Virginia Rangers

General Orders No. 30

War Department, Adjutant, and Inspector General’s Office

Richmond, April 28, 1862

  1. The following acts having passed both houses of Congress were duly approved by the president and are now published for the information of the army :

An act to organize bands of partisan rangers

Section 1. The congress of the Confederate States of America do enact, the president be, and he is hereby authorized to commission such officers as he may deem proper with authority to form bands of Partisan rangers, in companies, battalions, or regiments, to be composed of such members as the President may approve for the purposes of unconventional warfare.

Section 2. Be it further enacted, such partisan Rangers, after regularly received in the service, shall be entitled to the same pay, rations, and quarters during the term of service, and subject to the same regulations as other soldiers.

Section 3. Be it further enacted, for any arms and munitions of war captured from the enemy by any body of partisan Rangers and delivered to any quartermaster at such place or places, may be designated by a commanding general, the Rangers shall be paid their full value in such manner as the Secretary of War may prescribe.

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In 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was not in favor of unconventional warfare.  The reason for this was that for every “unconventional” soldier, there was one less soldier to serve in the C.S. Army.  Jefferson reasoned that if this “civil” war became a protracted one, it would be difficult (if not impossible) for the Confederacy to win it.  Still, after the Union pushed conventional Confederate forces out of western Virginia in the summer-early fall of 1861, unconventional rebel forces remained behind and played hell with Union Army infrastructure.  Virginia Governor John Letcher issued a proclamation calling to raise more such irregular forces, “to recover Western Virginia” from the invaders.  On 27 March 1862, the Virginia legislature passed the Virginia Ranger Act, which authorized the organization of ten or more companies of rangers.  Note: Partisan forces were “irregular” and “unconventional” military units.

On 8 April 1862, a Virginia member of the Confederate States Congress stood to introduce a bill to allow a force of partisan Rangers (with a five-dollar bounty paid for every dead Union soldier).  The Senate removed the bounty provision but added in its place the suggestion that partisan troops receive the same basic pay as regular troops — with the caveat that they subject themselves to C.S. Army Regulations.  Note: Rangers were authorized to sell captured arms and munitions to Confederate Quartermasters.

There were two purposes to the Partisan Ranger Act.  First, control over unconventional forces and employ them to the advantage of the C.S. Army.  Second, promote the use of unconventional forces in areas outside the reach of the C.S. Army (e.g., raising hell with Union troops in Missouri).

After 22 months, however, the C.S. Congress repealed the act because far too many partisan units were “out of control.”  Quantrill’s Raiders, for example, were more an outlaw gang of murdering bastards than they were an effective “special operations” arm of the C.S. Army.  They were undisciplined and stupid.  Rather than treating civilians with tolerance and respect, they behaved themselves violently and belligerently toward “townsfolk.”  General Robert E. Lee persuaded Confederate politicians that it would be best to focus on conventional warfare because partisan forces were uncontrollable and behaved irrationally.  Moreover, according to one argument, unconventional forces were not “soldiers” under the articles of war.

The Gray Ghost

Yet, on 10 June 1863, General Lee authorized the formation of the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry and appointed 30-year old Captain John Singleton Mosby to command its only company, Company A.  Within a year, the 43rd had expanded to six companies of cavalry and one company of artillery.  When the CSA canceled the Partisan Ranger Act for all unconventional units except two: John Mosby’s 43rd Battalion, and McNeill’s Rangers (formed from Company E, 18th Virginia Cavalry, and the 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry).  Both of these “guerilla units” were permitted to continue operating within Virginia and West Virginia because their commanders were known to exercise discipline over their men during military operations.  Note: Most Union generals regarded John McNeill as a bushwhacker and resolved not to offer him the courtesy of the articles of war if captured.  John Mosby didn’t have that problem.

John, born in 1833, was a small child and somewhat frail.  His diminutive size gave most boys in school the idea that he could be bullied.  Anyone who thought that soon found out differently.  John Mosby was a fighter, and when he started fighting, he wouldn’t quit until the contest was finally settled.  He enrolled at the Hampden-Sydney College in 1847 and began his studies at the University of Virginia in 1850.

After a shooting in which John Mosby shot and wounded a tavern bully named George Turpin, lawmen arrested Mosby and charged him with one count of unlawful shooting, and one count of malicious shooting.  A jury convicted Mosby and he was sentenced to ten years in prison.  While serving time, Mosby began studying law under the mentorship of the prosecutor, William J. Robertson.  In late December 1853, Virginia Governor Joseph Johnson issued Mosby a pardon and he was set free in time to spend Christmas with his family.  Mosby completed his legal studies, passed the state bar, and set up a law practice in Howardsville, Virginia.

John Mosby married Pauline Clarke of Kentucky and they were married in 1857.  Altogether, John and Pauline had five children.  Both were dedicated parents, with John remaining involved with his children after Pauline passed away in 1876.

Mosby was an anti-secessionist but did his duty to the State of Virginia by enlisting as a private in the C.S. Army within William Jones’ Washington Mounted Rifles.  Mosby wasn’t happy with Jones’ volunteer unit and asked for a transfer.  His request was not granted.  As part of the Virginia Volunteers, John Mosby fought at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861.

In June 1862, Mosby served as a scout for J. E. B. Stuart during the Peninsular Campaign.  Union cavalry captured Mosby in Hanover County and imprisoned him for ten days.  While a prisoner, and while en route to the prisoner exchange, Mosby observed and made mental notes of what he saw.  While at Fort Monroe, Mosby noticed an unusual number of ships at the wharf and when he asked about it, he was told plainly that the ships were required for transporting Union troops into Virginia to reinforce General John Pope.  When released, Mosby went directly to Robert E. Lee and related what he had observed.

Mosby returned to General Stuart’s command and participated in raids behind Union lines in Prince William, Fairfax, and Loudoun counties.  The purpose of these raids was to disrupt Union communication and supply routes between Washington City and Fredericksburg.  And, whatever they could seize from the Union, they could add to their own supply stores.

John Singleton Mosby

In January 1863, J. E. B. Stuart obtained Lee’s permission to authorize John Mosby to form and command the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry.  Mosby’s single company eventually grew into a regimental-sized unit of unconventional cavalry that operated throughout Virginia.  Officially, the 43rd operated as a unit of the Army of Northern Virginia, subject to the orders of Robert E. Lee and J. E. B. Stuart — but its 1,900 men lived and ranged according to Mosby’s general scheme of maneuver, which no doubt had the approval of General Lee.

Before the official date of the 43rd’s commissioning, Mosby led a small force of raiders to the Fairfax County Courthouse where he captured three Union officers (including a brigadier general), 30 enlisted men, and 58 horses — without firing a shot.  Lee advanced Mosby to Major, C.S.A. on 26 March 1863.  Yet despite this (and other) successes, not every C.S.A. general thought well of the raiders/rangers.  They reasoned that “such freedoms among the soldiery” encouraged desertion in the regular units and had a negative impact on morale.

Mosby advanced to lieutenant colonel on 21 January 1864 and to colonel on 7 December 1864.  By then, everyone knew about John Mosby.  They called him “the Gray Ghost.”  Although seriously wounded on three occasions, Mosby always managed to elude the Union forces searching for him.

Following Lee’s surrender to Grant, General Hancock published a circular stating that he intended to destroy all guerilla bands.  The situation was somewhat reminiscent of the Clint Eastwood film, Josey Wales.  Hancock specifically named John Mosby as someone he was particularly interested in meeting.  Shortly thereafter, Mosby received a letter from Hancock’s chief of staff, General C. H. Morgan, urging his surrender with the promise that Mosby would receive the same terms of surrender offered to General Lee.  On 21 April 1865, Colonel John Mosby formally disbanded the 43rd Battalion and on the following day, many of his men rode their worst horses to Winchester, surrendered, received their paroles, and returned to their homes.  Mosby was not one of them.

