“We took our men from Texas, Kentucky, and Virginia; from the mountains and the backwoods and the plains. We put them under orders, guerrilla fighting orders, and what we lacked in numbers, we made up in speed and brains. Both Rebs and Yankee strangers, they called us Mosby’s Rangers. Both North and South, they knew our fame. Grey Ghost is what they called me. John Mosby is my name.” — The Grey Ghost Intro, 1957

After dinner at a friend’s house, in one of those unfrequented den corners we all have, I came upon a Civil War tome and thumbed through it, at first just sort of wasting time. Then came the thought that the book might reference an old hero of mine, John Singleton Mosby, Colonel, C.S.A., labeled by Lincoln himself the “Grey Ghost of the Confederacy,” a 125-pound, 30-ish-year-old Confederate lawyer-turned-raider whose thorn in the side of the Union forces occupied the frustrated efforts of up to 30,000 troops in not finding him.

Mosby was only a minor player in a large game — but one readily known by any Civil War historian — and curiously one who had remained in my memory and inexplicable interest for fifty years. As a child, weekly and devoutly in 1957-1958, I had followed the exploits of Mosby and his Raiders in the 30-minute segments of a black-&-white television series that perhaps one day, in this retro world, Nick-at-Nite will resurrect. But, probably, for the same reason The Grey Ghost series died originally, I doubt it will return: even the 1950’s had its own brand of political correctness, and surely it wasn’t P.C. for a dashing young Confederate Colonel to demonstrate superior Southern ingenuity while making fools of the ancestors of those who ran the network in New York — and to do it all in the era when “News-of-the-Day” was showing that little “misunderstanding” in Little Rock.

In my friend’s book that night, the few pages about Mosby went by all too fast. But there must have been something in them I didn’t see with my mind. Some remnant of thought nagged at that Mosby-susceptible part of me until I read and re-read and found that the subtle tug had originated in a remark of Mosby, one which he had actually taken from the writings of Lord Byron (1788-1824) [Confederate horseman reads Byron?]

Mosby was complaining about the idle periods between his intense wartime encounters. “Quiet,” he said, “to quick bosoms, is hell.”

Oh, you may think — and it may have been — that my attention had first stumbled on the quote because of that typical male focus on the anatomical area of reference. But the vintage phrase really had its own charm; such a quaint, unexpected, little gentle-blunt opinion: “Quiet to quick bosoms is hell.” Actually, I had had to read it twice to grasp the source of Mosby’s distress. Nothing at all sexual about the quick bosoms he referenced; he was simply providing us a telling, self-reflective nugget about a human characteristic which, though fundamental, expresses itself so strongly in only some of the race. And, though the phrase neither sprang from a lexicon we would use today nor became as well known as the more commonly quoted and more easily grasped “War is hell” remark (made by Mosby‘s actual contemporary and distant opponent Sherman), ‘twas, in reality, nothing but an 1863 predecessor of the child’s:

“Daddy, I’m bored! What can I do?”

“Well, Johnny, why don’t you just go out and annoy the hell out of the ‘DamnYankees’?”

“Sounds like fun, dad; I’ll do that.”

So Mosby, the man later termed “America’s greatest insurgent since Geronimo,” did go do just that. And he did it famously, again and again, becoming the Civil War’s successor to the legendary Revolutionary War Swamp Fox. Hit. Raid. Steal new stuff (Union stuff, of course). Run. Set loose their horses here. Steal their pigs there. Hide in the woods (or hide in view!). Live at the corner of Found & Not-Found. Go undercover in D.C., drop by the White House, and leave a lock of Jeff Davis’ hair with the doorkeeper. Escape capture by the narrowest of margins (after all, they’re so much more fun than those wide margins). Sneak. Creep. Almost get caught — but live to sneak another day. Celebrate. Plot. Go home for lunch. But beware — stay a step ahead of ‘em (but only one — too far’s no fun). Plan (sort of), but nothing conventional; good raiders never use those prefab plans-in-a-box. Change your horses in the middle of the stream: they’ll never check there: surely only fools would do the might-fall-off-and-get-wet horse trick. And never do anything the regular army would do. (Heck, that’s why they call them “regulars” — they cope fine with that ‘just sit around’ thing. Besides, grey uniforms are a bore, and they cramp sneakin’ style.) Hide ten feet from the bad guys and feel your heart pound. Don’t forget Raider Rule 4: blow something up daily: “Third bridge this week!” or “Ten points! – ammo dump!” Be quick and be done. Be in and be out and be gone. Long fuses waste time. Never, never(!) fill out reports. All ahead full; then all stop (no other speeds useful). And never do the same thing twice – same things are old stuff. Fool them. Oppose them. Make them frustrated and inefficient while they search for (grey) ghosts. Then pull their chain, or their doorbell, and run away and oppose them some more, somewhere, somewhen, somehow. And grin as you sneak off with their cannon, or underwear, or dinner, or their women. Such fun!

{You are beginning to get the “We don’t do boredom well” picture here, right ???}

CBS attractively and appropriately titled Mosby’s story The Grey Ghost, but they could just as well have released it as MacGyver Meets the Yankees or Special Ops, Civil War. This fellow was classic ADHD (as anyone had to be who was sufficiently mental to voluntarily join up with him in an unsalaried cavalry regiment with no home base or mailbox). Google John Mosby yourself, or borrow my friend’s book; meanwhile, I’m going to tell Nick-at-Nite how well grey ghosts show up in black-&-white!

Footnote: Interestingly, it turns out that Mosby survived the Civil War. Even got pardoned. (And never surrendered — just dismissed the boys and rode home!) Didn’t die ‘til much later, in 1916, during the next big one, in the same capitol city he had attacked fifty years prior. And from another book of history, I found that Mosby had been a close, personal friend of General George S. Patton the first, the grandfather of the irascible, hyperactive, impulsive George Patton we all know — who incidentally also never surrendered. And, post Civil War, the retired southern Colonel had actually taken the little pre-general under his wing.

After old General Patton died, little George’s father would often invite the Grey Ghost, the friend of his father, back out to the farm. Mosby was only 52 in 1885 when Patton’s father let him begin the practice of taking young George out on horseback on the family land. Riding over the terrain, carrying swords, and playing war were just the thing to hold a young boy’s attention. The two acted out the annoy-just-the-right-amount-of-hell-out-of-the-enemy battle plans the Ghost had used so successfully two decades previously. Playing games day after day in the woods, the old soldier taught the young man tactics that would not be in any of the books that the to-be soldier would later read at West Point, tactics invented and proven successful twenty years prior in the engagement style Mosby called “raiding” but which we would now term “unconventional warfare.”

Later, the young trainee grew up to apply 1860’s Confederate cavalry tactics to iron horse tanks – and to be one of the most brash, impulsive, impetuous, and unconventional bastards that ever frustrated a Nazi – or his own War Department.

A few paragraphs in an old history book on a shelf. A quaint little phrase, but a new perspective on John Singleton Mosby — and the answer to my fifty-year-long enigma.

Perhaps we should look more closely at those other Americans whose names we first saw in bold print in our 4th-grade history books, an emphasis to which they may have been entitled due both to their character — and to the ADHD they didn’t know they had.

© John I. Bailey, Jr., 2007