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  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:
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.
This is the endorsement on Edwards' letter: