John Mosby and Confederate Guerrillas: Effective Assets or Not?

Michael G. Stroud

The Ends Justify the Means

Guerillas and partisan fighters have played a role in human conflict for a millennia and the Civil War was no different. The question of whether Confederate guerrillas and partisans like Colonel Mosby were effective military assets is answered with a nuanced yes. The nuance starts with the question of what was their objective in their creation? Simply put, Confederate partisans and their subsequent guerrilla activities against the Union was a matter of manpower. The Confederacy knew once the war started, that their military power was severely deficient compared to their northern counterparts, so attracting more men to fight for their cause was of the utmost importance. The Confederacy made partisan fighters an official part of their overall policy with the passage of the Partisan Ranger Act on 21 April 1862. This, along with its implementation via General Order No. 30, consisted of three parts: the commissioning of officers who could raise partisan units, said units could draw food and lodging with regular military units while also being beholden to military regulations, and finally, the allowance of partisan units to receive full value for captured goods to a Confederate quartermaster. This act created the structure that allowed for the creation of such key units as Mosby’s Rangers and Captain John H. McNeill’s Hardy Rangers, who would find success for the duration of the war. These two units, however, would become the exception as to their effectiveness, as many Confederate partisan and guerrilla units become more troublesome to their cause than anything. By 1864, Confederate leadership, including Robert E. Lee and then Secretary of War James Seddon had had enough of the reports of these partisan units committing wanton acts of murder, robbery, and the like, as well as actively recruiting regular army deserters, which was robbing the main Confederate armies of fighting men, so they urged the Confederate congress to disband them, which they did on 17 February 1864. There were two exceptions.
John Mosby and Confederate Guerrillas: Effective Assets or Not?
Robert E. Lee was not fond of the Confederacy's use of guerrilla units with very few exceptions, such as Mosby's Rangers.

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John Mosby and Confederate Guerrillas: Effective Assets or Not?
McNeill's Hardy Ranger, under the command of John McNeill, was one of the few ranger units that Lee felt contributed to the Confederate war effort. The Union military felt they were 'bushwhackers.'

Mosby’s Rangers and McNeill’s Hardy Rangers

The two exceptions were for Mosby’s Rangers and McNeill’s Hardy Rangers, who by 1864, had proven to be effective assets to the Confederate military cause. These partisan units had proven their worth over and over again, with their gathering of timely and accurate intelligence, disruptive hit and run tactics, and favorable disproportionate casualty/prisoner results. Mosby’s unit was in fact so respected by Lee (who was not favorable of partisan groups) who viewed him as 'highly creditable,' that his Rangers were organized into the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry as a part of the Army of Northern Virginia. Mosby and McNeill’s units, while far from battlefield gamechangers, were strong Confederate assets in that they were psychologically effective in their strikes, creating anxiety in Union civilian and military personnel alike. This anxiety in turn, often led to Union resources and men, being tied down in efforts to either prevent them from attacking certain locations, or in hunting them down (which proved extremely frustrating in regard to these two in particular). A fine example of your reputation preceding you would be with Mosby. Mosby had become so feared that he might raid Washington D.C. directly, that Gen. Hooker supposedly ordered the wood planks of the Chain Bridge that crossed over the Potomac into D.C. removed in an effort to prevent this. Later yet in 1864, as Mosby’s reputation and infamy (to many) continued to grow, as did his control of a twenty square miles of Loudon and Fauquier counties that came to be known as 'Mosby’s Confederacy,” Gen. Grant had given his subordinate Gen. Sheridan permission to deal with him and his men harshly. Grant would in fact direct Sheridan that “When any of Mosby’s men are caught, hang them without trial.'
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McNeill’s successes in capturing Union soldiers, swords, rifles, and other badly supplies, were recognized at the highest levels

Robert E. Lee in fact remarked in a letter that 'The success of Captain McNeill is very gratifying, and, I hope, may be often repeated.' These successes, along with the more numerous achievements of Mosby, were the exception to the partisan guerrilla rule for the Confederates. These two units were military assets to the Confederate cause, achieving numerous successes against greater odds, and most importantly, providing accurate and timely intelligence for Confederate leadership. The nuance though is that they were not influential in changing the course of the war, nor were they necessarily effective in direct battlefield engagements. Their value came from the consternation and sometimes outright fear that they and their exploits caused Union officers (and civilians) thus proving their worth in the psychological war. Additionally, their actions caused Union leadership to divert resources in an effort to either prevent their raids or outright capture and/or kill them which was helpful to the Confederate war effort (yet not offsetting enough to be a game changer). The prideful yet futile activities of the partisans to change the outcome of the war is best summed up by Mosby himself in his last speech that was read to his men on 21 April 1865: ‘Soldiers! I have summoned you together for the last time. The vision we have cherished of a free and independent country, has vanished, and that country, is now the spoil of a conqueror. I disband your organization in preference to surrendering it to our enemies. I am no longer your commander. After association of more than two eventful years, I part from you with a just pride, in the fame of your achievements, and grateful recollections of your generous kindness to myself. And now at this moment of bidding; you a final adieu accept the assurance of my unchanging confidence and regard.’
John Mosby and Confederate Guerrillas: Effective Assets or Not?
John 'The Gray Ghost' Mosby depicted here in a colorized photo from the Civil War, was considered the most famous and infamous of all of the Confederate guerrilla units.
John Mosby and Confederate Guerrillas: Effective Assets or Not?

Michael G. Stroud

Michael G. Stroud is a energetic and passionate U.S. based Military Historian that has published books and dozens of military history articles in various mediums from print magazines to academic journals, as well as military history websites in both the UK and the U.S. He has traveled to numerous battlefields in his study of military history from the Bannockburn battlefield in Scotland, to many American Civil War sites throughout the U.S. Additionally, Michael has been a mentor to other historians throughout the world and has been an invited guest on many history themed podcasts from the UK and the US. He maintains a strong presence on LinkedIn where he can be followed at as well as on X (formerly Twitter) @StroudMichaelG.
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