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Retaliation. [from the Richmond, Va., Times, September 3, 1899.]

The execution of Seven prisoners by Col. John S. Mosby.

A self-protective necessity.

The dedication at Front Royal of the monument to the six men of the 43d battalion of Virginia cavalry on the anniversary of the day they were hung, September 23, 1864, revives the memory of a painful episode of the war. But it does more: it proves that heroic sentiment still survives and that those who died for their country's cause, did not die in vain.

‘Their country conquers with their martyrdom.’

At the time it occurred, I was away from my command, wounded. Sheridan, with an overwhelming force, was pushing Early up the Shenandoah Valley; he had sent Torbert with two divisions of cavalry to cut off his retreat at New Market; Wickham in command of Fitz Lee's cavalry division had repulsed them at Milford, and Torbert was retreating down the Valley. Captain Sam Chapman—the same Chapman whom McKinley recently sent as a chaplain to preach humanity in Cuba—this is one of the revenges of time—with a detachment of fifty or sixty men went to the Valley to strike a blow to impede Sheridan's march by breaking his line of communications. This was the work in which we had been engaged. If Sheridan's dispatches to Grant are true, he was as much annoyed by the war in his rear as by that in his front. In his report of the campaign he belittles our operations by saying that he was benefitted by them as we kept his men from straggling—but afterward, finding that it would be of more advantage to his reputation to take the opposite ground, in his Memoirs he maintains that while his army was numerically superior to Early's, yet the partisans in his rear compelled such heavy detachments to guard the border and his line of supplies, that their actual strength was about equal. The Memoir (Vol. I, p. 499) says: ‘The difference of strength between the two armies at this date was considerably in my favor, but the conditions attending my situation in a hostile region necessitated so much detached service [315] that my excess in numbers was almost cancelled by these incidental demands that could not be avoided, and although I knew I was strong, yet in consequence of the injunctions of General Grant, I deemed it necessary to be very cautious,’ etc.

A high tribute.

This is the highest tribute ever paid to the efficiency of my command. The inspection reports at that time show that Sheridan had in his department a total present for duty of 94,026. Early's total effective, with Kershaw (whose division was not in the battle of Winchester), was 21,000. Sheridan then had good military reasons for burning of the country to drive us out. But to return from this digression. At Front Royal, Chapman saw an ambulance train, under an escort of cavalry, coming down the pike. As he had not heard of Torbert's defeat, and that he was retreating down the Valley, and not dreaming that a corps of cavalry was in supporting distance immediately behind it, he attacked the escort and drove it back on the main body. Having leaped into the midst of overwhelming numbers, he had to call off his men and abandon what he had won. A body of cavalry was sent around to intercept his retreat, and formed across his path. Merritt's whole division was in pursuit. When Chapman's men came upon the cavalry in the road that barred their way, they opened upon them with their six-shooters and cleared away the obstruction. There was no time to parley or take prisoners. The momentum of Chapman's charge swept away all before it. The enemy had attempted to cut off Chapman and had got cut off. The fate of war, six of Chapman's men were captured. Merritt, in his report, says: ‘It having been decided impracticable to carry the position of the enemy (Milford) without great loss of life, it was decided to withdraw both divisions. This was done at dark, and the command on the following day returned to Front Royal. Near this town the advance of the reserve brigade encountered a body of guerrillas under a Captain Chapman, who were in the act of capturing an ambulance train of our wounded. The gang quickly dispersed with a loss of eighteen killed. (None of Chapman's men were killed except those who were hung.) Lieutenant McMasters, of the 2d United States cavalry, was mortally wounded in this affair, being shot, after he was taken prisoner, and robbed.’


Silent about the hanging.

Lieutenant McMasters was never a prisoner — no prisoners were taken. When he formed across the road he thought he had my men in a pen, but they dashed through his ranks and shot him as they passed. But why didn't Merritt tell the whole story—that he hung six prisoners? The reason is obvious. Torbert, the corps commander, says: ‘Brig.-General Merritt's division went through Front Royal crossing the Shenandoah and stopping at Cedarville, in the meantime having a skirmish with Mosby's guerrillas at Front Royal, killing two officers and nine men.’ Torbert, like Merritt, is silent about the hanging, and no doubt for the same reason. None of my men were killed in the fight and none wounded. Custer's report says nothing about the Front Royal affair. Neither Torbert, Merritt or Custer was willing to assume the responsibility and odium or to go on record about the hanging. It was their duty to report the fact, and if justifiable, then the circumstances that justified it. No matter whether they were active or merely passive in the business, their silence gives it a dark complexion. A few days afterward I returned to my command. Many prisoners had been captured, but the men had taken no revenge. They were waiting for me. I determined to demand and enforce every belligerent right to which the soldiers of a great military power were entitled by the laws of war. But I resolved to do it in the most humane manner, and in a calm, judicial spirit. I felt in doing it all the pangs of the weeping jailor when he handed the cup of hemlock to the great Athenian martyr. It was not an act of revenge, but a judicial sentence to save not only the lives of my own men, but the lives of the enemy. It had that effect. I regret that fate thrust such a duty upon me; I do not regret that I faced and performed it. The following correspondence speaks for itself:

