Monthly Archives: February 2016

Two Tales from Pvt. Ball

 

Confederate cavalry Frank LesliePrivate William Ball was two weeks short of his 18th birthday when he fought in the 11th Virginia cavalry at Tom’s Brook. His post-war manuscript memoir resting in the Virginia Historical Society reveals a genial man who liked to tell an amusing anecdote. He relates two incidents that occurred after the flight from Coffman’s Hill–the first so odd as to be scarcely credible and the second perfectly believable

In the first story, Ball states he and a sidekick came upon a lone rider sitting in a field. Ball says he at first thought it was a Northerner, but he claims he soon learned the solitary horseman was a none other than Thomas Rosser. Ball supports the strange-but-interesting assertion with a few details intended to promote verisimilitude. “The general questioned us closely, but we could give him no information,” he admitted,  “so he ordered us to follow him and act as couriers until he found his lost sheep. We followed him at a respectful distance. After so long a time, we came in sight of a house, and he rode up and asked if he could get some buttermilk. While he was drinking, two buxom lassies came over to interview us, and one of the maidens asked, ‘Is that General Rosser?’ and upon being answered in the affirmative, she remarked, ‘He’s a mighty pretty man.’ And he surely was, not pretty, but very handsome in form and feature.” Ball did not fail to point out that he and his friend did not share any of the buttermilk.

The second tale rings absolutely true in suggesting that even after a whipping the troopers could find something to smile about. Ball explains that when he at last found his regiment that night, he and his comrades were too tired to exchange stories of the day. By the next night, he recalled “we had regained our cheerfulness, and swapped stories and jokes over our experiences on that fateful day.” In the timeless tradition of soldiers making superiors the butt of their jokes, Ball and his comrades laughed at the expense of the shoulder straps. One of Ball’s chums declared that in the retreat he thought he “was making the fastest time on record, but when that officer came by me, I thought my horse was tied to the fence.”

Source: William Selwyn Ball, Reminiscences, MSS5:1B2106:1, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia.

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The Uncommon James Breathed

C4-James Breathed-03a
James Breathed as pictured in The Long Arm of Lee, by Jennings Wise.

As troopers of the 8th New York and 22nd New York cavalry regiments spurred their horses toward the crest of Coffman’s Hill on October 9, 1864, 25-year-old James Breathed saw a crisis approaching. On that hill above Tom’s Brook in the Shenandoah Valley, Major Breathed commanded six field pieces of horse artillery with the mission to support the cavalrymen of Gen. Thomas Rosser’s division. Breathed had built a reputation for daring and tenacity through three years of combat in the Stuart Horse Artillery. While fighting hand-in-glove with cavalry troops, he preferred close combat, so he placed his guns close to the enemy and kept them there as long as possible. The tactic usually produced good results, but on that high hill above Tom’s Brook, the cavalrymen around him failed to keep up their end of the bargain and abandoned Breathed’s gunners. The Federals overran the six guns and took them all along with their crews. For the defeated Confederates, the loss of Breathed’s cannon stood as the chief humiliation of the disaster at Tom’s Brook.

The Virginia-born Breathed remains a minor figure in the history of Robert E. Lee’s army, but for the men around him he proved a tower of inspiration on the battlefield. Col. Thomas T. Munford, whose cavalrymen often fought alongside the artilleryman, thought Breathed “the hardest fighter the war produced.” Breathed loved battle, and brigade commander William H. F. Payne, himself a born warrior, praised Breathed as a kindred spirit. Breathed craved front-line action and sometimes left his cannon behind to voluntarily participate in saber charges with the cavalry. Payne recalled an episode in early October 1864, when he greeted some of his men returning from a mounted charge into the streets of Bridgewater, Virginia. The elated Breathed came back with them, the exhilaration of battle lighting his eyes and gore literally dripping from his sword. It was Yankee blood, Breathed exclaimed to Payne as he exulted in having run his weapon through three enemy soldiers.

As a representative Confederate warrior—the type of man who made the Army of Northern Virginia so successful for so long—Breathed has received much less attention than the similar John Pelham. Pelham earned a high reputation and R. E. Lee himself anointed him “the gallant Pelham.” Perhaps the combination of courage and proficiency with his youth and boyish good looks explains the enduring fame of the Alabamian. Pelham’s early death in combat adds to the romance of his legend. No less courageous, Breathed served beside Pelham in the Stuart Horse Artillery early in the war and learned much from the aggressive, West Point-trained Alabamian. Breathed was three months younger than “the boy artillerist,” and his reputation in the army no less bright than Pelham’s. Inexplicably, history has remained largely silent about James Breathed. His undashing looks and his misfortune in not dying in battle failed to inspire would-be biographers until recently. Not until 2006, when David P. Bridges published Fighting with Jeb Stuart: Major James Breathed and the Confederate Horse Artillery, did a writer address the life of this exceptional American warrior. Whatever deficiencies made Breathed an unattractive subject for a biographer, courage and intelligence were not among them. A trained medical doctor, Breathed, ironically, proved both exceedingly eager to do harm to enemy soldiers and exceptionally good at doing so.

