- The Washington Times - Friday, June 18, 2004

The well-deserved humiliation of Saddam Hussein during his recent capture is tame compared with that of Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Stoughton in Fairfax.

In 1863, Stoughton, a 25-year-old bachelor, found himself the youngest-ever brigadier general in the U.S. Army.

In charge of the 2nd Vermont Brigade, Stoughton chose a house on Main Street owned by Dr. William Gunnell as his Fairfax Courthouse (now Fairfax City, Va.) headquarters.

Stoughton enjoyed the company of Antonia Ford, a young woman who lived on Chain Bridge Road. Ford and her father were suspected by some to be spies for the Confederacy, as is shown in this sentence from a Union soldier’s letter: “Her father lives here, and is known to harbor and give all the aid he can to the Rebs, and this in the little hole of Fairfax.”

To celebrate a visit from his mother and sister, Stoughton had a champagne party at his headquarters on Sunday, March 8, 1863. Snow was falling lightly when the party ended and the guests departed, about midnight. Stoughton had no way of knowing that events in the next three hours would cause him to be referred to as the “luckless sleeper at Fairfax” by the Baltimore American newspaper.

The “Affair at Fairfax Courthouse” was just getting started by Confederate Capt. John Mosby, who, along with 29 guerrilla rangers, recently had departed from Aldie, Va., to “do their deviltry” in Fairfax.

In his memoirs, Mosby gave his rationale for undertaking the risk of trying to capture Stoughton and another Union officer, Sir Percy Wyndham: “I had no reputation to lose … and I remembered the motto: adventures to the adventurous.”

Wyndham, the commanding officer of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, was a professional British soldier who had fought in Europe. Wyndham had earned the Confederates’ wrath by calling Mosby a horse thief. Mosby’s clever retort clarified that he wasn’t some common thief and that he had to overcome armed enemy soldiers in order to get to the horses: “All the horses had riders and that each rider had had a saber and two pistols.”

Because of its critical location, Fairfax Courthouse was heavily guarded by Union troops. At about 2 a.m. on March 9, 1863, Mosby secretly made his way into Fairfax Courthouse. Wyndham was not in town, but Stoughton was. Mosby entered the house, went into Stoughton’s room and “pulled off the bedclothes, whacked the general on his bare rump,” and called out, “Have you ever heard of Mosby?”

Half hung-over and half asleep, Stoughton replied, “Yes, have you got him?” What a shock it must have been when Stoughton heard, “No, but he has got you.” To add to the psychological warfare, Mosby took a piece of coal out of the fireplace and wrote “Mosby” on the wall.

Mosby and his men spent about an hour inside enemy territory rounding up their bounty before departing with Stoughton, 32 other men and 58 horses. Predictably, the North was furious the next day, with newspapers reporting that the guerrillas “dashed to and fro in a reckless manner.”

Lincoln made a famous comment that “I can make a much better brigadier in five minutes, but the horses cost $125 apiece.” Stoughton left the army two months later and died in 1868.

To remind you that the Civil War wasn’t that long ago, consider this: One of the Union soldiers taken captive along with Stoughton visited the house — in 1940. The church rector recounted his discussion with the very old Union veteran, who had been driven by his daughter from Syracuse, N.Y.:

“My spokesman said he remembered being asleep (or very drowsy) when a group of the enemy approached; that he was not aware of his duty, but was quickly disarmed and commanded to give the signal to open the front door. This was done reasonably soon. He said he remembered distinctly the officer, whom he later discovered was Mosby, seizing the inner guard by the shoulders and demanding to be taken to Stoughton’s bedroom. …

“He told me this was the first time he had visited Fairfax since the night of Mosby’s raid. His daughter remarked that her father loved to tell the story in detail.”

The Gunnell House is now owned by Truro Episcopal Church and is used as an administrative building.

Paul Herbert is a criminal investigator who lives in Fairfax.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide