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“Jubal Early is Simply the Incarnation of Imbecility”



Few figures of the Civil War era have been as celebrated and as reviled as General Jubal Anderson Early. Some loved him as a patriot and a hero. Others despised his egotism and grotesque personality. Unshakably loyal to his ideas and to his friends, Early earned the trust and support of Robert E. Lee. But as a confirmed bachelor of fixed habits, Early could be repulsive. His alcoholism and coarse language, his caustic “wit,” and his fondness for prostitutes repelled many peers and subordinates. His failure in the Shenandoah Valley in the final months of the war made him an easy scapegoat for Confederates looking for someone to blame, and his abrasive nature and unconventional personal habits gave his critics plenty of ammunition to use against him.

While even his enemies conceded Early’s intelligence and commitment to principle, his many faults made him so objectionable to those around him that many wrote vehement criticisms of his pride, vulgarity, intemperance and irascibility. In many ways he is even more controversial in the 21st century than he was among his contemporaries. While his gifts for sarcasm and mockery make him an icon among unapologetic, unrepentant curmudgeons, Early’s ardent, often vicious, post-war writings and speeches on behalf of Lee and the Confederacy make him a prime target for modern writers who approve of neither his views nor his methods.

Decision at Tom’s Brook discusses one of Early’s many post-war controversies. In 1884, General Thomas Rosser publicly blamed Early for the disastrous defeat at Tom’s Brook, and Early responded in the pages of a Richmond newspaper. Rosser, a controversialist throughout his life, made charges against Early without offering a shred of verifiable evidence. In the absence of proof, Rosser’s attacks seem an attempt to shift responsibility onto an unpopular man whose many enemies would welcome more mud to sling. Rosser did indeed find support and fellowship among some former Confederates who loathed Early. For pure vitriol, few haters of Early could match the articulate and venomous Alexander Hunter of Virginia.

hunter alexander croppedJust 18 when he enlisted in 1861, Hunter served as a Confederate infantryman early in the war and later in the 4th Virginia Cavalry. He was wounded twice, captured thrice and spent months in Federal prisons. He came to loathe Jubal Early with an uncommon vehemence. In mid-1884, two decades after the Valley Campaign, while Rosser and Early were publicly mauling each other in the press, Hunter stepped forward to back Rosser. Though a stranger to Rosser, Hunter sent the general a blistering rebuke of Early and reassured Rosser that he had the support of “every fair minded soldier in the old A.N.Va.” From his home in Washington, D.C. Hunter wrote his letter on the letterhead of the “Washington Aid Association for the Ex-Confederate Soldiers,” on which Hunter was listed as financial secretary. Misspellings, omissions and errors in syntax have been retained.

June 6, 1884

Gen Thos L. Rosser.

My Dear General,

Though personally unknown to you, yet being from the same state and belonging to the same army, I cannot resist the inclination to write to you, and to endorse every word of your communication to Jubal Early, who by the grace of the devil and the temporary aberration of Gen Lee was placed in command of the army in the valley.

The Richmond State of June 4 published your communication of May 30 – without comments – and I know it was endorsed by every fair minded soldier in the old A.N.Va.

I belonged to the Black Horse – 4th Va. Cav. Fitz Lees old Brigade–and being in the valley I know whereof I write; With a good leader, we could have taken Washington + Baltimore for never was there a more splendid set of troops than those given to Early in the Campaign of ‘64. But the rank and file soon lost confidence in him + after awhile this feeling changed into contempt + was then followed by a bitterness of hatred, and lothesome [sic] disgust for the man – that you officers high in rank could never understand. Indeed so bitter is it, that at the summer watering places when the (“) old hero surrounded by a set of self constituted admirers and in his glory (being about three quarters drunk – which is his normal condition) Yet not a single private in his command was ever known to go up to him and give him that affectionate greeting that the Rank + file to loved to [sic] honor their old commanders.

His whole record is blunder after blunder; and after he had utterly ruined the finest army that [illegible] along the Valley Turnpike, [sic] hated and despised by his troops—mocked at by his officers, and removed by his general officer, he sunk into retirement that in all good taste should have been as final as that of Pemberton, Lovell and Huger[1]; but when the war was over, this despicable old man came to the front and commenced to make war against his old foes and set himself up as the Exponent of the Lost Cause, God save the Mark.”[2] We all know that but for that man, we would have been a grand Empire to day. It is Jubal Early that undertakes to make history, to puff up that officer who scratches his back and vilify that officer that disagrees with him. He rushes into print upon every occasion possible, and makes himself the hero of the grand old Army of Northern Virginia. He strikes at Gordon that ideal soldier. He sneers at Mosby[3]. He fercily [sic] assails Longstreet + Mahone[4] and would uncork the vials of wrath upon Gen. R.E. Lee for removing him were he not afraid. And look at the soldiers he compliments. Billy Payne, a roystering fellow like Cassio, but no soldier[5]. Bev Robinson,[6] who can court a pretty girl, tell a good anecdote + always has a flask of whiskey in his haversack. Lomax[7], who – well nobody ever heard of Lomax doing anything good or bad, and a whole hosts of others who form a select coterie.

