Tag Archives: Partisan Ranger Act

Reconsidering the Confederate Partisan Ranger System

January 7, 1864 – Colonel John Singleton Mosby’s Confederate partisan rangers operated in northern Virginia, while calls grew louder among Confederate officers to ban the partisan ranger system.

John S. Mosby | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Throughout the winter, Mosby’s rangers operated around Warrenton, an area nicknamed “Mosby’s Confederacy.” Mosby’s men technically belonged to the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry in the Army of Northern Virginia, but under the Partisan Ranger Act, they acted independently and lived among the citizenry. Unlike many rangers who disdained military regulations, Mosby’s troopers were respected as effective members of Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry.

Mosby’s activities mainly included raiding Federal wagon trains and scouting. Federal cavalry stationed at Warrenton under Colonel John P. Taylor routinely rode throughout the countryside in search of Mosby’s elusive rangers. In early January, troopers from Colonel Henry Cole’s 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade entered Virginia via Harpers Ferry to hunt Mosby down. But when a detachment of 80 men left Rectortown, Mosby’s men pursued and attacked, killing four, wounding 10, and capturing 41.

Another Federal detachment attacked and scattered Mosby’s command, but a portion counterattacked, capturing 25 Federals and 50 horses. A separate detachment from Mosby under Lieutenant “Fighting Tom” Turner launched a surprise attack on Taylor’s Federals at Warrenton, taking another 20 prisoners. Mosby soon turned his attention back to Cole’s battalion.

Mosby led about 100 rangers to Loudon Heights, overlooking Harpers Ferry, where Cole and about 200 Federals were camped on the night of the 9th. Mosby later reported, “The camp was buried in profound sleep, there was not a sentinel awake.” However, the Federals quickly awoke and attacked Mosby’s force. Mosby ordered a charge, but the Federals inflicted numerous casualties. One of Mosby’s rangers later recalled:

“The dead and dying lay around. From the tents came forth moans of pain and shrieks of agony. Some of the combatants stood almost in reach of one another, firing into each other’s face, crying out: ‘Surrender!’ ‘No, I won’t! You surrender!’”

The Confederates ultimately drove the Federals off. Mosby reported, “Confusion and delaying having ensued from the derangement of my plans, consequent on the alarm given to the enemy, rendered it hazardous to continue in my position, as re-enforcements were near the enemy.” With the infantry at Harpers Ferry mobilizing, Mosby ordered a withdrawal.

The rangers sustained just 12 casualties (eight killed, three wounded, and one captured) while inflicting 26 (four killed, 16 wounded, and six taken prisoner). However, the Confederates were not used to either taking casualties or retreating. As such, an officer later wrote, “A sad and sullen silence pervaded our ranks and found expression in every countenance. All that we could have gained would not compensate for the loss we sustained.”

While the “Gray Ghost” and his rangers would live to fight another day, Confederate officials debated how they should be organized. More and more officers in the Confederate armies were complaining about the partisan rangers. The rangers did not have to strictly adhere to army regulations, they could live among the people, and they could enjoy the bounties they captured. Perhaps most importantly, they encouraged soldiers to desert the army in favor of this more adventurous (and less regulatory) branch of service.

General Robert E. Lee, who originally supported the partisan ranger system, urged the War Department to disband these units in 1863 due to their lack of discipline, their harassment of civilians, and their tendency to draw troops from the regular armies. Secretary of War James A. Seddon responded in November 1863 by banning all partisan ranger outfits except those commanded by John H. McNeill in West Virginia and Mosby in northern Virginia.

In December 1863, Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser, a cavalry brigade commander under Jeb Stuart, reported that 60 of his men deserted while serving in the Shenandoah Valley. Rosser stated that the men had once belonged to a partisan unit that was forced to join the regular cavalry, and they left because they had grown tired of army regulations. Rosser also had problems working with McNeill, who often refused to follow his orders.

This month, Rosser wrote to Lee describing the partisans as “a nuisance and an evil to the service”:

“Without discipline, order, or organization, they roam broadcast over the country, a band of thieves, stealing, pillaging, plundering, and doing every manner of mischief and crime. They are a terror to the citizens and an injury to the cause. They never fight; can’t be made to fight. Their leaders are generally brave, but few of the men are good soldiers, and have engaged in this business for the sake of gain. The effect upon the service is bad, and I think, if possible, it should be corrected.”

Rosser cited three reasons why all partisan units should be disbanded:

  • Instead of roaming the countryside, their “bayonet or saber should be counted on the field of battle when the life or death of our country is the issue.”
  • They caused “great dissatisfaction in the ranks” because they “are allowed so much latitude, so many privileges. They sleep in houses and turn out in the cold only when it is announced by their chief that they are to go upon a plundering expedition.”
  • They encouraged desertion:

“It is almost impossible for one to manage the different companies of my brigade that are from Loudoun, Fauquier, Fairfax, &c., the region occupied by Mosby. They see these men living at their ease and enjoying the comforts of home, allowed to possess all that they capture, and their duties mere pastime pleasures compared with their own arduous ones; and it is a natural consequence in the nature of man that he should become dissatisfied under these circumstances. Patriotism fails in the long and tedious war like this to sustain the ponderous burdens which bear heavily and cruelly upon the heart and soul of man.”

