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  • Custer and the Front Royal Executions of 1864
  • Robert Bateman
Custer and the Front Royal Executions of 1864. By Jay W. Simson. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7864-3973-7. Photographs. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. 204. $35.00.

Journalist Jay Simson gets it mostly right about a third of the way through the narrative of this book when he writes, “Without Lt. Col. John S. Mosby the atrocity at Front Royal probably would have become nothing more than a rather obscure American Civil War incident” (p. 53). In fact, that is exactly what this slim (153 pp. of narrative) book does relate, a small and rather obscure event.

The basic story is direct and simple: On 23 September 1864, a detachment of Confederate raiders, Mosby’s famous “Rangers,” blundered when they attacked a Union supply train that was closely followed by an entire Union cavalry division near Front Royal, Virginia. Some of the partisans died in the ensuing fight, a few were captured. Two of those taken prisoner were then hung, while four more were executed by firing squad. The Union troops who did this, operating under the orders of their officers, were from Major General T.A. Torbert’s cavalry division, and specifically the “Reserve Brigade.” None of those troops appear to have been under the command of then-Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer, nor does it seem that he was even anywhere in the area at the time of the executions. Mosby, however, heard the story differently and later set out to revenge himself upon Custer and his men. Three Union soldiers died as a result.

That is it. Nine dead men in peacetime is a major news event and potentially a national scandal. Nine men killed in a small war is a cause for concern. Nine men dead in September 1864 is less than a statistical pimple, almost regardless of the cause or method. This makes one wonder, “How did this book get printed?”

McFarland & Company, publishers of this book, is a publishing firm that focuses upon printing the works of often-quite-serious hobbyists from the Civil War roundtable speaking circuit, but apparently devotes little effort to editing. There is nothing wrong with the first point at all. Our field is immeasurably enriched by the massive number of supplemental historians who fill in the gaps. But that does not entitle the author or the publisher to make false claims in order to buttress sales.

According to the back cover, and numerous statements inside the book, “For nearly a century and a half most historians of the Civil War have accepted the claim by Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby that George Armstrong Custer bears all the guilt…”. This is patently false, at least among historians with any knowledge of the topic at all. Among others, Jeffry Wert, in his major 1996 biography, Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer, noted Mosby’s claim, but blamed [End Page 1341] Torbert, as he had done previously in his biography of Mosby, Mosby’s Rangers (1990) (p. 185 in the the Custer book, pp. 219–221 in the Mosby book). Adolfo Ovies’s 2004 account, Crossed Sabers, General George Armstrong Custer in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, is even more detailed, uses more primary sources than does Simson, and more completely exonerates Custer in just ten pages (182–192) of that book. Jay Monaghan’s 1971 biography of Custer, Custer: The Life of General George Armstrong Custer, also comes to the same conclusion…Custer was not there, the troops were not his, and he did not give the order. In short, for almost 40 years the truth has been that “most historians” have not accepted Mosby’s claim. Before that, and among the primary sources, the event was little mentioned in the first place.

In the end this work will satisfy only the true devotees of Custerania, exonerating Custer of this event for the umpteenth successive time. The fact is that almost nobody today knows a single thing about the accusation which only Mosby himself believed by the end anyway. In essence, it appears that Simson has crammed a one hour Civil War roundtable...