December 6, 1833. Born at his maternal grandfather’s home, Edgemont, in Powhatan County, Virginia. Raised in Nelson and then Albemarle counties, Virginia, little is known of his childhood, other than that he was a frail, sickly child. Like many in the Virginia middle class, his family owned slaves. Although an antsy student, he loved history. His hero was Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” of the Revolution.
In 1850 he entered the University of Virginia. In 1853, in his third year at the University, he was convicted of the "unlawful shooting" of a fellow student and bully, George Turpin. Turpin had threatened Mosby, and Mosby shot him as he came at him outside his boarding house. While in jail, Mosby befriended the prosecutor and studied law. After serving seven months of a 12-month sentence, he was pardoned by the Governor of Virginia. Mosby then studied for the bar exam.
On September 4, 1855, Mosby was licensed to practice law in Virginia. Mosby first practiced law in Howardsville, 25 miles south of Charlottesville. Here he met Pauline Clarke, whose father was a noted Kentucky Congressman. On December 30, 1857, Pauline Clarke and John Mosby were married in Nashville. They shared a love of literature and the classics, often reading to each other.
In 1858, the couple moved to Bristol in southwest Virginia where Mosby practiced law. Mosby reluctantly drilled with the local militia, the Washington Mounted Rifles. According to a fellow soldier, Mosby was not a good example of a soldier—he didn’t always show up for drill, and he didn’t seem to have much interest in the military. Mosby opposed Virginia’s secession, supporting the Union. But once the shooting started at Fort Sumter, all that changed. With a rebellion declared, Virginia voted to secede and Mosby changed his mind as so many Virginians did.
In May 1861 in Abingdon, Virginia, Mosby was mustered into the local Confederate unit, Company D of the 1st Virginia Cavalry. J.E.B. Stuart was the regiment’s colonel and commander. Mosby entered as a private but was one of the first six men in the unit to receive a new Colt six-shooter.
On July 11, 1861, Mosby had his first encounter with the Federal cavalry just south of Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia). When his patrol came upon a Federal detachment, they managed to capture two Federal soldiers and then chased the others to Martinsburg.
On July 18, 1861, Mosby’s unit was sent to Manassas where it was present for the Battle of Manassas but played a minor role in that action. Following the Battle of Manassas, the 1st Virginia Cavalry was posted in Fairfax County. Mosby became familiar with the area while on scouting missions. When not on duty, he studied books on strategy and tactics and had discussions on military matters with Captain William E. “Grumble” Jones. Both of these experiences would be of great value later to his independent operations in the area.
On April 2, 1862, Mosby was appointed adjutant to the new commander of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, his former captain, William E. (“Grumble”) Jones, with the rank of 1st Lieutenant. Colonel J.E.B. Stuart had been promoted to brigadier general of the Confederate Cavalry. In March of 1862 when General Joseph Johnston started moving south to Richmond from Manassas, Mosby did some scouting for Stuart, which brought the young officer to Stuart’s attention.
On April 23, 1862, Mosby resigned his commission when Lt. Col. Fitzhugh Lee was appointed commander of the 1st Virginia Cavalry. General J.E.B. Stuart asked Mosby to join his staff, which he did. While scouting McClellan’s position in the Virginia peninsula in the spring of 1862, Mosby discovered that the Federal rear positions and supply lines were poorly guarded. He suggested to Stuart that he could encircle McClellan’s army and attack his rear positions. This resulted in Stuart’s famous ride around McClellan’s army on the Peninsula. Mosby acted as a guide and received high praises from Stuart for “conspicuous and gallant service.”
About this time, Mosby formulated his plan to conduct daring raids on the Federal rear to create havoc on Federal supply and communication lines. He felt this would force the Federal Army to reduce their forces facing the Confederate army in order to protect their rear. These raids would also provide valuable information about Federal troop movements.
In late December of 1862 following the Battle of Fredericksburg, J.E.B. Stuart along with Mosby as scout conducted a raid against the Federal positions in Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun counties, working to cut the federal supply and communications line between Washington and Fredericksburg. They ended up in Loudoun County just before the New Year.
