John Mosby & The Partisan Rangers

ECW is pleased to welcome back guest author Bill Backus

In early March 1864, Lieutenant Charles White led a detachment of 40 troopers from the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry from their encampment near Bristoe Station. Their mission was to scour the Northern Virginia countryside and disrupt any Confederate guerilla bands they encountered. After riding only a few miles, White’s command encountered a large Confederate force near the community of Greenwich. After a brief, but bloody fight, the Federals retreated after losing three men wounded and ten captured. When word of the skirmish reached the camp at Bristoe Station, a substantially larger force returned to the area but discovered that the Confederates had fled. Chatting with the local inhabitants, the Keystone soldiers learned that their opponents were a mixture of soldiers from Mosby’s Command, the 4th Virginia Cavalry, and the Chinquapin Rangers.

Most students of the Civil War are familiar with John Singleton Mosby and his Partisan Rangers. Operating behind the main Confederate lines from late 1862 through 1865, the counties of Northern Virginia soon became known as “Mosby’s Confederacy”. While legions of Civil War historians and history buffs have been captivated by Mosby’s daring raids, his Partisan Rangers were just one of many irregular forces operating in Northern Virginia from 1862 onward. Who were the other Confederates that occasionally banded with Mosby to fight Federal soldiers behind the main lines in Northern Virginia?

The first organized Confederate guerillas that operated in Northern Virginia emerged in the spring of 1862 when Joseph Johnston pulled the main Confederate army closer towards Fredericksburg. Following the Confederates at a heathy distance was a division of Federal infantry following the Orange and Alexandria Railroad before marching overland towards Fredericksburg.

Near Manassas Junction, on April 8, 1862, a soldier in the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry wrote to his hometown newspaper: It is supposed that several guerrilla bands are about as a Lieutenant of a New York regiment and a Colonel’s orderly were taken and shot night before last. Two days later another Badger serving in the 7th Wisconsin wrote: P.S. April 10th – Two men belong to a New York Regiment were found yesterday about three miles from our camp in a barn with their throats cut and four Brooklyn Zouaves were found near our camp tied together with cords and drowned in Broad Run. Nothing is too revolting to the rebels to do and I hope speedy retribution will be meted out to them.

While the identity of the assailants are unknown, they were probably not Confederate soldiers serving in an organized body. Nearly two weeks after the Wisconsinites recorded the beginning of the partisan war, the Confederate Congress passed the Partisan Ranger Act on April 21, 1862. With the passing of this law, the Confederate Congress was attempting to legitimize the guerilla fighting that had recently broken out near Manassas and other places throughout the South.

James Stone served in the Prince William Rangers before transferring to Mosby (No known image restrictions)
James Stone served in the Prince William Rangers before transferring to Mosby (No known image restrictions)

A few weeks later William Brawner, a prewar lawyer and former delegate to the Virginia Secession Convention, organized a company of Confederate partisans calling themselves the “Prince William Rangers” or “Chinquapin Rangers”. While the details of their initial service is murky, the men remained in Northern Virginia while the main war turned towards Richmond. For the first five months of the unit’s existence, they were not considered proper Confederate soldiers until they were administratively made part of the 15th Virginia Cavalry in September. Operating behind Union lines, the “Prince William Rangers” attacked targets of opportunity, mainly lightly guarded supply trains or lonely pickets through 1864, sometimes joining other units such as the fight at Greenwich. After refusing to march to the Shenandoah Valley and become conventional cavalry, the Prince William Rangers disbanded on December 4, 1864. However, many continued their partisan activities by later joining Mosby’s 43rd Virginia Battalion.

The guerilla war intensified in November 1862 when three new units joined the Rangers operating in Northern Virginia. After the main armies returned to Virginia after the Antietam campaign, elements of two companies of the 4th Virginia Cavalry were temporarily detached to serve as partisans in Prince William and Fauquier counties. The more famous of the two, the Black Horse Cavalry was recruited from Fauquier and quickly won itself an evitable reputation. The other company, the Prince William Cavalry came from neighboring Prince William County and had served next to their companions in the Black Horse Cavalry for the first year and a half of the war.

James M. Barbee served with the Prince William Cavalry before serving with Mosby (Image courtesy City of Manassas)
James M. Barbee served with the Prince William Cavalry before serving with Mosby (Image courtesy City of Manassas)

Operating in the communities that they were from, the detachment of these two companies from the main army accomplished various goals. First and most importantly they were to reconnoiter the area and deliver that intelligence to the main Confederate army. Operating behind the main lines, these two companies were always looking for targets of opportunity. Finally, by wintering in Northern Virginia the Black Horse Cavalry and Prince William Cavalry were able to use local farms to feed their mounts, thereby diminishing the need on an already overstrained Confederate supply system. In addition to these two companies, elements of the 35th Virginia Battalion, better known as White’s Comanches, also operated in the Northern Virginia region when detached from Lee’s army.

The final band of officially organized Confederate partisans in Northern Virginia were actually from the Palmetto State. Originally enlisting in the Hampton Legion, the men that would be later known as the Iron Scouts became familiar with the region after being encamped in the area during the fall and winter of 1861-1862. Later when the main Confederate army was falling back towards the Fredericksburg area, General Wade Hampton detached over a dozen troopers from the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry to remain in the region to provide him with intelligence and to harass Federal supply routes. Like their Virginian counterparts, the Iron Scouts would occasionally band with other partisan units to attack larger Federal posts. When Mosby attacked Warrenton Junction (modern day Calverton) in May 1863, he was joined by the Iron Scouts, one of whom died in the fighting there.

With a larger command, operating as long as he did, it’s no surprise that Mosby’s reputation grew during the war and continues to grow today. However, the Gray Ghost was not the only partisan that annoyed Federal efforts in Northern Virginia. The Chinquapin Rangers, Black Horse Cavalry, Prince William Cavalry, White’s Commanches, and the Iron Scouts all helped divert Federal units from bearing down on Lee’s main army.

4 Responses to John Mosby & The Partisan Rangers

  1. I thought John S. Mosby inlisted in Southwest Virginia?? Was he not practicing law in Bristol, Virginia?

    1. Yes he enlisted in Abingdon Va under Capt. Jones. He was practicing law in Bristol VA and left a wife and child behind to enlist.

  2. Another partisan war continued in Kentucky. THE PARTISAN RANGERS by Gen. Adam Johnson is a very good history of that theater of the war!

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