During the last week of February 1863 a hulking trooper in his early 30s from the Fifth New York Cavalry walked alone into Fauquier County, Virginia about forty miles west of Lincoln’s Capital to locate the Confederate guerrillas who for the past month had shattered the previous “All quiet along the Potomac” monotony often reported in the Northern press. Sergeant James Ames claimed he wanted to join the Rebels because he objected to the recent Emancipation Proclamation. He was taken to a secret outdoor gathering where every member – except one – assumed he was a spy, fit for immediate execution. The exception was the diminutive leader who was officially a private. But he was no ordinary private.
Within days 29-year-old John S. Mosby would be promoted to lieutenant. Twice before he performed invaluable scouts for Major General Jeb Stuart and General Robert E. Lee. First, he discovered the flaw in Union Major General George McClellan’s army deployment that enabled Jeb Stuart’s “Ride around McClellan” less than a year earlier. Second, after the Seven Days Campaign near Richmond last July, he informed Lee when Union soldiers started abandoning the Peninsula between the James and York Rivers to join Major General John Pope near Washington. The intelligence convinced Lee he could safely turn his back on McClellan to go after Pope before the latter was too heavily reinforced. The result was a smashing Confederate victory at Second Bull Run. By the end of 1862 Mosby asked Stuart for permission to organize a commando force to spread mischief among Yankees along the otherwise peaceful Potomac.
Mosby questioned Ames about Union deployments around Fairfax Court House where the Fifth New York Cavalry was encamped among numerous other units only fifteen miles from the White House. If his conversion was genuine, the former Yankee sergeant could play a vital role in a secret plan Mosby was forming. Having earlier scouted Fairfax himself, he judged that Ames responded accurately to questioning. He told the volunteer that he would be admitted to the band if he got his own mount. The sergeant walked back to Fairfax with another hopeful recruit where they talked casually with a detail of Vermont troopers saddling-up to hunt Mosby’s rangers. After the soldiers left, the two leisurely selected a couple of horses and rode off to join the Rebels.
Privately Mosby wanted to sneak into Fairfax one night to capture a slumbering Colonel Percy Wyndham of the First New Jersey Cavalry. Wyndham had annoyed the guerrilla leader by ranting that the commandos were mere “horse thieves.” He also threatened to burn Middleburg, Virginia if its citizens didn’t persuade the band to disperse. Happily Ames’s description of how he obtained his mount implied that Fairfax was so far behind enemy lines that a Confederate raid might catch the enemy off guard. Mosby was hopeful that Ames could inconspicuously guide his raiders to Wyndham’s headquarters. But first he resolved to battle-test the newcomer’s loyalty.
Shortly thereafter an unarmed Ames was included on a night attack of a Union cavalry detachment bedded down for winter warmth inside several un-chinked log houses. Mosby hoped to capture a few troopers who might be questioned further about Fairfax defenses. The sleeping enemy was surprised and scattered after a brief fight. Several were killed or wounded and five captured. After the skirmish, Mosby’s men accepted the New Yorker and nicknamed him, “Big Yankee” Ames.
On March 8th – the day before the Monitor and Merrimack ironclads dueled 150 miles to the southeast – Mosby assembled 29 raiders at Dover, Virginia, about 22 miles West of Fairfax Court House. Only he and Ames knew the plan was to kidnap Wyndham. In pitch darkness Ames skillfully directed the column between flickering campfires servicing thousands of Union soldiers. When occasionally questioned, “Who goes there?” he responded “Fifth New York Cavalry”.
The Rebels entered Fairfax about two o’clock in the morning of March 9th. Ames took a squad to Wyndham’s HQ, only to learn that the colonel was spending the night in Washington. Meanwhile, Mosby sent details to cut telegraph wires and to capture any alert federals that might spread an alarm. The telegraph operator revealed that Brigadier General Edwin Stoughton who commanded a Vermont brigade, instead of a mere regiment like Wyndham, slept at a nearby residence. A squad gained entrance by falsely representing they were New York cavalry with a message for the general.
