Guerilla Warfare on the Borderland
The most famous guerilla war of the Civil War was fought in Loudoun, western Fairfax, Fauquier, Clarke, and Warren counties between the “Gray Ghost of the Confederacy” (Col. John Singleton Mosby) with his Rangers and federal cavalry. Key battles in this nasty 1863-65 war were fought in Loudoun at Aldie Mill, Miskel’s Farm (in Eastern Loudoun), Mt. Zion Church (on Route 50 east of Gilbert’s Corner), Loudoun Heights (near Harpers Ferry), Leesburg, Waterford, and between Hamilton and Lincoln. There were so many other skirmishes in the Confederate effort to repel Union invaders using partisan ranger cavalry units that Loudoun is truly “hallowed ground,”; many young men from the North and South lost their lives here.
Partisan rangers were enabled by the Confederate States Congress in April 1862, essentially allowing land privateers. Because partisan ranger units were allowed to keep such booty as they took—selling horses, weapons, and other valuable military articles to the Confederate army—it was hoped that this would increase manpower in the field, especially in border areas where mounted units could patrol for the Confederate side. In time, the Confederate government found this counterproductive to front-line morale—what would a soldier fighting on the Confederate line think while these privateers were prancing around getting rich? In the spring of 1863 the practice was ended. However, two units had been so successful in gathering military intelligence, harassing Union transport and communications, tying up enemy soldiers, and reducing soldiers’ morale (being “gobbled up” by guerillas in the middle of the night and sent to a Rebel POW camp was never good for morale), that they were allowed to remain as partisan ranger units. Mosby’s Rangers of this region and McNeill’s Rangers of the Potomac Highlands continued with numerical designations. Mosby’s men became the 43rd Virginia Battalion of Cavalry, ultimately growing to eight companies and regimental strength.
In the words of the Civil War poet Herman Melville, Mosby was remembered by his uncomfortable Union opponents this way—“As glides in seas the shark rides Mosby through green dark . . .” Mosby wryly observed:
“the military value of a partisan’s work is not measured by the amount of property destroyed or the number of men killed or captured, but by the number he keeps watching. Every soldier withdrawn from the front to guard the rear of an army is so much taken from its fighting strength. I endeavored, as far as I was able, to diminish this aggressive power of the Army of the Potomac, by compelling it to keep a large force on the defensive. I assailed its rear, for there was its most vulnerable point. . . A blow would be struck at a weak or unguarded point, and then a quick retreat. The alarm would spread through the sleeping camp, the long roll would be beaten or the bugles would sound to horse, there would be mounting in hot haste and a rapid pursuit. But the partisans generally got off with their prey . . . I have often thought that their fierce hostility to me was more on account of the sleep I made them lose than the number we killed and captured.”
Mosby’s men were not the only ones involved in guerilla-style attacks in Loudoun. “Mobberly’s band” from Between-the-Hills near Harpers Ferry often lured federal troops into ambushes. White’s Confederate cavalry battalion, the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, used guerilla tactics when in the area, as did the Unionist Loudoun Rangers raised in Waterford, Taylorstown, and Lovettsville along the border. With many of the guerillas from this region, they would all have to live with their wartime actions afterward. Many, many stories were told of their exploits.
Loudoun suffered heavily from the guerilla warfare. After hundreds of “scouts” into Loudoun to find and capture Mosby or his men, 5,000 federal cavalry were sent into the Loudoun Valley on November 28, 1864 to burn the farms where Mosby’s guerillas boarded. After five days of burning, there was nary a barn, corn crib, nor mill left between the Catoctin-Bull Run Range and the Blue Ridge. Nonetheless, Mosby was never captured; his men disbanded at the end of the Civil War and successfully sought paroles. John S. Mosby himself surprisingly went on to work for the United States Government, working for the State, Interior, and Justice Departments.