And to see this old reprobate as I have seen him, dressed in his gray semi uniform, maudlin drunk in the lobby of the Exchange Hotel in Richmond during the last Convention, publically before hundreds of people, embracing every negro chambermaid that passed through the hall, made his degradation complete. It only needs to be told that this grand old Hero has lived since the war by giving his name and fame, for a stated salary, to that swindling concern called the Louisiana Lottery, which annually robs thousands of credulous people of his own state out of their hard earned money.

You may think I write bitterly, and from a personal grievance, but it is not so, I never spoke to Early in my life, but I served under him, and have watched his course since the war, and like any *every Virginia soldier who was commanded by him, I look upon him as the greatest foe the South ever had, and the prayer has often escaped my lips during those dark days of ‘64 when we were racing up the turnpike, or skulking in the bushes, “Good Lord deliver us from our friends.”

Jubal Early is simply the incarnation of imbecility, conceit, envy, and brutal lusts, + so foul mouth and obscene that he resembles a satyr more than a man.

If he strikes with his malign envy at you, deal with him without gloves + every man who ever swung himself in saddle or loped in a dog trot with his musket on his shoulder, will endorse and applaud you.

As far as I am concerned you can use this letter as you wish. My name and standing in Virginia are sufficiently well known. What I write is strictly true, and like old Captain Cuttle[8] “what I says I stands to.”

Yours Very Truly

Alex Hunter

1224 New York Ave, Wash DC

P.S. For an estimate of what our own officers think of Early  I commend Col. R. L. Maury in Southern Historical Society Papers, p. 285, on Early at Williamsburg.: Longstreet in same Magazine, p. 258. Early at Gettysburg, Swinton Campaigns p. 527, Early’s failure to take Washington, all which shows what he really is – a military Charlatan.

Source: Alexander Hunter to Thomas L. Rosser, June 6, 1884, Papers of Thomas L. Rosser and the Rosser, Gordon and Winston Families, Acc. 1171-a, Box 1, Correspondence of Thomas Lafayette Rosser 1884-1904, Special Collections, University of Virginia.

[1] Former Confederate generals John C. Pemberton, Mansfield Lovell and Benjamin Huger

[2] “God save the mark” served as an expression of contempt or derision.

[3] Former Confederate colonel, John S. Mosby

[4] Former Confederate generals James Longstreet and William Mahone

[5] Former Confederate general William H. F. Payne. Cassio was is a character in Shakespeare’s “Tragedy of Othello.”

[6] Former Confederate general Beverly Robertson

[7] Former Confederate general Lunsford L. Lomax

[8] A character in the novel Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens.

For more of Hunter’s judgments on Early, see Alexander Hunter, Johnny Reb and Billy Yank. New York: The Neale Publishing Co, 1905, pp. 649-660.

“A Painful, but not Dangerous, Wound. . .”

Beverly Kennon Whittle was one of the victims of the General Rosser’s misadventure on Coffman’s Hill. In his diary, Private Whittle recounted his trials after being wounded, and the brief, unheroic record of his experience gives us an idea of the extent of the disintegration of Rosser’s command after the rout.

A page from Beverly Whittle’s notebook in the collections of the University of Virginia.

Whittle spent his 19th birthday in a military hospital in Lynchburg, Virginia, recovering from a long fight with acute dysentery. A month later, he arrived at Tom’s Brook on October 8, 1864,  with the rest of the 2nd Virginia Cavalry. His letters and notebook in the collections of the University of Virginia reveal an educated, respectful young man from a prosperous family. He loved horses.

During the fighting on the morning of October 9, the 2nd Virginia, as part of Col. Thomas Munford’s brigade, occupied the most disadvantageous spot on the entire field: in the bottom by the brook at the foot of Coffman’s Hill. When the position was outflanked, Whittle and his mates faced a long, uphill run across ground swarming with enemy soldiers. Whittle’s flight to safety was even more difficult after he received a “painful, but not dangerous, wound” in his left arm and shoulder. Whittle urged his horse up the hill. Around him he saw disorder and danger. He might well have feared being captured and sent to a Northern prison, a fate that, in his wounded condition, likely would have seemed highly undesirable. Like many of the disorganized Confederates around him on that hill, Whittle made an unsoldierly decision. He opted to exercise independent judgment. He headed south, and he did not stop until he had left the battlefield nearly 20 miles behind him.

In seeking safety, Private Whittle had gone absent without leave. His wound certainly was an extenuating circumstance, but, technically, he had deserted. Whittle was not alone in exercising his individual prerogative. After the chaotic retreat from Tom’s Brook, the country to the south was filled with wandering Confederate cavalrymen thinking and acting for themselves. In acting as individuals, they were no longer soldiers and were, for the time being, of no use to the Confederate army in the Valley when it needed all of its soldiers most. Some of these AWOL men would return to their companies and some of them would not. On the morning after the battle, Whittle decided he would keep going. His record of his slow journey to his home in Botetourt County is a pathetic tale of a downtrodden man who experienced both kindness and “meaness” as he made his lonely way through devastated war zone that was the Shenandoah Valley.

