Exclusive–O’Donnell: Unearthing The Untold Story of Civil War Guerilla Warfare

Mosby's Rangers, Public Domain
Public Domain

Each of my thirteen books has found me. The spark for my latest bestseller ignited when I stumbled across a roadside sign in Northern Virginia marking John Singleton Mosby’s Grapewood Farm engagement. After driving by several times, my curiosity propelled me to start asking questions and making connections.

Grapwood Farm Roadside Sign, Mosby’s Engagement, Patrick K. O’Donnell

The remarkable story I uncovered is told in my new bestselling book, The Unvanquished: The Untold Story of Lincoln’s Special Forces, the Manhunt for Mosby’s Rangers, and the Shadow War That Forged America’s Special Operations. The book reveals the drama of irregular guerrilla warfare that altered the course of the Civil War, including the story of Lincoln’s special forces who donned Confederate gray to hunt Mosby and his Confederate Rangers from 1863 to the war’s end at Appomattox—a previously untold story that inspired the creation of U.S. modern special operations in World War II as well as the story of the Confederate Secret Service. The book gives a ground-breaking fresh perspective on the Civil War.

Unable to match the manpower of the North’s massive armies, Confederates used shadow warfare and guerrilla tactics to disrupt and terrorize Northern troops. In Northern Virginia, “Mosby’s Confederacy, John Singleton Mosby and his Rangers would prove to be a painful thorn in the Union’s side. The Grapewood Farm engagement followed their first train attack. In the final week of May 1863, forty Rangers mounted their horses outside Middleburg. Two horses towed Mosby’s “little gun.”1 The mountain howitzer, “A bit too large to carry in a holster, but not big enough to be called a cannon,”2 hurled a deadly twelve-pound shell—ideal for this next mission to disrupt their first train and interdict the Federal supply lines.With his gleaming steel saber, former British officer Bradford Hoskins rode next to Mosby on this nearly suicidal mission. The Union position at Catlett Station off the Orange and Alexandria Railroad was heavily guarded. Mosby acknowledged that the Rangers’ “retreat [would be] difficult, if not impossible.”Nevertheless, the forty Rangers threaded through the Federal positions to a wooded area near Catlett Station, where they hid and bedded down for the night. The next morning, Union trumpets from nearby camps blasted reveille, awakening the sleeping Rangers. Making their way past the heavy Union patrols guarding the rails, the Rangers snipped telegraph wires and unfastened one of the long iron rails. After affixing the telegraph wire to the loose rail, one of Mosby’s men concealed himself behind a tree and waited for the trainAnother Ranger gave the signal when he heard the train approaching. Sam Chapman loaded the howitzer, and “all awaited the event with breathless interest.”4 The unsuspecting train barreled along at full speed toward the ambush. A Ranger yanked the wire and threw the steel rail off the track as the locomotive tried to halt but careened off.5 Chapman was about to pull the lanyard and fire the gun until another Ranger warned, “You will all be scalded to death. Move back seventy-five yards.”6 The terrified Rangers wisely fell back before Chapman’s gun barked and a twelve-pound shell slammed into the wooden cars.“Such a noise and such a spray of steam never enveloped us before.”7

Grapewood Farm Engagement historical marker (Source: Author photo)

The Union infantry guard riding on the train ran for their lives, blindly firing a few shots into the woods before another round from the Confederate’s howitzer penetrated the engine’s boiler, resulting in a horrific explosion of steam and metal.The Rangers surged forward and plundered the train. They first helped a newsboy who had broken his leg off the wreckage, then torched the cars and scattered before the nearby Yankee troops, alerted by the sounds of the melee, arrived.The 5th New York Cavalry, the 1st Vermont, and other Northern units bore down on the Rangers attempting to block their escape about a mile from the ambuscade. But instead of continuing to retreat, Mosby ordered a halt, and Chapman unlimbered the cannon and fired a shot into the Union cavalry. The shell burst scattered the Union soldiers, and the Rangers galloped through the opening and thundered down the road back toward the tiny hamlet of Greenwich.With Yankees on all sides, Mosby wanted to keep the gun as “a point of honor” instead of scattering his men and directing them to flee in different directions. He ordered Chapman to limber the howitzer and ride off down Burnwell Road.8 Meanwhile to slow their hunters, Mosby and several of his Rangers boldly set up a rear guard including the “the gallant Captain Hoskins, who fell from the horse mortally wounded” in the ensuing hand-to-hand combat with the Union advance guard.But the Confederate rear guard bought precious time for Sam Chapman to set up the gun on a hill near Grapewood Farm, owned by Warren Fitzhugh.9 A narrow country lane about a hundred yards from the Fitzhugh house flanked with fences funneled the Union cavalry into a kill zone. As Mosby rode up to Chapman and the other Rangers who were operating the gun, he noticed “their faces beamed with what the Romans called the gaudia certaminis,1 and they had never looked so happy in their lives.”10The 5th New York charged up the narrow rocky lane “where three horses could scarcely walk abreast.”11Chapman ignited a round from the howitzer’s barrel. The shell exploded in the New Yorkers’ ranks. Unwavering, their leader yelled, “I think we can get that gun before they fire again. Let’s go!”12Another one of Chapman’s grapeshot shells exploded among the groups of Union riders in the narrow lane. The piece hurled metal balls, similar to a giant shotgun, penetrating the flesh of horse and man, killing three and wounding several, including the leader, who took two balls of grape to the thigh. The New Yorkers charged several times as Rangers countercharged from the sides of the road and blasted away with their Colts, driving the Yankees back to a bend in the road. From there, the surviving New Yorkers joined the 1st Vermont Cavalry.