Instead, Mosby and several of his officers rode south to join the army of General Joseph E. Johnson in North Carolina.  En route, Mosby learned that Johnson had also surrendered.  A few of his officers suggested assaulting the Union-occupied White House of the Confederacy as a demonstration that the matter was yet unresolved, but Mosby rejected the idea, telling his men that they were soldiers, not highwaymen.  Mosby and a few of his companions remained “free” despite the $5,000 bounty placed on his head.  It wasn’t until the Union rescinded the arrest warrant that he finally surrendered, on 17 June 1865.  He was one of the last C.S. officers to do so.

In 1872, John Mosby served as U. S. Grant’s campaign manager in Virginia.  Grant, apparently, respected Mosby as a soldier and as a man, stating in his autobiography, “Since the close of the war, I have come to know Colonel Mosby personally and somewhat intimately.  He is a different man entirely from what I supposed … He is able, thoroughly honest, and truthful.”  Through Grant, Mosby was able to bring federal patronage back to Virginia.  Despite these efforts on behalf of Virginians, his affiliation with the Republican Party made him a pariah among staunch Confederate Democrats.  Mosby was later appointed to serve as U.S. Consul to Hong Kong (1878-1885).

McNeill’s Rangers

The second “exception” to the repeal of the Partisan Rangers Act was a guerilla cavalry unit formed and commanded by John Hanson McNeill, whom everyone called “Hanse.”  McNeill was a native of western Virginia, born in Moorefield (now West Virginia), who in 1848 relocated his wife and four children to Boone County, Missouri, where he operated as a cattleman.  When the Civil War began, McNeill formed a company in the Missouri State Guard.  He led this company in battles near Booneville, Carthage, Wilson’s Creek, and Lexington.  At Lexington, which was a minor engagement, on 20 September 1861, McNeill was taken prisoner and imprisoned in St. Louis.  He escaped confinement on 15 June 1862 and made his way back to Virginia.  In Richmond, he obtained permission to form an independent cavalry unit for guerilla operations in western Virginia.  The C.S. Army commissioned him as a captain and appointed him to command Company E, 18th Virginia Cavalry, which became known as McNeill’s Rangers.

McNeill planned and executed several raids in and around Piedmont, Virginia, and Cumberland, Maryland, targeting the disruption of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad service.  He was so effective in his accomplishments that the Union Army diverted 25,000 men to guard the B&O Railroad.  Piedmont became a frequent objective because the town contained numerous machine shops and large stores of railroad supplies, which the B&O transported to where those supplies were needed to maintain rail service.  Piedmont was also the county seat of Hampshire County.

Captain “Hanse” McNeill

During 1863, McNeill’s Rangers performed scouting missions under Brigadier General William E. Jones and Brigadier General John D. Imboden, who commanded the irregular forces of the Confederacy in western Virginia.  General Robert E. Lee recognized McNeill for his participation in the Jones-Imboden Raids in Northwestern Virginia and western Maryland in April and May 1863.  This raid damaged and rendered inoperable several railway bridges, oil fields, and other resources critical to the Union effort.  What the raid failed to do, however, was impede the pro-statehood sentiments in West Virginia.

General Lee appreciated McNeill’s daring and accomplishments in capturing Union supply trains and his aggressiveness in engaging Union cavalry units operating in the same area.  During the Battle of Gettysburg, McNeill’s Rangers performed forage duty for the Army of Northern Virginia.  One can’t fight an army that isn’t regularly fed — McNeill provided 740 head of sheep, 160 cattle, and around 40 horses to General Lee’s men.  In early September, McNeill’s Rangers conducted a surprise night attack on three Union infantry companies en route from Petersburg to Moorefield.  McNeill took half these men as prisoners and turned them over to C.S. officials.