After a month of recuperation among family, Whittle returned to his regiment in November.

Virginia’s Food Supply

Supply of Food Staunton spectator., February 24, 1863, p 1 col 6
Item appearing in the Staunton Spectator, February 24, 1863, page 1, col. 6.

Food tops the list of things that we take for granted. As a result, our attitude toward food serves as a great handicap as we try to understand history.

U.S. Grant’s express purpose in the spring of 1864 was to starve the Confederate army into submission. He understood that it might take a year or more to accomplish this task, but he began almost immediately to send troops against agricultural and logistical targets. Grant’s strategy to deplete the food supply in Virginia culminated in the spectacular campaigns of devastation in the autumn of 1864, the most famous of which was “The Burning” in the Shenandoah Valley. The fight at Tom’s Brook grew directly out of the desperation felt by Southern soldiers as they saw their dwindling stores of food go up in smoke.


Some Confederates, however, had presciently foreseen the food crisis more than a year before Grant’s arrival on the scene. On February 16, 1863 — before the war was even half over — the Virginia House of Delegates considered a resolution urging “every citizen of the State . . . to increase greatly beyond his usual amount, all his agricultural products of every kind. . . .”

Leading Virginians knew early on that the pinch was coming, and understood the critical importance of every harvest. Food, scarce and perishable, perhaps more than any other factor, increasingly drove events in the last year of the war in Virginia.

Tom’s Brook Survivor Discovered in Michigan

Last week, I felt positively joyful when a reader offered to share some information about the fight at Tom’s Brook. That sentence is an understatement. What Ron Cleveland shared with me was not mere information but a great, fun, factual detective story directly related to the climax of the battle at Tom’s Brook.  Ron Cleveland owns one of the cannon that George Custer’s men captured at Tom’s Brook, and he can prove it.

Gun Number 194 muzzleWe’ll begin with the gun. It was born in 1862 in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, at the mighty Phoenix Iron Company, a major supplier of artillery to the U.S. Army. Unfortunately for the Union cause, Phoenix Iron supplied a significant number of guns to the Confederate Army as well— unintentionally, of course. The U.S. Army proved rather lax in protecting all of excellent guns crafted at Phoenixville, and, as this story demonstrates, the Confederates made excellent use of many guns manufactured above the Mason-Dixon Line. The gun in question was a 3-inch Ordnance Rifle, a weapon of superior modern design invented at the Phoenix Iron Company. On its muzzle, the rifle bore the number 194, PICo (Phoenix Iron Co.).

Manassas Depot battlesleaders v2 p532

The Army shipped #194 into Virginia in the summer of 1862, where the enemy immediately captured it. As Ron’s research makes plain, Confederate cavalry under Jeb Stuart took possession of two trains of cars at Manassas Junction just prior to the Battle of Second Manassas. Gun #194 and five sister guns—a full battery with caissons, harness and horses, all brand new–were still on the train and had apparently never fired a shot in defense of the Union. General Stuart immediately issued four of these excellent, advanced weapons to his 1st Stuart Horse Artillery Battery, commanded by the soon-to-be-famous John Pelham. With these guns Pelham and his battery would earn renown at Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg and beyond.

Though Pelham died in March 1863, his battery continued using those 3-inch rifles. As Ron correctly points out, “Ordnance Rifles were state-of-the-art wrought iron, very safe and dependable to the crews that were working them. They were also lighter and very accurate at up to a mile.” Evidence, including the testimony of a member of the battery, establishes that the 1st Stuart Horse fought with those guns all the way through the war from August 1862 to Tom’s Brook. On October 9, 1864, the battery, then under Capt. Philip P. Johnston, fought on Coffman’s Hill until pressured to withdraw. Somewhere between Coffman’s Hill and Columbia Furnace, the Federal troopers, likely the New Yorkers of William Wells’s brigade, overran the battery and thus ended Gun #194’s service to the Confederate States of America.

Gun Number 194 one quarterThis tale of the adventurous existence of Gun #194 would have remained unknown had not those Yankee cavalrymen felt a strong pride in themselves and their new commander, Custer. Tom’s Brook was their first battle together, and the exultant troopers wished to mark the occasion by crowing about their victory. After the battle, before turning in the captured equipment to Federal staff officers, the cavalrymen attached a card to each of the four guns. Each sign read: “Captured by Third Division Cavalry, Brigadier General Custer commanding, October 9th, 1864, near Columbia Furnace, Shenandoah Valley.” This unusual act of bravado attracted the attention of Major J.G. Benton when the guns arrived at the Washington Arsenal, and Benton mentioned the cards and their contents when writing to a superior. Years later, when the War Department assembled The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, the story of the cards and the captured guns continued to impress people and the compilers decided to print Maj. Benton’s note in the Official Records. Benton’s brief statement is, in effect, merely a receipt acknowledging the arrival of the captured ordnance at the Arsenal. While such documents were undoubtedly routinely issued by hundreds or thousands of officers, almost never were such mundane communications printed in the Official Records. In fact. Major Benton’s brief note might be unique in the ORs in that it lists the location of particular guns by number. Guns #32, #339, #141 and #194 are the four taken at Tom’s Brook.

