KNOXVILLE — Exploits of the famed Confederate raider of the U.S. Civil War known as the “Gray Ghost” hold valuable lessons in the fight against modern terrorism, two University of Tennessee media historians said Thursday.
In their new book “The Mosby Myth: A Confederate Hero in Life and Legend,” Drs. Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill say Col. John Singleton Mosby used terror attacks, fear and the media to build a mythical image that hampered Union efforts to stop him.
Though Mosby rarely harmed civilians and lacked the large network and evil intentions of modern terrorist Osama bin Laden, both used similar tactics to create a shadowy image that they used to their advantage, Ashdown said in an interview.
“Mosby wasn’t a terrorist in the same sense that Osama bin Laden is a terrorist, but he was certainly terrifying to the Union army,” Ashdown said. “The federal government never figured out a way to stop him because it made the mistake of overestimating his power. They thought nothing was beyond his powers.”
Mosby’s exploits prompted “Moby Dick” author Herman Melville to write a long narrative poem describing him as almost supernatural.
Ashdown said similar types of rumors and myths about bin Laden could affect the international search for the elusive terrorist leader.
“Mosby frightened Melville,” Ashdown said, “but the United States should not become like Captain Ahab in search of the Great White Whale (in hunting bin Laden).”
A lawyer before the war with no military training, Mosby lead small groups of
less than 800 men on raids behind Union lines, destroying railroads and arsenals and kidnapping generals.
He attacked communications by cutting telegraph lines and spreading false information through the media, propogating a mysterious “Gray Ghost” myth that mislead and intimidated thousands of Union troops and thwarted efforts to find him.
“He was his own press agent,” Caudill said. “He staged events with the press in mind, and sometimes captured journalists who then wrote fantastic stories about him.”
Mosby once sent a lock of his hair to Abraham Lincoln and warned that he was “coming to get him.” The ruse lead Union soldiers on a wild goose chase in Washington while Mosby was elsewhere.
“We must not grant bin Laden and other terrorists victories by giving them the kind of superhuman powers the Northern gave Mosby,” Caudill said. “The way to fight terrorists and partisans is to show them we are stronger than they are, and they don’t scare us. Bin Laden is no more a ghost than Mosby was.
“He can be tracked down the same way Mosby could have been tracked down, through careful intelligence and by destroying his base of operations. If we turn him into some kind of ghost with unlimited power, we’ll have a more difficult time stopping him and breaking up his organization.”
Ashdown and Caudill are journalism and public relations professors in UT’s College of Communications. Their book on Mosby, a selection of the History Book Club, will be published in October.