Category Archives: Research Blog

Recent research, discoveries and conversations

Imagining the Worst

News Article Dayton Daily Empire 14 Oct 1864History gains more meaning when coupled with some imagination. For example, consider the effect of a typical news item on its readers in the autumn of 1864. Imagine yourself in a small city, perhaps in Ohio. A son or nephew or friend or brother had months ago “jined the cavalry,” and he wears the Union blue on the frontlines someplace in Virginia. Weeks ago, the last time you heard from him, his health was good, and his regiment was in the Shenandoah Valley. Like everyone in your community, you had scanned the long, long casualty lists printed in the newspapers through the summer and dreaded finding a particular name. The arrival of news from the front, even news of victories by Union troops, inspired feelings of anxiety. That summer and autumn, every day was a dangerous day for a soldier on the front lines. Even in victories on the battlefields alarming numbers of men fell dead or maimed. In the absence of definite news about the safety of your soldier, no news was arguably better than vague news. Vague news only plowed furrows in a fertile imagination and sowed seeds of worry and fear.

Most Americans, North and South, received war news late and in fragments. In the North, the Big City newspapers, particularly those from New York, paid correspondents to follow the armies in the field. The journalists telegraphed their dispatches to the main office and the news reached the crowds on Broadway while the ink on the latest edition was still wet. Readers in far flung destinations had to wait until other newspapers could reprint the stories from the pages of the New York Herald or the Tribune or the Sun or one of the papers from Washington, Philadelphia or Boston. Five days after the battle at Tom’s Brook, word of the affair was still trickling to small town Main Street.

A typical example of the second-hand news story appeared in the October 14 edition of the Dayton Daily Empire in Ohio (above). Cobbled together from two different accounts in two New York newspapers, the apparently heavily edited, error-riddled synopsis of the battle of Tom’s Brook filled about six inches of a single column and offered only a sketch of the fight. The story gave no news of casualties. To modern readers, the bare-bones treatment seems almost cruel in its tantalizing brevity. Ohioans wondering about the safety of some soldier in Custer’s division, in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry for example, could find little comfort in knowing that yet another clash of cavalry had produced more dead, more wounded and more captives, all of them still nameless.

Discoveries Among the Dead #1: Payne the Patriot

If I am writing about a deceased historical figure, I go visit. Cemeteries appeal to me because they don’t change much from generation to generation, so in many cases I see in the 21st century what visitors looked upon in the same spot in the 19th century. With imagination, I can feel a little more connected to the people I am writing about if I try to look at the place through their eyes. More important, grave markers often reveal something of the person beneath the stone or of the family that marked the grave for posterity. Since I am hungry for every scrap of understanding I can find, I think going to the grave can help. Consider my visit to the community burying ground in Warrenton, Virginia.

I went in search of the grave of Gen. William H.F. Payne, who commanded a brigade of Confederate cavalry at Tom’s Brook. I did not know much about Payne before my visit, so 20 minutes in that cemetery proved fruitful. The first thing I noticed was there were Paynes buried all over the place. I knew that the family had been prominent in northern Virginia, but seeing all those headstones gave me new insight into the power and influence of the prolific Paynes.

W.H.F. Payne grave
The marker on the grave of W.H.F Payne stands more than six feet high.

General Payne’s grave lies in the Confederate section, and the specific location told me a few things as well. He had the wealth and social stature to acquire a prime burial plot on the top of a hill near the heart of the cemetery, immediately behind the towering, brilliant white monument to the Confederate dead. There is symbolism in that he is as close to that big monument as it is possible to get, and the monument almost literally stands on his grave. The location suggested to me that Payne was a True and Devoted Confederate, and two bronze tablets on his impressive rough-hewn grave marker confirmed that he was a patriot above all else.

