Shoot Every Man on Horseback! – Mosby’s Stumble

January 9, 1864 (Saturday)

“The camp was buried in profound sleep,” wrote Confederate Col. John Singleton Mosby, “there was not a sentinel awake.” As the Confederate partisan, leading 100 men, peered through the clear and crisp dark of Louden Heights near Harper’s Ferry, it all seemed too perfect. Soon, he would have Union Major Henry Cole and the best of his nearly 200 men as prisoners. He had sent a scout named Frank Stringfellow on ahead with a few fine men to arrest Cole. But then there came yelling and shooting and a band of riders over the ridge. Sensing it was the enemy, Mosby wrote, “I ordered my men to charge.”

Mosby: Why would I want to scout for myself? What could possibly go wrong?
Mosby: Why would I want to scout for myself? What could possibly go wrong?

Earlier in the day, Col. Mosby had received word from Stringfellow that Major Cole’s Federal troops were holding Louden Heights. They were sequestered and virtually unsupported. Stringfellow’s reputation as a scout preceded him. He had won the praise of not only Jeb Stuart, but of Robert E. Lee himself. So when Stringfellow told Mosby of the ripe pickings, it was taken at face value.

And so Mosby gathered over 100 men and started from Upperville in the afternoon. By 10pm, Stringfellow joined him with ten more. Before long, they could see the campfires of the enemy. While most of the Rebel force rode past, Stringfellow and his boys remained behind, moving as they could to the other side of the Union encampment, hoping to nab Major Cole without much of an incident.

As Mosby and his men waited, they heard the report of a pistol and then of carbines. There was yelling and riders coming hard and fast toward them. “Charge them, boys!” Came the call, “Charge them!” Mosby’s men fired, dropping several to the cold ground.

“Shoot every man on horseback!” shouted Major Cole. The men of his Battalion reacted quickly and poured a steady fire into the nearly invisible ranks of Mosby’s Rebels.

“I am shot!” cried Lt. Thomas Turner, one of Mosby’s seconds. Others fell around him, such as Captain William Smith, who was caught by another officer before yet another fell dead. Seeing their comrades dying like never before, Mosby’s men started to waver. A young man from Baltimore did his best to steady his friends, encouraging them to stand their ground, before being shot down like the rest.

“The dead and dying lay around,” wrote one of Mosby’s men after the war. “From the tents came forth moans of pain and shrieks of agony. Some of the combatants stood almost in reach of one another, firing into each other’s face, crying out: ‘Surrender!’ ‘No, I won’t! You surrender!'”

Through it all, the Federals were somehow driven from their camp. Taking refuge in nearby houses, they continued to fire steadily upon the Rebels.

“Confusion and delaying having ensued from the derangement of my plans,” wrote Mosby in his report, “consequent on the alarm given to the enemy, rendered it hazardous to continue in my position, as re-enforcements were near the enemy.” In Harper’s Ferry, the alarm had been sounded. Infantry would soon arrive to drive Mosby away. And so he sounded the retreat, carrying off six prisoners and as many as sixty horses.

Stringfellw: Well said, John. I've got this!
Stringfellw: Well said, John. I’ve got this!

“The march homeward was indeed a gloomy one,” continued a ranger. “A sad and sullen silence pervaded our ranks and found expression in every countenance. All that we could have gained would not compensate for the loss we sustained.”

In all, Mosby lost four killed outright with another four dying shortly thereafter. Three were wounded and one captured. Two high ranking officers, Captain Smith and Lt. Turner, were both dead (though Turner would painfully linger for a week). Replacing them, both protégées of Mosby, would be impossible. Union Major Cole lost four killed and sixteen wounded.

Mosby had already become legend – the Gray Ghost of the Confederacy. But he possessed no true mystical powers. He was human and made mistakes that cost the lives of his comrades. Mosby’s mistake rested in trusting Stringfellow’s plan without scouting the ground and camp himself. A few days previous, Mosby’s men had trounced a detachment from Cole’s Battalion. Believing the whole unit to be in like shape, he was certain of an easy victory. Stringfellow also lacked the discretion that Mosby and his men had folded into their strategy. They would not attack unless they were certain of victory. Apparently Stringfellow had no such scruples.

And thusly, Mosby would never again use Stringfellow as a scout. He blamed him for firing the first shot and bringing on a general engagement before he was ready. But, of course, Mosby must burden the bulk of the blame, as it was he who led the troops. The Federals held fast, and taking cover of the houses, won the fight.

Mosby would recover, however. Soon he would receive praise from General Lee, who wished to bolster Mosby’s numbers to a full regiment. Many of the rangers saw the fight at Louden Heights as their own Waterloo, but though it was a tough defeat, they would return with a serious vengeance. 1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, page 15-16; Mosby’s Rangers by James Joseph Williamson; Gray Ghost by James A. Ramage. []
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