded.”
It must have been a mystery to all, but soon Ames, and only Ames, was let in on the secret. As night settled in, the weather turned absolutely perfect for such an endeavor. The snow was melting, the fog was moving in, and it had started to rain. They covered the twenty or so miles to the first Union picket post quickly.
Ames, who knew the literal ins and outs of the Union lines, led Mosby and the rangers through a break between Chantilly and Centreville. Now there were but five miles to go. Even at this late stage, only Mosby and Ames knew they were behind enemy lines.
When they reached the road between Centreville and Germantown, they cut the telegraph wires. It would send an alert, it was true, but it would be a vague alert. Had they not cut them, specifics could be detailed and sent, ruining everything.
Drawing ever closer to the Union pickets, they could see the campfires of the enemy and were near enough to hear conversations. Due to the fortunate darkness, the Federals took the passing Confederate forms to be their own scouts.
Any Federal who called asking who they were received the reply “5th New York Cavalry.” Any Federal who questioned more became a prisoner. By keeping off the roads and traveling through woods and over fields, they kept out of sight and were able to maneuver themselves to the south side of Fairfax Courthouse. It was from the south they entered the town at 2am. Not a single Federal had been alerted – hardly any in the town were even awake.
A few of the guards who were just this side of unconsciousness were captured. When Mosby’s Rangers reached the town square, they divided up into squads with specific tasks. Some were sent to the stables to capture horses, while others were sent to capture other Federal officers staying in the town.
As for Mosby, he wanted his arch rival, Col. Percy Wyndham. Mosby first tried the Murray House, where he believed Wyndham made his headquarters. After quietly rousing Mr. Murray from his slumber, he was told that their prey was actually in Judge Thomas’ house on the other side of town. When they got there, however, they learned that Wyndham had left for Washington by train a few hours earlier.
It was quite a let down, but raiding and capturing Col. Wyndham’s fine wardrobe made it seem a bit better. Taking prisoner everyone they could find didn’t hurt, either. Much to Ames’ merriment, he personally captured his former captain in the 5th New York.
Though Wyndham had flown the coop, there was still General Stoughton, who was headquartered in a brickhouse on the outskirts of town. Since there really wasn’t anyone left who could sound an alarm, Mosby gave several hard knocks to the front door before a sleepy face peered out of a second story window asking who was there.
The reply, as before, was “5th New York Cavalry!” And soon tired footsteps could be heard tramping down the stairs to let them in.
The door swung open revealing a drowsy staff officer in his nightshirt and underwear. Mosby quickly grabbed him by the collar, whispered who he was, and demanded that he lead them to General Stoughton’s room.
When Mosby opened the General’s door and lit the lamp, he found the poor fellow still slumbering in bed. Looking around the room, Mosby saw empty champaign bottles and all the signs of a party, which went far in explaining how anyone could still be asleep.
Since the possibly-still-drunk Stoughton was yet dreaming, Mosby marched to his bedside and ripped off the covers. There wasn’t even a stir. Lying on the open bed was the unconscious General, clad in only a nightshirt.
“There was no time for ceremony,” wrote Mosby in his memoirs, “so I drew up the bedclothes, pulled up the general’s shirt, and gave him a spank on his bare back.”
This did the trick. General Stoughton bolted up, and in an authoritative voice demanded to know who had woken him so.
“General, did you ever hear of Mosby?” asked Mosby.
“Yes!” replied Stoughton, “have you caught him?”
“No, I am Mosby – he has caught you!”
Mosby’s numbers were only twenty-nine, but they had captured several times that figure. In order to convince the General that all hope was lost, Mosby told him that Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry held the town and that Stonewall Jackson himself was at Centreville.
Beaten, Stoughton asked to see Fitz Lee, an officer in Stuart’s Cavalry. They had been classmates at West Point. Mosby promised he would take him to see Fitz Lee, but first the General had to put some clothes on.
With nearly 100 prisoners and fifty-eight extra horses, Mosby and his men headed south before returning to Dover. All the while, Stoughton insisted that his men would soon rescue him, though none ever came.
A few days later, when President Lincoln heard of the affair, it gave him a hearty laugh. He said that he could make another general in five minutes, “but those horses cost $125 apiece!”
Col. Wyndham, who should have been nearby, went into embarrassed hiding, refusing to return to his command for three weeks, when he was ordered to do so several times. General Stoughton spent a couple of months in Libby Prison before being exchanged. Once back in Federal arms, he resigned from the army.
More than anything, the raid sent chills down Washington’s spine. If Mosby could capture a General, who was safe? The defenses of the capital were improved and greater measures taken to prevent Mosby from getting anymore lofty ideas.1
- Sources: The Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby by John Singleton Mosby; Mosby’s Rangers by James Joseph Williamson; The Mosby Myth: A Confederate Hero in Life and Legend by Paul Ashdown; Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby by James Ramage. [↩]