The tablet on the front provides Payne’s resume, and a similar tablet on the back proclaims what Payne valued. The words read as though they come from a eulogy or an obituary. I quoted these words in Decision at Tom’s Brook to help explain what motivated the man. The more I investigated Payne, the more important he became to my telling of the story. He, like General Rosser, was a warrior who thirsted for battle. Together with artilleryman James Breathed, they represented the type of man who kept the Confederacy alive in those final months of the war. Never give up; never give in; never apologize.

The tablet on the rear of Payne’s marker. The large white Confederate Soldiers’ monument is visible in the left background.

Most of the historians I know count cemetery visits among their research trips. Gravestones can, as in the case of W.H.F. Payne, serve as valuable interpretation tools. So I urge all writers to “go visit” the dead. In future posts in this “Discoveries Among the Dead” series, I’ll write about L.L. Lomax’s grave, which is also in the Warrenton cemetery, and the Rosser family plot in Charlottesville.


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.

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.


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.


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


A Friend’s Memorial to Custer

Morris Schaff, USMA class of 1862, wrote affectionately of West Point and of his fellow cadets.
Morris Schaff, USMA class of 1862, wrote affectionately of West Point and of his fellow cadets.

Like George Armstrong Custer, Morris Schaff was an Ohioan, but being some months younger, Schaff did not arrive at the U.S. Military Academy until a year after Custer had begun his storied and infamous career of academic delinquency. Schaff, like many others, fell under the spell of the likeable Custer, and when decades later Schaff wrote his recollections in The Spirit of Old West Point, 1858-1962, he portrayed Custer as a picaresque-but-irresistible rogue who wriggled his way out of one scrape after another while also proving a loyal and devoted friend. Custer finished last in the class of 1861, of course, but the bright and diligent Schaff worked his way toward the opposite extremity and was graduated 9th in the class of the following year.
After Custer’s death in 1876, Schaff wrote the following tribute for the members of a very small fraternity: his brother officers who had been graduated from West Point and who had known Custer at the Academy. The memorial appeared in the Eighth Annual Reunion of the Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 14, 1877, pp. 18-19.

No. 1966—Class of 1861 (June). Killed in battle June 25, 1876, on the Little Big Horn, M. T., aged 37

Such is the wide fame of General Custer that it is not deemed necessary to recount it here; for those who are living need not be told of his exploits, and those who come after, attracted by the brilliancy of his career, will not seek their information in his obituary but in his memoirs, where whatever pertains to his youth, family, his services and untimely death, is all set forth with tenderness and simple length.
But in the nature of things this seems a fitting place to give expression to youthful friendship, on the close of what will always seem to have been a wonderful life, where youth, bravery, adventure and success mingled in strong and glowing proportions; and when we consider that with all this was united an individuality that in itself made him conspicuous, and which reminded his admirers of the Knights of old, it seems reasonable to predict that the life he lived will appeal to the spirits of youth beyond his day and generation. He was born in obscurity at New Rumley, Ohio, December 5th, 1839, and was killed in battle June 25, 1876. In that short space of 37 years and before he was 28, he had advanced to the front of the stage and was recognized and greeted as one of the first actors on it.
To say that this career was a surprise to those who knew him as a cadet is no discredit to his memory. It is only an acknowledgment of the fallibility of human foresight, partially excused in his case by the exuberance of good fellowship in his nature, which masked the hero as the quick and sure cavalry leader from us all.
But now, at the foot of the pedestal of his high fame, every one who knew him then can lay the honest tribute that as a cadet he was as unassuming, frank, genial and kind-hearted as his achievements prove him to have been capable of command and of exercising all the stern qualities of high rank.
To those who watched his rapid advancement with friendly eyes, nothing gave them more satisfaction than as he rose to see that the impulsiveness of his spirit never betrayed him into seeking excitement through dissipation. To the last he was true to himself; and to those who, through a similarity of taste and endowment, will imitate him as a cavalryman, this feature of his life is a splendid example.
Throughout, from the day he joined the army at Bull Run until he made his final charge, he brought to the execution of his duties an enthusiasm with which an officer cannot fail to be distinguished, and without which no course has ever succeeded. It is not eulogy to declare he had genius — it is fact, plain, forcible fact; for is it eulogy to pay his greatness the honor that it never gave room to jealously, nor is it yielding overmuch to enthusiasm to say as a leader of a charge he was matchless.
Finally, such was his place in the heart of the great public, that when it learned he had charged for the last time, more than one of its poets were quickened to lay memorial verses upon his grave.
There is no higher nor more infallible proof of the quality of greatness than when it stirs the poetic impulse. It is the verdict of the highest court of public opinion.
Captain Morris Schaff.

