“Moulded in the form of a spread eagle”: Mosby’s Rangers, the Fourth of July, and a Dispute Over Cake

John S. Mosby

Independence Day in 1864 seemed like it could have been the last such celebration for the United States. The Presidential Election of 1864 loomed four months in the future, and a Lincoln reelection seemed very much in doubt. Jubal Early’s Confederate force neared the Potomac River, poised for a third Confederate incursion into Maryland.

John Singleton Mosby’s Rangers worked in conjunction with Early’s command to wreak as much havoc as possible along the Potomac frontier. Mosby eyed Point of Rocks, Maryland, an important Federal supply hub on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Armed with a cannon, Mosby’s 250 men charged across the river into Maryland on July 4, 1864.

Mosby’s gun scared away an entourage of United States Treasury employees trying to enjoy the holiday aboard a canal boat. The Rangers swooped down on the abandoned prize, ransacking it for the vacated liquor, cigars, and foodstuffs. Following a brief fight, Mosby’s command drove the Federal garrison from Point of Rocks. Immediately, they commenced raiding the numerous supply stores there. Mosby’s men managed to capture so much cloth that the veterans forever called it the Great Calico Raid.

One unexpected prize of the sortie was the spoiling of a large Fourth of July party to be held in town. The Federal officers in command there hoped to celebrate their nation’s independence and had the Unionist ladies of the town prepare a large cake for the American holiday. This cake fell into the hands of Mosby’s Rangers and became a matter of dispute for the Confederates, Federals, and local civilians over the next couple of July weeks.

Mosby man John Marshall Crawford wrote the below description of the cake and its subsequent history. His telling of the tale is tremendously fascinating and well-written. Thus, I will leave it to Crawford to take the story from here.

Sadly, no image of the cake, or any cake ever made like it, exists, so a generic photo of a bald eagle must suffice.

     Passing through the burning camps, the boys, after collecting what relics they wanted, pushed on back to town. Such an exciting and laughable scene few have ever witnessed or enjoyed. They had secured a huge pound-cake, which had been prepared by some ladies, who were to give the officers of the garrison an entertainment that evening.

     The history of the cake is as follows: The officers of the garrison had signified to some of their lady friends their desire and intention of celebrating the Fourth of July in a becoming manner, so their lady friends went to work and prepared a monster cake for the occasion. This cake was moulded in the form of a spread eagle, the mould being made in Boston, and measured twenty-five feet from the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail. It was a complete eagle in all its parts. It had glass eyes, talons, &c., &c., and in the baking of it, which occupied three days and nights, it was burnt (intentionally I presume), so that it looked like a real eagle. But the most remarkable thing about it was, that inside of it there was some machinery that every time one of the boys thrust his sabre into the eagle to cut off a piece, the bird would scream. What their idea was in inserting this instrument into this spreadeagle cake, I have never been able to learn or conceive. I inquired diligently of the residents of the place, but they would give us no satisfaction. Colonel Mosby would have brought it across the river, and sent it to Richmond; but the enemy had destroyed all the boats, so the boys concluded to take it to pieces; which, being done, it was with great difficulty got across the river in the evening by means of a raft. A six-horse team belonging to Mr. S. was pressed into service, the cake put into it, and started for Fauquier County. A guard of five men accompanied the wagon.

     While in camp on Goose Creek, the second night they were out, the guard got drunk on “blockade,” and all of them lay down and went to sleep. The driver being a strong Union man, and having conceived the idea he would be made a hero, if he could save what was left of the great American bird, availed himself of the opportunity, and drove his load in the night to a Mr. _____’s farm, in Loudon County, situated on Goose Creek. Securing four of Mr. _____’s most reliable colored servants, he secreted his precious load in one of those safe places which abound on that stream, and which are known only by those patriotic and loyal colored men, and started back with his team. Sunrise next morning, found him in the bosom of his family, on the banks of the classic Potomac. This Union driver kept the part he had played a profound secret, until General _____, occupied the valley, when he divulged his secret to him. On General _____’s retreat from Washington, a portion of his wagon-train and eight hundred prisoners crossed the Blue Ridge mountains at Ashby’s Gap. This portion of his army was pursued by General Durfea [Duffié], with two thousand five hundred cavalry. After occupying the Gap three days, Durfea fell back to Snickersville, where General Wright was encamped with a division of the Union army. On their march to Wright, they passed by Mr. _____’s house, and found these colored Union citizens, who conducted them to the spot where the treasure was hid, and carried it off with them. But the fates seemed opposed to having the remnants of the bird ever reaching the shores of Maryland again. Notwithstanding its long captivity, it retained signs of life still; and as it approached the soil on which the stars and stripes had never ceased to wave, these symptoms of vitality increased. An escort was sent with it; while crossing the Shenandoah River at Rock Ford, the wagon upset, and the load was precipitated into the river. By an eye-witness of the scene, I was told that it was beyond description. Suffice it to say, the greatest confusion prevailed. Every one wanted his own plan adopted to save the bird, and before any one that the men suggested could be adopted, to their utmost dismay and horror the bird gave on shriek, and then sunk; to rise no more. I never learned whether or not it was recovered; the presumption is that it was not.

Happy Fourth of July!