Eyewitness 1863: Pittsburgh school principal taken prisoner by 'Gray Ghost'

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Col. John Singleton Mosby became known as the "Gray Ghost" for his ability to lead rebel raids on Union forces and then disappear into the general population.

Mosby seemed real enough to a Pittsburgh school principal named James B.D. Meeds when he became the Confederate officer's prisoner in the summer of 1863.

Meeds was part of a U.S. Christian Commission team delivering morale-boosting supplies to federal forces stationed near Warrenton, Va. The U.S. Christian Commission was founded in 1861 by Protestant ministers and national officers of the YMCA. It raised money and then sent civilian volunteers to army camps and onto battlefields with wagon-loads of religious texts, stationery and personal-care products.

Meeds was one such volunteer. He had been principal for many years at Pittsburgh's South Ward School and apparently was taking a break from his school duties to aid the Union cause.

In a letter Aug. 5 to Joseph Albree, the treasurer of the U.S. Christian Commission, he described leaving Washington, D.C., on the night of July 29. He and his three companions were headed for the general headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, about 50 miles southeast of the capital.

The Christian Commission team decided to travel with a number of other wagon-driving sutlers. Sutlers were civilian businessmen who sold food and supplies to the army. "[It] was thought safer to travel in company with them than to go alone," Meeds wrote. His letter to Albree was published Aug. 11 in The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette.

By the evening of July 30, their party was outside Fairfax, Va., and they decided to bed down near 29 other wagon drivers. Meeds estimated the value of the supply wagons and their goods at $100,000 (the equivalent of $1.9 million today), making the wagon train a tempting target for Southern raiders.

Meeds was asleep in the wagon when he was "awakened by the noise of hurried voices ..." He went in search of a man he identified only as "Mr. Shaw," one of his traveling companions. "I was met by two or three men on horseback, whom I at first supposed to be sutlers."

"They inquired where I was going," Meeds wrote. "I told them, to call my friend Mr. Shaw. They said I could not go, that I was their prisoner."

When Shaw turned up, the rebels robbed him of his watch, "worth $100, and $25 in money and his memorandum book, in which was his commission." That document would have explained the men's charitable mission and included approvals to travel through a war zone.

Meeds was no shrinking violet. "I requested to be taken to Major Mosby, the leader of the band, with whom I had an interview," he wrote. "I explained to him in as few words as I could the nature and object of the Christian Commission, and asked that we might be released."

The Confederate officer was polite, saying he was familiar with the work of the commission, but he insisted that Meeds, Shaw and their driver remain with his forces. Mosby promised "he would attend to our case at daylight."

As soon as the sutlers hitched up their wagons, the rebel raiders headed them northwest in the darkness toward Mosby's temporary headquarters at Aldie, Va., about 20 miles away. By 1 a.m. Meeds estimated that the captured wagon train was within few miles of the town.

Mosby's Rangers, however, were not the only troops in action that night.


The rest of this tale will appear Sept. 1. Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.


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