Freeman: Capturing Moseby's Pants
11/24/09 7:55AM By Castle Freeman  Download MP3
(HOST) On the day after Thanksgiving, people around the country are invited to participate in the second annual National Day of Listening. As part of that effort, commentator Castle Freeman has a favorite story from his own family that features a daring escape and a surprising souvenir.
(FREEMAN) Stories, enjoying degrees of truthfulness and recounted with affection rather than reverence for fact, are more than embellishments of family life. They are its essence. Inevitably, as one generation succeeds another, the protagonists in our family stories pass from the scene. Sooner or later, only the stories remain. We hang onto them because, finally, they're all we've got.
So it is with a favorite tale through four generations of my father's family, told to me over and again as I was growing up. It was presented to me as strict and simple truth. Was it? I don't know. Nobody now alive knows. I hope so, though.
In the year 1864, then, my great-grandfather, whose name was George Castle, was an officer in a Civil War cavalry regiment, a New York outfit, fighting in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. They were opposed by the forces of Colonel John Singleton Mosby, famous as "The Gray Ghost," a legendary Confederate commander of mounted rangers. The elusive Mosby made life miserable for the Union army and its sympathizers in the valley. It was urgent that the Gray Ghost be put out of business.
One night, according to the account given me, spies informed my great-grandfather's unit that Col. Mosby himself, alone and unprotected, was hiding in a barn near their location. Captain Castle and a few troopers made all haste to the barn, broke down the door, and stormed in, weapons at the ready.
The Gray Ghost was indeed in the barn. He had been sleeping up in the hayloft. On the Yankees' violent entry, he awoke and leapt from the loft, landing safely and making his escape by a matter of seconds. In fact, so precipitate was Mosby's exit that he hadn't time to put on his trousers. They, along with some other effects, were found by his frustrated pursuers on their searching the barn.
The northern army never did catch up with Col. Mosby. He finished the war free and whole and went on to a distinguished career as a diplomat, railroad lawyer, and official of the US Interior and Justice departments. My great-grandfather also returned to civil affairs. For the remainder of his long life he entertained many a listener, in our family and beyond, with the story of his capture of Mosby's Pants. So did his daughter, my grandmother. So did his grandson, my father. And, now, I'm hoping, so have I.