To remedy the “melancholy” spreading among his men, Rosser urged his superiors to place “all men on the same footing.” If partisan activity was needed for the war effort, “then require the commanding officer to keep them in an organized condition, to rendezvous within our lines, and move upon the enemy when opportunity is offered.” While Rosser singled Mosby out as a “gallant officer,” he argued that Mosby’s service had little impact on the war.

Lee consulted with Stuart, who agreed with everything that Rosser wrote. Stuart contended that Mosby’s partisans were “the only efficient band of rangers I know of,” but he often used just “one-fourth of his nominal strength” while his other three-fourths were living comfortably among civilians. Stuart concluded, “Such organizations, as a rule, are detrimental to the best interests of the army at large.”

Based on this, Lee wrote, “I recommend that the law authorizing these partisan corps be abolished. The evils resulting from their organization more than counterbalance the good they accomplish.” A bill was immediately introduced in the Confederate Congress to repeal the Partisan Ranger Act.



CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 561; Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (Series 1, Volume 33), p. 12-16, 457, 1081-83; Ramage, James A., Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby (University Press of Kentucky, 2009); Wert, Jeffry D., Mosby’s Rangers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991); Williamson, James Joseph, Mosby’s Rangers: A Record of the Operations of the Forty-Third Battalion (1909)

The Border District: Ewing Incites Guerrillas

August 14, 1863 – Brigadier General Thomas Ewing incurred the wrath of Confederate raiders operating along the Missouri-Kansas border by targeting their relatives, including women and children.

Brig Gen Thomas Ewing | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The border conflict between Missouri and Kansas, which had begun before the war, continued raging as the war progressed. Ewing (brother-in-law of William T. Sherman), commanding the Federal District of the Border, had just 2,500 men spread out across Missouri, Kansas, and the Colorado Territory. There were no concentrated enemy forces, but the Federals had to deal with pro-Confederate partisans operating mainly in western Missouri and eastern Kansas.

These partisans, mostly based in Missouri, crossed the border, launched quick attacks, and then disappeared among the population. Since the Federals could not track them down, Ewing authorized the arrest of anyone suspected of aiding or abetting them, including their mothers, wives, and daughters. This infuriated the raiders, who had made it a point not to make war on women.

Ewing’s Federals began rounding up these women and sending them to designated prison camps, including abandoned warehouses and other buildings. One such structure was an old three-story brick building in Kansas City, in which the women were held on the second floor. On the 14th, this building collapsed, killing five and injuring many others.

The partisans believed that Ewing had deliberately sabotaged the building. It was in a dilapidated condition, and Ewing had been warned that it might collapse. Among the women killed was the sister of William Anderson, who became known as “Bloody Bill” following his retaliatory rampage. Other women were related to notorious partisan leader Colonel William C. Quantrill.

Col W.C. Quantrill | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Quantrill had gained notoriety during the fight over “Bleeding Kansas” before the war, making money by charging exorbitant fees to return fugitive slaves to their masters, as well as stealing horses and cattle. When the war began, he raised a group of pro-Confederate raiders that included “Bloody Bill,” Cole Younger, and Frank and Jesse James. Quantrill became a captain under the Confederate Partisan Ranger Act, but when the Confederate government denied him a colonelship, he bestowed the title upon himself anyway.

Four days after the Kansas City building collapse, Ewing exacerbated the partisans’ rage further by issuing General Order No. 10. This declared that the arrests would continue, and furthermore, “the wives and children of known guerrillas, and also women who are heads of families and are willfully engaged in aiding guerrillas, will be notified… to remove out of this district and out of the State of Missouri forthwith.”

Quantrill and his raiders received word of the tragedy at Kansas City and Ewing’s punitive response while camped in western Missouri. Quantrill had been planning to raid Lawrence, the abolitionist headquarters of Kansas that had been sacked by pro-slavery forces in 1856. Ever since James H. Lane, a U.S. senator who led Unionist Kansas forces, sacked Osceola, Missouri, in 1861, Quantrill had sought revenge.

The raiders, who had spies in Lawrence, prepared a “death list” of prominent Unionist residents, including Lane. Scouts informed Quantrill that an attack might fail because large bodies of Federal troops often passed through on their way to other posts. But Quantrill argued, “Lawrence is the great hotbed of abolitionism in Kansas, and we can get more revenge and more money there than anywhere else in the state.” And now, after learning of Ewing’s depredations, Quantrill resolved to attack no matter what.