Most of the men who had served these guns at Tom’s Brook sat out the war at Point Lookout Prison on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The four captured guns arrived at the Washington Arsenal on October 17, 1864, eight days after they were captured. Since the guns were no longer in prime condition after two years of hard service, Federal officers likely ordered them into storage at the arsenal, where the historic pieces probably remained, about 65 miles from Point Lookout.

Ron reveals the locations of all four of the “Tom’s Brook” guns, and it seems appropriate that the quartet that was born in the north but served the South has been broken up by geographic section: Two of them stand in the North and two in the South. Fittingly, Gun #32, which had been twice captured during the war, now does duty educating visitors at Andersonville National Historic Site. Gun #339 stands at Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee. Number #141 is in private hands in Wisconsin and Gun #194, as the photos on this page prove, resides resplendently in Michigan with Ron Cleveland.

Gun Number 194 head onRon credits Jim Bender, keeper of the list of surviving guns of the Civil War, for uncovering the paper trail that led to the confirmation of #194 as one of the four taken by Custer’s division on October 9, 1864. Ron further acknowledges friend and fellow researcher Chris Buryta and also Matt Switlik and Ken Baumann of the Loomis Battery, 1st Michigan Light Artillery, for their help in restoring the gun and carriage.

Ron’s willingness to share his information helps fulfill one of my hopes. Every historical event is a puzzle composed of countless pieces. While researching Decision at Tom’s Brook, I dragged many of those fragments out of libraries and archives, but I know that my picture of the event is, and always will be, incomplete. History lovers like Ron all across the nation retain many more pieces of the puzzle. Unfortunately, most of those folks have had no way to share their information. This blog is intended to serve as a place for them to bring their pieces to the table, to make them public and to help complete a fuller picture of the historical event. I hope more readers like Ron will write in to share their knowledge.

Note: Benton’s list shows thirteen guns were captured in the Shenandoah Valley campaign in the summer and fall of 1864, but as Ron points out, “It may be more appropriate to say ‘recaptured,’” since all but one were Union cannons that had been taken by the Confederates earlier in the war. Ron specifies that of the 13 guns on the list, only seven are known to have survived. Numbers 8 and 11 on the list, Gun #185 and Gun #13, are in the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park and number 9 on the list, Gun #596, is in a cemetery in Pennsylvania. The locations of the four guns captured at Tom’s Brook are given above. The 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th and 12th guns listed by Benton, as well as the 13th, the lone gun of Confederate manufacture, cannot be accounted for.

Sources recommended by Ron Cleveland: Johnson, Curt, and Richard C. Anderson, Jr. Artillery Hell: The Employment of Artillery at Antietam; Maxwell, Jerry. The Perfect Lion: The Life and Death of Confederate Artillerist John Pelham; McClellan, H.B. The Campaigns of Stuart’s Cavalry; Milham, Charles G. The Gallant Pelham; Neese, George M. Three Years in the Confederate Horse Artillery; Official Records, 43, pt. 2, 411; Trout, Robert J. Galloping Thunder: The Stuart Horse Artillery; _____. Memoirs of the Stuart Horse Artillery Battalion; Wise, Jennings C. The Long Arm of Lee or the History of the Artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Photos courtesy of Ron Cleveland.

An Infantryman Listens to the Fight at Tom’s Brook

Some of the more interesting accounts of any battle come from unexpected sources. A researcher focusing on a cavalry battle would logically focus on primary sources written by cavalrymen, but during the fighting at Tom’s Brook, tens of thousands of infantrymen were nearby, and their recollections are just as welcome and sometimes just a valuable.

The National tribune September 27, 1906 Gould_on_New_Market_RacesJohn Mead Gould served in the 1st, 10th and 29th Maine Infantry Regiments. He and his “Down East” comrades saw action in both theaters and Gould himself remained in uniform for most of the war. He finished the job in 1865 as a major. Later, Gould wrote about life in the army from the perspective of an infantryman, and was among the first veterans to undertake a regimental history. He began almost immediately to gather materials and just six years after Appomattox, he published the History of the First-Tenth-Twenty-Ninth Maine Regiment: In the Service of the United States from May 3, 1861, to June 21, 1866.

In October 1864, he was an officer in the 29th Maine, and in a brief article written for a national newspaper, Gould sketches an overview of his experience from the 6th to the 10th of October 1864. Writing when in his early sixties in 1906, Gould can be forgiven for some small errors in facts. Most of his details–the movements and actions of his regiment, the strange sound of made by the artillery–are vibrant and help bring his anecdotes alive.

Three of his remarks are of special interest. While it is well known that the Federal Cavalry did most of the destroying and confiscating in the operation known as The Burning, Gould’s letter establishes that the infantry took a hand in the devastation as well. His reference to Custer offering $1,000 dollars for a cannon, refers to one of the guns in Lt. John McNulty’s Baltimore Battery. The Confederates took 12 pieces into the fight and lost 11 of them. An unverified story holds that Custer placed an advertisement in a New York newspaper offering a grand to anyone who captured the cannon. Finally, Gould closes his letter with a second-or-third-hand quotation from “a well-known Southern lady.” While the quotation might be spurious, it seems believable enough given that it mirrors the spirit voiced again and again in Confederate writings after the war. Southern Pride died a long, slow death after the war, if it died at all.