Although he did not die gloriously on a battlefield, Breathed met an early end at age 31. In 1871, a comrade published a fine tribute that suggests Breathed’s place in the hearts of the men who fought beside him. It is true this posthumous praise qualifies as romantic embellishment, but it is, after all, a eulogy by a friend not claiming objectivity. Such applause by contemporaries should not be judged as harshly as hagiography produced by later writers claiming to be historians. Honest bias is acceptable, even desirable, for the expression of biases can reveal much about both the writer and the subject. This anonymous homage is especially interesting because it almost certainly flowed from the pen of the novelist John Esten Cooke, a staff officer under Cavalry Chief J.E.B. Stuart. The tribute serves as a solid introduction to a man who stood in the front rank of artillerists in the Army of Northern Virginia.

Read the 1871 tribute to James Breathed printed in the journal The Old Dominion

Pumpkins, Grapes and Laurels

Thomas Rosser took command of a brigade of cavalry in the autumn of 1863, and he used it to establish an admirable record in combat. Cavalry Chief J.E.B. Stuart praised the brigade and declared it continued to add new laurels to its record. Rosser seized on Stuart’s words and took the opportunity to build esprit de corps. He ordered that the brigade adopt the laurel as its name and symbol. The troopers adorned their uniforms and flags with laurel leaves, and if post-war writings are a true indication, they remained proud of their association with Rosser and the Laurel Brigade.

The disaster at Tom’s Brook, in which the Laurel Brigade joined in the precipitous flight from the battlefield, gave rise to a crude witticism suggesting the name “Laurel” was no longer appropriate and should be changed to that of a running plant like “Pumpkin” or “Gravevine.” Most of the jesters attributed the quip to the crusty General Jubal Early, but the gag was told and retold and adapted in so many forms that the truth of its origin may never be known. What is certain is that the proud men of the brigade resented being the butt of a cheap joke that misrepresented their otherwise fine record during the war. In 1889, almost a quarter of a century after the fight at Tom’s Brook, a veteran of the Laurel Brigade came forth to rebuke to the comedians who insisted on perpetuating the old slander.

Laurel GrapevineThe Staunton Spectator, a prominent newspaper in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, reprinted on January 30, 1889, an item alleged to be from Kentucky newspaper (left). The error-filled article prompted an immediate response, which the Spectator printed the following week (below). The author of the response  identifies himself only as “R,” but internal identifies him as Thomas D. Ranson, a veteran of the 12th Virginia Cavalry of the Laurel Brigade. Ranson had been taken prisoner at Tom’s Brook and later practiced law in Staunton. His letter to the editors mentions comrades in the 12th Virginia (Baylor and Timberlake) and two brothers, William and Edward McDonald, who wrote at length about their service in the Laurel Brigade. Ranson demolishes the “Good Story” on factual grounds, but his article is most striking for its tone of dignified restraint, which stands as the most effective rebuke to frivolous entertainers pursuing a laugh at the expense of good soldiers.

A Story Corrected.

Editors Spectator:

Gentlemen, —The “Good Story of General Early” you copy from Louisville Courier-Journal is a good deal of a story in the childish sense. I would not have supposed that a paper coming from the home of the McDonalds would have published such an affront to every survivor of Rosser’s Brigade, and such a slur or the memory of our gallant comrades dead and gone, without being brought to book, and I would not have expected you to reproduce it. The record of its killed and wounded is sufficient answer to the slander.

The writer having served through the war, two years in the infantry and two in the cavalry as private and as officer, and under both the general officers referred to in the “Episode,” may be supposed to know something of both. No one with such opportunities to observe them, under the severest test, could fail to recognize and admire the fighting qualities of both. Rosser’s dash and steady courage go without saying as far as your paper is read. It was illustrated on many a field, and I take it the scribbler for the Louisville paper knew as little of him and his Brigade as of the alleged “Episode.”

