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

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