Rosser the Cavalry Theorist? (part 1)

One of my arguments in Decision at Tom’s Brook is that Rosser got in over his head at Tom’s Brook because he could not recognize options.  Though intelligent, Rosser was not a cerebral man. His mind did not dwell on subtleties. A friend, with her usual gift for the incisive analogy, likened Rosser to the man whose only tool is a hammer and who therefore tends see every problem as a nail. Throughout his life, Rosser’s default option was “attack.” His “Plan B” was “attack,” and his “when-all-else-has-failed” option was also “attack.” Bang. Bang. Bang.

I admit that looking at Rosser in this way is simplistic. I do not argue that he was a simple character and that I have him all figured out. Just the opposite. He was complicated, and I do not know or understand all the things that made him tick. One of the things I do not understand is the degree to which he understood his business as a commander of cavalry. Frank Myers of White’s Cavalry Battalion wrote that Rosser “was no general at all.” Rosser himself stated that his standing order called for his Laurel Brigade to charge the enemy on sight. Aggressiveness had to be an essential ingredient to success for any cavalry commander, but, as Jeb Stuart argued, it could not be the only ingredient. Raw, aggressiveness led to trouble. In Rosser’s recipe for victory and glory, it seems that unleavened aggressiveness sometimes counted for so much that all the other ingredients amounted to nothing more than a sprig of parsley garnish. In some ways, Rosser seems to have been a man with a hammer riding around Virginia looking for nails to hit.

Thomas L. RosserI do not suggest complete incompetence. I do, though, question the extent of Rosser’s abilities. In his writings after the war, Rosser assumed the role of a wise old head–a military sage competent to judge the performance of other commanders. He assumed a voice of authority when criticizing Robert E.  Lee, Jubal Early, Philip Sheridan, A.P. Hill and others. To some, Rosser’s judgments carried weight because he had been a major general in the Confederate army. The truth is that he had been but 28 years old when raised to major general in 1864–a time when significant qualifications for promotion included  a bit of experience and being above ground and breathing. Attrition among officers, on both sides but especially in the Confederate armies, meant that some men were promoted beyond their abilities not because they were the best choice but because they were the only choice. Rosser never commanded more than 2,000 troopers, which may bring into question his qualifications to criticize the performance of men who commanded armies. Rosser’s status as a minor major general of Confederate cavalry might not merit a thorough analysis of his tactical performance through the war, but in the absence of such a study we should view his assumed mantle of authority with skepticism.

I argue that Rosser possessed significant gifts as a commander, a point that seems to me beyond debate. But we have little evidence that those gifts extended beyond the realm of elementary tactics. In fact, we have some evidence–including Tom’s Brook–that suggests Rosser’s capabilities did not even go so far as a mastery of elementary tactics. Most of Rosser’s gifts seem to have been spiritual, instinctual and physical rather than cerebral. He had the heart and the strength to excel as a cavalryman. Whether he had the mind and intellectual attainments necessary to succeed at high command is open to question.

Any discussion of Rosser’s abilities as a cavalry commander must include his letter to George Taylor Denison, III, in January 1868. I will end this post with this link to the letter, and in my next post will offer some background and commentary.

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One thought on “Rosser the Cavalry Theorist? (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Rosser the Cavalry Theorist? (part 2) | Decision at Tom's Brook

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