The “Laurel Brigade” was not in the Cedar Mountain fight, nor in existence at its date.— Reference was probably intended to the Tom’s Brook engagement of October, 1864, which occurred near Cedar Creek, also near Fisher’s Hill and not far from Winchester,—previous to the affair at Waynesboro, all historic names which ought to call up tender and pious memories in the breast of General Early, to soften satire and tone down criticism on his part.  The statement is very wide of the truth if applied to that,—the only engagement of consequence, to my recollection. In which the Brigade in question ever failed to drive the enemy or hold its ground.

On that occasion it met under most unfavorable circumstances, in straggling order, and with men and horses wearied out by the forced march from Petersburg, an overwhelming force of picked Federal cavalry—cavalry which we had educated in a pretty severe school for several years, and which had improved on our Instruction until in organization and discipline, as in equipment and all appointments it was well nigh perfect, led by its best commander and fully prepared for action. That Rosser’s little force on the back road failed to check the onward sweep of brigade after brigade of the fresh troops of Custer and of Torbert, massed and thrown against them and finally gave way in the disorder usually attending a thin battle line, closely driven back without support, was no nine day’s wonder.—And to pepper them with such newspaper squibs at this late day about it is worse than Custer’s turning Tuck Carter’s guns on us that 9th of October. It’s enough to make that little gamecock cry again.

The writer was a prisoner at General Sheridan’s headquarters, near Middletown, for some days after that fight, and some of the cavalry regiments he saw in review there were big enough to have eaten Rosser’s Brigade on toast.

That brigade wore the laurel by no less a sanction than the order of General Stuart, the same brilliant commander who furloughed its leading squadron on the field at Jeffersonton, (Fauquier White Sulphur), for charging and capturing the burning bridge with its infantry supports–tenfold their number–under the eyes of General Lee and his advancing lines–George Baylor and poor Tin–par nobile fratrum–and “Old Seth Timberlake” in the front,—one of the many occasions when it won those laurels.

Such publications, Messrs. Editors, are ungraceful and uncalled for. We old Confeds, cavalry, infantry or artillery, may pass our good-humored jests, feeling a common pride in each other and our arms of service, while we recall much that was ridiculous—but don’t encourage every idle ink-slinger in holding up to public ridicule such a record as of right belongs to Rosser’s Brigade.

R.

Staunton Spectator, February 06, 1889, p. 3, col. 4

“A Peculiar Figure”

Turk on Rosser ObitDuring Thomas Rosser’s tumultuous post-war career as a businessman and aspiring politician, he exhibited the same impetutuous behavior that had made him a successful cavalry commander. The passionate physical vigor that had usually served him well on battlefields, however, translated into mere unrestrained recklessness in meeting rooms and led to failure in business and politics. Journalist Rudolph S. Turk wrote for Virginia newspapers for more than 20 years and offered astute commentary on public men and events. He published a handful of articles noting Rosser’s erratic conduct. Upon Rosser’s death in 1910, Turk offered the following insights into General Rosser’s career and character.

GEN. ROSSER.

The death of Gen. Thos. L. Rosser, which occurred last week, removed a peculiar figure from the scene of human action. As a cavalry officer in the Confederate army he achieved his first and most lasting renown. His Confederate uniform was his greatest asset, and it stayed with him till he himself cast it off. In Staunton at a meeting of Confederate veterans some years ago, and we believe the last he ever attended, he grew furious over some imaginary affront given him in the hall. He left it, and went to the front door, where with approbious epithets he denounced the assembly, tore off his badge and would have trampled it under foot but for an old Confederate soldier who stood by, who asked him to give it to him. This Gen. Rosser did. He left for home shortly afterward and had nothing more to do with that meeting.

But as to Gen. Rosser’s individual bravery there can be no doubt. That he was a typical and chivalrous cavalry officer there can be no doubt. He did many daring acts during the war and saved the day on several battlefields, and had he revered the cause as he could easily have done, his death would now be sincerely mourned by almost every man who wore the gray. But Gen. Rosser was impetuous. He allowed his temper to get the better of his judgment on many occasions, and nearly always to his detriment. In later years he was in need. He then eschewed nearly every former utterance, seemed to apologise for his conduct from 1861 to 186S, and like many other Southern men who have taken office under Republican administrations bowed the knee to that Baal.

Well do we remember him in the winter of 1864-5, when at the head of his command he started for Beverley now West Va. to capture a post there. He braved all the hardships before him, succeeded, and brought back many supplies and prisoners. He was the typical soldier. He rode as a commander, he faced danger as if he loved it, and our only regret is that he did not value his record as a Confederate soldier above all other records, for in that he shone as he shone nowhere else. It was the crowning jewel in his diadem. But he threw it before swine.

R. S. Turk, Editor and Proprietor, Staunton Spectator and Vindicator. (Staunton, Va.), April 8, 1910, p. 2, col 1