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Meeting a Gray Ghost on The Washington and Old Dominion Trail

Even the disembodied are good partial observers.

by Michael H. Thomson
March 16, 2005

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All my life I have generally followed the rules. I obey traffic signals, pay my taxes, brush after eating, and recycle. So what possessed me to disobey the warning on the list of rules for the Washington and Old Dominion Trail? The W&OD Trail is a 45-mile long hike/bike/ horse trail that stretches from near Washington D.C. to the foothills of the Appalachian Blue Ridge. Of course, since it is administered by a government entity, it has its rules…

All the rules are practical such as no motorized vehicles, no littering, yielding to the right for other – speedier – walkers, runners, bikers, and especially horses. So why did I choose to disobey the rule about not walking the trail at night? It was the very last one on the list. Was it defiance? I don’t know, but on a rare, warm February evening, I stepped out of my backyard for a brisk walk along the trail.

For about thirty minutes, every thing was normal. I was enjoying my moonlight trek - then something changed in the air – it became cooler – the moon hid itself behind a large cloud. Walking between two large banks on both sides of the trail, I had sort of a trapped feeling. It was then I heard the noise. It was a rumbling thundering noise, coming from a distance, and getting louder as it approached me. A twinge of fear nested in my spine. I smelled dust in the air – which was unusual since I was walking on paved asphalt! Then there was the strong smell of HORSE - I was suddenly surrounded by horses. The horses were straddled by men wearing uniforms – and they weren’t park rangers!

A lean man with a whipcord body started questioning me, “What are you doing out here boy? Where’s your uniform? Are you a deserter, and what are you doing so close to my house?” Suddenly pulling aside the interrogator, a splendid looking man wearing what was definitely a Confederate officer’s uniform calmly touched my interrogator on the shoulder and said,

“Jacob Manning quit harassing this poor man.” Can’t you see he is not of our time?”

My fear at this point was closing in on the level of wildly searching for a port-a-potty.

“Don’t be afraid, I never want it said that John Singleton Mosby would harm an unarmed innocent even if I could, when you consider my present circumstances…”

Becoming braver now that I knew I wasn’t going to be shot, I finally spoke,

“You called yourself Mosby. This is wild! Are you some sort of civil war re-enactor playing the famous Colonel John Mosby – the gray ghost?”

Mosby smiled and all of his men started laughing wildly – strange-disconcerting laughter. All the horses whinnied. Somehow, I imagined grins on their horsey mugs. The man calling himself Mosby paused a moment then said,

“You know, the Yankees used to call me that – the gray ghost - and I didn’t pay too much attention to it, but you know I guess now I’ve lived up to my reputation, I AM a gray ghost! In fact me and my boys here – we’re all gray ghosts…” Mosby’s men grumbled in affirmation.

To demonstrate Mosby and his horse did a little spin and disappeared into thin air. Poof, just like that, however, the other men remained sitting on their steeds. Then as quickly as he left, Mosby reappeared – this time right beside me. I started shivering as I realized what I was dealing with.

With a little chuckle, Mosby said, “I think he’s a believer now boys.”

Fearfully, I said, “What are you going to do to me?”

“Nothing, absolutely nothing son, I just want to chat, that’s all. It’s rare I get to talk to mortals. You indicated you knew something about me. How much do you know?”

Starting to feel comfortable conversing with a specter, I replied,

“Well I know for a brief time there was a TV series about you in the sixties – the twentieth century sixties that is. I also know that in warfare you are credited for being the father of modern day guerilla tactics. Books I’ve read say that with groups as large as two hundred and as small as thirty that you were effective in slowing down or even stopping the movement of Union troops during the Civil War.

“Pardon me son, defer to me please and refer to that war as The War of Northern Aggression. Just humor me in that respect and I’ll have no other demands of you.”

“I guess I can do that and since we find ourselves out here together – and since as a writer, I take interview opportunities whenever I can find them, can I ask you some questions?”

Mosby preened and it seemed that the feather in his Confederate hat fluttered.

JSM: “That will be fine son; I guess you want to ask me about some of my exploits in battle.”

MHT: “Not really, It’s the things I heard about your exploits after the Civ…excuse me, the War of Northern Aggression that caught my attention. Is it true you never surrendered?”

JSM: “Nope, I never gave up my sword. The way I looked at it, nobody ever whupped me. So why should I go through all the rigmarole of giving up my sword and pulling the buttons off my uniform? All I did was thank my boys, and tell them to go home. They could surrender individually if they wanted to, but I wasn’t going to do it. Unfortunately my actions caused me some problems in getting back my citizenship”

I was really starting to warm up to Mosby, if “warm” is the correct expression to use.

MHT: “Well, I know you eventually got your rights restored. How did that come about?

