Mosby in Nebraska: “These Fences Must Come Down!”

John S. Mosby (1833-1916), the “Gray Ghost,” commanded a Confederate cavalry unit during the Civil War. After the war he served as U.S. consul to Hong Kong (1878-1885) and later worked as an attorney for the Southern Pacific Railroad. In 1901, at sixty-seven years of age, he became special agent for the General Land Office in the U.S. Department of the Interior. He was charged with investigating violations of federal land laws in three districts of Colorado and Nebraska where ranchers had long been accustomed to fencing in large tracts of public land.

In August 1902 Mosby was sent on temporary duty to Alliance in Box Butte County. The Alliance Herald on August 8, 1902, reported: “There is present in the little city of Alliance today a man who, during the four long, memorable and cruel years of carnage and bloodshed between the sections from 1861 to 1865 played as prominent a part and did as much toward making history as any other one man, save, perhaps, U.S. Grant or Robt. E. Lee. This man is none other than the redoubtable Col. John S. Mosby, of Confederate guerilla fame.”

A reporter from the Herald called on Mosby at his Alliance hotel and “enjoyed immensely an hour’s visit with the gray-haired old veteran. The Mosby of today doesn’t impress one as the Mosby of history. About the battle-scarred old trooper there is nothing that smacks of ferocity, nothing to indicate the daring, dashing cavalry commander, who, with never more than three hundred men, neutralized and held at bay for two years from forty to fifty thousand splendidly armed and equipped federal soldiers. But instead there is every indication of the plain, unostentatious, intelligent old gentleman with a mind as vivid and active as in the years of long ago, and a bearing as pleasing and manner as courteous as a diplomat.”

On its editorial page the Herald said: “There is no occasion for uneasiness. Those who have fences around government land were long since apprised of the fact that those fences must come down, and Col. Mosby is here in accordance with the wishes of the interior department to see that the law is complied with. His mode of procedure will be, as the Herald understands it, to notify parties who have fenced in any part of the public domain, to remove said fencing within sixty days after notification. The immediate cause of Col. Mosby’s presence in Alliance is a speech delivered at the cattlemen’s convention held in this city last February, by President S. P. Delatour, in which the statement was made that in the Alliance and Sidney districts there were over 6,000,000 acres of government land under fence. But be that as it may, there’s nothing to be made by protesting against the inevitable and growling about the hardships and inconveniences that will accrue. Uncle Sam says these fences must come down, and that settles it.”

Mosby’s mission couldn’t help but ruffle feathers in western Nebraska, and his criticism of Nebraska’s two U.S. senators, Joseph H. Millard and Charles H. Dietrich, for allegedly aiding the cattlemen, caused President Theodore Roosevelt to bring Mosby back to Washington by mid-December. Roosevelt’s administration prosecuted the worst offenders among the cattlemen without Mosby, who in April 1903 was assigned to the Land Office in Montgomery, Alabama, to investigate trespassing in the federal pine forest there.


John S. Mosby. From The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume Four, The Cavalry (New York, 1911).

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