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
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.
I 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.
During 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
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.
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.