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A Minnesota Yankee's Musings on the Civil War and the 'Gray Ghost'

Updated on July 25, 2015

Author's Note: This is one of a series of articles I wrote for a local publication in Centreville, VA. The article is no longer available there so in order to preserve it I have decided to publish it exclusively on HubPages. My task was to illuminate some of the history of the Centreville area in an accessible way. However, the subject matter should be of interest to anyone with an interest in the Civil War and how it is perceived today!

I am a transplanted Yankee.

I grew up in Minnesota, the home of hot dish, Hubert Humphrey and the perennially choking Minnesota Vikings.

I've lived in Virginia for 20 years longer than I ever lived in Minnesota, yet still unconsciously refer to it as home whenever I mention it in conversation.

Two minutes after landing at the airport there on my annual trip to visit family, my Minnesota accent instantly the movie "Fargo" and you will know what I mean.

I still cheer for the Twins and Vikings.

There is no form of mystery meat mixed with cream of mushroom soup topped with chow mein noodles that I do not think is a delicacy.

The point of this of course is to show that while I love living in Virginia, and have no intention of ever leaving what is now my home...deep down, I am still a Yankee from Minnesota.

Part of that identity is having an attitude toward the Civil War that I still think is the correct one. The North was on the correct side of that war; which was not about state's rights, or northern aggression, or some other "lost cause" nonsense conjured up during reconstruction to obscure the real reason.

Slavery is what the Civil War was about. The North wanted it ended, and the South wanted it preserved. Period. Why each wanted what they wanted may be more subtle than that, but bottom slavery, no war!

Now I realize this opinion is not necessarily shared by everyone, so imagine my surprise when I found an ally in this view - in none other than the "Gray Ghost" himself, Colonel John Singleton Mosby.

If you've lived in northern Virginia for more than five minutes you cannot possibly not know who he is. His presence is ubiquitous. In fact, just west of Centreville is an 1,800 square mile area designated as the "John Mosby Heritage Area" (more on that in a bit).

Commander of the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry known as "Mosby's Rangers," he specialized in lightening quick raids. His job was to disrupt supply lines, capture couriers, and to just make Union forces as miserable as he possibly could. And while his impact on the outcome of the war was rather minimal, he had become such an annoying thorn in the side of the Union that General Grant actually pondered holding his family hostage until he stopped.

His raid on Fairfax Courthouse in March 1863, where his men captured Union General Edwin H. Stoughton without firing a shot, is legendary around here. I have actually seen grown men choke up and get misty-eyed recounting that story.

I have to admit however, that I had really grown to hate the man.

He fought for a cause that was the wrong one as far as I am concerned. Every mention of him is in the context of his admittedly daring wartime exploits, with almost no mention that it was all in the service of preserving slavery. And it ticked me off this success was coming at the expense of troops fighting for the right reasons.

Don't get me wrong, I still am not all that enamored with his wartime service, though I do understand its appeal. No, what interested me is what he did after the war.

Another Confederate icon, Robert E. Lee, is often given credit for his post war behavior—remaining largely silent while more strident voices decried supposed northern abuses during reconstruction.

In contrast to Mosby's behavior however, this silence did not represent a genuine desire to see the country reconciled, but a strategy designed to make sure he didn't do anything to delay the return of elite white rule in the South. Oh, he had no desire to bring back slavery, or to take another stab at secession, but he was a southern nationalist at heart—a view he never abandoned.

Mosby on the other hand, took a more admirable, and constructive approach. He decided what was best for the country was to actually reconcile. To that end he did two very important things.

First, he expressed the refreshing view that the war was about what it actually was about—slavery. And he bristled at fellow southerners who claimed otherwise.

In a letter to Samuel Chapman in 1907, Mosby wrote "...while I think as badly of slavery as Horace Greeley did I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. It was our inheritance - Neither am I ashamed that my ancestors were pirates & cattle thieves...if it was right to own slaves as property it was right to fight for it. The South went to war on account of slavery.."

I don't admire the reason he fought, but I admire he admitted it.

Second, rather than wait silently until white rule could be reestablished in the south, delaying true reconciliation, he decided to ally with his former enemy to hasten it along. He became a Republican, and ally and friend of President Ulysses S. Grant. He campaigned for Grant in Virginia in 1872 at significant personal risk, and decried those who opposed him, writing "I think the fight made on him [Grant] by the Southern white men has been the greatest blunder of our Southern politics...I know he was able and willing to do more for the Southern people than any man...if the Southern politicians would have permitted him."

John Mosby lived a long and productive life, endorsing Rutherford B. Hayes for President and eventually accepting appointment as the U.S. Consul to Hong Kong, where he fought against corruption in the foreign service. Later, his dying friend Ulysses S. Grant arranged a job for him as an attorney for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He ended up living in Washington D.C. working for the Justice Department, where he died in 1916. He is buried in Warrenton, VA.

For many in this area, John Mosby is the quintessential example of the ideal southern soldier—brave, dashing, and honorable. And he did have some of those qualities.

For me however, he is a reminder not to let my views color the opinion I have of someone until I have gotten to know them.

It would be stretching the truth to say John Mosby was now some kind of hero to me...but I have to admit to having more admiration for the man than I used to.

And I am no longer sick of hearing about him!

Above I mention the John Mosby Heritage Area. Despite my sometime exasperation with all the "Mosbyness" around here, the "Mosby Heritage Area Association" is an excellent organization. Their mission, as stated on their website is "...Preservation through Education—to educate about the history and advocate for the preservation of the extraordinary history, culture and scenery in the Northern Virginia Piedmont for future generations to enjoy." A very worthwhile goal. I heartily recommend a visit to their website here to get more information on the many activities and educational materials they offer...and to learn more about the life of John Mosby.


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    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 2 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      The Quakers were and are dedicated to peaceful resolutions to problems, yet were against slavery. The Quakers got smart and started the underground railroad.

      Jesus said, love your enemy.

      I believe the Northern abolitionists could have moved to a targeted Southern state (Alabama perhaps) and changed the political balance of that state. The abolitionists could have voted to end slavery in that state. Repeat as needed.

      Could the Civil War have been avoided in this way?


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