On December 31, 1862, at Oakham, the home of Hamilton Rogers east of Middleburg, Mosby approached Stuart for permission to put into action his plan to organize an independent command against Federal forces in the region that stretched from the outskirts of Washington across the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Shenandoah Valley and beyond the Potomac River into Maryland. Stuart left Oakham leaving Mosby with nine men to carry out raids on Federal positions in the area. Mosby and these nine men, along with a local guide, John Underwood, conducted two successful raids. Mosby wrote of the raids, “In two days we captured 20 cavalrymen, with their horses, equipment and arms.” This was the beginning of “Mosby’s Rangers.” Stuart was elated with Mosby’s success and gave him 15 men for an independent operation in northern Virginia.
On January 18, 1863, Mosby and the 15 men rode into Fauquier County to begin work. Just north of Warrenton, Mosby told his men to scatter and find shelter in the homes of the people of Fauquier and Loudoun Counties and to meet him on January 26, 1863 at Mount Zion Baptist Church just east of Aldie. This would be the pattern of his operation. His rangers would scatter until the appointed day, time, and place that they were told to assemble for a raid. Known as Mosby’s Rangers, they would wreak havoc on the Federal forces in the northern Virginia area.
On June 10, 1863 at Rector's Crossroads (now Atoka), Mosby’s Command was officially established as a regular army unit, although acting as partisan rangers (who could divide up what they captured). The unit was now the 43rd Virginia Battalion of Cavalry with the following objectives:
- Get information on enemy troop movements.
- Lower morale of Union troops by attacking outposts and supply lines.
- Force more Union troops to be held in northern Virginia and Washington's ring of forts, pulling them off the front line.
- Attack and destroy Union supply lines (wagons and trains).
In so doing, there were hundreds of attacks on federals at all times of year; many like the capture of a Union general at Fairfax Courthouse in March of 1863 become legendary.
By 1865, the 43rd Virginia has grown to eight companies from its original one, and some 1,911 men had served in the unit commanded by Mosby. He had set an example of mobile, hit-and-run warfare that is still studied by the US military today. He was wounded multiple times, once almost fatally at Ludwell Lake’s home on December 21, 1864. The area where his men most frequently operated became known as “Mosby’s Confederacy.”
On April 21, 1865, Mosby met his men for the final time at Salem (now Marshall), Virginia, to disband.
Mosby rode south hoping to meet up with Joseph Johnston’s Army in North Carolina. On the way, he learned that Johnston had surrendered, so went to his father’s home near Lynchburg and was paroled in late June 1865 in Lynchburg.
By September of 1865, Mosby was back in Fauquier County with his family and practicing law. His family consisted of four boys and four girls. One son died in 1873 and another in 1876 along with his wife, Pauline. He lived first at “Road Island”, a house outside of Warrenton, and later on the main street of town in a house known locally as Brentmoor.
Mosby became friends with Ulysses S. Grant following the war. He even supported Grant’s re-election in 1872, feeling that this was Virginia’s best bet in the postwar South. Many of his fellow Virginians blamed the Republican Party for emancipation and the unpopular policies of Reconstruction, however, and Mosby’s support of Grant made him highly unpopular. Mosby narrowly survived an assassination attempt in Warrenton as a result.
After 1876, Grant helped Mosby get the job so he could leave Virginia. Mosby, now a widower, served as the U.S. Consul to Hong Kong under Republican Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, James A Garfield, and Chester A. Arthur.
Before he died, General Grant found Mosby a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Francisco, so when Mosby returned to the United States from Hong Kong, he lived there until 1901. Mosby liked California a great deal. He became friends with General George S. Patton’s father, a fellow Virginian. He and young George discussed and reenacted Civil War scenes from Mosby’s past on the Pacific beach below the Patton home. The future World War II general’s love of six-shooters and use of rapid movement of troops were rooted in the inspirational stories of the aging Civil War hero. Mosby stayed in California until 1901.
In 1901 Mosby took a federal post under Theodore Roosevelt in the General Land office in Nebraska and later as an assistant attorney to the Department of Justice back in Washington. In his last years, he liked to explore the place of his Civil War exploits, but he attended only the January 1895 reunion of his men.
On May 30, 1916, at the age of 82, Mosby died in a hospital in Washington, D.C. He lies in Warrenton Cemetery at Lee and Chestnut streets with his wife and children.