Saturday, February 23, 2013
Lucian Love (pictured) of Mosby's Rangers was one of six of Mosby's men executed by Union troops in Front Royal, Va. An Officer of Custer's command ordered the executions in retaliation for the death of a Union officer, Lt. McMaster who was "allegedly" killed after he had surrendered. When the erroneous story reached the Federals in Front Royal the Union men were outraged. Lowell’s command arrived at Front Royal with the six prisoners, and the Federals called for revenge for McMaster’s death.
Present were Brigadier Generals Wesley Merritt and George A. Custer. In retaliation for McMaster’s death, Merritt ordered the execution of the six prisoners. Though many, including Mosby himself, would blame Custer for the executions, it was Merritt who gave the order. Years later, Mosby clarified his position. Custer and the other senior officers present made no attempt to stop the executions and went along with it, so in Mosby’s view they shared responsibility for the incident. Also, some of Custer’s men participated in the executions.
Three of the prisoners were taken out and shot immediately. Another prisoner, 17 year old Henry Rhodes, was not a member of the Rangers, but wanted to be one. He had grabbed a horse and joined in the retreat of some of Mosby’s men as they passed through Front Royal and was captured. Rhodes’ mother begged for her son’s life to no avail; in perhaps the most brutal event of the day, one of Custer’s cavalrymen shot Rhodes to death in his mother’s presence.
Two other prisoners were interrogated and promised their lives would be spared in exchange for information on Mosby, but the two refused to talk. They were then executed by hanging. A sign was placed on one of the victims declaring “Such is the fate of all of Mosby’s men.”
When Mosby himself heard about the executions, he was furious and determined to retaliate. He proposed to General Robert E. Lee that he would execute an equal number of Custer’s men for those Rangers executed by the Federals. Lee and Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon approved the proposal.
On November 6th at Rectortown, Virginia, 26 recently captured prisoners from Custer’s command were informed that they were to draw lots to select seven men for execution (a seventh Ranger had been executed in a separate incident). Six men and a drummer boy made the unlucky draws; a second drawing was held to spare the drummer boy.
The unfortunate seven were taken a few miles away to an area near Berryville, Virginia, by a Ranger detachment under the command of Lieutenant Ed Thompson. Three of the seven were hanged and two were shot. The two who were shot were wounded, but not fatally. Two other prisoners managed to escape, and made it back to Union lines. A note was left on one of the hanged men that stated: “These men have been hung in retaliation for an equal number of Colonel Mosby’s men, hung by order of General Custer at Front Royal. Measure for measure.”
Although only three had actually been executed, Mosby believed he had accomplished his purpose. Mosby wrote a letter to Sheridan explaining what had happened and his reasons for retaliating. He declared that he would treat any men captured as prisoners of war unless more of his men were executed and he was forced to “adopt a course of policy repulsive to humanity”.
There were no more executions by either side. Mosby’s Rangers continued to fight in northern Virginia until the end of the war, when they disbanded and went home. Fighting continued in the Shenandoah Valley until March 2, 1865, when a Union cavalry division under General Custer defeated the last Confederate force of any size in the valley at the Battle of Waynesboro.
After the war, John S. Mosby summed up his reasoning for the retaliatory executions:
“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.”
From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864 , by Jeffery D. Wert. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1997
Gray Ghost: The Memoirs of Col. John S. Mosby, by John S. Mosby. New York: Bantam Books, 1992
“The Monument to Mosby’s Men” Southern Historical Society Papers, XXVII, 1899
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion. Series I, Volume XLIII, Part 1 . U.S. War Department, Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901
“Retaliation. The Execution of Seven Prisoners of War by Col. John S. Mosby. A Self-Protectiver Necessity”. by John S. Mosby, Southern Historical Society Papers, XXVII, 1899