Effie Belle mentions “Mosby’s Midnight Raid” to her friend Clara in Chapter 8 of THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER. She tells Clara, “Rev. Baldwin named him [his cat ‘Mosby’] after Colonel John Singleton Mosby, who raided Union outposts in Northern Virginia during the Civil War. It happened down the street where the Old Fairfax County Courthouse is.”
When I lived in Fairfax County, I wrote a “Then and Now” column for THE CONNECTION, a local newspaper. Below is the bulk of my first published article, “Mosby’s Midnight Raid.”
MOSBY’S MIDNIGHT RAID (The Burke Connection, August 6, 1992)
On the grounds of Truro Episcopal Church on Main Street in Fairfax City is a building that was the rectory until recently. But in 1863 it was the centerpiece of a notorious raid by one of the South’s most celebrated Civil War figures, John Singleton Mosby.
It was originally the home of Dr. William Presley Gunnell, through he had left at the beginning of the War. Instead on this particular evening, it was occupied by Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Stoughton, who had made the home his headquarters.
Stoughton’s name may not ring a bell for many today, but the name Mosby is not likely to be forgotten by Fairfax residents soon. Signs and landmarks in and about the city pay him homage: John Singleton Mosby Highway, the Mosby building, Mosby Woods Elementary School and so on.
As elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel, this Confederate leader accomplished feats worthy of James Bond.
During the Civil War, Washington, DC, was protected by federal outposts surrounding the city. Throughout the winter of 1863, Mosby and his band of guerrillas repeatedly raided outposts in Northern Virginia, taking many prisoners, horses, and weapons. Repeated Yankee attempts to find Mosby proved futile.
Best-known among these mostly nighttime forays is “Mosby Midnight Raid.” The raid was personally motivated by Mosby’s wish to take satisfaction for an insult delivered by Col. Sir Percy Wyndham.
Wyndham, a cavalry commander, was appalled at Mosby’s use of guerrilla warfare and publicly denounced him. Mosby believed his methods both legitimate and effective, but he remarked about the colonel’s outmoded European military tactics that Wyndham “struck blindly around like a Cyclops in a cave, but nobody got hurt.”
How gratifying it would be to penetrate the enemy’s lines of defense while Wyndham slept, kidnap the annoying colonel and whisk him away from his headquarters at Fairfax Courthouse.
Mosby was already familiar with the roads in the vicinity, but a Yankee deserter named James F. Ames provided additional information regarding troop distribution. Mosby believed he could avoid cavalry and infantry along the heavily guarded main roads (Little River Turnpike and Warrenton Pike).
Still, the task before him was difficult and dangerous. His confidence rested on the novelty and daring of the expedition and in the belief that once inside enemy lines, the raiders would be mistaken for Union cavalry.
The raiders reached Fairfax Courthouse around 2 a.m. Having cut the telegraph lines, they divided into squads. Some took horses from the stables, others went looking for Windham, who was not in the home where he was supposed to be staying, having gone to Washington earlier in the afternoon.
Mosby hurried on to the Gunnell House, around the corner from the courthouse, to find Stoughton, who was known for his parties and fondness of women.
Mosby knocked on the door, shouting that he had a dispatch for Stoughton. Stoughton’s aide opened the door to find Mosby pointing his gun and ordering him to lead the way to the brigadier’s room.
Mosby found Stoughton sleeping soundly on his side and noticed, next to the bed, several uncorked champagne bottles–remnants of the party that had ended around midnight.
He lifted Stoughton’s nightshirt and slapped him on the behind, saying, “Get up, General, and come with me.”
The stunned general said, “What is this? Do you know who I am?”
Mosby replied, “I reckon I do, General. Did you ever hear of Mosby?”
“Yes, have you caught him?
“No, but he has caught you.”
According to L.C. Baker’s “History of the United States Secret Service of the Late War, when President Abraham Lincoln learned of the raid on Fairfax Courthouse, he remarked, “Well, I am sorry for that–for I can make brigadier generals, but I can’t make horses.”
[For a more detailed account of the raid, read James J. Williamson’s MOSBY’S RANGERS.]
This plaque stands in front of the Gunnell House, which is difficult to see through the foliage. Inside the Gunnell House, Union soldiers carved their names and regiments on the woodwork. The graffiti is still there.