- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 7, 2002

The roster of the 35th Virginia Cavalry records that he "deserted 9/1/64" and was "assassinated 4/5/65." Assassination is an unusual way to note the death of a cavalryman bearing arms in time of war; yet it is far from the strangest aspect of the life and death of John W. Mobberly of Loudoun County, Va. Indeed, Mobberly is a study in contrasts.
According to his tombstone in the cemetery of Salem Methodist Church in Loudoun County, he was not yet 21 when he died. He was said to be a native of Loudoun; but contemporary evidence of his life and death is restricted largely to his grave, a claim he made on the Confederate government for the cost of a horse killed in the Battle of Brandy Station and a few cryptic notations on his battalion's roster.
His enemies mentioned him several times in correspondence found in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, but there is little consistency to the accounts. In them, he is a private, a lieutenant and a captain all within the space of a few weeks. He is a member of White's Comanches (named for its leader, Col. Elijah V. White) and of Mosby's Rangers, yet he operates independently with his own command. He is reported in West Virginia on the same day he is accused of depredation 100 miles away in the Loudoun Valley. In various accounts written after his death, he is a murderer, a coward and a bushwhacker, or he is bold, "reckless beyond reason and fearless of death," "famous" and "intrepid."
Most of what we know about Mobberly was written after the war. It is largely hearsay and the sort of exaggeration that would have made him the hero of dime novels only a decade and a half after his death.
Perhaps the most often-told Mobberly story is used to demonstrate his cruelty and disregard for the rules of "civilized" warfare. According to this story, the men of the Independent Loudoun Rangers, Virginia's only Union regiment, were around Waterford looking for something to eat when they were attacked by at least 100 of Mosby's men. Two rangers were killed, five captured, and a sergeant, Charles Stewart, severely wounded before the Southerners, in keeping with their "hit and run" tactics, withdrew with their prisoners.
As Mosby's men rode off to the south, Mobberly and his small "band of cutthroats" approached the town from the west the direction of their Short Hill Mountain sanctuary. When he came upon Stewart wounded and helpless in the road, Mobberly began to ride his horse back and forth over him, gleefully firing at the prostrate form with a revolver. When he either ran out of ammunition or tired of the sport (depending on whose account you read), Mobberly dismounted, relieved the sergeant of his new boots and rode away laughing.
Miraculously, Stewart was still alive. He was carried to the nearby home of Rachel Steele, where Dr. Thomas Bond treated him. Upon seeing the wounded man, the doctor cried, "My only ambition in life is to live long enough to make another hell for the man that shot Stewart after he was helpless!"
Another time, a Unionist named Law disappeared from his home in Harpers Ferry, never to be seen again. Years after the war, an anonymous local resident confessed that he and other members of Mobberly's gang had taken Law to Short Hill Mountain and staked him out in the open to die of exposure or be eaten by wild beasts.
Other accounts written soon after the war said Mobberly rarely took prisoners, and those he did capture were likewise staked out to die on the mountain. Loudoun Ranger John W. Forsythe recorded in his 1892 memoirs that "a number of skeletons" were found in such a condition at the end of the war.
These stories contrast sharply with other accounts of Mobberly as a Robin Hood figure, protecting and feeding helpless Southern sympathizers living under Northern oppressors. They also are at variance with the image of Mobberly as a brave scout who more than once led White's Comanches on successful forays and who, when his horse was killed at Brandy Station, leaped into the saddle behind a Union cavalryman, shot him dead and rode off on his enemy's horse.
No doubt, Mobberly was neither as evil as Union accounts claim, nor as saintly as he is depicted in some Southern accounts. He was a child in a man's body, freed by the war from the restraints of civilization and exercising the power of life and death with a Colt in his hand and loyal henchmen at his side. In a 1920 article in the Confederate Veteran, Magnus Thompson, a fellow member of the 35th Virginia Cavalry, boasted that Mobberly "killed more Yankees than any man in the Army of Northern Virginia. He damaged the enemy in loss of property, troops, etc., more than any one of record. …"
