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John S. Mosby on Slavery as the Cause of War

The Civil War has cast many men into the realm of legend. The Gray Ghost, John Singleton Mosby, may be the most transfixing. The tales of his rides through the Shenandoah Valley – “Mosby’s Confederacy” – as well as his raids and exploits, have excited the imagination of many for generations.

Late-war photo of Mosby by Matthew Brady.
Late-war photo of Mosby by Matthew Brady.

And yet, this ghost, was a real man. He had a home, a wife and children. He was a lawyer, a slave owner, and long after the war, a Republican, working in the Department of Justice.

Through all of his post-war years, Mosby was an avid memoirist. Because his writings were largely apolitical, even the Lost Cause partisans enjoyed to read of his amplified wartime exploits and adventures fighting Yankees – a practice he always defended.

But Mosby was also honest with himself and others about the war and its causes. Just as he had no qualms about killing Yankees during the war, he had no qualms about the cause for which they fought.

On June 4, 1907, in a letter to his friend Sam Chapman, Mosby defended his years as a soldier. He also explained the importance of historical accuracy, pointing out how the Lost Cause rhetoric had drastically changed the entire point of the war. While many former Confederates were claiming that the war was never about slavery, Mosby reminded them that during the build up to the war, slavery was certainly the issue.

June 4th 1907.
Dear Sam:
I suppose you are now back in Staunton. I wrote you about my disgust at reading the Reunion speeches: It has since been increased by reading Christians report. I am certainly glad I wasn’t there. According to Christian the Virginia people were the abolitionists & the Northern people were pro-slavery. He says slavery was “a patriarchal” institution – So were polygamy & circumcision. Ask Hugh is he has been circumcised.

Christian quotes what the Old Virginians said against slavery. True; but why didn’t he quote what the modern Virginians said in favor of it – Mason, Hunter, Wise &c. Why didn’t he state that a Virginia Senator (Mason) was the author of the Fugitive Slave law – & why didn’t he quote The Virginia Code (1860) that made it a crime to speak against slavery, or to teach a negro to read the Lord’s prayer.

Now while I think as badly of slavery as Horace Greeley did I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. It was our inheritance – Neither am I ashamed that my ancestors were pirates & cattle thieves. People must be judged by the standard of their own age. If it was right to own slaves as property it was right to fight for it.

Photo of the original letter.
Photo of the original letter.

The South went to war on account of slavery. South Carolina went to war – as she said in her Secession proclamation – because slavery would not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding.

The truth is the modern Virginians departed from the teachings of the Father’s. John C. Calhoun’s last speech had a bitter attack on Mr Jefferson for his amendment to the Ordinance of `87 prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territory. Calhoun was in a dying condition – was too weak to read it – So James M. Mason, a Virginia Senator, read it in the Senate about two weeks before Calhoun’s death – March. 1850.

Mason & Hunter not only voted against the admission of California (1850) as a free state but offered a protest against it, which the Senate refused to record on its Journal. . . .

I am not ashamed of having fought on the side of slavery – a soldier fights for his country – right or wrong – he is not responsible for the political merits of the cause he fights in. The South was my country.​

Yours truly,
Jno: S. Mosby 1The full transcript is available here.

This was not, of course, Mosby’s first foray into the causes of the war. In June of 1902, Mosby wrote to his friend Judge Reuben Page:

“In retrospect, slavery seems such a monstrous thing that some are now trying to prove that slavery was not the Cause of the War. Then what was the cause? I always thought that the South fought about the thing that it quarreled with the North about.” 2As quoted in Civil War, (1991), Vol 9, 13.

Even earlier, this was addressed by Mosby, stating a sentiment nearly identical.

“I always understood that we went to war on account of the thing that we quarreled with the North about. I’ve never heard of any other cause than slavery.” 3John S. Mosby to Aristides Monteiro, June 9, 1894. As cited in John Coski The Confederate Battleflag (Harvard, 2005) 26.

It was extremely rare prior to the war for any pro-secessionist leader to speak of any cause apart from slavery. Likewise, it was just as rare after the war to hear any former Confederate leader admit that slavery was the cause. John Singleton Mosby carried his unsurpassed honesty into the Lost Cause era, reminding Southerners that they had fought to preserve the right of slavery.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

5 thoughts on “John S. Mosby on Slavery as the Cause of War

  1. This is a devastating indictment of the Lost Cause movement. The cowardly flip-flop of most Southern leaders and polemicists from the staunch defense of slavery as a just cause for secession prior to the war to the preposterous claim that slavery had nothing to do with secession after the war started the Lost Cause movement.

    The unfortunate success of the Lost Cause movement, along with the failures of Reconstruction have poisoned American politics and education ever since.

    1. It surprised me how quickly the Southern leaders came out as anti-slavery. It was almost immediately after the war. Alexander Stephens published his take on it in 1866, I think. He even denied the whole Cornerstone Speech. As a culture, the Lost Cause has really messed us up. We needed a Germany post-WWII style Reconstruction (or some American version of it). But, historically, that’s just not how we do things.

  2. Interesting… Certainly agree that history is best judged by prevailing attitudes, beliefs, values and institutions OF THE TIME an event happened and NOT revisionists of the future who dilute and distort history the way that they want it to be remembered. Personally I don’t dispute slavery was major cause but slavery predates Civil War by at least 200 years and Washington, Jefferson, and founding fathers acquiesced and authenticated and approved the existence of slavery when original 13 colonies were formed so it wasn’t an isolated or unique institution to the South nor are they or should they be solely and individually culpable for its existence and propagation. In legal perspective the founders of the US and thus the Union were jointly and severally liable for its existence as the Confederate government was 84 years later- difference was by then economic value of slavery in agricultural south made it impossible to give up without a fight and you know the rest of the story as Paul Harvey used to say!

    1. The economic value of slavery didn’t just happen by chance though. The southern slave-based economy was purposely not diversified. This made slavery not only essential (as it was itself the commodity), but since it wasn’t sustainable, it needed to expand into the territories – something the Republicans, etc refused to allow.

      So while the founders were certainly culpable for not outlawing slavery via gradual emancipation during the Rev War period, the South could have done it one their own and not only refused to, but doubled down upon it. Some even wanted to reopen the Atlantic slave trade.

      When the Civil War was about to start, they could have backed down. They were given ample opportunity to. But they saw slavery as a “moral good” as well as a cash cow, so took the chance to milk a few more decades out of it. “If it was right to own slaves as property it was right to fight for it.” – as Mosby said.

  3. There is one additional legacy of Mosby that some people may not be familiar with. In his later years, Mosby often visited friends in California. His friends had a young son who was fascinated by Mosby’s tales of his adventures during the Civil War, and the two of them spent many hours among the rolling hills, reimagining the battles of decades before. That child eventually grew up and went to West Point. His name was George Smith Patton, Jr.

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