On the 19th, Quantrill and about 300 Missouri partisans began heading toward Kansas. As they reached the border, Quantrill announced, “This is a hazardous ride, and there is a chance we will all be annihilated. Any man who feels he is not equal to the task can quit, and no one will call him a coward.” Some left, but most remained. In fact, they gained new recruits along the way, boosting their total to around 450.

The partisans rode through the night, stopping at farms to get directions to Lawrence in the dark. The raiders killed any civilian who recognized Quantrill, spoke German (German immigrants were largely pro-Republican), or was a known abolitionist. In all, 10 farmers were forced to serve as guides and then murdered by the time Quantrill and his men approached Lawrence before dawn on the 21st.

Quantrill had planned to attack at night, but now dawn was approaching, so the attack would have to take place in broad daylight. Lawrence was a large town of about 2,000 people, and some partisans began having second thoughts about attacking. Quantrill told them, “You can do as you please. I am going to Lawrence.”



CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 302-03; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), p. 703-04; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 340-41; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 399; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 785; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 152; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q363

Mosby’s Fairfax Raid

March 8, 1863 – Captain John S. Mosby and his Confederate partisans conducted a daring raid that included capturing a general who had been tasked to capture them.

John S. Mosby | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

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.

Mosby planned to lead his men on a raid of Fairfax Court House, south of Washington. A Federal brigade was stationed about five miles south of town while the brigade’s two ranking officers, Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton and Colonel Percy Wyndham, were headquartered in the town itself.

Ironically, Stoughton’s main objective was to capture Confederate partisans such as Mosby. Wyndham had caused Mosby much grief by pursuing him the past few months. A deserter from the 5th New York Cavalry informed Mosby that just a small detachment of troops protected these officers. Mosby selected 29 men to join him without telling them what their mission was. They set out on the night of the 8th.

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 woke Stoughton by lifting the nightshirt and slapping his bare behind. When Stoughton 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 a large amount of arms and supplies.

Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Southerners celebrated Mosby’s daring raid, which 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 that he could make another general in five minutes, “but those horses cost $125 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.



CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 265; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 514; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 244; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 269; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 514; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 327; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 724

The Newburgh Raid

July 17, 1862 – This evening, Confederate Captain Adam R. Johnson led 35 partisans out of Henderson, Kentucky, to raid the Federal arsenal across the Ohio River at Newburgh, Indiana.

Johnson considered himself the leader of an irregular Confederate force in accordance with the Confederate Partisan Ranger Act. However, his men were civilians, and neither he nor his men wore military uniforms, making them outlaws in Federal eyes. Johnson had been dispatched to Henderson by Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest to deliver a message. He stayed after its delivery and recruited men for his cause.

Johnson planned to break into the Newburgh arsenal, a two-story brick warehouse on the riverfront, and bring the weapons back to Kentucky before Federal troops at nearby Evansville could react. The only troops defending Newburgh were Federal soldiers convalescing at the Exchange Hotel, which had been converted to a hospital. To Johnson’s good luck, the telegraph line between Newburgh and Evansville was not working at the time.

While scout Robert M. Martin led 24 men east of Newburgh to create a diversion, Johnson and two Confederates rowed across the Ohio and seized the arsenal. Eight soldiers manned two cannon trained on the town from the Kentucky side of the river.

“Cannon” overlooking Newburgh | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Newburgh residents immediately realized that their arsenal had been taken. Johnson, expecting Martin’s men to cover his withdrawal, entered the hotel and captured the local Federal commander. Johnson held off the town’s defenders by showing them the two cannon and threatening to “shell this town to the ground.” The Federals did not know that the “cannon” were actually stovepipes set on wagon wheels and axles.

Johnson’s men loaded the arsenal weapons onto waiting skiffs, covered by Martin’s troops and the “cannon.” A Federal gunboat and troop transport unexpectedly blocked the Confederates’ return, prompting Johnson and two men to fire on the convoy to prevent a troop landing, wounding two Federals. Believing they faced a large force, the Federals withdrew, and Johnson’s Confederates returned to Henderson.

Newburgh became the first northern town to be captured by Confederates in the war. Johnson earned the nickname “Stovepipe” for this operation and received a promotion to colonel from General Braxton Bragg. Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton, shocked by the seemingly effortless raid, telegraphed Washington to send reinforcements.

Within three days, 1,000 Federal troops had arrived and were conveyed down the Ohio by Commander Alexander M. Pennock’s fleet of steamers and tugs. The Federals crossed the Ohio, occupying Henderson and other border towns in northern Kentucky while recovering some of the stolen weapons.

The Federals did not find Johnson’s raiders, but Pennock received “the gratitude with which the citizens of Indiana and of this locality will regard the prompt cooperation of yourself and your officers in this emergency, which threatened their security.” Johnson’s raid bolstered military recruitment in Indiana and demonstrated the need for more border patrols.



Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 195-96; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 183-84; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 242; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 395, 524-25; Wikipedia: Newburgh Raid