Flattery Gets Us Nowhere

Thomas L. Rosser
Click on the image to read the 1934 Cavalry Journal biography that helped shape early perceptions of T.L. Rosser and his role in the war.

Historian J.M. Hanson did not serve history well with his early writings on Thomas L. Rosser.

For most of the more than 150 years since the end of the Civil War, Major General Thomas L. Rosser’s military reputation languished in obscurity. While many of his peers and even officers who were junior to him in rank, have gained measures of military fame, Rosser has remained enshrouded in a vague murkiness. Such a fate seems odd for a young man who rose faster, further and higher through the ranks than any other Confederate. During and after the war, Rosser pursued fame and power relentlessly, so his subsequent inconspicuousness was not of his own making. The first historian who devoted significant effort to relating details of Rosser’s career, Joseph Mills Hanson, began his work in the early 1930s, about 20 years after the general’s death. Unfortunately for those early efforts not only lacked professional rigor, but in doing so laid a foundation of uncritical praise and a tone of superficiality that has infected views of Rosser ever since.

Read “Thomas Lafayette Rosser” by Joseph Mills Hanson, Cavalry Journal, March-April 1934.

Born in the summer of 1876 into the wild and dangerous Dakota Territory — about a month after the demise of George Custer and much of the 7th U.S. Cavalry gave evidence how wild and dangerous the frontier really was — Hanson was throughout his long life a farmer, a soldier, a poet, a writer and a government administrator. He wrote novels, ballads and history books, including history books for young readers. He loved history, especially Civil War history, and due, in part, to his decades of work on behalf of the preservation of history, he served as the first superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park. Hanson did not rise to lasting prominence as an historian, but his work remains interesting. In 1934, he published a long biographical sketch of Confederate general Thomas Lafayette Rosser in the March-April issue of Cavalry Journal, and while the article is not without virtues, it is noteworthy today many as an illustration of the difficulties and dangers faced by historians seeking to find the truth. Those who knew Rosser claimed he had a magnetic personality, and Hanson seems to verify that claim, for he clearly fell under Rosser’s spell.

The Civil War had ended 69 years earlier, and historiography of the war was transitioning from a period dominated by the last first-person accounts to a period in which secondary sources, especially biographies, would prevail. Virginia’s native son Douglas Southall Freeman would dominate this era with his best-selling studies of Robert E. Lee (R.E. Lee: A Biography, 1934-35) and of Lee’s army (Lee’s Lieutenants, 1942-44). Hanson’s article would mark the earliest attempt to bring General Rosser out of the shadows of history and give him a prominent place among Southern heroes.

While well-read students of the war will today recognize Rosser’s name, in the 1930s, he had drawn little or no interest from historians. Born in Virginia, raised in Texas and educated at West Point, Rosser had served only about 18 months, a bit over one-third of the war, as a general, so he did not stand in the first rank of Confederate commanders. Though Rosser had found success at brigade-level command, he never commanded more than a few thousand men and those were in the tattered remnants of the exhausted cavalry corps in Virginia in the war’s final months. After the war, he had earned some dubious repute as a controversialist, whose speeches and public statements marked him as a rabid, die-hard Confederate — except when he spoke to audiences north of the Mason-Dixon Line, where he preached friendship and reconciliation. Hanson believed he had found an interesting subject, and he set to work in dragging out the truth, as he saw it, about Gen. Rosser.

