Fame, even mere celebrity, creates a reality of its own. We are often curious about the reality behind the image, and if sometimes we are disappointed, we have to admit also that sometimes we are not. The story that Professor Ramage tells with authority cannot be thought of as disappointing in any way. In that sense, what’s old is new, and what has been presumed to be predictable is in fact surprising, and then some.
We might be curious first as to how a man who rose to the rank of colonel only late in the Civil War should have attained to such fame. Mosby was constantly referred to in the Union as well as the Confederate newspapers—he was a bogeyman to the North and a hero to the South, even though he never commanded more than 400 men. The reach of Mosby’s renown is hard to estimate, but I can think of three ways to approach it. He was the only Confederate to be treated as he was by a contemporary major author in Melville’s poem, The Scout Towards Aldie. That work, which first appeared in Battle Pieces (1866), uses Mosby’s name in every one of its stanzas, as the mysterious enemy comes to dominate that poem by dominating the imaginations of the invading Yankee soldiers he successfully opposes. Ramage has shown that psychological domination was one of Mosby’s most powerful weapons; and Edmund Wilson, Aaron Kramer, and Stanton Garner have variously dealt with the qualities of Melville’s poem.
A second aspect of fame, one more familiar to us than literary citation, is cinematic celebration. At least two former Confederate generals wore blue in 1898, but only Mosby (1833-1916) played himself in a movie. It’s too bad there are no known copies of All’s Fair in Love and War (1910), in which the 76-year-old appeared as his self of 1861, but we will have to do without. In 1913, there was another movie, The Pride of the South, with Joseph King playing Mosby.
The Gray Ghost, starring Tod Andrews as “Major John Mosby,” was syndicated by CBS in 1957-8, and only Boston objected that “portraying a rebel as a hero” was subversive. At that time, there was a Gray Ghost comic book as well. There was even a Walt Disney show about Mosby in 1967. Today, John Singleton Mosby is easily accessed as a commodity or collectible—so much for fame. In his Memoirs, Mosby himself ruefully told the tale of what fame was worth:
One night I was with one man near the enemy’s camps in Fairfax. We were passing a house, when I heard a dog bark and somebody call, “Come here, Mosby.” So I turned, rode up to the house, and asked the man if he had called me.
“No,” he said, “I was calling Mosby. I wanted him to stop barking.”
The core of Mosby’s reputation is, of course, in his military career, which was in the cavalry. There is no doubt that Mosby was Stuart’s and Lee’s favorite and most trusted scout, and in various episodes, Mosby did influence events by the information that he had gathered. But it was the leadership of his group of partisan rangers that did the most to bring him renown. In that part of northern Virginia he caused to be called “Mosby’s Confederacy” and elsewhere, capturing a Yankee general in bed, masquerading as the enemy, fighting Custer, bedeviling Sheridan, raiding in the dark, sending Lincoln a lock of his hair, escaping wounded and returning as bushy-tailed as ever, Mosby earned his fame by defying the Yankees and fooling them again and again. When the end came, Mosby was disappointed. Just over the river from Washington, he and his men were doing nicely and had no inkling of Lee’s surrender or its necessity. Ramage has done fine work in clarifying the tangled story of Mosby’s many fights, the complicated contexts of Yankee plans, and in assessing and refusing to overestimate Mosby’s contribution to the Confederate war effort: For this alone, his book is well worth reading and having.
But the story is bigger than that. Mosby was in conflict before the war and after it. He shot a bully and was expelled from the University of Virginia, and started reading law while he was in jail. During the war, he sent to his wife for books of poetry, novels, and history, many allusions to which show up in his Memoirs. After the war, he became a Republican and a friend of Grant, a position that did not play in Virginia at that time, but has since. Appointed by Hayes as consul to Hong Kong, Mosby was the reformer of a corrupt civil service, and received a remarkable compliment before he left that post. General Li Hung Chang, who had prevailed over the great Tai Rebellion, actually invited Mosby in 1884 to recruit Confederate veterans to fight for China against France in the Sino-French War in “Annam,” today’s Vietnam. But surely this is an aperture into alternative history that we can pass by, as Mosby did.
The point is that Mosby had a flair for contrarian and surprising action. Ramage attributes this quality to his small stature and hatred of bullies. Mosby loved to fight and was good at it, in the field and in the courtroom and on the hustings, too. His wit and his temperament sent him colliding with others in the Sand Hills of Nebraska as well as in the clouds of the national mythology.
Mosby’s alliance with the Republicans—a refusal of political correctness in the Virginia of his time—is allied to other such refusals. Though he was faithful to the Confederate cause, he was not intellectually bound by it after it was gone. He said what he wanted to about slavery and secession, appreciating the ambiguity of politics in peace just as he had pushed the envelope of the acceptable in war. Since we now have more need of accurately remembering John Singleton Mosby in his high-spirited singularity than ever before, James A. Ramage’s comprehensive and convincing study could not be more timely or more welcome.
[Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby, by James A. Ramage (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky) 428 pp., $30.00]
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