Decision at Tom’s Brook is a non-fiction book by award-winning writer William J. Miller to be published in spring 2016. The book tells the story of the Civil War a cavalry battle and the men who fought it – and refought it. This video is intended to be not so much an explanation of the book or of the battle but an attempt to capture the spirit of the story. This is a tale of cavalrymen and the excitement of battle, of the joy of the fight, of the addictive thrill of winning a decisive victory and of the necessary arrogance of the warrior and how all that combined to change the life of one man.
The video opens with close ups of an 1864 map of the Shenandoah Valley compiled by Lt. John R. Meigs, U.S.A. The map, which announces the time and the place of the story, is in the Library of Congress and is available for download on the LOC website. The quotation that begins at 0:19 comes from Col. Thomas T. Munford, an extremely important participant in the story of the battle. The newspaper headline (0:32) appeared in the New York Sun of October 12, 1864. The historical sign (0:38) stands on what Miller calls Toll House Ridge on the Valley Pike just south of the village of Tom’s Brook. The sign bears the creation date of 1927, so it has been marking the spot of some of the action for almost 90 years and has, judging by its appearance, been through some pretty rough action itself.
The next section shows portraits of men who participated in the fight or played important roles in events leading up to it. The generals are, in sequence, Thomas L. Rosser, George A. Custer Jubal A. Early, Philip H. Sheridan, Thomas T. Munford (actually only a colonel), Wesley Merritt, and William H.F. Payne. Most of the portraits come from the Library of Congress. The first portrait of Rosser, in the small oval superimposed on the map (0:15), is from the Mt. Sterling Library Association Photographic Collection, 2005AV2, Special Collections Research Center, University of Kentucky, The second, frontal portrait of Rosser (0:44) is from the Rosser family Papers at the University of Virginia. The Munford portrait (0:53) comes from Francis T. Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War.
After the portraits come three images of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, all taken on or about October 9, the anniversary of the battle. The first of the three (0:58) is a typical Valley scene and shows some of the country covered by Custer’s division and Rosser’s division along the Back Road near Conicville, Virginia, previously called Cabin Hill. The second image (1:00) is of the North River at Bridgewater, Virginia, where the march to Tom’s Brook began. Image number three (1:02) is of the high ground on Toll House Ridge on Tom’s Brook battlefield and the fourth image (1:04) shows Tom’s Brook itself. The Meigs map seen earlier makes another appearance (1:06) and helps illustrate part of the lines of march of the three Federal columns during The Burning operation, starting at the North River, and the pursuit of the Confederate columns as well. Next up, more images of significant sites in the Valley, starting with the old Shenandoah County courthouse in Woodstock (1:16), which was built in the 1790s and was looked upon by troops moving to Tom’s Brook on one day and by the same troops moving away from Tom’s Brook on the next. Woodstock, of course is the inspiration for the informal reference to the retreat from Tom’s Brook: “The Woodstock Races.” The photo of the courthouse is from Wikipedia Commons and was posted by ZeWrestler. The handsome red brick Barb House (1:18) stands on the Fisher’s Hill battlefield on the northern edge of the Tom’s Brook battlefield. Custer’s men camped nearby and passed the property enroute to Tom’s Brook on the morning of the fight. Also, not far from the Barb house, Rosser received word from an old man of the approach of Federal cavalry in his rear. Other images show various mills in the Valley, all of which existed in whole or in part during the war, and a couple of which were burned, in whole or in part, by Sheridan’s cavalry in the days before Tom’s Brook.
The next section tries to give an idea of the vast campaign of burning in the days leading up to the fight at Tom’s Brook and offers images of battle, burning and desolation, starting with a panoramic image from Frank Leslie’s Our Soldier in the Civil War (1:25), followed by a gloomy sketch (1:30) by artist Alfred Waud of troops moving near a burning home, an engraving from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1:33) that was based on another sketch by Waud, and two sketches by artist C. Phillip Wikoff (1:36 and 1:44) that suggest the Confederate reactions to the “Yankee houseburners.” Two other images show the ruins of mills, one in Augusta County and the second near Woodstock (1:40). The artillery image (1:46) comes from the National Park Service and was taken not far from Tom’s Brook. The guidon (1:50) belonged to the 6th Michigan Cavalry, and it serves to break up three more Alfred Waud sketches, the first of which (1:48) depicts the enormous wagon train of Sheridan’s army in the Shenandoah, the second (1:53) purports to show Custer’s rearguard skirmishing with Rosser’s men on the day before the battle at Tom’s Brook, and the third shows dismounted Federal cavalrymen on the firing line (1:54), all in the Library of Congress. It should be noted that while some of the sketches, paintings and engravings used in the video relate directly to Tom’s Brook, some of them are merely generic images that relate to the Valley or to the type of fighting done by cavalrymen and artillerymen.
Next comes a section that tries to show the joys and the perils of being a cavalrymen, especially as portrayed by the fine post-war artist William Trego. Sections of his paintings appear at 1:57, 2:07 (“Into the Fight”), 2:09 (“Yankee Cavalry Charge”) and 2:15 (“The Pursuit”). Generic period engravings appear at 1:59, 2:03 and 2:05. William H. Shelton’s handsome sketch “Going into Battle” (2:01) is in the Library of Congress.
The panning shot of the colored lithograph “Sheridan’s Final Charge at Winchester” (2:11) is a good example of an image suggestive rather than literal. Though it does not directly relate to Tom’s Brook, it illustrates some of the same cavalry troops doing the same things that they did at Tom’s Brook. A bit of poetic license. This lithograph, too, is in the Library of Congress.
Another panoramic engraving from Frank Leslie’s Our Soldier in the Civil War (2:16) depicts a scene from the Woodstock Races. Federals from Thomas Devin’s brigade charge southward on the Valley turnpike and swarm into the northern outskirts of Mt. Jackson while Lunsford Lomax’s harried Confederates attempt a few final shots before continuing their retreat through the town.
The image of Rosser’s uniform coat (2:23), captured by Custer’s men at Tom’s Brook and later donated to the U.S. Military Academy by Mrs. Custer, comes from the West Point Museum.
Finally, the parade ends with another Alfred Waud sketch, showing Custer making his dramatic bow to his friend Rosser before they both sent their men into action at Tom’s Brook. (2:25).
The only thing left to say about the video is the most important attribution of all. The excellent soundtrack – the soul of the video – is called “Five Armies” and was created by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com. The lively, martial, marching tempo served as the starting point and the foundation for building the rest of the video.
Enjoy the show and check out our website for more about the book and associated Civil War history.