On Sunday after church I had the pleasure of touring “Mosby’s Confederacy” in bucolic northern Virginia outside suburbia, visiting some of Confederate partisan Colonel John Mosby’s safe houses. The rolling hills and quaint villages are now better known for wineries, country taverns, and posh estates. What irony that what’s now so charming and chic was filled with killing, ambush and horror several generations ago.
Mosby the “Grey Ghost” who operated stealthily behind federal lines, always evading death and permanent capture, is an almost mystical figure who has become a sort of regional icon. There was a television series about Mosby in the 1950s, and a Disney movie in the 1960s, which portrayed his most famous triumph, the nighttime capture of a surprised Federal general in his bedroom. The house of that scene now is part of Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax.
As a native Northern Virginian, I can’t think of a time when I did not know about Mosby, imagining his exploits when my own neighborhood during the Civil War had been still a rural enclave outside the federal capital. I did my first tour of Mosby sites about 20 years ago. An elderly Virgil Carrington, who had helped on the tv series, was there as one of Mosby’s first biographers who had actually interviewed Mosby’s last surviving ranger.
A school friend of mine was a descendant of Mosby’s best friend and fellow partisan, Fountain Beattie. I once met my friend’s great aunt, who could recall her grandfather the Civil War cavalryman. She was also acquainted with Mosby’s grandson, a retired admiral, who remembered her grandfather’s visits with his grandfather, when they typically talked politics.
Mosby was famously Republican after the war, one of the few ex-Confederates who were, partly due to the friendship he began when his former adversary Ulysses Grant became president. His politics earned him political appointments from Republican presidents but also enmity from many fellow ex Confederates. He quit living in his native Virginia after an apparent assassination attempt at the Warrenton train station, which is now a nice restaurant.
Reputedly Mosby was raised or at least baptized Methodist, which he omits in his memoir, never becoming a devout churchman. He married a pious Catholic woman, and his children were raised Catholic. Several of his closest associates, like Beattie, were Catholic, which was a little unusual among Confederates. After his wife’s death, Mosby occasionally attended Catholic churches and expressed hope about seeing his beloved wife again.
Mosby in public was typically steely if not cold. He didn’t romanticize the war, scoffed at claims by some southerners that it wasn’t fought in defense of slavery, credited Lincoln for freeing the slaves, and wanted to look forward. He was a modern man who drove a car, watched movies (a movie about him appeared in his lifetime), lived to see World War I, and commented on rising radio towers outside Washington, where he lived and died. Grant’s son appeared at the hospital during Mosby’s final illness to offer good wishes.
One house on Sunday’s tour is where Beattie met his future bride and where Mosby, while visiting his wife, was nearly captured by converging Federal troops, from whom he escaped by clambering out a window onto a tree limb. That limb is gone but the majestic tree still remains. A re-enactor there portrays Beattie, explaining that Beattie quit the area after the war, not wanting to live amid so many dark memories.
The verdant beauty of the Virginia horse country is hauntingly seductive. Reaching the final safe-house on the tour entailed a long drive down an ancient dirt road mostly unchanged since Mosby’s day. There are wild flowers, red barns, cattle filling the hills, a log cabin, and views of the Blue Ridge.
Picturing so much intrigue and blood letting amid the natural splendor is hard, no doubt harder still was it for Mosby and others on both sides who unrelentingly lived it. Mosby was severely wounded three times, including shots to his groin and abdomen. But Sunday’s tour was a reminder of humanity’s tragically fallen nature, which scenic wineries and country fine dining cannot disguise. God’s natural creation shines forth even as we who carry His image persist in rebellion against Him, until all creation is fully redeemed.