The Capture of John Singleton Mosby

July 20, 1862 (Sunday)

John Singleton Mosby
The night had passed quickly, and was hardly at its end when John Singleton Mosby, a relatively unknown Confederate officer awaiting promotion to Captain, shook the sleep from his eyes. He and a companion had spent the night with a farmer who lived near Beaver Dam Station on the Virginia Central Railroad. Mosby, with a commendation in hand from General Jeb Stuart to General Stonewall Jackson, was traveling to Gordonsville to see the latter about getting some men to form an irregular outfit of partisan rangers. Stuart had passed on the idea, but figured something like this was right up Stonewall’s alley.

Mosby and his partner walked to the depot to wait for the train en route to Gordonsville, thirty-five miles west. Before the train arrived, the companion continued on, leading Mosby’s horse to Jackson’s headquarters. Mosby alone would be riding the train.

As his partner and horse walked out of sight, he unburdened himself of his pistols and haversack. And then slumped down on a bench to wait for his train, which was scheduled to arrive in less than an hour. And then he heard them.

“Here they are!” exclaimed the blue riders, who fell upon Beaver Dam Station through the grays of early dawn. Not 100 yards distant, Mosby saw several companies of Federal cavalry about to fall on the depot like ravenous wolves. He grabbed his pistols and slung the haversack, which contained the letter from Stuart to Jackson, around his neck, and ran for cover.1

Judson Kilpatrick

The previous evening, General Rufus King, commanding a division in General Pope’s Army of Virginia, sent the Harris Light Cavalry, hailing from upstate New York and commanded by an yet-unknown Judson Kilpatrick, on an expedition to Beaver Dam Station. They were to “break up the railroad communication, destroy the depots, and intercept the telegraph.” To serve as a guide, General Pope loaned them a local man named “Humphreys.” He had been told that this guide was loyal, but it seems that Pope wanted to be absolutely certain. “This man Humphreys knows the whole ground,” he told their commander, “and can go as a guide, with the assurance that he will be shot if he makes a mistake.” No pressure.2

They rode hard through the night and came upon the depot in the early morning, intent upon wreaking as much destruction upon the line as they could. From the depot, less than 100 yards off, they spied a slight man in a Rebel uniform scurrying as quickly as could be scurried away from them. A few of Kilpatrick’s men gave chase, but it was over before it started.

The prisoner was found to be an odd man, who, in the gaudy dress of Stuart’s Cavalry, attracted much attention. His gray plush hat bore upon it a black plume, which the prisoner tossed to and fro as he spoke. Filled with Southern pride and bravado, he must have drew a crowd of New Yorkers who should have otherwise been sacking the depot.3

Beaver Dam Station was burned and rebuilt several times during the war. This one was from the early 1900s.

Despite their ostentatious new recruit, the Harris Light Cavalry laid complete waste to the line. They broke up track for a mile or so on either side of the station, and cut the telegraph. Inside the depot were various supplies, including 100 barrels of flour and 40,000 rounds of ammunition. All went up in fire and smoke as the Federals put a torch to the station.4

All of this was accomplished before Mosby’s train could arrive. He even tried to convince them to stay long enough to capture it, telling them that it would be completely unguarded. That was, of course, a lie and with that knowledge, made quick their work and quicker their escape, captive Captain in tow.

If only Napoleon had Mosby's book to keep him company while on St. Helena.

Mosby was taken to General King’s headquarters in Fredericksburg and treated with respect. Though his rank was not yet of Captain (Mosby may have lied to them in hopes of better treatment), this was clearly an important man to be carrying a letter written by General Stuart commending him to Stonewall Jackson. King allowed Mosby to write a letter to his family, in which he related the details of his capture. The cavalry colonel who made the capture even offered to lend him Federal money – Mosby graciously declined.5

That night, he slept on the floor of the guardhouse at Fredericksburg, but soon our man was sent to Old Capital Prison in Washington, where he spent ten days awaiting his parole. During that time, Mosby mostly read the book The Military Maxims of Napoleon, which Stuart had sent to Jackson. “I confess, I rather enjoyed my visit to Washington,” Mosby later admitted.6

  1. Memoirs by John Singleton Mosby, Little, Brown, and Company, 1917. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p479, 484. []
  3. Memoirs by John Singleton Mosby, Little, Brown, and Company, 1917. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p490. []
  5. Memoirs by John Singleton Mosby, Little, Brown, and Company, 1917. []
  6. Mosby’s War Reminiscences by John Singleton Mosby, Dodd, Mead, 1898. This entire account was verified and augmented by The Mosby Myth: A Confederate Hero in Life and Legend by Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. []
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One thought on “The Capture of John Singleton Mosby

  1. Eric, my compliments on your wonderful post.

    My question: Do you know the name of the “Harris Cavalry” soldier who is quoted by Mosby in his memoirs on the raid of Beaver Dam depot? Mosby does not give the name. Could it have been written by Judson Kilpatrick?

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