Articles

This famous guerrilla leader captured the general hunting him

Confederate Col. John S. Mosby was one of the world's greatest guerrilla leaders, deploying cavalry against Union forces in lightning raids. In one impressive raid, he even managed to kidnap the Union general who commanded forces sent to stop him.


The engagement took place in March 1863, when Mosby was new to his command. He and his men were interrogating prisoners when a Union deserter laid out the location of the brigade's picket lines and other defenses.

John S. Mosby and his Rangers. (Photo: Public Domain)

As it turned out, the Union 2nd Vermont Brigade had moved camps, but its general decided to stay at a local doctor's house about three miles from his closest regiment. It was the 2nd Vermont that had so often sent its cavalry forces to try and catch Mosby — and Mosby saw an opportunity to end the harassment.

Mosby created a daring plan to slip through the nearby picket lines and kidnap both Brig. Gen. Edwin Stoughton, the commander of 2nd Brigade, as well as the colonel who commanded the brigade's cavalry regiment.

The Confederate forces launched their operation on the night of March 8. Mosby and 29 others followed the Union deserter through the picket lines, then cut carefully though the forest toward Fairfax Courthouse. They arrived without incident and went into action.

Union Brig. Gen. Edwin Stoughton with other Union soldiers. (Photo: Matthew Brady, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

They cut the telegraph wires and captured the operator as well as most of the guards in the area. They attempted to grab the cavalry colonel but learned that he had been called to Washington.

But the general was there — and he was woken by Mosby spanking his back.

"There was no time for ceremony, so I drew up the bedclothes, pulled up the general's shirt, and gave him a spank on his bare back, and told him to get up," Mosby later wrote.

As the general tried to understand what was going on, Mosby asked him, "Do you know Mosby, General?"

The General replied, "Yes! Have you got the rascal?"

"No," said Mosby. "He's got you!"

Union Brig. Gen. Edwin Stoughton was captured by Confederate forces before his commission could be voted on by the Senate. (Photo: Matthew Brady, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Stoughton was captured with three other officers, a number of enlisted men, and at least 55 horses. When President Abraham Lincoln was told of the event, he supposedly said that he could always make a new brigadier general in five minutes, "but those horses cost $125 apiece!"

Surprisingly, both the men of the 2nd Brigade and officers in nearby units had predicted that Stoughton would be captured if he didn't move his headquarters, and Stoughton himself expressed concern about the thin manning of the picket lines.

The deserter stayed with Mosby's Rangers for a year before he fell in combat.

Stoughton's fall was, for obvious reasons, very quick. His capture was an embarrassment for the nation and his rank had not yet been confirmed by the Senate as a brigadier general. Lincoln withdrew his nomination. When Stoughton was traded back to Union lines two months later, he found that he had no military rank or position.

He left the military and died within a few years.

Mosby would go on to become a legend and survive the war. He later supported the Republican Party and was made consul to Hong Kong by President Ulysses S. Grant.

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