The Pettiness of Canceling John S. Mosby

by Donald Smith

In April, in Georgia, a correction morphed into an overreaction. As part of the ongoing process to change the names of military bases named for Confederate generals, Fort Benning became Fort Moore. Around the same time, the National Ranger Memorial Foundation (NRMF) responded to a directive from U.S. government officials. The NRMF sent workmen to the Ranger Hall of Fame stone tablet, created and maintained on Fort Moore by the foundation, and covered a single name — John S. Mosby. The workmen also pried up bricks that commemorated Confederates in the foundation’s Ranger Memorial Walk. An exhibit on Mosby at the National Infantry Museum was also removed. With those actions, an understandable effort to modernize Army base names degenerated into pettiness.

The Naming Commission, an investigative body established by Congress, recommended that all Army bases named for Confederate generals be renamed. I am a great-grandson of Confederate cavalrymen — and I freely admit the commission had a point. In 2022 the Army had more major active-duty bases named for Confederate generals who lost the Civil War than Union generals who won it.   

But the Naming Commission went farther than base names. Much, much farther. It looked for every street name, every monument, plaque, and sign on DoD facilities that might be perceived to show Confederates in a positive light. Like Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, it relentlessly searched for every last can of Confederate Who-Hash! It then recommended that, with few exceptions, all be removed or changed. Apparently Congress didn’t reject any of the commission’s recommendations; that has caused names to be covered on stone tablets, memorial bricks to be pried up and (soon) campaign streamers that commemorate Confederate service to be removed from Army National Guard colors.

The NRMF protested to the House of Representatives in a letter dated May 23rd. “Colonel John S. Mosby,” said the NRMF’s director, retired Army Brigadier General Joseph Stringham, was “a staunch abolitionist, U.S. Consul to Hong Kong and assistant U.S. Attorney General, appointed after his extraordinary military service.” In other words, a man whose legacy deserves to be honored.  

Eric Buckland has written several books on Mosby and his men. “In 1992,” he writes, “Colonel John Singleton Mosby was a member of the first group of men honored with induction into the United States Army Ranger Hall of Fame.” That induction “paid specific tribute to his ‘discipline within his command, knowledge of Ranger tactics, and high dedication to the mission, even when wounded and recognized, in general, his superior attributes as a leader and warrior. It was a singularly outstanding honor made extraordinary because he was honored by the same organization which provided the targets by which he achieved his success and fame, the United States Army.” Mosby’s classmates in that very first Ranger Hall of Fame class included Major Robert Rogers, of “Rogers’ Rangers” in the Revolutionary War; General William Darby, who commanded the 1st Ranger Battalion in World War II; General Earl Rudder, commander of the 2nd Ranger Battalion (which scaled Pointe du Hoc on D-Day); General Frank Merrill, the namesake for “Merrill’s Marauders”; and three Medal of Honor winners.

Mosby was one of the Civil War’s most famous guerilla leaders. Loudoun County and its surrounding area is still called “Mosby’s Confederacy” by many who remember American and Virginia history. Kevin Pawlak is a Mosby historian, who leads the longest continuous Mosby bus tour. He recalled how Mosby responded when Federal forces executed some his men. Mosby hung several Union prisoners in retaliation … and then sent a letter to Union General Philip Sheridan, urging that both sides refrain from executing prisoners. Sheridan never replied, but the executions stopped. Pawlak points out that Mosby was renowned for using psychological warfare on his enemies. Federal soldiers in northern Virginia in 1864 worried constantly about Mosby and his raiders.  (Especially at night.)  

But Mosby’s men are there
Of Mosby’s men, best beware 
As glides in seas the shark
Rides Mosby through the green dark

— “The Scout at Aldie,” by Herman Melville

America’s rich military history was built by those who fought under the Stars and Stripes, and by those who didn’t. Our nation’s 250th anniversary is approaching. We’ll soon be reminded that many colonists who felt a duty to King George and England fought honorably and bravely in the Revolutionary War, against the Continental Army. For hundreds of years, Native American tribes battled the U.S. Army and local militias. Their children and grandchildren, along with the children and grandchildren of Loyalists and Confederates, eventually served under the flag of the United States. The descendants of the Navajos who fought the U.S. Cavalry in the late 1800s became the “code talkers” that helped defeat the Japanese. Children and grandchildren of Union and Confederate soldiers stormed Omaha Beach together, as part of the Army’s 29th Infantry, the “Blue and Grey” division.  

Until now, we’ve recognized the importance of honoring the strengths and valor of onetime foes who are now our comrades. The Army aviation branch commemorates Native American tribes by naming its helicopters after them — Blackhawk, Lakota, Apache. No one thinks the Army is honoring those tribes for kidnapping settlers or torturing and murdering cavalrymen. It’s honoring great warriors, who are part of America’s proud military legacy. 

E plurubis unum. Out of many, one. With its recommendations, it seems the Naming Commission has indicated that, in its opinion, that guiding American principle should be changed to: “Out of the politically-correct groups, one.” In the commission’s defense, it had every right to make whatever recommendations it wanted. Unfortunately, Congress apparently rubber-stamped those recommendations. At best, Congress didn’t exercise the oversight it should have. At worst, its silence indicates an indifference to our military’s and our nation’s heritage. Meanwhile, the scourging continues: Virginia National Guard units have been directed to remove any Confederate campaign streamers no later than August 1st.

At least the federal government hasn’t sandblasted Mosby’s name off the memorial — yet. But, if Fort Moore needs a sandblaster, VMI knows where to find one.

Donald Smith was raised in Richmond. His mother was born in a house not far from VMI, and family members still live there.