January 11, 1864 (Monday)
In many parts of the Confederacy, partisan rangers had become a problem. Through the latter part of 1862 and all of 1863, recruiters and officers had potential regular soldiers carried away into the loose ranks of the guerrillas. A law passed in April of 1862 stated that all partisan commanders must receive permission from the officer in command of the department in which they planned to operate.
At first, General Robert E. Lee was incredibly supportive. Even while other officers in other department severely limited the recruitment efforts of the rangers, Lee outwardly supported such irregulars. Not too long into 1863, Lee changed his mind and pushed for the outright banishment of partisan outfits. By late November, Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon officially disbanded the partisan provision with two exceptions. First, there was John Hanson McNeill, whose men operated mostly in northern West Virginia, and John Singleton Mosby, who currently claimed the Warrenton, Virginia area as his home.
By nature, partisan rangers lived outside the law. While they technically were supposed to answer to the department commander, they rarely had anything to do with them. In Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia, they operated as independent forces, attacking Federal supply lines, but also causing a bit of damage to the civilian population. They also had effects upon the regular army that Lee and Richmond might not have fully considered until this date.
General Thomas Rosser was a lauded cavalry officer commanding a brigade under Jeb Stuart. It was, perhaps, two separate and specific instances that convinced him to commit pen to paper. In the middle of December, sixty of his men deserted him under the banner of Lt. Col. Elijah White. Originally, White had organized his “Comanches” as irregulars, but was forced to join in with the regular army. Rosser believed that their hatred of camp life and the inability to come and go at will was the cause of their leaving.
His brigade had been sent into the Shenandoah Valley with Jubal Early’s Division on what was mostly an incredibly large foraging expedition. There, Rosser saw for himself the partisan rangers, including Mosby, and began to believe that all such units should be disbanded. Dealing with McNeill found Rosser frustrated and enraged. Once, when he ordered the partisan to advance along an icy road. McNeill flatly refused and would not budge. This left Rosser in utter disbelief. A few days later, Rosser wrote to General Lee.
“Without discipline, order, or organization, they roam broadcast over the country, a band of thieves, stealing, pillaging, plundering, and doing every manner of mischief and crime,” began Rosser in his letter to Lee.
“They are a terror to the citizens and an injury to the cause. They never fight; can’t be made to fight. Their leaders are generally brave, but few of the men are good soldiers, and have engaged in this business for the sake of gain. The effect upon the service is bad, and I think, if possible, it should be corrected.”
Rosser then went on to give three reasons why these virtual pirates of the land be done away with. First, he understandably argued that the rangers should be in the ranks where their “bayonet or saber should be counted on the field of battle when the life or death of our country is the issue.”
He then described how the life of a ranger caused “great dissatisfaction in the ranks.” The irregular troops “are allowed so much latitude, so many privileges. They sleep in houses and turn out in the cold only when it is announced by their chief that they are to go upon a plundering expedition.” This was exactly how Mosby and his men operated – nearly like a volunteer fire department. When the call went out, they would scramble from their homes and operate locally.
Rosser’s third reason was that it encouraged desertion. This was, of course, an extension of the dissatisfaction in the ranks.
“It is almost impossible for one to manage the different companies of my brigade that are from Loudoun, Fauquier, Fairfax, &c., the region occupied by Mosby. They see these men living at their ease and enjoying the comforts of home, allowed to possess all that they capture, and their duties mere pastime pleasures compared with their own arduous ones; and it is a natural consequence in the nature of man that he should become dissatisfied under these circumstances. Patriotism fails in the long and tedious war like this to sustain the ponderous burdens which bear heavily and cruelly upon the heart and soul of man.”
General Rosser went on to describe that many of his men suffered from “melancholy,” which could only be remedied “by placing all men on the same footing.”
He argued that if the work accomplished by the partisan rangers was necessary, “then require the commanding officer to keep them in an organized condition, to rendezvous within our lines, and move upon the enemy when opportunity is offered.”
Rosser understood just how important certain units of rangers were to the Confederate cause, but mostly he saw Mosby as being “of inestimable service to the Yankee army in keeping their men from straggling.” In other words, whatever it was that Mosby did, in his opinion, it hardly mattered at all in the larger picture.
Still, he called Mosby a “gallant officer” and claimed to have great respect for the man. And yet, he felt that even Mosby should be made to serve within the ranks. Rosser then directed Lee to talk to General Early and General Fitz Lee about this, certain that they would concur.
Like anything, it would take a few weeks for the letter to be fed through the proper channels. When it found its way to Jeb Stuart’s desk, on the 18th, Stuart would fully agree with Rosser’s claims. Stuart then allowed that Mosby’s command was “the only efficient band of rangers,” but that even he operated with only “one-fourth of his nominal strength,” leaving the rest of his number at home and warm. “Such organizations, as a rule, are detrimental to the best interests of the army at large.”
A few days later, General Lee would find himself in agreement. “I recommend that the law authorizing these partisan corps be abolished,” he would write. “The evils resulting from their organization more than counterbalance the good they accomplish.”
By Valentine’s Day, the House in Richmond would pass a bill abolishing partisan rangers. Even with the will of Stuart, Lee, and the Confederate government, Mosby would find a way to continue operating as he had always operated. But that is a tale for another time.1
- Sources:Official Records, Series 1, vol. 33, p1081-1083; Gray Ghost by James A. Ramage. [↩]