Source: The National Tribune (Washington, DC), September 27, 1906, p. 6, col. 3. See a PDF of the entire page here.

You can find more about Gould, including some portraits, here.

Duke University holds the John Mead Gould Papers, 1841-1944

R.E. Lee Calls for Investigation into Tom’s Brook

By evening of October 9, 1864, Lt. Gen. Jubal Early knew for certain that his cavalry had been beaten badly that day. Early likely spoke personally with Gen. Lunsford Lomax, whose cavalry division had retreated to near Early’s headquarters at New Market. Even before hearing from his other cavalry commander, Gen. Thomas Rosser, Early dutifully reported the news to his superior, Gen. Robert E. Lee:

NEW MARKET, October 9, 1864.

GENERAL: Rosser, in command of his own brigade and the two brigades of Fitz Lee’s division, and Lomax, with two brigades of his own cavalry, were ordered to pursue the enemy, to harass him and ascertain his purposes, while I remained here, so as to be ready to move east of the Ridge if necessary, and I am sorry to inform you that the enemy, having concentrated his whole cavalry in his rear, attacked them and drove them back this morning from near Fisher’s Hill, capturing nine pieces of horse artillery and eight or ten wagons. Their loss in men is, I understand, slight. I have not heard definitely from Rosser, but he is, I understand, falling back in good order, having rallied his command, which is on what is called the Back road, which is west of the pike; but Lomax’s command, which was on the pike, came back to this place in confusion.

Rosser soon reported his defeat to Early via dispatch, but he did not elaborate on his losses or the events of the day. Early would have to wait until his commanders filed official reports before he could know the magnitude of the defeat.

Three days later, Lee replied to Early. As usual, Lee filled his letter with encouragement and practical suggestions. Lee addressed many problems, large and small, including the ineffectiveness of Early’s cavalry.

The last defeat of your cavalry (on the 9th) is much to be regretted. It may have proceeded from bad management, and I wish you to investigate it. I would not for the present send them too far from your main body, or allow them to hazard too much. Although the enemy’s cavalry may exceed ours in numbers, and I know it does in equipment, still we have always been able to cope with them to advantage, and can do so again by proper management. You have the greater proportion of the cavalry in Virginia and it must be made effective. The men are good and only require to be properly commanded. I wish you would bring every officer who misbehaves before a board of examiners, or a court-martial, as their cases require, and have their conduct investigated.

Early never found the time to fully investigate the defeat at Tom’s Brook. Events moved the armies swiftly onward to other crises, and just a week after Lee suggested an investigation Early’s entire army was badly beaten at the Battle of Cedar Creek. Because Rosser never filed a report, Early never learned the true extent of the losses at Tom’s Brook, and not until Decision at Tom’s Brook was published in 2016 was Lee’s request for an inquiry into possible “bad management” complied with. Rosser, the man responsible for the disaster, deflected responsibility onto subordinate officers, evaded censure, and instead was promoted to major general.

Sources: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Volume 43, pt. 1, p. 579 and Volume 43, pt. 2, p. 893






Rosser the Cavalry Theorist? (part 2)


Eduard Detaille’s “Charge of the 4th Hussars at the Battle of Friedland (Vive L Empereur)” portrays the best use of cavalry as envisioned by theorists in the mid-19th century.

In a previous post, I addressed the question of whether Rosser’s abilities as a cavalry commander extended beyond the realm of elementary tactics. I noted that 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. I implied that judgment and discretion were not prominent among Rosser’s gifts and that the historical record suggests that spirit, instinct, physical courage and stamina defined his style of aggressive leadership. I then called attention to Rosser’s 1868 letter to George Taylor Denison, III, and in this second part of the two-part post will offer some background to the letter with comments.

The story behind the letter, like many good stories of the Civil War period, involves Jubal Early. The cranky Early fled into self-exile in 1865 rather than live in the same country with the victorious Yankees. From Canada, he looked across the Niagara River into New York and felt only loathing at sight of the stars and stripes flying over Fort Niagara and its Federal garrison. The flag Early had once served as a young officer in the U. S. Army now only reminded him of “a barber pole.” In Canada, Early met George Denison, a former militia officer and a budding historian. Denison’s passion for military history, and especially for the cavalry, led him to research and publish two still-respected books, Modern Cavalry (1868) and History of Cavalry (1877). At Early’s urging, Denison solicited opinions from former Confederate cavalrymen, including Fitzhugh Lee, S. D. Lee, and Rosser. Rosser’s response survives as an appendix in Modern Cavalry, where Jubal Early found it after he and Rosser became bitter enemies in the 1880s. In the letter, Rosser referred to “my noble friend General Early,” but he later proved to be anything but a friend, and Early cited the letter as evidence in branding Rosser a hypocrite.