If this is remotely accurate, it is no wonder federal authorities were almost desperate to rid the county of Mobberly and his band. A number of ambushes were laid for him, but he escaped all of them. As Thompson said, "… the devil could not catch him, as he was always superbly mounted." Apparently, he also was incredibly lucky.
Briscoe Goodheart, historian of the Independent Loudoun Rangers, relates one such incident in which he says a squad of Rangers, learning where Mobberly would be the next day, "concealed themselves and waited [in ambush]."
Mobberly soon appeared "with drawn saber, chasing a negro boy who was driving a cart. The boy was badly frightened, which Moberly [sic] seemed to enjoy." When the frightened boy and the guerrilla came abreast of their hiding place, the Rangers leaped to their feet and demanded Mobberly's surrender. Instead of complying, he "lay down in his saddle, put spurs to his swift-footed horse, and making a sharp turn in the road, darted out of sight."
Goodheart said that every Union man fired at the Rebel at close range "but did not strike him."
Finally, their inability to capture or kill Mobberly and his small band prompted federal authorities to speak openly of offering a reward for his dead body. Gen. John D. Stevenson, commanding the garrison at Harpers Ferry, wrote to the Army chief of staff: "Some citizens of Loudoun have proposed to me that if I will arm them and give them the means of living away from home for awhile they will kill or capture the band. I think promising these men a reward of $1,000 for Mobberly and $500 for each of the others, dead or alive, will clean out the concern."
The reply Stevenson received from Washington said, in part, it was "not proper to offer a reward openly, but [we] will reward the men liberally in proportion to the service they may render. The general desires that the whole matter shall be kept secret."
Goodheart said three civilians, including former Loudoun Ranger Jacob Boyrer, accepted the challenge to bring in Mobberly. Stevenson gave orders that they be accompanied by three active-duty members of the Rangers, one of whom was the same Sgt. Charles Stewart who Mobberly had so brutally assaulted the year before. Another of the civilians was Luther H. Potterfield, on whose farm the ambush would be laid. Some accounts say Mobberly was going to the Potterfield place to see a girl; others say he was going to steal a horse. Still others say he was planning to deliver slaves who would be sent across the Potomac River to enlist in the Union Army while their bounty money was sent back south to Mobberly.
Whatever the reason, on the afternoon of April 5, 1865, Mobberly and Jim Riley, one of his men, rode into Potterfield's barnyard at the foot of Short Hill Mountain. As he approached, Stewart and five other men stepped out of the barn with revolvers drawn and cocked. Seeing them, Mobberly threw up his hands and said, "Oh, Lord, I am gone," as all six fired at him. He died instantly with three bullets in his head.
Because he had stopped outside the barnyard to water his horse, Riley was able to escape, wounded but alive. Stewart and his men threw Mobberly's body over his horse and delivered it to Stevenson. He put it on display outside his headquarters, where souvenir hunters cut away bits of the dead man's clothing until almost nothing remained.
According to Goodheart, the three civilians involved in the ambush received $1,000 each, plus expenses, while the three soldiers got nothing. Although the men were in Harpers Ferry, safely beyond the reach of Mobberly's friends, Potterfield's barn was burned the next day.
Eventually, Mobberly's body was released to his mother. Local tradition says there was a grand funeral procession from the Mobberly farm to Hillsboro and from there out the Harpers Ferry Road to Salem Church.
Sometime after the war, a headstone was placed over the grave, reportedly bought by Henry Heaton, a former Mosby ranger and postwar member of the Virginia General Assembly. Engraved on the stone are 15 lines of florid praise:
God bless thee, brave soldier,
Thy life's dream is o'er,
Thou wilt do battle no more.
To the land of the blessed
Thou hast gone to depart,
With a smile on thy face
And a joy in thy heart.
Thrice hallowed the green spot
Where our hero is laid,
His deeds from our memory
Shall nevermore fade.
The stranger will say,
As he lingers around,
'Tis the grave of a hero,
'Tis liberty's mound.
Thus ended the controversial and contradictory life of John W. Mobberly "born June 1, 1844 assassinated April 5, 1865."

Steve Meserve is a historian in Loudoun County, Va.

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