Like all trailblazers, Hanson had little to work with. He made good use of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, but what else had he to rely upon as raw data about Rosser and his career? Rosser had died in 1910, and those who had served with him had either followed to the great beyond or were rapidly losing their memories and perhaps their objectivity.  Rosser was buried in Charlottesville, Virginia, which remained the base of the family. His letters, speeches and other papers would eventually be collected at the University of Virginia, but in the 1930s, when Hanson was working for the National Park Service in Virginia, the Rosser family controlled access to the general’s treasure trove of primary documents. Evidence within the article reveals that Hanson had access to Rosser’s papers and also to members of his family. Hanson exchanged letters with Thomas L. Rosser, Jr., the general’s son, and other members of the family, and the correspondence rests in the family papers at the university in Charlottesville. Hanson produced another article, “Thomas Lafayette Rosser, Four-square American,” for American Legion Monthly. Both of these articles can be considered as having had the family stamp of approval, and they both certainly cast Rosser in a very favorable light.

Hanson’s is not a “warts and all” portrait. His evaluation of Rosser’s personality is subjective rather than factual. For example, in recounting Rosser’s boast that he would give his friend George Custer a “whipping” at Tom’s Brook on October 9, 1864, Hanson remarks that such braggadocio seems out of character for Rosser, whom the author preferred to view as knightly gentleman of the Southern school — no doubt as Rosser’s family would have liked him to be remembered. In fact, substantial evidence reveals that Rosser was more contentious than courtly and documentation of his boastful manner, and the irritation it caused among those around him, is well ample. Rosser’s own writings reveal a man of overbearing and sometimes duplicitous personality. Hanson the historian failed in his obligation to delve deeply into his subject, and sacrificed too much objectivity in trying to please the Rosser family. His portrayal is too uncritical and too admiring to rise to a high level of scholarship.

In 1983 Millard and Dean Bushong’s Fightin’ Tom Rosser, C.S.A. picked up where Hanson had left off 50 years earlier. Rosser’s bravery and heroism, of which there is much on record and which remains worthy of admiration, stood at the center of the Bushongs’ portrait as it had in Hanson’s. Almost absent in either treatment of Rosser’s career is any kind of impartial perspective that would show Rosser as he appeared to those around him and place the man’s accomplishments in perspective. Recent research suggests that Rosser’s existence in a long, long dusk of obscurity is, perhaps, deserved. Though he showed great courage, enterprise and spirit as a Confederate cavalry commander, and though he was every bit the equal of Stonewall Jackson in demanding from his men almost superhuman feats of endurance, Rosser lacked many of the traits necessary to make a man a great commander.

Flawed as it is, Hanson’s article is not without value. Its publication in a professional journal introduced soldiers to a noteworthy American cavalryman who, from a professional standpoint, remains worthy of attention. The article performs the same service for modern readers unfamiliar with Rosser, and while subsequent research calls into question some of Hanson’s judgments, his presentation of facts serves as a functional outline of Rosser’s war-time service. Perhaps the article is most interesting as an example of early 20-century historiography. In the days before phone cameras, the internet, photocopiers and even interstate highways, historical research was an arduous endeavor in which researchers struggled with time and distance (and funds) to obtain access to libraries and books and manuscripts. The process required the historian to go to the materials whereas now, more and more, the process delivers materials to the historian. Those willing and able to go the distances and invest the hours were able to discover surviving fragments of the past and weave them into versions of the truth. These early renderings of history may, for many reasons, no longer be satisfactory, but upon such early drafts are built fuller, more developed and, it is to be hoped, more realistic representations of the past.

Read “Thomas Lafayette Rosser” by Joseph Mills Hanson, Cavalry Journal, March-April 1934.