As with all writers of public prose, Rosser often composed through a persona, sometimes two. There is the man of sincerely held beliefs and there is also the manipulative schemer with an ulterior motive. It is difficult to determine how much of Rosser’s letter to Denison is sincere and how much is intended to inflate Rosser’s reputation as a military man. Rosser drops four names that suggest he knew some history and theory of the use of cavalry in combat. The two most recognizable names are of Napoleon’s famed cavalry commanders Michel Ney and Joachim Murat (aka “First Horseman of Europe”). Less famous, outside of military circles, was the name Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Seydlitz, commander of Frederick the Great’s Prussian cavalry in the Seven Years’ War. Rosser’s reference to Lewis Edward Nolan, a British cavalry officer, suggests familiarity with Nolan’s important text Cavalry: Its History and Tactics, published in Europe before the American Civil War and reprinted in South Carolina in 1864. Much of what Rosser shares with Denison are lessons born of practical experience, but these lessons do not seem to extend beyond the knowledge of an experienced regimental or even company officer. Rosser’s recommendations about the most suitable weapons for cavalry, for example, are so obvious that hardly anyone could disagree. Rosser also makes a distinction between cavalry and mounted infantry. He argues that neither side in the Civil War used cavalry per se but only mounted infantry. This, too, is a valid idea, but, like the recommendations of weapons, it is a point so commonly made at the time that in making it Rosser is again only stating the obvious. Rosser’s letter offers no theoretical insights into the use of cavalry that he could not have gleaned either from casual conversations with other cavalry officers or from Nolan’s book.

Perhaps Rosser’s most interesting point is his assertion that cavalry’s only true and correct role is to attack. The assertion is interesting not because of what it might reveal about Rosser’s attributes as a theorist but of Rosser’s shortcomings as a combat commander.

Rosser’s statement that the strength of true cavalry rests only in its ability to deliver a severe shock to the enemy comes as no surprise because a craving for aggressive action dominated Rosser himself.  The argument that cavalry, to be most effective, had to use the speed of the horse and the power of the charge absolutely reflected Rosser’s personal predispositions. He charged first and stopped to think about it only later. This idea of the proper use of cavalry also happened to concur with the theories of Nolan, von Seydlitz, Ney, Murat and, eventually, Denison himself, so Rosser was firmly among the proponents of cavalry theory at the time. The key point, though, is that none of that mattered.

Cavalry was evolving, and the era of pure cavalry, as known by von Seydlitz, Murat, Ney and even Nolan, had passed. Technology had changed everything, as it always does, and Colts and Spencers and Henrys and Winchesters meant that every well-equipped cavalryman from 1863 onward would be a hybrid soldier and more mounted infantryman than chasseur.

TLRosserBandL75percentfeatured imageSo, while Rosser’s views regarding cavalry and the employment of it therefore agreed with the best authorities of his time, those views were based on facts so obvious and apparent to every observer that they seem hardly worth making. More interesting is the question of how the evolution of cavalry in the 1860s affected Rosser’s career. Given Rosser’s gifts for command and his inherent preference of vigorous and immediate mounted charges, might he have been a great cavalry commander born too late? If he had been able to command “pure” cavalry as it had been used a generation or two earlier rather than the hybrid troopers of the 1860s that masqueraded as cavalry but were in truth mounted infantrymen, perhaps Rosser would have excelled as a cavalry general. Instead fate assigned to Rosser the more complex task of handling mounted infantry in combat, which called for a flexibility and subtlety that Rosser did not possess. . .at least not at Tom’s Brook.


Louis Braun’s watercolor captures the aggressive spirit of Von Seydlitz

Postscript: In his Cavalry from Hoof to Track (2007), historian Roman Johann Jarymowycz includes two vibrant quotes that enliven Seydlitz and suggest that he and Rosser were kindred spirits as cavalrymen. Jarymowycz writes: “Von Seydlitz was the complete cavalry commander; he excelled at all military virtues and petty vices. He embraced base temptations as recklessly as he faced danger. The outspoken, heavy drinking officer was a rogue’s rogue as well as a cavalier’s cavalier.” The Prussian also trained his cavalrymen under war-like conditions, exercising them at full gallop over rough terrain. Predictably, such demanding training produced many injuries and even deaths, for which the king reproached Van Seydlitz. The general replied, “If you make such fuss about a few broken necks, your Majesty will never have the bold horsemen you require for the field.” pp. 70-71.

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.

Discoveries Among the Dead #2: A Mystery Carved in Stone

Lomax BasicThough he played an important part in the drama at Tom’s Brook, Lunsford Lomax remains one of those general officers of the Civil War who inspires complete indifference. He left no paper trail to speak of, so we know nothing of the inner man. Despite his high rank, he failed to inspire associates to record significant recollections about him. Though his quiet, methodical service was valuable before the Civil war to the U. S cavalry and during the war to the Confederate States, Lomax never achieved prominence or fame. He seems to have shunned renown and achieved a sort of excellence in the art of rising to moderate distinction while keeping quietly to the shadows of obscurity. After the war, a Confederate soldier snidely observed, “who ever heard of Lomax doing anything, good or bad?” Indeed. The crowning proof of Lomax’s success at self-effacement came immediately after his death when his family erected a stone to mark his grave. Even those closest to him–his wife, sister, daughters and kin–proved unable to supply the man’s correct name.