McNeill’s greatest success came in 1864 as he increased the number of assaults on B&O property, which effectively shut down railroad operations.  Union Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley, the officer responsible for securing West Virginia ordered, “ … I will simply say that I want McNeill found and killed.”  Kelley learned that his order was much easier issued than accomplished.  Despite a force of around 200 Union cavalry sent to dispatch McNeill, he was not located, inconvenienced, or diverted from his raiding activities.

But McNeill wasn’t completely unmolested.  The Union employed “irregular” units of their own.  The Pendleton County Home Guard continually confronted McNeill’s Rangers.  On 19 July 1864, McNeill sent a detachment against Captain John Boggs of the PCHG and found that they’d met their match.  Boggs not only repulsed the detachment but also killed its leader, Lieutenant Dolan.  At the Battle of New Market, McNeill’s Rangers fought a successful delaying action against Union forces that allowed C.S. General John Breckinridge to marshal his forces and attack and drive the federals out of New Market.

In the early morning hours of 3 October 1864, Captain McNeill led fifty of his rangers against a company of the 8th Ohio Cavalry, who were guarding a bridge over the Shenandoah River.  The engagement only lasted 15 or so minutes, with most of the Ohio unit ending up as prisoners, but Hanse McNeill was seriously wounded.  His men removed him to a home on Rude’s Hill where Union General Phil Sheridan later discovered him, and to whom McNeill surrendered.  Thinking that McNeill was too badly wounded to escape, Union forces ignored him long enough for a few Raiders to snatch him away and move him to Harrisonburg.  McNeill succumbed to his wounds on 10 November.  Command of the Raiders passed to “Hanse’s” son, Lieutenant Jesse Cunningham McNeill.

During the night of 21 February 1865, Jesse led 65 Raiders sixty miles behind enemy lines to Cumberland, Maryland, where, without detection by any of the 10,000 Union troops guarding them, they captured Major General George Crook and Brigadier General Kelley while they slept.  The raid was so fast and stealthy that the Raiders carried it off before anyone realized what was happening.  McNeill turned Crook and Kelley over the C.S. General Jubal Early.  Jesse was subsequently promoted to Captain.  On 8 May 1865, Captain Jesse McNeill surrendered his Rangers to Union officials and received their parole.

Those other Virginia Rangers

Samuel Carrington Means (1828-1891) was a grist miller from Waterford, Virginia, and a station master for the B&O Railroad.  Means was a Quaker and a dedicated Unionist with no interest in serving the Confederacy.  When the C.S. Army issued warrants for his arrest, Means left his family behind and escaped to Maryland.  The State of Virginia subsequently seized Samuel Means’s property.

Samuel Carrington Means

When Union General John Geary invaded Loudoun County, Virginia in March 1862, Means served as a scout in his advance element.  Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, in recognition for his service, commissioned him a captain in the Union Army with permission to raise a company of partisan cavalry for border service in Loudoun County, Virginia, and Maryland.  Dubbed the Loudoun Rangers, recruitment eventually raised two companies of men to serve as irregular cavalry.  The Loudoun Rangers often operated along with the 1st Potomac Home Brigade and equally often confronted White’s 35th Virginia Cavalry, Mosby’s 43rd Virginia Cavalry, and Mobberly’s renegade company.  Note: John Mobberly was a particularly loathsome creature who perpetrated war crimes against the citizens of Loudoun County, Virginia — citizens who assassinated him in April 1865.

Means commanded the company through 1864 when the unit was mustered into regular service with the U.S. Army.  Samuel Means resigned his commission over this decision.  Toward the end of the war, the Loudoun Rangers returned to irregular service but in April 1865, the company was deactivated, and its soldiers returned to their homes.  The Loudoun County Rangers was the only Virginia cavalry unit to serve the Union during the Civil War. 

