In 1862, during the Civil War (1861-1865), the Confederate government authorized the formation of Partisan Ranger bands to reconnoiter, raid, and ambush behind Union lines. Units were organized throughout the South; some provided very effective service. In Virginia, John (Hanse) McNeill’s Company of Partisan Rangers (later commanded by his son, Jesse) inflicted many injuries upon the Union Army, including the capture of two Union Generals.
John Singleton Mosby was a famous Confederate Ranger during the Civil War. He joined the Confederate Cavalry in 1861, and served on General Jeb Stuart’s staff in 1861. He began his independent Ranger activities in 1863. His raids on Union camps and bases were so effective, that part of North-Central Virginia soon became known as Mosby’s Confederacy. Mosby was greatly influenced by Marion and used many of his tactics. Mosby believed that by resorting to aggressive action, he could compel his enemies to guard a hundred points. He would then attack one of their weakest points to ensure superiority and ultimate victory. It was nothing for him to strike far behind enemy lines and snatch a general officer out from among his own troops. His scouts were so thoroughly trained and knew the land so well, that he would mount them on thoroughbred horses, borrowed from his officers, and conduct night raids. Night fighting was not a part of modern war-fighting tactics during the Civil War.
The first real success of Mosby’s Rangers was at Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia, located well behind Federal lines. He knew the officer in charge was Colonel Perry Wyndham, a British soldier of fortune fighting for the Union cause. Mosby’s plan was bold: to infiltrate through the Federal lines and pluck the officer from the midst of the thousands of soldiers protecting the roads West of Washington. His hope for success was based on the theory that to all appearances it was impossible.
Under cover of darkness, Mosby and 29 of the raiders infiltrated Federal outpost lines in the woods of North Centerville, Virginia. As Mosby had hoped, the Federal headquarters was quite confident of its safety, positioned so far behind the lines. Mosby and part of his command proceeded to a dwelling that was thought to be Wyndham’s headquarters. It was the wrong house. In the meantime, Mosby learned that a Federal soldier, whom they had captured, was one of the guards at the headquarters of Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton. Directing part of the detachment to Wyndham’s quarters, Mosby himself took several men and set out to capture General Stoughton. Posing as Federal couriers, they gained entrance into the general’s quarters and captured the sleeping officer. The detachment detailed to capture Wyndham reported that the Colonel had gone to Washington the afternoon before; however, they raided his quarters and captured the assistant adjutant general, a captain.
It was an unparalleled exploit. Twenty-nine men under a bold and aggressive leader had infiltrated through strong enemy lines to the very point where enemy officers slept, yanked them out of bed, laughed at their guards, and disappeared before morning. They had captured a general, members of his staff, more than 100 other soldiers, and a large number of horses.
In March 1863, Mosby defeated a much larger force of Federal troops near Chantilly, Virginia. When an attack he had planned miscarried, and a strong Federal cavalry unit pursued his unit, Mosby moved his men into a half-mile stretch of woods. From concealed positions, they delivered deadly carbine and pistol fire into the front and flanks of their pursuers, killing five of them and wounding several others. One officer and 35 men, as well as a large number of horses were captured. Not a Ranger was scratched!
Another prominent Ranger type unit was the cavalry squadron organized and led by General John Hunt Morgan. Morgan and his confederate raiders began their famous attacks in December 1861. Their initial attack was on Lebanon, Kentucky, 60 miles from Morgan’s camp. During this raid they destroyed large quantities of stores and took several prisoners. A railroad bridge of military importance was burned, thus delaying movement of Federal supplies to the front.
One of Morgan’s most successful raids began in the summer of 1862. With his command of about 800 men, he left Knoxville and made his way westward to Sparta, Tennessee, encountering only a few scattered enemies along the way. Turning North at Sparta, Morgan crossed into Kentucky and captured a small garrison taking 400 prisoners and valuable stores including enough rifles to equip most of his unarmed men. The raiders then moved on to Glasgow and captured the garrison where they destroyed more public stores. These two encounters were typical of other raids Morgan conducted throughout his two-and-a-half week march behind Union lines. During this time, he swelled his own ranks to 1,200 by recruiting enroute, marched more than a thousand miles, captured seventeen towns, destroyed millions of dollars worth of Federal stores, dispersed many of the Home Guard, and raised Confederate morale to new heights. The losses to the Ranger force in both killed and wounded were less than 90.
The most famous raid of Morgan’s Rangers started in July 1863. With a command of 2,400 men, he attacked Green River Bridge, Kentucky, but after a severe fight, was forced to withdraw. Proceeding to Lebanon, Kentucky, they captured that garrison. Continuing to the Ohio River near Brandenburg, they crossed on two captured steamers after dispersing hostile troops on the far side. They encountered more militia at Corydon, Indiana, but quickly scattered them and captured the town. By this time, the whole countryside had risen in arms against them. Newspapers proclaimed an “Invasion of Indiana.” Reinforcements were hurried in and gunboats on the river were rushed to intercept the Confederate marauders. Following a course roughly parallel to the Ohio River, bypassing Cincinnati, Morgan’s men came to within a day’s ride of Lake Erie and the deepest penetration of any Confederate force during the war. However, close on their heels was a Federal cavalry force. Near the end of July, in the vicinity of Liverpool, Ohio, Morgan was forced to surrender.
In spite of Morgan’s surrender, the raid was successful. It drew off some of the forces which might have harassed Bragg’s retreat from middle Tennessee, and which might have helped Rosencrans at the Battle of Chickamauga later on. Colonel MacGrown, a Union soldier, said, Morgan’s raid changed the whole aspect and results of military operations in Tennessee and Kentucky in the summer and fall of 1863. But, for his diverting and delaying Burnside’s movement upon Knoxville and East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia railroad, that commander with 28,000 men, would have joined Rosencrans three weeks before the Battle of Chickamauga was fought.
Equally skilled were Rangers under the command of Turner Ashby. The Rangers of Morgan, Mosby, and Ashby did great service for the Confederate War effort. The Rangers were specialists in scouting, harassing, and raiding. They were a constant and ever present threat to Union troops. The United States Army made only minor use of Ranger units against the Confederate Army. However, Indian unrest soared in the West during the war. Most of the Federal troops had been withdrawn from the frontier. Several of the states formed Ranger units for frontier defense. One of the most active was the First Regiment of Mounted Rangers; a Minnesota unit whose twelve companies ranged the frontier and helped defeat the Santee Sioux during1862-1863.
After the Civil War, Rangers continued to guard the Texan frontier. In 1881, they fought their last battle with Indians, and their primary mission changed from Indian defense to law enforcement. Texas had maintained military Rangers almost continuously for half a century. Today, their descendants are the members of the small companies of Rangers who are part of the Texas State Police.