In another post, I wrote of my visit to the community cemetery in Warrenton, Virginia, to find the grave of William H. F. Payne. Though I easily discovered where to find the obscure general Payne, I had no inkling that the even more obscure Lomax rested nearby in the same graveyard, another testament, I guess, to the success of Lomax’s efforts to remain unobtrusive. I was unprepared for what I would find.

Like all researchers in every field, I strive for accuracy and distrust my memory. Research is all about checking and rechecking, and memory is the least reliable tool available to someone who works with piles and piles of facts. Nevertheless, as the tool most readily available, memory is the tool researchers use most often. One of the worst feelings a detective can endure is the sick sensation in the stomach that comes with the realization that there has been a major system error in the memory banks. I had a very, very bad few moments that day in the cemetery as I looked upon Lomax’s gravestone and contemplated the prospect of a major memory collapse.

Lunsford Lindsay Lomax, an army brat born in Newport Rhode Island and raised in Norfolk, had family roots in Virginia. Both his first and middle names appeared prominently in his family tree—they were family names that, as is the custom in Virginia, are given to children to honor cousins and uncles and aunts and great grandsires, etc. When he enrolled at West Point, the young man’s name was recorded on official documents as Lunsford Lindsay Lomax. When he was graduated from West Point with the class of 1856, his name was recorded as Lunsford Lindsay Lomax. Through all his service in the Confederate army, and on all the paperwork pertaining to that service, including his commission as major general, his name was recorded as Lunsford Lindsay Lomax.

Lomax Gravestone 1280 x 573So, how to explain the image to the left?  I wore a puzzled look as I read those first two names, and read them again. And again. I don’t think the sun actually clouded over and left me shrouded in darkness, but it seemed that way as I felt that detestable sick pang in my stomach. I thought about all the times I had used “Lunsford Lindsay Lomax” in print—all apparently in error.

Here is the problem. Three names, each beginning with and “L” and each consisting of two syllables. In each word, the first syllable receives the stress. Each of the three names is unusual, so there is an element of the strange and exotic to the name. Those three mischievous siblings—Unusual, Strange and Exotic—play pranks in my memory banks and leave doors open for their cousin—Confusion. How could I have erred so badly? How could I have been so sloppy as to transpose “Lunsford” and “Lindsay?”

All was not as black as I supposed. As soon as I returned home, I started checking my sources, and the sick pangs receded. I had not misread the sequence of the first and middle names. Francis Heitman, George Cullum, Ezra Warner, Jack Welsh, R. K. Krick and all of my other sources presented “Lunsford Lindsay” not “Lindsay Lunsford.” Even Wikipedia got it right! So how to explain that Lunsford Lindsay Lomax’s gravestone reads “Lindsay Lunsford Lomax?”

I have found no explanation. Later in life, Lomax worked in the U.S. War Department’s monumental project to organize and publish the Official Records of the Civil War. He served as a Commissioner of Gettysburg National Battlefield Park until his death. He and his wife, Elizabeth Winter Payne Lomax, resided on S Street in Washington in 1913, and occasionally visited family in Warrenton. The general died in a Washington hospital nine days after falling and breaking a hip on a rain-slick sidewalk in Warrenton. The preponderance of extended family in Warrenton, particularly on his wife’s side, likely explains why that small town became his final resting place. Less easy to explain is his own kin’s blundering mutilation of the man’s name.

Sources: Via Chronicling America: The Washington Herald. (Washington, D.C.), 22 May 1913, p. 4, col. 3.; The Washington Times. (Washington [D.C.]), 28 May 1913. p. 7, col. 1; The Washington Times. (Washington [D.C.]), 14 May 1913. p. 8, col. 3.

Charging into the Muzzle

A latent theme in Decision at Tom’s Brook concerns the spirit that animated American warriors in 1864. Most of the warriors mentioned–Rosser, William Payne, James Breathed, James Thomson and others–wore gray. But Custer was a prime practitioner of the warrior ethos, and plenty of other men in blue were battle lovers as well, among them Moses Harris.

Moses HarrisA New Hampshire native, Harris, rose through the ranks of the 1st United States Cavalry, and ended the Civil War as a captain. As a lieutenant on August 28, 1864, near Smithfield, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, Harris’s “personal gallantry was so conspicuous as to inspire the men to extraordinary efforts,” and Congress later voted him a Medal of Honor. Harris was in the thick of the fight at Tom’s Brook, too, and he later left a brief, but vivid, recollection that can still quicken the pulse of a reader.

Harris spent his 27th birthday skirmishing with Confederates on October 8, 1864, on the Valley Pike near Maurertown and on the Back Road near Mt. Olive. The next day, Lt. Harris would participate in the climactic charge up the Pike that smashed Gen. Lunsford Lomax’s crumbling defensive line on the ridges south of Tom’s Brook. A soldier for more than 40 years, Harris would rise to the rank of major in the 1st Cavalry and serve though the Indian wars in the west. In his early fifties in 1890, he wrote his recollections of action in the Reserve Brigade during the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign and included the eventful days early in October that brought him to Tom’s Brook.

