Friday, February 1, 2013

Mosby at Lewinsville: August-September 1861

A few notable figures passed through the tiny village of Lewinsville, Virginia during the first year of the Civil War. At the Battle of Lewinsville on September 11, 1861, Col. Jeb Stuart led a small Confederate force against a much larger contingent of Union soldiers under Col. Isaac Stevens. Stuart, who won a brigadier's commission in part because of his actions at Lewinsville, rode on to become one of the most celebrated Confederate cavalry commanders of the war. Stevens, who later commanded a division in the Army of the Potomac, lost his life at the Battle of Chantilly the following September while leading his men against Stonewall Jackson's troops. Other well-known generals also have a connection to the village of Lewinsville and environs, including Winfield S. Hancock, George McClellan, and "Baldy" Smith.

All of this got me thinking. I had heard somewhere that partisan ranger John S. Mosby also fought at Battle of Lewinsville in the days before he became the famed "Gray Ghost of the Confederacy." This story always seemed the stuff of local legend to me, so I recently set out to discover whether Mosby actually participated in the engagement.

John S. Mosby rose to command the 43rd Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, better known as "Mosby's Rangers" (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Before the Civil War, Mosby practiced law in Bristol, Virginia. During the winter of 1861, he volunteered for a militia company known as the Washington Mounted Guard. At the outset of hostilities, Mosby, then a private, and his fellow troopers joined other Virginians preparing for the fight in the Shenandoah Valley. The Washington Mounted Guard was assigned to the 1st Virginia Cavalry as Company D under Capt. William E. "Grumble" Jones. Stuart was given overall command of the regiment.

A Brush with Death Near Lewinsville

The 1st Virginia Cavalry saw action at First Manassas in July 1861 and spent the remainder of the year on outpost duty along the Confederate lines in Northern Virginia. Mosby later recalled his time as a mounted sentinel:
We had to go on picket duty three times a week and remain twenty-four hours. The work was pretty hard; but still, soldiers liked it better than the irksome life of the camp. I have often sat alone on my horse from midnight to daybreak, keeping watch over the sleeping army.  (Mosby, Reminiscences, 14.)
At the end of August 1861, Mosby was assigned picket duty on the road running from Falls Church to Lewinsville with one or two other troopers.* The men were under orders from Capt. Jones to fire on anyone making an approach from outside the Confederate lines. Unbeknownst to the pickets, a second Confederate detachment had galloped down a different road towards Lewinsville on a mission to arrest an alleged spy. The group made the mistake of returning by the same road where Mosby was stationed without alerting the pickets in advance.

Awakened from his slumber by the sound of approaching hoof beats, Mosby mounted his horse and opened fire into the rainy night. Alarmed by the flash of the carbine, Mosby's horse bolted away, tripped over a sleeping cow, and fell on top of him. As Mosby remembered his injuries, "I was bruised from head to foot, and felt like every bone in my body had been broken." (Mosby, Reminiscences, 15.) The Confederate cavalrymen carried Mosby to Falls Church and eventually sent him in an ambulance to Fairfax Court House. As Mosby lay unconscious, Capt. Jones apparently looked at him and "swore harder than the army in Flanders." (Mosby, Reminiscences, 15.) The following week, Mosby recounted the episode in a letter to his wife Pauline, telling her that the accident "came near killing me." (in Mosby, Memoirs, 88.)

Mosby at the Battle of Lewinsville

Not long after his unfortunate spill, Mosby joined Stuart in the attack on Stevens at Lewinsville. On September 11, cavalry pickets alerted Stuart to the presence of enemy soldiers in and around the village. Stuart advanced towards Lewinsville with 305 soldiers of the 13th Virginia, a detachment of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, and two guns of Thomas Rosser's Washington Artillery. (OR, 1:5, 183.) Stuart pounced on Stevens and harassed his retiring column with artillery fire. The Union troops eventually reached the safety of their own camp near Chain Bridge.

Mosby described his experience at Lewinsville in a letter to Pauline dated September 1861.**  He wrote:
The Enemy had come up with three thousand men, artillery, etc. to Lewisville [sic], one of our picket stations; when we got there they were still there.*** Three men of our Company (including myself) were detached to go forward to reconnoitre. Col. Stewart [sic] was with us. While standing near the opening of a wood a whole regiment of Yankees came up in full view, within a hundred yards of me. Their Colonel was mounted on a splendid horse and was very gaily dressed.**** I was in the act of shooting him, which I could have done with ease with my carbine, when Col. Stewart told me not to shoot, — fearing they were our men. . . .  I never regretted anything so much in my life as the glorious opportunity I missed of winging their Colonel. We went back and brought up our artillery, which scattered them at the first shot. I never enjoyed anything so much in my life as standing by the cannon and watching our shells when they burst over them.  (in Mosby, Memoirs, 90.)
If Mosby is to be believed, Stevens came close to losing his life almost a year before he was fatally shot at Chantilly! In any event, Mosby's contemporaneous account demonstrates that he was present at Lewinsville during the fight. Now when I drive by the site of the skirmish, I can't help but think that before he rode to fame and glory with his Rangers, Mosby was engaged in more conventional warfare just around the corner from my house.


*This road was likely current-day Great Falls Street, which runs from VA-29 (Lee Highway) in Falls Church to the intersection with VA-123 (Dolley Madison Blvd.) in McLean. In a September 2, 1861 letter to his wife, Mosby stated that "there were only three of us at our post."  (in Mosby, Memoirs, 88.)  However, in his Reminiscences, Mosby noted that he was on picket duty "with one other."  (Mosby, Reminiscences, 15.)

**The exact date is missing from the transcription.

***Mosby exaggerated the Federal strength.  Stevens' force consisted of around 1,800 men.  (OR, 1:5, 169.)

****Mosby presumably means Col. Stevens.


John S. Mosby, The Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby (1917); John S. Mosby, Mosby's War Reminiscences and Stuart's Cavalry Campaigns (1887); James Ramage, Gray Ghost: The Life of Colonel John Singleton Mosby (1999); Jeffy D. Wert, Mosby's Rangers (1991); James Joseph Williamson, Mosby's Rangers: A Record of the Operations of the Forty-Third Battalion of Virginia Cavalry from Its Organization to the Surrender (1909 ed.)

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