When you see the photos of this cape, you'll barely believe that it was used during the Civil War. Curator Kathleen Golden has the story.
It was December 21, 1864, a few days before Christmas. Colonel John S. Mosby had ridden from Richmond, Virginia, to Upper Fauquier, to attend the wedding of one of his men, Jake Lavender. He was, to use a modern phrase, "dressed to the nines."
"I was better dressed that evening than I ever was during the war," wrote Colonel Mosby. "Just before starting to Richmond I got through the blockade across the Potomac complete suit from head to foot. I had a drab hat with an ostrich plume, with gold cord and star; a heavy, black beaver-cloth overcoat and cape lined with English scarlet cloth, and, as it was a stormy evening, over this I wore a gray cloak, also lined with scarlet."
[Note: Mosby writes about this in his autobiography Gray Ghost: The Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby. He had gone to Petersburg to army headquarters a couple of days before the wedding, and on his way to Richmond afterward had picked up the clothing.]
During the wedding festivities, word came that enemy cavalry was on the road to Salem, only a few miles away. Mosby, not wanting to interrupt the party, took one of his men, Tom Love, and rode out to reconnoiter.
Several hours later, satisfied that the cavalry would pose no threat that evening, Mosby and Love passed the house of Ludwell Lake, who, according to Mosby, "was famous for always setting a good table." Having missed the wedding supper, he was rather hungry, and so joined Mr. Lake and his daughters for a supper of "good coffee, hot rolls, and spareribs." Unfortunately, the pleasant repast was interrupted by the arrival of uninvited and unwanted guests—the 13th New York Cavalry.
The rest of the events that evening read like a thriller.
Love was captured and could not warn his leader, and Mosby was shot through the bedroom window. The quick-thinking Lake sisters removed his cavalry jacket with the stars and hid it under the settee just as the Union soldiers invaded the house. Satisfied that Mosby was not Mosby but a Confederate cavalryman named Johnson, and a soon-to-be-dead Confederate at that, the men left for their camp.
On the way out, one officer helped himself to a cape sitting on the chair in the corner, the gray and scarlet one that Mosby had removed upon entering the house. That soldier, Captain Elbert Hegeman of the 3rd New York Provincial Cavalry, kept the cape through the end of the war and beyond.
Fast forward to the 1920s... the Civil War has been over for 60 years, and John Mosby not only survived that gunshot that December night in 1864, but went on to become a Republican, strike up a friendship with Ulysses Grant, lead a political life, and live to the ripe old age of 86 (oh, and the Union leadership was understandably angry that they had Mosby in their grasp but unknowingly let him go). John Mosby Russell, Mosby's nephew, receives a cloak once described as "magnificent, of gray flannel with English scarlet and gold clasps," from a judge of the New York Supreme Court. In the accession file for the cape, which Russell donated to the Smithsonian's National Museum, he writes:
"Judge Townsend Scudder of the New York Supreme Court wrote my cousin, of Warrenton, Virginia, stating that his late aunts had kept and left with him the cloak of my uncle, Col. John S. Mosby, that was secured when he was shot near The Plains, Virginia, in 1865 [sic] by his cousin Major Hegeman, a Union soldier."
The story of this cape and how it came to the Smithsonian is one of the stories told in Confederate segment of Civil War 360, which recently aired on the Smithsonian Channel. Mosby and his Rangers are also featured in an essay entitled "The Gray Ghost" in the new Smithsonian book on the Civil War.