near Middleburg, Loudoun county, October 29, 1864.
General R. E. Lee, Commanding the Army of Northern Virginia.
General,—I desire to bring, through you, to the notice of the government the brutal conduct of the enemy manifested towards citizens of this district since their occupation of Manassas road. When they first advanced up the road, we smashed up one of their trains, killing and wounding a large number. In retaliation they arrested [317] the habit of sending an instalment of them on each train. As my command has done nothing contrary to the usages of war, it seems to me that some attempt at least ought to be made to prevent a repetition of such barbarities. During my absence from my command, the enemy captured six of my men near Front Royal. These were immediately hanged by order and in the presence of General Custer. They also hung another lately in Rappahannock. It is my purpose to hang an equal number of Custer's men whenever I capture them.

* * * Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

John S. Mosby, Lieutenant-Colonel.

(first endorsement.)

Respectfully referred to the Honorable Secretary of War for his information. I do not know how we can prevent the cruel conduct of the enemy toward our citizens. I have directed Colonel Mosby, through his adjutant, to hang an equal number of Custer's men in retaliation for those executed by him.


R. E. Lee, General.

(Second endorsement.)

November 14, 1864.
Adjutant General:

General Lee's instructions are cordially approved. In addition, if our citizens are found exposed on any captured train, signal vengeance should be taken on all conductors and officers found on it and every male passenger of the enemy's country as prisoners. So instruct.

J. A. Seddon, Secretary.

November 11, 1864.
Major-General P. H. Sheridan, Commanding United States Forces in the Valley.
General,—Some time in the month of September, during my absence from my command, six of my men who had been captured by your forces were hung and shot in the streets of Front Royal by the order and in the immediate presence of Brigadier-General Custer. Since then another, captured by a Colonel Powell on a plundering expedition into Rappahannock, was also hung. A label affixed to [318] the coat of one of the murdered men declared that ‘this would be the fate of Mosby and all his men.’ Since the murder of my men, not less than 700 prisoners, including many officers of high rank, captured from your army by this command, have been forwarded to Richmond, but the execution of my purpose of retaliation was deferred in order, as far as possible, to confine its operation to the men of Custer and Powell. Accordingly, on the 6th instant, seven of your men were by my order executed on the Valley pike, your highway of travel. Hereafter any prisoners falling into my hands will be treated with the kindness due to their condition, unless some new act of barbarity shall compel me reluctantly to adopt a course of policy repulsive to humanity.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

John S. Mosby, Lieutenant-Colonel.

This letter was sent to Sheridan by Lieutenant John Russell, of Clarke county. It was also sent to the Richmond papers to be published, as I knew it would be copied by the Northern papers. I wanted Sheridan's soldiers to know that, if they desired to fight under the black flag, I would meet them.

Colonel,—I have the honor to state that G. H. Soule, company G. 15th Michigan cavalry (Alger's), this day entered our lines from the direction of Berryville, and reported as follows: He was taken prisoner by soldiers of Mosby's command on the macadamized road near Newtown, and by them taken to a camp on the Winchester and Berryville turnpike There he was placed with a squad of Federal prisoners numbering about twenty-two, and with them compelled to draw lots for the purpose of determining upon a certain number who should be hung. Of the twenty-three prisoners, seven were to be executed in retaliation for a like number of Mosby's command who were hung by General Custer. Of the seven upon whom the lot fell, three were hung, two shot, and two escaped. The wounded men—one of whom escaped alive by feigning death—are being cared for by the Union families in the vicinity of the camp. The men who escaped have reported at this post. The accompanying note was found by a citizen who cut down and buried the bodies, pinned to the clothing of one of the men who was hanged. Captain [319] Brewster, commissary of subsistence of General Custer's command, was among the parties captured. The name of one of the men hanged was ascertained to be George L. Prouty. He was a member of company L, 5th Michigan cavalry [From which Sheridan published Alger as a deserter].

O. Edwards, Colonel, &c.

This is the endorsement on Edwards' letter:


These men have been hanged in retaliation for an equal number of Colonel Mosby's men hung by order of General Custer at Front Royal.

Measure for measure.

Saved a drummer boy.

The drawing of lots took place in Fauquier at Rectortown. I was present with the battalion, but had the prisoners taken off some distance, as I could not witness the painful scene. All felt its necessity, but every heart was touched with its pathos. A few minutes after the drawing was over, my sergeant-major, Guy Broadwater, informed me that a drummer boy had drawn a lot to be hung. I ordered him to have another drawing for one to take the place of the drummer boy. It was done. Two months afterward I was again in Richmond, wounded. Judge Ould, the Confederate commissioner, invited me to go with him down James river on the boat that was taking several hundred prisoners for exchange. The drummer boy was among them. When I stepped on deck he recognized, ran up and embraced me. Two years ago I saw in the papers that he had come on to the unveiling of the Grant monument in New York, expecting to meet me there. It had been announced that I had accepted an invitation to attend.