 Sources:

  1. Duffey, J. W.  McNeill’s Last Charge: An Account of a daring Confederate in the Civil War.  Norton Publishers, 1912.
  2. Evans, T. J. and James M. Moyer.  Mosby’s Confederacy: A Guide to the Roads and Sites of Colonel John Singleton Mosby.  White Plains Publishing, 1991.
  3. French, S.  Phantoms of the South Fork: Captain McNeill and His Rangers.  Kent State University Press, 2017.
  4. Johnson, A. R.  The Partisan Rangers of the Confederate States Army.  G.G. Fetter, 1904.
  5. Jones, V. C.  Ranger Mosby.  University of North Carolina Press, 1944.
  6. Keen, H. C., and Horace Mewborn.  43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry: Mosby’s Command.  H.E. Howard Publishing, 1993.
  7. Mosby, J. S.  The Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby.  Little/Brown, 1917.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Military, Civil War, History, Partisan Rangers, Virginia. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Virginia Rangers

  1. I was not born or raised in Virginia. I only live here because my children settled in Maryland and Virginia. I am from Chicago but have lived in Virginia for 20 years. I wonder how much of this and the Virginia rangers played into the civil war, was it only to be a separate country/nation, or was it solely due to slavery?

    Interestingly for three years, we lived down in Lynchburg before moving back to the northern area near Loudoun County. While living in Lynchburg we would hear ramblings about the reenactment of certain episodes of the Civil War in Appomattox, near Lynchburg. We refused to attend because the south leaves a stench in my nostrils.

    This is a very divided Commonwealth even today. Their laws are old English laws and archaic in many ways. While doing contract work sorting through the laws and codes here was a project. It seems many are upon layers and hidden.

    I believe Virginia, which I have no alliance towards is still proud of its part in the civil war. Though many here decry slavery, secretly in middle Virginia they seem to miss it. I realize I am off topic but your subject seems to be fitting for Virginia to date. Though on the outside they have seemed to change, inwardly they are an odd lot.

    Like

    • Mustang says:

      I do believe slavery was an issue for the civil war, but I do not think slavery was the issue that propelled thousands of poor white dirt farmers into serving the Confederacy. Still, the war was beyond traumatic for the American people, of all skin colors … so much so that we continue to feel its effects today.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your response Mustang. That is awful to know that a war over 100 years ago still affects us all. Do you believe we could ever overcome the damage caused by the civil war?

      Like

    • Mustang says:

      “Do you believe we could ever overcome the damage caused by the civil war?”

      Yes, I do — But not until “we the people” get a grip on reality. The reality is that the Civil War ended 157 years ago. It’s time to digest the lessons (which is that the United States has never been United) and move on into the light. We might, for example, come to realize that black people weren’t the only human beings who suffered slavery. We might also realize that slavery continues to exist today, for different (although equally disgusting) reasons and at different locations. We don’t seem to be doing much about modern slavery; we do not seem to be overly concerned about the slavery of low expectations or the government dole.

      “Can we overcome the damage caused by the civil war?” Sure. As soon as we stop whining about it. We must judge no man by the circumstances of his birth — but we can judge a man if, at the moment of his death, he has not changed the circumstances of his birth. If America truly is the land of the free, then I say to every American — be free.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I totally agree with your assessment. It is ridiculous that now after all the years African Americans still want reparations (thought we did that during the Clinton era). Also they are suing for their land back apparently given to their ancestors (that I can sort of get). But we should come together and one nation and people under God. Well I hope that for our future if we want to survive all this inner turmoil.

      FYI, I put a post up on mental health in the military. I’m no expert and not a long read but I felt all military should be respected for their service. People have no respect these days especially the millennials and younger. Just a sidebar …

      Like

  2. Andy says:

    Mustang, you chose a rare topic for this essay – the use of unconventional forces during the Civil War. Bravo! A mostly unstudied topic, indeed. Yet, it is an interesting one and critical to history of the war between the States.

    As a boy, I read a couple of books about the Gray Ghost and his exploits. However, McNeill and Means remained unknown to me until now. These men and their contributions to American history are important to understanding the times in which they lived.

    Once again, well done!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Brian says:

    I agree with Andy 100%, was almost going to say the exact thing. Very well done and as usual, a wealth of knowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That was pretty explanatory. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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