James Simpson was an unlikely hero. The fresh-faced native of Lexington, Michigan, looked much younger than his 24 years. That’s why it was such a surprise when James not only escaped capture, but made off with a prized horse belonging to John Singleton Mosby, a rebel partisan leader known as the Gray Ghost.
James had enlisted in the 21st New York Cavalry on September 12, 1863. By this time, the War Between the States had been raging for over two years. Several of James’ brothers had also enlisted in the Union forces, leaving their mother, Elizabeth, to worry about the welfare of her sons. As it turned out, Elizabeth Simpson Burke was right to be concerned.
The beginning weeks of James’ service with the 21st New York would include training, riding instruction and saber drill. The routine included rising early every morning to feed and groom his horse, followed by breakfast and more drilling. James seems to have been a quick learner, for these were the skills he would use to outsmart the Gray Ghost himself at their meeting in 1864.
The day of March 25th dawned cold and gloomy, with snow and heavy rain pervading the area of Berryville, Virginia. Corporal James Simpson was one of a hundred twenty five men assigned to scout the areas of Winchester and Berryville, Virginia. As evening approached, the scouts made camp for the night. James and three of his fellow soldiers decided to strike out into the countryside in search of a home-cooked meal from one of the many Union sympathizers who lived in the Millwood area.
The troopers of the 21st found such a home, and sat down to eat. But before they could lift forks to their mouths, they were startled by the clicks of several revolvers as three men entered the room. James immediately recognized Colonel John S. Mosby, leader of the 43rd Battalion, 1st Virginia Cavalry. The Gray Ghost ordered his prisoners to retreat to the barn and saddle up. They were going for a ride. On the way to the barn, one of the New York troopers managed to escape into the darkness. Mosby departed with the remaining three troopers in tow and headed toward his headquarters in Paris, Virginia.
During their ride in the night, Mosby taunted the men of the 21st New York. “Were you with Colonel Cole when I thrashed him at Upperville?” “What do you think of my gray nag – I took him from a Yankee Lieutenant.” “How do you like my style of fighting?” Along the way, Mosby stopped at various farmhouses to pick up his men. It was evident to James Simpson that the Gray Ghost intended to attack the remaining scouts of the 21st New York who were camped for the night back near Millwood. Finally, after enduring hours of Mosby’s taunts, the men arrived in Paris, Virginia.
As Mosby rode up to the house he called his headquarters, he dismounted leaving his pistols in their saddle holsters. James Simpson saw his chance. As he leaned over and pretended to tie up his horse, James actually untied Mosby’s horse, all within the not-so-watchful gaze of the lieutenant who had been left in charge. Quickly placing his foot into the stirrup of Mosby’s saddle, James pulled himself onto the gray horse and grabbed the revolver in one swift movement. The lieutenant fired at Simpson, but missed. In the melee, Mosby himself came out to see what the commotion was all about. He was just in time to hear James Simpson’s parting words. “How do you like our style of fighting, Colonel Mosby? Come and see us, boys. We’re of the New York Twenty-first.”
James Simpson and one of his comrades rode back to camp to inform Captain Eugene Gere of all that had occurred. Besides Mosby’s gray horse and pistols, James came away with a saddlebag containing documents important to the war effort, as well as Mosby’s captain’s commission. The story also made its way to Harper’s Weekly and to the New York Daily Tribune. James Simpson had his fifteen minutes of fame, and all because he was looking for a warm dinner on a cold night.
Sadly, the story of James Simpson ended just seven months after his grand escape from the Gray Ghost. On October 14, 1864, James Simpson died at the Rochester City Hospital of consumption. His body was placed in the vault at Mount Hope Cemetery and, presumably, returned to Michigan for burial. In a letter dated October 20, 1864, and printed in the Hospital Review his mother, Elizabeth Simpson Burke, mentioned that she had now lost three of her sons “to this cruel war”.
After the end of the Civil War, John Singleton Mosby became a lawyer. He even supported his former enemy, General Ulysses S. Grant, in the presidential elections of 1868 and 1872. Mosby made an indelible impression on Virginia for U.S. Route 50, which runs through Paris, Virginia, is now called John S. Mosby Highway. The Gray Ghost died in 1916 at age 82. Without a doubt, John S. Mosby never forgot the plucky young corporal who stole his horse and a little bit of his dignity.