Mosby went to the brigadier’s bedroom and unceremoniously slapped his backside. As the victim was awakening Mosby said, “General, did you ever hear of Mosby?”
“Yes, have you caught him?”
“I am Mosby. Stuart’s cavalry holds the courthouse. Be quick and dress.”
Gathering his senses, Stoughton asked, “Is [Confederate Brigadier General] Fitz Lee here?”
“Yes,” lied Mosby.
“Take me to him. We were [West Point] classmates.”
“Very well, but dress quickly.”
Ninety minutes after arriving, the Confederates were attempting to leave with General Stoughton and thirty-two other captives when the colonel of the Fifth New York Cavalry leaned out of an upper story window of a nearby house to shout, “Halt. The horses need rest. I will not allow them to be taken out. What the devil is the matter? I am the cavalry commander here and this must be stopped!”
Suddenly, the colonel realized the riders below were Rebels. Mosby sent two rangers into the house where the man’s wife stalled them as the naked colonel escaped into the night. He remained hidden unpleasantly in the hollow of a privy until the danger passed. By daylight the raiders were safely escaping toward a region of Northern Virginia destined to become known as “Mosby’s Confederacy.”
News that a federal general surrounded by thousands of friendly troops was snatched from his HQ within an easy present day bicycle commute of Washington led to concerns that the president or cabinet members might be targeted next. For weeks thereafter flooring planks on a major Potomac bridge were removed nightly. For his part, the president said, “I don’t mind the loss of a brigadier as much as the [58 captured] horses. I can make a much better general in five minutes, but the horses cost $125 each.”
Humiliated authorities promptly launched an investigation. It falsely concluded Mosby must have learned secret signs and passwords from trusted local residents. Consequently, a number of innocent citizens were arrested and sent to prison. Nobody suspected “Big Yankee” Ames.
Intelligence Chief Lafayette Baker soon focused on a twenty-four year old beauty named Antonia Ford. She was known to be friendly with general Stoughton and rumored to be intimate. When Stoughton’s mother and sister visited from Vermont, they boarded at the Ford household. Antonia’s brother died earlier while in Confederate service. Although the previous summer she provided information to Stuart, it is unlikely she played a role in Stoughton’s abduction. After the war Mosby said Antonia was “as innocent as Abraham Lincoln.” Nonetheless, she was arrested and briefly imprisoned.
On the day of her arrest, Major Joseph C. Willard escorted Antonia to the courthouse. He was a part owner of the still-famous hotel bearing his name, presently located only a block from the White House visitor’s center. Within a year of his chaperoning duty Major Willard married Antonia.
“Big Yankee” Ames remained one of Mosby’s most valued rangers, eventually attaining the rank of second lieutenant. He was killed while delivering a message in October 1864 near Delaplane, Virginia. A roadside marker on US Highway 17 indicates the spot.
Mosby’s command was barely two months old when General Stoughton was captured. Their exploits became increasingly legendary as the war progressed. About a year after the Stoughton affair, Mosby persistently raided the railroad supplying Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant’s army as it was preparing to move against Lee, resulting in the Battle of the Wilderness. One day a southbound train puffed into Warrenton Junction only moments after the rangers passed through chasing a Union cavalry detachment, which they were still pursuing in the distance.
As the train briefly stopped, a black-bearded federal officer with a cigar protruding from his mouth noticed an aged civilian squatting nearby. Pointing in the direction of the recently departed cavalry, General Grant asked, “What is that cloud of dust?”
The old-timer answered, “Mosby, chasing Yankees.”
Since his train was unguarded, the North’s highest-ranking general may have come within only minutes of being Mosby’s most famous prisoner.
If you would like to learn more interesting Civil War stories, consider reading one, or more, of my three books:
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated
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— Phil Leigh