JSM “At first it wasn’t easy; because I misplaced my trust in President Andrew Johnson – Lincoln’s successor – he flat turned me down. I bided my time and waited… Finally, I directly approached the next President – Ulysses Grant. Grant and I hit it off. In fact, we became buddies. Naturally, when he asked me to take an ambassadorial position as Consul to Hong Kong, I obliged. Think of it! John Singleton Mosby, hill country lawyer and notorious rebel to the Union cause, representing that same Union as an ambassador!”

MHT: “That is bizarre on the surface. Tell me how that happened?”

JSM: “I’ve ducked in on some of the university classes in modern America and I’m convinced that there are just a lot of people who don’t understand the War of Northern Aggression beyond a brief flirtation with “Gone with the Wind.” One of the reasons Grant was so considerate was because he knew my history. You see, Mr. Writer, I was a Unionist and Republican prior to the war!”

MHT: [flabbergasted] “I guess I don’t know you at all, Colonel.”

JSM: “I know it’s difficult to fathom, but my loyalty to Unionism was subordinate to my loyalty to Virginia – my motherland. An attack on my motherland demanded my defense of her. Virginia in my mind and other Virginians was sovereign. In 1861, we had not yet become comfortable with the idea of the dominance of a federal government. So naturally, when Virginia went to war – I went to war with her. To do otherwise would have been dishonorable.”

MHT: “I think I understand – not completely, but when I try to put myself into your position it becomes clearer. So you eventually left Hong Kong and went to California, is that true?

JSM: “Yep, I became a high priced efficiency expert for the California Pacific Railroad. I made them so efficient that they fired me.

MHT: “Yes, and then I hear you became an assistant U.S. Attorney General working out of Alabama.”

JSM: “I gathered up a bunch of crooks down there, I sure did.”

MHT: What a career you’ve had. You’ve been a lawyer, guerilla fighter and tactician, ambassador, railroad executive and assistant U.S. attorney. I bet many folks still have you stuck in the War.

JSM: “That’s probably so. I don’t really care as long as I can occasionally get a pass out of Heaven, come down here in these hills, and ride in the moonlight with the boys.”

Suddenly there was a heavy sound of hooves coming towards us on the trail. A distinguished looking soldier in a World War II uniform and the rank of General approached us on a large white horse.

“Colonel Mosby, are you downplaying yourself again?”

“Georgie, I don’t try to. I’m very proud of my accomplishments, but keep in mind I can only take credit for the things I’VE done, not things someone else has done.”

“Okay then I’ll tell this fellow how you helped win WWII.”

I spoke up, “But Colonel Mosby didn’t live that long. How could he have helped win WWII when he died before WWI – and by the way who are you?”

“I’m George S. Patton, and show some respect or I’ll slap you!” Patton wheeled on his horse for effect.

This was truly an amazing night, talking to two Virginia military heroes. No one would ever believe it. I encouraged General Patton to continue.

“When Colonel Mosby was with the California Pacific Railroad, he used to come to our family ranch and spend a lot of time with me. I was ten years old. The colonel and I would ride our horses furiously and he would teach me cavalry tactics he employed against the Yankees. I remembered everything he taught me including inheriting his boldness. I know he was riding with me as I plunged along from North Africa into the heart of Germany.” Patton looked towards Mosby.

“I was George, I was.” Mosby gave a slight smile.

What an evening, I again thought to myself. However, I mustn’t get too overwhelmed. I needed to throw in a question that applied to the present.

“Colonel Mosby, as you know we have this bloody war going on between us and terrorist backed insurgents in Iraq. Our president is determined to see it through. Unfortunately, we are facing a problem of not having enough troops enlisting or reenlisting. Recruitment is down. What would you do if you lived in this time and had that problem?”

“Well – son – I don’t, but I’ve thought about it. I notice your military services spend a great deal of capital enticing potential troops with money and education benefits. We didn’t’ have a lot of that in my time, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a philosophy. It was very simple and it worked.”

“What was that Colonel?”

“Our troops like yours had a cause they believed in. Unlike your present day forces, ours did not have great sophistication or education. We didn’t eliminate potential soldiers based on tests or medical technicalities. My overwhelming recruiting philosophy and only recruiting practice was to hire the tough and the willing. It’s the only way you can win.”

“But Colonel, how can you say that? Everyone knows the South lost the war.”

“That may be so son, but I never lost a battle…”

George Patton stood to the side and tapped his helmet with his swagger stick. At that, they all disappeared and left me alone on the trail. I turned for the 39.5-mile marker of the trail and wondered if any of this ever happened. Maybe later I would take another walk in the moonlight… 

More information about Colonel John Singleton Mosby C.S.A can be found at www.mosbysrangers.com

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