Decision at Tom’s Brook tells the story of two young men through five days of cavalry action in 1864. Gen. George A. Custer of the Union army and Gen. Thomas L. Rosser of the Confederate army. They have been friends since they were teenagers at West Point. The war sends them down separate paths, but both find success and renown in the cavalry. Each seems to be a born warrior and takes obvious joy in the exhilaration of battle. Each possesses almost all of the traits of the ideal cavalryman – courage, intelligence, physical strength, inner-fire – only their judgment is questionable.
The story is set in Virginia in the last autumn of the Civil War. The North has committed to winning the war as soon as possible, adopts the methods of total warfare and vows to make the crop-rich Shenandoah Valley “a barren waste.” Farms and homes burn. Refugees by the thousands fill the roads. The incensed Southern soldiers find increased resolve to persevere in the fight until all hope is gone. Brutality answers brutality, and Confederates begin executing their prisoners.
The separate paths of the two warriors again converge. Custer is ordered to destroy and Rosser is ordered to stop him. For three days, Rosser’s enraged men pursue and attack Custer’s soldiers. On the fourth day, the tables are turned, and Custer attacks. On October 9, 1864, the two men, the embodiments of vigorous aggression, come together on the open fields above Tom’s Brook. The two friends, both ambitious, are forced to seek advancement at the expense of the other. One will capitalize upon every advantage that fate has given him. The other, so sure of his abilities in battle and so eager to fight, attempts to impose his will on unfavorable circumstances, and so tempts fate by inviting catastrophe. The result was what one soldier considered “the greatest disaster that ever befell our cavalry during the whole war” while another believed that “never has there been, in the history of this war, a more complete victory.”
Decision at Tom’s Brook is largely the story of Thomas Rosser and how his character was his destiny. It is the story of a man with exceptional gifts and serious flaws who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fate could not have aligned better circumstances to exploit Rosser’s flaws than those that existed at Tom’s Brook. This proud man never escaped the stigma of being associated with one of the more embarrassing defeats of the war. Rosser’s decision that day changed his life and offers insight into the essential human dilemma of balancing self-assurance with discretion.