Mosby vs. Custer: a family account History: How the saving from burning of a house in Virginia during the Civil War led on to an execution by a Federal officer and retaliation by the Confederate. - The Sun, July 2, 1959

Cedar Creek

October 15, 1998|By John N. Ware

The automobilist on Virginia Route 55 just north of Riverton and west of Front Royal on routes U.S. 340 and U.S. 552 will notice a marker which reads: "Near here several of Mosby's men were executed by order of General Custer, September 23, 1864. On the following November 6, Colonel Mosby, in retaliation, ordered the execution of an equal number of Custer's men near Berryville." There's a story behind this.

About a week before this execution, life was going normally in a big house about halfway between Berryville and Wickcliff Church in Clarke County. The owner was away, a 62-year-old prisoner of war in Washington, and the oldest son a 16-year-old courier at Jeb Stuart's headquarters. At home were the mother and three sons, 12, 10 and 3.

It was a quiet, uneventful day, as the last few days had been except for a small brush between a handful of Mosby's men, foraging around for anything they could find dressed in blue and an equal number of Custer's men, just foraging. It was a short affair.

Hence it was that about 9 in the morning the mistress of the house and the houseman were standing at the top of the front steps watching some twenty blue-clad horsemen trotting down the big road, and hoping that their business would carry them past. It was a vain hope; they turned purposefully into the 300-yard road to the house. That meant trouble in any language and the houseman knew it. Hold em off as long as you can, missus, and Ill try git us some help, adding realistically, if dey is any to git.

Then he dashed down to the stable. Jim, he panted to the stableboy, put a bridle on dat steeplechaser, don't bother bout a saddle ain't got no time to lose and go down de Wickcliff road. I heerd dere was some Mosby's men down dar. Tell em to git here as fas as dey kin. ...

That left three petrified boys and the mother, who, though she was vaguely uneasy, was considerably less perturbed than she was soon to be. A young lieutenant, described unanimously later as very good-looking, courteous and very uncomfortable and unhappy, dismounted and came up the steps, hat in hand. He had, Madam, a very disagreeable mission to perform, to burn this house and the two other houses nearest to the scene of the recent fight in which two Federal soldiers were killed.

Yes, Mam, it was probably the fair fight you say, but these are my orders. I am not a professional or any other kind of house-burner, but what else can I do?

The lady thought she had the answer and produced it. It was a letter from Major or Colonel Merritt, who in the late 1890s was commanding general of the Army. He had in the recent past had his headquarters in the house and had been treated so correctly that he felt in debt. He did what he could to discharge it, wrote a letter bespeaking good treatment and respect for both the house and its occupants.

The lieutenant read it slowly and returned it reluctantly. Madam, I am infinitely sorry, but you must realize that a definite order of the Commanding General has precedence over the request of an officer of lower rank. I can allow you only ten minutes to get out whatever you wish. Then he ordered all his men except the horse holders to get to the stable.

They were back shortly with all the powder-dry hay they could carry and this they distributed in all the rooms of the three stories and under the stairway in the big hall, accompanied but in no way assisted by two frightened, weeping and violently protesting boys and one too terrified to do anything but bawl. In a few minutes smoke was pouring from every window, and the house seemed doomed.

Meanwhile, what about Jim? He had had phenomenal luck. Within a mile of frenzied riding, he had rounded a turn and was seen by a group of some fifteen or twenty of Mosby's men, to whom this kind of riding was a very familiar sight and always meant the same thing- Yankee trouble.

The first intimation the Federals had that something had gone wrong was the shrill fox-hunter yells of the rescuers as they tore up the slope, and the ensuing fight was very brief. The few horse holders fired a scattering of shots and decamped, releasing the held horses to their own devices, which took them in every direction. The nice young lieutenant also got away, to the great satisfaction of everybody, including assuredly himself.

The men inside were at a great disadvantage as they poured out of the house. Their horses, with their pistols, were gone and their sabres were of little use. All were casualties, some captured, some wounded and, all-important to this story, six killed.

It was in retaliation for these six that the men in Front Royal were murdered. If the word seems too strong, let's compromise, executed with no consideration of the established laws of military procedure.

The house was saved by the combined efforts of the boys, the servants and those of Mosby's men who were not out hunting big game. At the turn of the century it was still displaying its honorable wounds, but about 1902 it was burned to the ground.

Springfield has a special personal interest to the writer. It was the home of Col. J. W. Ware and the three boys were his father and two uncles.

Pub Date: 10/15/98

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