The New Yorkers, bolstered by the Vermonters, now one hundred strong, charged up the country road again. At point-blank range, about fifty yards, the cannon belched more of its deadly iron, slaying and wounding more men. As the Federals reeled, Mosby ordered a charge, and the Rangers drove the Yankees down to the base of the hill.

The Yankees finally broke through, and the ground around Chapman’s cannon deteriorated into a fierce hand-to-hand struggle where many Union and Confederate forces both fell. Fighting preacher Sam Chapman stood by his gun until he exhausted his ammunition and was critically wounded by a bullet.

His Union captor threatened, “I’m going to finish you.”

“Why? I am your prisoner now,” the Ranger responded.

“Yes; but you shot me here in the shoulder.”

“Well, I suppose I had a right to, as we had not ceased firing then,”13 argued Chapman.

The troopers carried Chapman and Captain Hoskins to Grapewood14 and later to The Lawn, a mansion owned by a fellow Englishman, Charles Green, in Greenwich. At The Lawn, Hoskins, in great pain from his wounds, called on Chapman, and the two men “tried to cheer each other up.”15 The next day, the British officer died before Chapman’s eyes, and Green buried his body in the nearby church cemetery—his grave can be visited.

John Singleton Mosby Portrait, 1865, William Emerson Strong Photograph Album, Public Domain

Mosby barely avoided capture. Then rode to James Hathaway’s house—one of his many safehouses—and the waiting arms of his wife, Pauline. Since the partisans did not endure the same camp life and outdoors as regular soldiers, the men often boarded in mansions and plantations in Fauquier and Loudoun Counties, where many of them had family. But for Mosby on the night of June 8, 1863, the respite was short. A detachment of the 1st New York Cavalry attacked Hathaway’s stately red-brick home and stormed into the bedroom to find an indignant and tight-lipped Mrs. Mosby under the bedsheets. The wily guerrilla leader had slipped out the second-story bedroom window onto the large branches of a black walnut tree. Hugging the tree, he hid from the patrol, which looked everywhere but up the tree.2 Carting off Hathaway, the Yankees left the area—one of the countless close calls the partisan leader survived unscathed.

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically-acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of thirteen books, including his new bestselling book on the Civil War The Unvanquished: The Untold Story of Lincoln’s Special Forces, the Manhunt for Mosby’s Rangers, and the Shadow War That Forged America’s Special Operations, currently in the front display of Barnes and Noble stores nationwide. His other bestsellers include: The Indispensables,  The Unknowns, and Washington’s Immortals.  O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickKODonnell.com @combathistorian

  1. Latin for “the joys of battle,” an expression reportedly employed by Attila when addressing his troops before the 451 CE Battle of Châlons.

  2. The home and the 250-year-old tree still stand on the historic site.

  1. Mosby, Memoirs, 142.

  2. Munson, Reminiscences of a Mosby Guerrilla, 68.

  3. Mosby, 142–143.

  4. Mosby, Memoirs, 144.

  5. Williamson, Mosby’s Rangers, 64–65.

  6. Chapman, “Memories of Mosby’s Men: The Capture of Railroad Train.” Also see Mewborn, From Mosby’s Command, 97.

  7. Chapman, “Memories of Mosby’s Men: The Capture of Railroad Train.” Also see Mewborn, From Mosby’s Command, 97.

  8. Scott, Partisan Life, 67.

  9. National Register of Historic Places, OMB No. 1024-0018, Auburn Battlefield Fauquier County, Virginia, 12.

  10. Mosby, Memoirs, 149.

  11. O’Neill, Chasing Jeb Stuart, 199.

  12. Major Barker’s letter 5th NYC, in Munson, Reminiscences of a Guerrilla, 71–72.

  13. Chapman, “Memories of Mosby’s Men: The Capture of Railroad Train.” Also see Mewborn, From Mosby’s Command, 98.

  14. Grapewood still stands today along with a nearby decades-old, weather-beaten Virginia sign that memorializes the skirmish. After I drove by the sign multiple times and finally stopped to examine the story, this tiny thread became the inspiration for The Unvanquished. Much of Mosby’s Confederacy remains untouched, as it was during the Civil War, making it ideal for driving tours.

  15. Chapman, “Memories of Mosby’s Men: The Capture of Railroad Train.” Also see Mewborn, From Mosby’s Command, 98.


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