The Fairfax Raid

Brigadier-General Edwin H. Stoughton commanded a Federal force around Fairfax Court House, Virginia, south of Washington, D.C. Stoughton and his chief subordinate, Colonel Percy Wyndham, were tasked with tracking down and capturing Confederate partisans in the area. The main partisan force was led by Captain John S. Mosby.

John S. Mosby | Image Credit:

Mosby had recently formed the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry, an independent Confederate unit in accordance with the Partisan Ranger Act. The battalion was technically part of the Army of Northern Virginia, but the troopers had the freedom to operate outside the army’s immediate vicinity and live among civilians. Wyndham’s Federals had disrupted Confederate operations, so when a Federal deserter informed Mosby that only a small detachment protected Stoughton and Wyndham, Mosby decided to raid Fairfax. He selected 29 men to join him without telling them what their mission was. They set out on the night of March 8.

The Confederates bypassed the Federal pickets and entered Fairfax around 2 a.m. Mosby soon learned that Wyndham had gone to Washington on business, but Stoughton was staying in a nearby brick house. Mosby went and knocked on the door, which was answered by a half-asleep staff officer who was instantly silenced and captured.

The officer quietly led Mosby to Stoughton’s bedroom upstairs, which was littered with empty champagne bottles. The general was sound asleep wearing only his nightshirt. Mosby later wrote, “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.” When Stoughton woke and angrily demanded an explanation, Mosby said, “General, did you ever hear of Mosby?” Stoughton asked, “Yes, have you caught him?” Mosby replied, “No, I am Mosby–he has caught you!”

Mosby persuaded Stoughton not to resist by lying, “(General Jeb) Stuart’s cavalry has possession of the Court House; be quick and dress.” Mosby’s men captured more men than their total force, including Stoughton and two captains. They also netted 58 horses and large amounts of arms and supplies.

Southerners celebrated Mosby’s daring and sensational raid. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, declared, “Mosby has covered himself with honors.” Conversely, this raid embarrassed the Federal high command and angered the northern public. When President Abraham Lincoln learned of the affair, he tried making light of it by saying, “I can make a much better Brigadier in five minutes, but the horses cost a hundred and twenty-five dollars apiece.”

Stoughton was sent to Libby Prison in Richmond as a prisoner of war; he resigned from the army upon his release. Wyndham refused to return to his command for three weeks.


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