Cole vs. Mosby: The end to a “rivalry”(?)

Posted on February 21, 2014 by


February 21, 1864 was a Sunday. A good day, it seems, for an ending.

Mosby had ordered his command to assemble at Piedmont to attend the funeral of Ranger Joseph McCobb (a rather elusive person to find in records, by the way), who had been killed (by a fall from his horse) in the fight, the day before, with Cole’s Cavalry. I’ve seen someone estimate that about 160 Rangers attended. Still, the “game being afoot”, there was little time for a post-funeral social hour. More Federal cavalry had been reported at Rector’s Crossroads, and the business of war needed to be addressed.

Strange to say, unbeknownst to all, with the burial of McCobb, there was also an end to encounters between the Rangers and Henry Cole’s Maryland Cavalry.

Before I get ahead of myself, however, some reflections of the day before… February 20, 1864… when Mosby and Cole clashed near Upperville, Virginia. The best description I’ve seen on the affair actually came from one of Mosby’s own, James Joseph Williamson:

Saturday, Feb 20 – Cole’s Second Battalion Maryland Cavalry, about 250 men, made a raid through Loudoun and Fauquier Counties, capturing several of our men. McCobb, of Baltimore, was surprised at Bartenstein’s, near Upperville, and was killed in attempting to escape. John and Bartlett Bolling were captured at their father’s residence, and William A. Brawner and J.W. Coiner rode into a party of Cole’s men, near Upperville, mistaking them for our own men, and were taken prisoners.

After going as far as Piedmont, on the Virginia Midland Road, Cole started to return. Mosby, with John Edmonds, John Munson and J. Lavender, got on their track. He gathered up others as he went along, at the same time annoying the raiders as they marched. When near Upperville, where Cole halted to feed and rest his horses, Mosby had collected about 50 men, and with these he charged the rear of the Federal column and threw them into some confusion. Capt. Wm. L. Morgan, of Cole’s Command [actually of the 1st New York], was killed by Montjoy. At Blakeley’s Grove School House, Cole made a stand, and taking a position behind the stone fence at the Cross Roads, sought to give us check, but Mosby, throwing his men on their flank, drive them from their shelter and forced them to retreat. We followed them as far as Bloomfield, and there gave up the chase.

The Federals lost 7 killed, including Captain Morgan, and 8 prisoners, with their horses and equipments. They carried off most of their wounded – one, shot through the head, lingered some time at the school house at Blakeley’s Grove, but died and was buried in the fence corner. We found 2 of their dead near Bloomfield a week after the fight, half eaten up by hogs.

In our command Lieutenant Fox, Starke and Spinkx were wounded. Montjoy and Geo. H. Ayre had their horses shot.

Mosby’s report of the incident added a few more details:

After getting between 50 and 60 together I attacked them about 2 miles beyond Upperville. A sharp skirmish ensued, in which we repulsed them in three distinct charges and drive their sharpshooters from a very strong position behind a stone wall. They fled in the direction of Harper’s Ferry. We pursued them about 2 miles. They were enabled to cover their retreat by means and their numerous carbineers posted behind stone fences. As my men had nothing but pistols, with only a few exceptions, I was compelled to make flank movements in order to dislodge them, which, of course, checked a vigorous pursuit. Citizens who counted the enemy inform me that they numbered 250 men, under command of Major Cole. They left 6 of their dead on the field, among them 1 captain, 1 lieutenant, and 7 men prisoners; also, horses, army equipments, etc. The road over which they retreated was strewn with abandoned hats, haversacks, etc. They impressed wagons to carry off their wounded.

The ”Abstract from Record of Events on Return of Cavalry Brigade, Department of West Virginia, for February, 1864″ gives a little perspective from those in blue:

February 20. – Three parties were sent out of 200 men by way of Loudoun, under command of Major Cole, who met Mosby’s troops at or near Upperville, and after a severe skirmish lost 1 captain and 1 private killed and several missing; captured 18 rebels. Another party under command of Colonel Taylor went to Front Royal; drive the rebels from there, who took to the mountains. We captured 8 prisoners. The third party went to Strasburg without meeting the enemy. Captain W.L. Morgan, Co. A, First N.Y. Veteran Cavalry, was killed in action near Upperville.