At the date of my letter to Sheridan, I did not know that any of the condemned men had escaped. I was really glad to hear it, for it increased the moral effect of the act. They could relate in Sheridan's camps the experience they had with Mosby's men. I did not execute any substitutes in their place; my object had been accomplished. If I had been animated by vindictive feelings, I would have let my men shoot or hang their prisoners quietly until they were satisfied, and then, like Torbert, Merritt and Custer, say nothing [320] about it. As I wished to make an example, I gave all the publicity possible to the deed.

My letter to Sheridan speaks of another one of my men who was hung, shortly after the hanging at Front Royal, by a Colonel Powell. Powell says in his report, October 13th: ‘Having learned of the wilful and cold-blooded murder of a United States soldier by two men (Chancellor and Myers, members of Mosby's gang of cutthroats and robbers) some two miles from my camp a few days previous, I ordered the execution of one of Mosby's gang whom I had captured the day previous at Gaines Cross Roads, and placing the placard on his breast with the following inscription: “A. C. Willis, member of Company C, Mosby's command, hanged by the neck in retaliation for the murder of a United States soldier by Messrs. Chancellor and Myers.” I also sent a detachment, under command of Captain Howe, 1st West Virginia cavalry, with orders to destroy the residence, barn, and all buildings and forage on the premises of Mr. Chancellor, and to drive off all stock of every description, which orders were promptly carried out.’ As my men had been hung at Front Royal three weeks before and there had been no sign of retaliation, no doubt Powell thought the work could go on with impunity. But he never dared to hang any more.

Facts in the case.

Now, the facts are these. A few days before this occurrence, a man dressed in citizen's dress came to the house of a farmer, Myers, in Fauquier county, and asked for work; he said he was a deserter from Sheridan's army. Myers did not belong to my command nor to any command. I never saw him. The man spent several days with Myers. Chancellor was a soldier who had come home on a short visit to his father, who was a neighbor of Myers. Chancellor was on his horse about leaving home when Myers with some citizens rode up with the professed deserter. They were sure from his actions that he was a spy feigning desertion. They asked Chancellor to take him out to the Confederate lines. Chancellor agreed. It the man was a spy, it was Chancellor's right to hang him on the spot, just as General Washington hung Major Andre. If, on the contrary, he was a deserter, then Powell would have shot or hung him if he had caught him. He was not entitled to the protection of a prisoner of war; if he was a spy, he had dearly forfeited his life to one side or the other. But Chancellor was merciful, and gave the man the [321] benefit of the doubt. He started off to deliver him as a suspect to the provost marshal at Gordonsville. If the motive had been cruelty, the man would not have been taken ten miles across a river for the purpose of shooting him. He would have been given a hasty burial in Fauquier. The prisoner tried several times to get away; Chancellor warned him that the next attempt would be his last. He tried again and was shot. Nobody will dispute the right of a guard to shoot a prisoner to prevent an escape. For what purpose are guns given to prison guards if not to shoot? When the man was killed they had crossed the Rappahannock river and were at least ten miles from the place from which they had started. This proves that the killing was not premeditated. Chancellor shot him running. His desperation in trying to escape confirmed the suspicion that he was a spy. He expected to be hung if he got to Gordonsville. If he had been a bona fide deserter he would not have risked his life to get back to Sheridan. Myers was not with Chancellor. No matter what corner of the earth he may be in, Powell is pursued by an avenging fury.

Responsible for the act.

In 1869, when we were under military rule in Virginia, a letter appeared in the New York Sun, criticizing some of my actions as a soldier. The following is an extract from my reply:

‘ “ This outlaw hanged five stragglers at Berryville.” In September, 1864, General Custer captured and hanged seven of my men in the streets of Front Royal, Va. Immediately on hearing of this, having a lot of thirty prisoners on hand, I made them draw lots for seven to be hanged as a measure of retaliation to protect my men. These men were hanged on the Valley pike, along where Sheridan's troops traveled every day, as a warning of what they might expect if any more of my men were hanged. At the same time I wrote a letter to General Sheridan (which was published in the newspapers at the time, and can be found in the memoir of my command by Scott), avowing my responsibility for the act, and stating my reasons for it. Sheridan acknowledged the justness of the deed by ordering my men to be treated with the humanities of war. I have never been called in question for this act although I assumed all responsibility for it.’

It will be observed in this letter I justify what I did and make no allusion to the instructions of General Lee—or the Confederate Secretary [322] of War, Mr. Seddon. They were both then living, but I would not take refuge under their names, although I was then, and am now, in possession of the original document with their endorsements on it. To have done so would have appeared like an apology for doing what was right. There is no act of my life that I review with more satisfaction. When the board was organized to publish the records of the war, I was requested to let them have all my official documents to be copied, relating to the war. In this way it was published in the records. But no one ever heard me refer to it in my defense. Some thought my life in danger on account of it at the time of the surrender. To have run away would at least have looked like a confession of guilt. So I took my chances and remained in Virginia—‘With a heart for any fate.’

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