“Mosby will hang ten of you for every one of us!” The Black Flag in the Shenandoah Valley

Maj. Gen. Alfred Torbert Courtesy Library of Congress
Maj. Gen. Alfred Torbert
Courtesy Library of Congress

part one of two

The execution of six Mosby’s Rangers on September 23, 1864 was not the first or last in a bloody back and forth between the famed Confederate partisan and the aggressive Union cavalryman. When Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan was sent to the Shenandoah Valley in the summer of 1864, it was with the intent of President Lincoln and Gen. U.S. Grant that total war would come to the Shenandoah Valley. Grant wanted to rid the Valley of Confederates and also damaging the civilian effort in the area to support the Confederate war effort. This included dealing with the partisan commander Lt. Col. John S. Mosby and his elusive command.

By summer 1864 Mosby was already notorious in the north and lionized in the south. Operating behind Union lines, raiding supply trains, capturing men and supplies, Mosby operated one of the most successful partisan operations in American history. Receiving permission from Gen. JEB Stuart in the January 1863 to recruit a small force to operate in the Union rear, Mosby provided symbolic and logistical support for the southern war effort. Many a Union commander sought to capture the elusive Mosby and all had failed. An equally daring commander was Brig. Gen. George Custer and he was not one to back down from a man he considered a “scoundrel.” Ever since Sheridan’s assignment to the Shenandoah Valley, Custer and Mosby’s men sparred throughout the northern Valley and Piedmont. Mosby’s daring raids captured hundreds of prisoners, thousands of horses and cattle and supplies. Grant ordered “When any of Mosby’s men are caught, hang them without trial.” Things were about to get very brutal in lower Valley.

As fighting swirled around Fisher’s Hill, Maj. Gen. Alfred Torbert was leading a cavalry column near Front Royal and escorting an ambulance train. Torbert, unknowing of the success of the Federal forces at Fisher’s Hill, was intended to be part of the pursuit of Early’s forces.   Torbert felt the Confederate force in front of him in the Luray Valley was in too strong a position and decided to not attack and returned to the main army. Watching this Federal cavalry column was a portion of Mosby’s Battalion led by Capt. Samuel Chapman. Chapman, seeing the train of wagons and not seeing the large Federal cavalry force decided to attack the wagon train. Soon Chapman and his men saw the error of their ways and were surrounded by the Federals. Chapman ordered the men to cut their way out and rendezvous at one of the many pre-determined locations that Mosby was known for. In the melee Federal officer Lt. Charles McMaster was mortally wounded, though how he was wounded was heavily debated. Confederate accounts state that McMaster dismounted and drew his saber to confront the Confederates. Federal witnesses say that McMaster, feeling that he was surrounded, was trying to surrender and was shot with his own pistol in cold blood.

Col. John S. Mosby Library of Congress
Col. John S. Mosby
Library of Congress


Once Torbert was told about the supposed murder of one of his officers, he was quick to respond. Several prisoners were rounded up and quickly the outraged Federals began to exact their revenge. Several of Mosby’s men who were taken prisoner, were shot and killed. One of the saddest affairs involved 17 year old Henry Rodes. Rodes was not a member of Mosby’s command, but dreamed of riding with Mosby. As Chapman led his men through town, Rodes joined in on a borrowed horse. As the fighting began, he tried to get out of the way of the clashing cavalry. Federals, believing he was one of the partisans, captured him and brought him back to town. As his mother pleaded for her son’s life, he was shot in the side and killed. Finally, two of Mosby’s men were brought to Richardson’s Hill and given an opportunity to disclose Mosby’s whereabouts. Both men refused and both were hung. As the noose was tied around his neck, Ranger William Overby’s reportedly said Mosby will hang ten of you for every one of us!”

Mosby learned of the killing of his men a few days later and immediately blamed Custer (though Custer was not present). He vowed his vengeance and on October 10th his men killed a Federal prisoner posing as a Confederate near Flint Hill. Soon after, two of Mosby’s men were captured at Ben Venue plantation with one ordered to be executed. After drawing a lot, Albert Willis volunteered to be executed as his partner was married with children, and he was a single man. On October 14th, he was hanged north of Flint Hill. He was considered a local hero at the time.

Now with various executions of soldiers and civilians, the situation was becoming dire for the people in the northern Shenandoah Valley. The “black flag” hung over the Valley and Mosby was not one to back down. He sought for a way to officially reciprocate the “murder” of his men in Front Royal and the execution of Willis at Flint Hill. How he would go about it would become another famous Mosby legend. To Be Continued

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