O’Donnell: Mosby’s Rangers Shoot-Out at Miskel Farm

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Special operations require special men. Elite units, especially in modern warfare, often turn the tide of war, but these engagements often require a seemingly super-human dose of bravery and audacity from the men involved.

That audacity was on full display one hundred and sixty-one-years ago this week, when the Union Army had one of their best chances to capture and destroy Mosby’s Rangers, the comparatively small elite unit, at that time, of Confederate guerilla warriors terrorizing Federal troops in Northern Virginia.

In late March 1863, after a cold day on horseback, approximately sixty of Mosby’s Rangers, “almost as motley a crowd as Falstaff’s regiment” previously unknown to one another but bound together by their “love of adventure and confidence in their leader,” gathered at Miskel Farm (near Broad Run in Loudoun County) to spend the night en route to their next raid. The estate, owned by a sympathetic Southern farmer, offered refuge from the snow and forage for their horses, but its location near the Potomac between the Broad Run and Difficult Run Rivers allowed only one way in and out—through the main gate of the homestead, a lane that led to the turnpike.

Col. John Mosby, Library of Congress, Getty Images

After taking a night’s refreshment, the Rangers were awakened by a rider coming up the lane at breakneck speed shortly after dawn the following day. Waving his hat, the Confederate screamed, “Mount your horses! The Yankees are coming!” A Union citizen had alerted the 1st Vermont Calvary of Mosby’s presence in the area. Six companies, or about 150 men, led by Captain Henry Flint, barreled down the lane that led to the entrance of the farm. Flint ordered troopers to bar the gate near the turnpike, then split his men and ordered fifty troopers to circle behind the farm while the bulk of his force made a headlong charge into Mosby’s camp.

Pandemonium unfolded. “It looked as though the light and life of the Guerrilla must be swept from the face of the earth. Never before or after had the Federal troops had such a chance to secure Mosby and wipe out his men,” remembered one Ranger. The Confederates tried to bridle, saddle, and mount their horses in the midst of the onslaught.

In keeping with their philosophy of “getting the bulge on” their opponents or gaining an advantage by attacking first, Mosby commanded his vastly out-numbered men to take the offense, “Charge ’em; charge ’em and go through ’em!” The still-unmounted Rebel leader motioned with his hand to emphasize the order. The Rangers responded with “a demonic yell which . . . once heard [one would] never forget . . . as reapers descend on the harvest of death.” With pistols blazing, including two smoking Colts Mosby himself fired into the oncoming men. One Ranger handed Mosby the bridle of his horse, so the partisan leader could join the melee, then vaulted onto a captured horse and joined the fight as well.

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