Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Walking Tour of Mosby's Raid on Fairfax

This week marks the 150th anniversary of John S. Mosby's famous raid on Fairfax Court House.  A couple years ago, I discussed the event and the impact it had on the defenses of Washington.  During the night of March 8, 1863, Mosby set out for Fairfax with twenty-nine men.  The group slipped through the Union lines and entered the town early on March 9.  Mosby hoped to bag his nemesis, Col. Percy Wyndham, but the Union cavalry officer had gone to Washington for the night.  Not one to leave empty-handed, Mosby located the headquarters of Gen. Edwin H. Stoughton, commander of a Union infantry brigade.  He boldly entered the home, woke the general from his drunken slumber, and arrested him.  Mosby and his fellow rangers also made off with two captains, 30 enlisted men, and 58 horses.   The daring raid behind enemy lines gave the Federals in Washington quite a fright and won Mosby the praise of Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart. 

The hapless Gen. Edwin Stoughton (courtesy of National Archives)

Several buildings that are associated with the raid survive to this day.  Late last summer, I stopped in Fairfax after a morning trip to Ox Hill Battlefield Park.  I found a parking spot near the courthouse and walked to the Mosby-related sites, which are all located within a few blocks of one another. 

The Fairfax Courthouse was my first stop.  This iconic structure, dating to 1800, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  During the raid, the courthouse square served as the rendez-vous spot for Mosby's men, who broke into squads to round up prisoners and horses around town.  The Union telegraph operator was captured as he slept in his tent on the square.

The Fairfax Courthouse. A Civil War Trails marker out front tells the story of the courthouse during the conflict.  Both Union and Confederate troops occupied the building at one time or another.  The trappings of a construction site detracted from an otherwise picture-perfect scene!
A few blocks away along Chain Bridge Road sits the Moore House (c. 1840).  In 1863, the building belonged to Thomas Murray.  Mosby believed that Wyndham was using Murray's house as his headquarters.  He and several of his men descended on the home, but they soon learned that their intelligence was faulty.  Murray informed Mosby that Wyndham was saying at Judge Henry Thomas' house on the other side of the courthouse.  Mosby sent a small group to the Thomas residence, but Wyndham had already left for Washington City.  The raiders consoled themselves with taking the Union officer's "fine wardrobe and several splendid horses that they found in the stables."  (Mosby, Belford's Monthly, 125.)

The Moore (Murray) House, where Mosby unsuccessfully sought Sir Percy Wyndham, the officer who had called him a horse thief.  According to a marker outside the home, Mosby retorted that "the only horses he had every stolen had Union troopers on their backs armed with two pistols and a saber."  After the war, the house belonged to R. Walton Moore, a Congressman and State Department counselor under President Franklin Roosevelt.  The building is now used for commercial purposes.
The highlight of any Mosby-related tour of Fairfax is the Dr.William Gunnell House.  Be aware that the building is tucked away on the grounds of the Truro Anglican Church, a short distance from the main strip; I almost walked right past it!  On the morning of March 9, Mosby learned from a captured guard that Stoughton was quartered at Gunnell's residence.  The commander and a few men rode out to the house, where they entered and mounted the staircase to Stoughton's bedroom.  Mosby described what happened next:
There were signs in the room of having been revelry in the house that night. Some uncorked champagne bottles furnished an explanation of the general's deep sleep. He had been entertaining a number of ladies from Washington in a style becoming a commanding general. The revelers had retired to rest just before our arrival with no suspicion of the danger that was hovering over them. The ladies had gone to spend the night at a citizen's house. . . . As, the general was not awakened by the noise we made in entering the room, I walked up to his bed and pulled off the covering. But even this did not arouse him. He was turned over on his side snoring like one of the seven sleepers. With such environments I could not afford to await his convenience or to stand on ceremony. So I just pulled up his shirt and gave him a spank. Its effect was electric. The brigadier rose from his pillow and in an authoritative tone inquired the meaning of this rude intrusion. He had not realized that we were not some of his staff. I leaned over and said to him: "General, did you ever hear of Mosby?" "Yes," he quickly answered, "have you caught him?" "No," I said, "I am Mosby—he has caught you." (Mosby, Belford's Monthly, 126-27.)
A couple of markers around the house commemorate the general's capture. 

The Dr. William P. Gunnell House (c. 1835).  Stoughton was sleeping in a bedroom on the left front side of the second floor.  The part of the home to the right of the front door was added after the war.  The William Gunnell House is now a private residence.
Historical marker describing the significance of the William Gunnell House to Mosby's raid on Fairfax Court House.  (See here for more information on the marker.)