There are two principal roads extending the length of the Valley; the Valley turnpike, a broad macadamized thoroughfare, and what is known as the “Back Road,” which extends along the west side of the Valley near the base of the North Mountain. Merritt’s division held the pike, while Custer with his division marched on the Back Road. We were followed on the pike at a respectful distance by Lomax, while Rosser who, with his brigade, was full of confidence, devoted himself to Custer. On the 8th, Rosser became so persistent in his attentions that Custer’s rear guard was engaged nearly all day, and it was found necessary toward evening to send the First Division to his assistance. General Sheridan, surprised and annoyed at this arrogance of a defeated enemy decided on the evening of the 8th, that he would halt his army for a day and give the cavalry of the two armies an opportunity to settle any little differences which might exist between them. That there might be no mistake as to his intentions he sent for General Torbert and told him “To start out at daylight and whip the Rebel cavalry or get whipped himself.”

Orders having been given for the whole command to be in the saddle at daybreak, we went to our- rest with the consciousness that we had a tidy bit of work before us for the next day. Our camp this evening was on Tom’s Brook, which runs along the base of Round Top Mountain about three miles south of Strasburg. We were in the saddle at dawn and, as we moved out across the little stream in our front, the rosy light of the rising sun could be seen over the summit of the Massanutten Mountain, presaging a lovely day and, as we hoped, success to our arms. Lomax and his men were already in motion, and as we came into position his lines could be seen forming in the distance. The Reserve Brigade was given the post of honor on the pike, with the Second Brigade on our right, [245] and the First on the right of the Second connecting with Custer’s left. The enemy’s artillery opened as we began forming, got the range promptly, and pitched in their shells with fine accuracy until they were replied to by a section of Williston’s battery of our brigade, and obliged to change position. An advance of the enemy’s right having been promptly checked by a rapid movement of our left, he now deemed it prudent to get his men out of the saddle and established behind rail barricades. Our artillery was kept well up to the front and made lots of trouble for the Confederate troopers in their attempt to establish dismounted lines. It now became evident from the sound of artillery on our right that our forces on the Back Road were engaged, and we proceeded to crowd our adversaries by a general forward movement. The artillery on this occasion distinguished itself by keeping well up with our advance; and, by pouring in canister at short range, contributed in a great measure to the demoralization and final rout of the enemy. The opportune moment having arrived, we leave the artillery to shift for itself and move into the pike. The charge is sounded — the whole line goes forward with a cheer — and we ride for the battery which is now directly in our front; they are too quick for us; all the guns but one are limbered up and off at a gallop before we can reach them. This one gun they appear willing to sacrifice for the sake of the execution it will do at close quarters. There is one discharge which has no effect toward stopping the head of the column; the cannoneers can be seen ramming home another charge; the gunner is making frantic efforts to get it off, but his nerves are evidently at fault, and while he is yet adjusting his lanyard we are upon him and the gun is ours. Nobody thinks of pausing to secure trophies; we have the advance, and pressing on are soon in the midst of the flying rabble, their officers in vain expostulating, cursing, and imploring them to stop. The blinding dust of the pike obscures everything; Union or Confederate, we are all the same color, and as we come upon their guns one after another, the drivers plying whip and spur in the vain effort to escape, it takes a saber stroke to enforce a command to halt. Wagons, caissons, and ambulances are passed, and still the chase continues. We leave to our comrades in the rear the work of securing prisoners; our only thought is to press on so that there shall be no possibility of their disorganized forces halting to reform. We dash through the streets of Woodstock, and the people, even though the flying cavalrymen are their friends and neighbors, become so imbued with the excitement of the chase that they fairly cheer us on. Finally at the little town of Edinboro [Edinburg], eighteen miles from our starting point, when the last [246] trooper of Lomax’s force is clean out of sight and everything on wheels is in our possession, we pause to take breath and permit our scattered forces to reform.

The length of the chase was such that the question of who should keep the advance was largely one of horse-flesh. The little squad of officers and men who had had the good fortune to keep their places at the front, having halted a moment before crossing the river at Edinboro, was joined almost immediately by the brigade commander, Colonel Lowell, alone and unattended, staff and orderlies having been left far behind. The remainder of the brigade soon came up, but as the work assigned to it seemed to have been completed it was there halted and reformed. The pursuit was at that point taken up by the Second Brigade and continued to Mount Jackson, eight miles further on, and twenty-six miles from where the attack was made. This affair has received the official designation of Tom’s Brook; but the soldiers, having in mind the plaudits of the fair Confederates in Woodstock as they chased their friends and sweethearts through the town, called it “The Woodstock Races;” by which name it will always be known by those participants who were on the winning side.

Moses Harris, “With the Reserve Brigade, Paper 2,” Journal of the United States Cavalry Association, 3(1890):235-247.