I know, to some who read this, it may seem as if I’m putting Cole’s actions on February 20th onto some sort of a pedestal… as if Cole’s Cavalry, alone, was tasked with making the incursion into Mosby Country to clean out the Rangers, and, if possible, bag the Gray Ghost, himself. That, of course, was not the case. Cole’s Cavalry was not the tip of the spear in this endeavor. His command was but one unit tasked with the effort, in February, 1864. That said, however, the day is still worth marking.

Cole and Mosby had been going at it since the last half of 1863. As early as August 23, Cole’s Cavalry was part of the opening of “the hunt”… when the hunter became the hunted (and, to be perfectly honest, became the hunter again… and the cycle went round and round). C. Armour Newcomer remembered:

The main body of the Confederates had now gone out of the Valley; Mosby’s, White’s and Harry Gilmor’s commands of Confederates still remained, and were continuously making raids on the Union lines, firing upon pickets and occasionally holding up a train on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Snickersville, Upperville and Rector’s Cross Roads were considered Mosby’s stamping grounds; many of his men lived in this particular locality. Major Cole concluded to visit this section, knowing that every man, woman and child’s sympathy was with the enemy.

For Cole’s Cavalry… as the cavalry arm of the Potomac Home Brigade… there’s that cliche… “the best defense is a good offense”. It was, after all, the mission of the Potomac Home Brigade to protect Maryland’s loyal citizens and their properties… not to mention the two significant transportation features in the area… the B&O Railroad and the C&O Canal. For the most part, this task would keep the units of the Home Brigade in the general vicinity in which they had recruited, but… there would be times where strikes into the Shenandoah Valley, the Potomac Highlands, and even along the east side of the Blue Ridge, were in the best interest of maintaining that safety of the “home area.” It certainly makes sense, therefore, that probing into Mosby’s Confederacy was part of that effective defense.

But… this notion of something between the Ranger’s and Cole’s Cavalry… was this larger than what it appears to be? Was this a short-term rivalry? Should one look to the “battlefield” victories of the Cole vs. Mosby encounters, or should the daring of each be considered? I think it comes in a package deal… a little bit of all that was involved. I think, when we consider the bold strokes made by some of the men from both commands… sure, there was something of a degree of bragging rights involved. Yet, Cole’s incursions into Mosby Country, and encounters with Mosby, were not always… original. Others, like the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry, had done it before, and frankly, the 2nd Mass. (and others) might be considered even more involved in the “Federal cavalry vs. Mosby feud”. Still, with Cole… considering Loudoun Heights… was he the first to really “best” Mosby? I think, because of that fight, the whole Cole vs. Mosby thing became more of a rivalry of honor… almost as if it was a badge of honor, donned by members of Cole’s Cavalry.

If we consider personal connections to this sort of thing… yes, you can even call it personal “heritage”… I think this “badge” isn’t something to be forgotten. While earned by those who lived the rivalry, those who are descended from those who earned it should still feel something important, not in themselves, but just for the connection to those who did what they did.

In reflecting on my Cole’s Cavalry kin in the war, during the Sesquicentennial, I’m sorry to see the rivalry, no matter how short-lived, come to an end. It’s not just a matter of “my ancestor fought against Mosby” (I had another kinsman… a cousin… in the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry who scrapped with the Rangers as well, was wounded near Warrenton, and feigned death to prevent capture, in November, 1863), but more about the fact that my kin in Cole’s command were Southerners… Maryland- and Virginia-born… that they got to tangle with the Gray Ghost… and that their command stacked-up measurably well against Mosby.

Flag of Cole's Cavalry, 1st Potomac Home Brigade (Maryland) Cavalry

Flag of Cole’s Cavalry, 1st Potomac Home Brigade (Maryland) Cavalry. Note the prominent position in which the battle honor for Loudoun Heights was placed.