Marker commemorating Mosby's raid on Fairfax and the capture of Stoughton.  The United Daughters of the Confederacy placed the marker here in 1937.  The marker makes the exaggerated claim that Mosby captured 100 prisoners and horses.  The spire of the Truro Church is visible in the background.  (See here for more information on the marker.)
Mosby and his men made their last stop at the Joshua Gunnell House.  At the time of the raid, Lt. Col. Robert Johnstone of the 5th N.Y. Cavalry was staying here with his wife.  As the Confederates approached the house, Johnstone threw open the window on the second floor and asked their affiliation.  The raiders laughed, and Mosby dispatched some men to search the house.  While Johnstone's wife kept the Rebels at bay, Johnstone slipped out the back door in his nightclothes and hid under the outhouse.  Unable to find the Union officer, the Confederates left town with their prisoners and horses in tow.  Mosby tells the remainder of the story best:
[Johnstone] lay there concealed and shivering with cold and fear until after daylight. He did not know for some time that we had gone, and he was afraid to come out of his hole to find out. His wife didn't know where he was. In squeezing himself under shelter he had torn off his shirt, and when he appeared before his wife next morning, as naked as when he was born and smelling a great deal worse, it is reported that she refused to embrace him before he had taken a bath.  (Mosby, Belford's Monthly, 128.)
As a result of this unfortunate episode, Johnstone earned the embarrassing nickname of "Outhouse Johnstone."

Joshua Gunnell house (c. 1830) (courtesy of Historical Marker Database).  The site is now dedicated to commercial use.
The Federal authorities wasted no time in rounding up citizens suspected of aiding Mosby.  Among those arrested was Antonia Ford, a young woman who lived with her father, Edward, close to the courthouse in what is today known as the Ford Building.  The Ford family had hosted Stoughton's sister, mother, and three of the general's aides.  Stoughton and Ford had also spent time together, and an anonymous letter to the New York Times even went so far as to allege a "very intimate" relationship between the two.  Ford and her father were arrested on charges of spying and sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington.  Although Ford helped the Confederates during the First Manassas Campaign, her role in Mosby's raid is somewhat uncertain.  After the war, Mosby claimed that she was "as innocent as Abraham Lincoln."  Incidentally, Ford was arrested by Maj. Joseph C. Willard, the Union Provost Marshall in Fairfax and an owner of Willard's Hotel in Washington. Willard allegedly lobbied for her release from Old Capitol and married her several months later in March 1864.

The Ford Building (c. 1835) on Chain Bridge Road, where Antonia Ford resided in March 1863 (courtesy of Historical Marker Database).  According to the marker out front, a search of the house by Union authorities after the raid  "revealed an honorary aide-de-camp commission to Antonia from Gen. Jeb Stuart."  The structure currently houses offices.
The Fairfax Raid played no small part in shaping the legend of the Gray Ghost of the Confederacy.  Anyone with an interest in the Civil War, or Mosby in particular, should visit Old Town Fairfax and check out the sites related to the partisan commander's bold venture behind Union lines.

For More Information. . .

Lucky for us, Mosby liked writing about his wartime exploits in Northern Virginia.  I'd recommend that readers check out these two accounts of the Fairfax Raid by the Gray Ghost himself:
Mosby certainly had a way of spinning a yarn!  Nothing can beat this first-hand description of the raid and Stoughton's ignominious capture.

The City of Fairfax has put together a map and description of the key historic sites in town, including the buildings connected to Mosby's Fairfax Raid.  You will find all of the relevant addresses here if you wish to follow my walking tour.

I also would like to mention two guidebooks that cover the Fairfax Raid, as well as a multitude of other Mosby sites across the region:

Sesquicentennial Event

The City of Fairfax will be hosting an all-day event on Saturday, March 9 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Mosby's Fairfax Raid.  Aside from the requisite reenactment, the event will feature interpretive stops outside Mosby-related sites, as well as Mosby scholars symposium, book signing, and film screenings.  More information on this event can be found here.

Additional Sources

Aside from the information cited above, the following sources were useful in compiling this post:

James A. Ramage, Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby (1999); Jeffry D. Wert, Mosby's Rangers (1991); Ashley M. Whitehead, Antonia Ford (1838-1871), in Encyclopedia Virginia.


Robert Moore said...

Always interested in seeing discussion of the Gunnell homes. Though I'm not directly connected, both are distant cousins; the common ancestor being William Gunnell (1676-1760), an indentured servant to Richard Lee, of Westmoreland County.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Robert. You have family connections everywhere in the Commonwealth! As you probably know, the name is big in these parts. There were also Gunnells up by Dranesville. Their farm was raided a few times by the Pa. Reserves. (I think I blogged about the foraging expeditions in winter of 2011.) I've been meaning to do more on the family. Not sure of the relation of the Gunnells of Dranesville to William and Joshua in Fairfax, but there surely is one.

Daniel said...

What an amazing great blog.

-Daniel Russ

Ron Baumgarten said...

Daniel--Thanks for the compliment! I also look forward to reading your military history blog! You cover a lot of interesting topics.